On 11 January 1879, a British Army crossed the Buffalo River, the boundary between the British Natal province and the independent native African kingdom of the Zulus. After the refusal by the Zulu king Cetshwayo of an insulting British ultimatum, a British army prepared to march on the Zulu capital, Ulindi; with the goal of defeating and annexing the Zulu kingdom.

The Zulu War of 1879 was not officially sanctioned by the government of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It was instead the work of an ambitious colonial official, Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, High Commissioner for Southern Africa. In an effort to compel the various states of South Africa into a British confederation (which would be comprised of British-run Cape Colony, Natal, and the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State), Frere had initiated a policy of annexation of local African tribal states. The British had for most of the century battled the Xhosa tribes between their Cape Colony and Zululand. The last of these was subdued in 1878. Frere now set his sights on the Zulu Kingdom.

Frere’s ambitions aside, the existence of an independent and highly-warlike Zulu state sharing several hundred miles of open border with British territory was in any case an unstable and ultimately intolerable situation.

Founded by the military savant Shaka in the first decades of the 19th century, the Zulus were a people as devoted to and organized for war as were the Romans or the Spartans of old. Every Zulu male belonged to one of the regiments (amabutho) of the 35,000 strong Zulu Army (impi). These were settled across the land in regimental kraals (villages), ready to be called-up as needed. Young Zulu men were forbidden to marry until they had “washed their spears” in the blood of an enemy. Therefore the Zulus were a people ever at war with their neighbors. Such a bellicose nation dwelling on the defenseless border of their Natal and Transvaal territories was in impossible security risk for the British government.


The British army that invaded Zululand consisted of 7,800 men, divided into 3 columns. Colonel (later Field Marshal) Sir Evelyn Wood of the 90th Light Infantry marched one column into the North of Zululand as a diversion. Colonel Sir Charles Pearson of the 3rd Foot (The Buffs) attacked from the southeast, nearest the coast. The main thrust, nearly 4,000 strong, was to be delivered by the “Center Column”, personally led by the British commander-in-chief, Sir Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford. This force was comprised of the 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshire Regiment*), and units of the Natal Native Infantry, Natal irregular horse and Royal Artillery.

After crossing the Buffalo River at the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, Chelmsford’s column made slow progress. Nine days into the invasion the Center Column had pushed just 10 miles into Zululand; where on the 20th they reached the distinctive mound of Isandlwana (the “Crouching Lion”). There Chelmsford made camp on the gentle slopes; and sent out scouts to look for the Zulu army he suspected must be coming.

The Zulus, indeed, were coming.

Hearing of the British incursions into his realm, King Cetshwayo had dispatched an army of some 24,000 warriors, commanded by two Zulu royal princes (inDunas). His command to them was simple: “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.”

Undetected by Chelmsford’s scouts, the Zulus were closing in on Center Column at Isandlwana. On the 18th, 4,000 warriors were detached from the mainbody to attack Pearson’s column to the southeast. The remaining 20,000 moved closer to Chelmsford’s force.

On January 21, 1879, a British mounted detachment contacted a Zulu force to the east. Thinking this was the mainbody of the Zulu army, Lord Chelmsford made the decision to set out at dawn the following day in pursuit, with the intent of finding the Zulus and bringing them to battle. Little did he know that this was the detached force moving east to attack Pearson’s column; and that the main Zulu army was moving on his base camp at Isandlwana.

The battlefield at Isandlwana. It was here, on the gentle slopes below the rock formation called “The Crouching Lion” (center-left in the picture) that the British were camped and fought their desperate battle. The white stones scattered along the slope are memorial markers, denoting places on the field where fell the British defenders.

At dawn on the 22nd of January, Chelmsford left the camp at Isandlwana; taking with him the 2nd Battalion of the 24th, along with the Mounted Rifles and several guns. To defend his camp and his supplies, he left at Isandlwana approximately 1,400 men, including the 1st Battalion of the 24th and a detached company of the 2nd Battalion, along with a battery of field guns and an engineer company; under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine.

At 11 AM a troop of mounted rifles, led by Lt. Charles Raw, scouting to the north, spotted a few Zulu boys running away. Pursuing, they came to a valley beyond and found, standing to arms, the 20,000 warriors of the Zulu army!

Their presence detected, the Zulu’s immediately began a rapid advance on Isandlwana, pursuing Raw’s men. A battalion of Natal Native horse led by Lt.Colonel Anthony William Durnford rode out to aid Raw and fix the advancing Zulus; which Pulleine and he still mistakenly judged to be moving against Chelmsford’s rear, rather than their own position. But Durnford’s force encountered the rapidly advancing left “horn” of the Zulu impi, some 6,000 strong. Durnford began a fighting retreat back toward their camp, with the Zulus hot on their heels.

The Zulus were known for their ability to advance at a miles-chewing, loping run. Their endurance was such that they could maintain this pace for hours, eventually overtaking horsemen whose mounts could not sustain such a sustained pace. Durnford and his men succeeded in staying ahead of the pursuing Zulus, and arriving on the right of the main, hastily-forming British position, formed firing line among the other native levies.


The Zulu attacked the British position at Isandlwana in their traditional “Horns of the Buffalo” formation: a center (the head) to fix the enemy, two wings (the horns) to envelope him, and a reserve (the loins) to reinforce where necessary.






As the diagram above shows, when contact was made with the enemy the head and horns advanced to meet him. In the second phase, the head gave way, luring the enemy forward. Its warriors reinforced the horns and formed the joints between these and the loins; who now engaged the enemy frontally. In the final phase, the horns envelope the enemy, who is now encircled and destroyed. These were very sophisticated tactics for a “tribal” army. By such methods Shaka had created the finest and most lethal native army in Africa.

Scene from 1986’s “Shaka Zulu”; depicting the young Shaka training his first cadre of followers in the new Zulu tactics.

As the Zulu impi neared the British camp, Paulleine saw first the right horn of the Zulu formation coming over a hill to his left. Estimating this force at 4,000 strong, and not yet seeing the rest of the oncoming Zulu’s, he sent word to Chelmsford (received by the general between 9am and 10am) that this force might be attempting to get into his rear. To prevent this, Paulliene sent out all companies of the 24th into extended firing line ahead of the camp; in effort to pin and engage the Zulus at distance with firepower.

The British infantryman in 1879 carried the breach-loading Martini-Henry rifle. An 8lbs, 49 inch weapon, it was a heavy caliber (.450) rifle, capable of delivering deadly and sustained fire out to 1,800 yards. If the enemy came to close quarters, it sported a socket-type spike bayonet, 20.4 inches in length. The Martini-Henry was the first non-muzzle loading weapon of the British army, and a trained soldier could fire off a round every 6 seconds. Recently brought into service, the British military establishment had very high expectations concerning its effectiveness.

“I am inclined to think that the first experience with the Martin-Henry’s will be such a surprise for the Zulus, that they will not be formidable after the first effort.”

The Zulus themselves despised firearms. Long acquainted with the muzzle-loading muskets of the whites, the Zulu were unimpressed with their lack of accuracy and relative slow rate of fire. The ethos of their warrior culture was philosophically at odds with firearms in any case: “The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack”[1]. A sentiment right out of the pages of Homer; but dangerously out of date in the last quarter of the 19th century. Nevertheless, the Zulus were brave and capable proponents of this ancient military philosophy.

The primary weapon-system of the Zulu warrior was the iklwa (the shorter, heavier Zulu version of the Bantu light thrusting/throwing spear, the assegai) and a large oval shield made of cowhide. The tactics introduced by Shaka called for the Zulus to close with their enemy as rapidly as possible; and using their shield to hook and pull the enemy’s shield out of the way, to then thrust at the now-exposed armpit or left side of their opponent. While the British rifle-and-bayonet put them at a distinct disadvantage; the speed with which they were able to close the distance with the British would come as a shock to Chelmsford’s riflemen; and both sides learned to respect the tactics of the other, and adopted measures to deal with them. For their part, Zulus learned to lay low, and only rush forward where terrain masked the fire of British rifles. The British soon discovered that the best way of dealing with the rapid rush of Zulu impi lay in erecting fortified posts or fighting from behind barriers that slowed or stopped the Zulu advance, giving the riflemen time to mow them down.

But in this first encounter on January 22, 1879, below the looming rock formation of Isandlwana, neither side understood clearly the challenges their opponents offered. The Zulus were rushing headlong into the rapid fire of British riflemen, who could knock a warrior down at a thousand yards. While Paulliene’s red-coated companies moving forward into extended lines in open terrain had no reason to suppose that they could not keep the fast-moving Zulu masses at bay with aimed fire at that distance.

Both sides were in for a shock.


As the morning drew on, the “head” and right “horn” of the Zulu army engaged the British defenders beneath the “Crouching Lion”. The fire from the red-coated British soldiers was so hot that for the first two hours the Zulus were indeed pinned down, their warriors forced to lie flat on their stomachs beneath the fusillade of hot lead. But the left horn of the Zulu formation was working its way around the British right, forcing Paulliene to pull his line back closer to the camp. Here, the 2 guns left in the camp joined the fire. Morale amongst the British remained high, as the Zulu advance seemed halted.


However, “Murphy” intervened at this crucial moment; for it is an immutable law that whatever can go wrong will, and at the worst possible moment. In this case, it was the lack of a screwdriver (and an overly-officious, bureaucratic officer) that doomed the defenders of Isandlwana.

As ammunition supplies on the firing line began to run low (each soldier carried only 60 rounds in his ammunition pouch), runners were sent back from the platoons on the firing line; to the supply wagons further up the slope, at the back of the camp.

There, they found utter confusion.

Thousands of extra rounds of rifle ammunition were contained in heavy, very well constructed wooden boxes on the supply wagons. These had been sealed for transport with strong iron screws, rather than simple nails. Somehow, incredible as it seems in retrospect, the Quartermaster’s Corp had failed to bring the screwdrivers necessary to open these crates and issue the desperately needed ammunition.

Modern reenactors at Isandlwana: here a British rifle squad of the 24th Regiment of Foot fire Martini-Henry rifles. Firing lines such as this, drawn up in extended line across the slopes, succeeded for a time in pinning down the masses of the Zulu impi

When the runners came for ammunition resupply, they found frantic Quartermaster’s assistants desperately trying to break open these boxes. The situation was made worse by the bureaucratic fussiness of the Battalion Quartermaster; who demanded that the runners return to their companies on the line and obtain written authorization from their commanding officers for any ammunition distribution from his stores!

While this theater-of-the-absurd played out at the supply wagons, the companies on the firing line began to run out of ammunition. As they perceived a lessening in the intensity of the fire they’d been enduring, the Zulu warriors rose and surged forward. While the “head” kept the British line occupied before the camp, the left and right horns rushed to either side, sweeping against the British flanks.

Paulliene had entrusted the flanks to Native Natal irregulars, Africans trained-and-organized in European fashion. These were recruited mostly from men of the Xhosa tribe; whose fathers and grandfathers had been victims of Zulu aggression before becoming subjects of the British Cape Colony. They had grown-up on tales of Zulu battle prowess, and their fear of the Zulu went to the morrow of their bones. As the Zulu impi now bore down upon them, most broke and ran, deserting their positions in panicked flight. Durnford, fighting among his command, was cut down; his body later found lying near a wagon, surrounded by the bodies of his men.

His flanks collapsing and his main line out of ammunition, Paulliene’s position rapidly deteriorated. With the Zulus swarming around their flanks and into their rear, the men of the 24th hastily formed squad, platoon and company squares wherever they could. The fighting was desperate and ferocious, bayonet against raw-hide shield and iklwa stabbing spear. The men of the 24th were brave and well trained; and stood firmly, giving as good as they got. But numbers soon told, as islands of red-coated soldiers were swarmed over by the Zulu wave.


Images of the desperate last minutes at Isandlwana. The bottom from “Zulu Dawn” (1979)

As his command was collapsing around him, the unfortunate Pulleine reportedly gave orders to 36 year old Lieutenant Teignmouth Melville to flee with the Queen’s Colors (the country’s national flag trimmed with gold fabric, and with the regiment’s insignia placed in the center), to prevent the Zulus from capturing them. Retiring to his tent, Pulleine sat down to compose a letter; possibly to his family, or perhaps to sketch a report of the defeat for Chelmsford. Before he could finish, a Zulu warrior broke into the tent. Pulleine lifted his service revolver, and firing wounded the man in the neck and was himself fatally stabbed. He died having done little wrong by the conventions of the day; but he fell victim (as did his command) to a chain of misjudgments and the mistakes of others. It is worth noting that in battle what often leads to disaster is not what you don’t know: it is what you think you know, but which proves incorrect.

Melvill with the Queen’s Colors and another Lieutenant, Nevill Coghill, did temporarily escape the slaughter on horseback. Riding hard for the river, they were closely pursued by Zulus. There they were caught while attempting to cross, and both were killed[2]. The Colors washed down river, to be retrieved ten days later.

At around 2:29 that afternoon, a solar eclipse occurred, appropriately darkening the stricken field. Isandlwana was over, and 1,300 British and native soldiers lay slain on the field. The 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot had ceased to exist. The Zulus, as was their tradition, slit open the bellies of all the fallen. It was a Zulu religious custom, allowing the souls of the dead, which they believed dwelt within a man’s belly, to be freed to go on to the after-world; rather than to remain and haunt the battlefield.

This was the grisly site that greeted Chelmsford when in the late afternoon he returned to Isandlwana, having failed to find the 4,000 men now heading for Pearson’s column: his camp looted and destroyed, the disemboweled bodies of the men he’d left there scattered about the slopes. Their corpses lay in platoon and company sized clusters, where they had fallen; fighting to the end. At the supply wagons, bodies were found of soldiers stabbed in the back, killed while still trying to pry open the desperately needed ammunition crates with their bayonets.

It was the worst defeat suffered by the British Army at the hands of native warriors since Elphinstone’s disastrous retreat from Kabul during the First Afghan War, more than thirty years before.

Opening from the excellent “Zulu” (1964)



Before crossing the Buffalo River into Zululand, Chelmsford had established a supply depot at the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. This depot was guarded by some 140 men of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th; including men left there at the makeshift hospital, too sick to continue the march with the main column. They were commanded by two Lieutenants: John Chard (an Engineer officer there to build a bridge across the river) and Gonville Bromhead; an aristocratic professional who was at the time nearly deaf! These two untried officers with a scratch force of red-coated soldiers would soon be engaged in one of Britain’s most celebrated battles.

By 3pm word reached Rorke’s Drift of the unfolding disaster at Isandlwana; and that Zulu forces were likely on their way there to finish off the garrison. Chard, the senior of the two officers, assumed command and quickly set about fortifying the otherwise defenseless position. Working quickly, a defensive perimeter and interior redoubts were constructed out of mealie bags, supply crates, and overturned wagons. This perimeter incorporated the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone kraal. The buildings were made defensible as well, with loopholes (firing holes) knocked through the external walls and the external doors barricaded with furniture.

The approaching Zulu force of between 3,000-4,000 warriors was comprised of married men in their 30s and 40s, along with an ibutho of young unmarried men. None had engaged during the fighting at Isandlwana: having been assigned to the “loins” or reserve of the Zulu formation at Isandlwana, they were ordered to sweep around the British left flank. The Zulus reached Rorke’s Drift at 4:30 pm, having fast-marched some 20 miles from the morning encampment they had left around 8 am. For the next 11 hours they would engage the British in relentless assaults; in all a testament to the determination, stamina, and physical endurance of the Zulu warriors.

All the rest of that afternoon of January 22nd the Zulus launched probes and assaults against various points in the British position; supported by rifle fire from the heights above by warriors armed Martini-Henrys, taken from off of the dead at Isandlwana. Most of their attacks were directed against the northern side of the defenses, while rifle fire was directed against the defenders of the south wall.

Each assault was beaten back. Several penetrated into the perimeter, only to be met with flying squads from the reserve, meeting them with rifle fire and bayonet. With no place to run the British defenders fought with desperate courage and iron determination. Chard and Bromhead provided exemplary leadership; as did the cadre of regimental NCOs. (Both officers were subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for valor.)

The nature of the defenses was such that the Zulus were never able to use their numbers to good effect, and swarm the defenders as they had at Isandlwana. And unlike the earlier, larger battle, here the British had more than sufficient ammunition readily available.

The Zulus broke into the burning hospital building at-or-around 6pm; where a fierce fight developed beneath the blazing thatch roof. Those patients able to stand kept the Zulus at bay, while others broke holes through interior walls to allow evacuation. The heroic actions of two privates, Henry Hook and John Williams during this most desperate portion of the battle earned both the Victoria Cross.

The battle raged throughout the night, coming to an end around 2am. For the next two hours, until 4am, the British were subject to rifle fire from the Zulus in the hills above their position; using the light from the burning hospital building to illuminate their targets.

As dawn brightened the eastern sky, the defenders at Rorke’s Drift found that the Zulus had withdrawn. Parties were sent out to scout, collect weapons, and (when found) “finish off” the Zulu wounded. These activities were interrupted, and British given a great scare, when around 7am the Zulus suddenly reappeared in force on the crest of the hills above. The exhausted British rushed to man their positions once again, expecting another assault.

Riflemen defending an interior redoubt against Zulu assault.

But no attack materialized. After a brief time, the Zulus left; this time for good.[3]

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was over.

The British lost a mere 17 dead; though virtually every man in the command had some kind of wound. All were exhausted, having fought for the better part of ten hours, and were running low on ammunition: of 20,000 rounds in reserve at the mission, only 900 remained; the riflemen expending an astonishing 19,000 rounds in their successful effort to repel the Zulu attackers.

The number of Zulu dead is disputed. The official count was 351 men. But other witnesses put the dead (including those wounded Zulu “put out of their misery”) at as high as 600. The discrepancy in casualties between the British and their Zulu attackers is dramatic.

The heroism of the defenders resulted in the award of 11 Victoria Crosses for valor; the most ever received by one regiment in a single action. Another four Distinguished Conduct Medals were also awarded. Oddly, Lord Chelmsford was critical of the number of awards given to veterans of the Rorke’s Drift defense. “It is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt and so fought like rats for their lives, which they could not otherwise save”. A sour reflection from a commander whose decisions had led to one Britain’s greatest defeats at the hands of native warriors; commenting upon men who had given their country its only reason to celebrate Chelmsford’s otherwise disastrous Zulu Campaign.

The Zulu War would go on. Though forced to retreat out of Zululand, the British would be resupplied and reinforced by May of that year; and return to ultimately defeat the Zulus and annex their kingdom. For his part in initiating the Zulu War and later laying the ground-work for the First Boer War, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was recalled and cashiered the following year (1880).

In May Chelmsford’s reinforced army returned to Isandlwana and buried the skeletal remains of the dead.

But on January 22, 1879, the British suffered both a humiliating and costly defeat; and a heroic and redeeming victory.




As with any battle and campaign, there are lessons to be learned.

At Isandlwana, Chelmsford made the fatal error of dividing his forces in the face of the enemy. Without proper reconnaissance and unaware of the enemy’s dispositions or precise intentions, he took half of his command on “wild goose chase” away from his camp on the morning of the 22nd. He left a camp well-garrisoned; but utterly lacking in any kind of field works or other kind of defenses. All of these mistakes can be accounted for by the utter hubris of both Chelmsford and the British authorities in general; who underestimated their opponent and overestimated their own capabilities.

It is striking that this disaster at the hands of native forces came just 3 years on the heels of a similar defeat and for many of the same reasons in North America: Custer’s defeat and death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Zulus, by contrast, knew exactly where their enemies lay; and kept their forces concentrated. Using terrain and rapid movement to their advantage, they achieved strategic surprise by arriving within strike distance of the British camp undetected. When discovered by a British mounted detachment, they immediately went over to a well-coordinated and rapid assault; achieving tactical surprise as well.

All of these mistakes by the British and achievements by the Zulus might still have been negated by the superior firepower of the British riflemen; had not the incomprehensibly stupid lack of proper tools by the commissariat deprived the British soldiers of available ammunition resupply during the crises of the battle.

At Rorke’s Drift different lessons can be gleaned.

The first, one that the British would learn from and employ in their successful advance into Zululand later that year, was that Zulu mobility and mass was best met from behind a fortified position or good defensive terrain. That facing an enemy who could maneuver nearly as rapidly as cavalry in open ground was dicey at best.

The second was that given proper supply of ammunition, the steady fire of British riflemen armed with the Martini-Henry breach-loading rifle could deliver sufficient fire to devastate massed enemy warriors; given time to do so.

For posterity, Rorke’s Drift has given a lesson in the force-multiplier effect of desperation. Having no way of retreating or surrendering, the British were forced to fight with a much greater determination and courage than is normally found in even the best of fighting men facing hopeless odds. With a secure position, a plenitude of supplies, and confidence in both themselves and their officers, the men of the 24th forever secured their place in the annals of British arms.

Scene from the terrific 1964 film, “Zulu”; depicting (erroneously) the final Zulu attack at dawn the 23rd. A great scene, and typical of what happened throughout the day; in truth the fighting ended at 2am the 23rd with the Zulu withdrawing.



* The regiment would be designated as “The South Wales Borderers” in 1881.

  1. Bourquin, S. Military History Journal, V.4, No.4, The Zulu Military Organization, South African Military History Society, Dec. 1978.
  2. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross for this doomed attempt to save the colors. However, their action in leaving the battle did not go uncriticized. The premiere soldier of the day, General Sir Garnet Wolseley, commented: “I don’t like the idea of officers escaping on horseback when their men on foot are being killed.” In this Wolseley was, in my opinion, entirely correct.
  3. In the 1964 film “Zulu”, the Zulus return to salute the British for their bravery. But this is mere speculation on the part of the filmmaker.
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 The Game of Thrones.

(This is the sixth 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 here. Or you can read the previous installment 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!)


Philip II, father of Alexander, married at least four times; as well as having multiple concubines. His first (or perhaps second) wife was an Illyrian princess Audata, daughter of king Bardylis, whom he took after his victories in 358 BC to cement the peace between Macedon and the Illyrian Dardanians[1].  We know very little of Audata but her name and heritage, and that she took the royal Macedonian queenly name of Eurydice after their union. However, she was soon supplanted as Philip’s primary queen by Olympias the Molossian princess, mother of Alexander. Audata bore a daughter by Philip, Cynane. She may have died either in childbirth or shortly after, because she soon disappears from the record.

This half-sister of Alexander grew up at the Macedonian court. But for her gender she might have been another great warrior-ruler like her half-brother; for Cynane seems to have been a true-life amazon, as was not uncommon among her mother’s people[2]. When only a girl (perhaps 14) Cynane accompanied her father, king Philip, on campaign against the Illyrians, during which she killed the  Illyrian warrior queen Caeria in battle “with a fatal blow to the throat”[3].

When she was 17 or 18 years old, about 340, Cynane was married to Philip’s nephew, her cousin Amyntas son of Perdiccas. This Macedonian prince was the son of Philip’s older brother, whose death in battle had left Philip as regent for the five-year-old Amyntas[4]. There marriage was of short duration, as Alexander had her husband executed upon taking the Macedonian throne in 359. Thereafter, Cynane left the court to raise their only child, a daughter named Adea, away from the court of Pella on an isolated estate. Thereafter she refused further marriages, preferring to stay the widow of Amyntas and raising her daughter in the Illyrian warrior traditions. Reared like a boy, Adea was taught hunting, weapon-craft, and the science of war; and proved to be as bold as her mother: a true Amazon princess.

In spring of 321, possibly at the time when Craterus and Antipater were occupied with the preparations for their campaign against the Aetolians (see below) Cynane made her first (and, as it was to prove, only) move on the great chessboard of Macedonian imperial politics. Taking her daughter with her, the wealthy princess  left her estate bound for the royal court in Asia, with the intent of presenting her 14-year-old daughter Adea to the girl’s half-uncle, King Philip Arrhidaeus, as a prospective bride. Accompanied by an escort of mercenary soldiers paid from her own purse, she reached the River Strymon near Amphipolis; where she found an armed force sent by Antipater to stop her crossing[5]. But by sheer force of personality (and perhaps the unwillingness of the soldiers to lay violent hands upon the daughter and granddaughter of their beloved Philip) she pushed past this obstacle.

Cynane’s move on the board was a dangerous gambit on her part, as it ran contrary to the plans of Perdiccas the Regent (see Part 5); who at even at this early point may have been planning to marry Cynane’s half-sister, the princess Cleopatra, and take the throne for himself. Perdiccas may also have been cognizant that any son produced by such a union (Philip Arrhidaeus and Adea) would have a very strong claim to the throne, provided the mentally deficient king could indeed father children; superseding that of Alexander IV, child of Alexander and the “barbarian” Roxane. As Perdiccas was aligned more closely with this side of the royal family (Olympias, Cleopatra, Roxane, and Alexander IV) such a shift in power was contrary to his interests.

So, having crossed the Hellespont, the royal amazons and their entourage were met outside Sardis by Perdiccas’ hot-headed brother Alcetus, commanding a strong force of Macedonian soldiers, sent to stop and send them back home to Macedon.

Like his brother, Alcetus was a prince of highland  Orestis in upper Macedonia. Much like the highland nobility of Scotland, the Macedonian highland lords were arrogant, harsh, possessed of a prickly temperament and touchy of their honor. Or, to use a “Game of Thrones” analogy, like the bannerman of the North: one doesn’t expect tact or soft words from an Umber. Brother of the powerful Regent and satrap of recently conquered Pisidia, the high-handed Alcetus was exactly the wrong person to handle the delicate diplomatic challenge posed by Philip’s amazon daughter in a tactful manner.

Romm has suggested that Cynane and Alcetus had grown up together in the royal palace of Pella (he as a page to her father, King Philip) and must have been well-acquainted[6]. Under other circumstances their reunion might have been a pleasant one. But now their interests were diametrically opposed.

Meeting on the road, Alcetus and his troops blocked their passage. Cynane stated boldly, before “the fierce array of armed Macedonians”[7]  her mission, that Philip’s grand-daughter should be queen of Macedon. Alcetus threatened her life if she did not stand-down from her demand. Berating him in front of his men, Cynane denounced him for his “treachery toward the blood of Philip”.[8]

(Alcetus’ Macedonian soldiers) at first paused at the sight of Philippus’ daughter, and the sister of Alexander; but after reproaching Alcetas with ingratitude, undaunted at the number of his forces, and his formidable preparations for battle, she bravely advanced to fight against him. She resolved upon a glorious death, rather than, stripped of her dominions, accept a private life, unworthy of the daughter of Philippus.[9]

Tragedy ensued, and in the resulting scuffle Cynane was slain, perhaps by Alcetus himself. Instantly, the Macedonian soldiery were shocked and then outraged, that a daughter of the royal house had been so foully murdered. They took the 14-year-old Adea under their protection, “howling with rage”[10] against Alcetus and threatening mutiny if her mother’s last wishes were not immediately implemented.

Thanks to his brother’s shortsighted violence Perdiccas now had no choice but to reverse himself and acquiesced to the soldier’s demand. The good will of the Macedonian soldiers must be maintained at all cost. Adea’s marriage to her uncle, King Philip Arrhidaeus, was hastily arranged. The redoubtable Cynane had made her move, and sacrificed herself to “queen” her pawn.

Raised “in the manly arts” of hunting and fighting, Adea/Eurydice may well have seen herself as an amazon warrior, such as often depicted in contemporary Greek art such as on this potter shard

Thus a new player now joined the game. Though not yet 15 years old Adea was ready for the role she was destined to play in the game, and it would be a compelling one. She took the royal name of Eurydice, as did her grandmother Philip’s Illyrian bride. It is by this name that she will henceforth be referred.

Eurydice had, understandably, grown intoxicated by the power of being the darling of the Macedonian soldiery. In this role the young Amazon thrived, and attempted to use this and her close relationship with her “idiot” husband, Philip, to advance herself to the top of the game.[11]  From the beginning she became a thorn in the side of whoever had guardianship of the kings; presuming to speak for her husband and bristling at the authority of mere generals, she of royal blood on both sides. Raised like a man, she seems to have seen no reason she should not be a queen-regnant and lead the Macedonian soldiers (who adored her) as king in all but name.

Carved figurine thought to be Philip II, from the royal Macedonian tomb at Vergina (ancient Aigai). There is controversy surrounding the exact occupants of Tomb 1 at the site. It may be Philip’s tomb, but it could alternatively be the tomb of Philip III Arrhidaeus and Eurydice. In either case, as Arrhidaeus strongly resembled his father this image could represent either king in middle age; and how Arrhidaeus would have looked at the time of his marriage to Eurydice.

The amazon princess seems to have quickly won the trust and affection of her husband. While much older than her, he had the mind of a child. It is possible but doubtful that their relationship was a sexual one; but it certainly seems to have been one of affectionate loyalty on both of their parts. She was the senior partner in all matters, and through him attempted to play “the game of thrones” to their mutual advantage.

Before concluding this chapter in the tale something needs be noted regarding the attitude and motivation of the Macedonian soldiers, rank-and-file, who placed Eurydice on the throne beside Philip Arrhidaeus.

The common soldier was for the most part unconcerned with the political machinations of their leaders and the grandees who played this game of thrones. But these hardened veterans who comprised the “Macedonian people in arms” were, by legal right under Macedonian tradition, the arbiters of who sat the throne. While their power was very nearly absolute, each Macedonian king was elected upon the death of his predecessor by the Macedonian army. In practice the candidate must come from the royal family, the Argeads (or Temenidae). The loyalty of the Macedonians to their royal house was nearly unshakable. In all their actions the rank-and-file sought to serve their king and the royal house as best they could see it. Any player in the great game had to take into account that the soldiers, at this stage, were loyal not to their generals but to the king(s); and obeyed their leaders only so far as these leaders appeared to be acting in the name or interests of the royal house.

Ancient Sardis, site of much of the initial intrigues that led to the First War of the Diadochi

In the case of Cynane and Adea/Eurydice, the Macedonian soldiers acted out of loyalty to these lesser branches of the royal tree, over that of the Regent. They were outraged by Alcetus’ slaying of Cynane, daughter of Philip; and it is surprising he was not himself lynched on the spot. This loyalty and willingness to disobey what they considered an “unlawful” order that went against what they perceived as the good of the royal house trumped military discipline and the chain of command. Despite leading them to victory in Cappadocia (the first victorious campaign since the death of Alexander) and against the Pisidians, Perdiccas’ authority was still dependent upon his position as regent for the kings. In so far as the soldiers thought he acted in the interest of the royal house, he had their conditional obedience, but not their love. That, they reserved for their kings; and particularly their personal choice, Philip Arrhidaeus and now his spirited young queen!

Servants and defenders of the royal house, the Macedonian soldiers here as at Babylon “united in opposition to their general’s wrongdoings and around the future of the royal house and their king”[12]. It was a pattern that would repeat itself in the coming years of strife; and the player in the game, no matter how hitherto successful, who forgot where their loyalty truly lay would pay for that mistake dearly.


Perdiccas was now forced to reassess his position. The Cynane incident had shown how tenuous  his position was with the army, shaken his control of the kings (particularly Arrhidaeus) and perhaps the loyalty of some of his top officers. Themselves ambitious men, some of these perhaps now smelled a hint of blood in the water.  At a council of his chief philoi (“friends”, his inner circle of advisers) Eumenes again argued against the decision to marry Antipater’s daughter Nicaea. Instead, the Cardian, representing the interests of Queen Olympias in Epirus, pushed for marriage to the princess Cleopatra, Alexander’s sister. Alcetus had argued for caution: doing so would certainly bring war with Antipater and Craterus (the “Europeans”). It is perhaps a sign of Perdiccas’ distrust of his chief military lieutenants, Seleucus (who was nominally second-in-command to the Regent), Peithon satrap of Media, and Antigenes who commanded the elite Silver Shields guards brigade that they seem to have taken either a subsidiary role or none at all in this debate.

Actor Neil Jackson as Perdiccas in 2004 film, “Alexander”

Perdiccas now (or perhaps earlier) ordered Alexander’s body brought north from Babylon, where it had lain in state since the conqueror’s death. Though Alexander’s last will had specified that his body be laid to rest at the Oasis of Siwah, home to the ancient oracle of Amon Ra, for reasons of his own ambitions Perdiccas now wanted to personally take the king’s body back to be buried instead in Macedon, at the royal burial site at Aigai. Perdiccas (with Alexander’s sister Cleopatra at his side) would escort the dead kings body home, perhaps with the late king’s mother Olympias coming to meet them from Epirus. In Macedonian tradition a king buried his predecessor and gave the funeral oration. With Alexander’s mother and sister beside him, Perdiccas laying Alexander to rest in the ancient tombs of the Argead kings was powerful symbolism; which he would use as opportunity to put aside the two kings, “idiot” and infant, and proclaim himself king in Macedon.

Vergina, Greece, the site of ancient Aigai, earliest capital of the Macedonian kingdom and site of the royal burial grounds of the Argead kings (above). It was here that Alexander buried his father, Philip II, and the Regent Perdiccas planned to bring the body of the conqueror from Babylon. The tombs were pillaged over time by successive invaders; but still managed to yield up valuable archaeological treasures in recent years. In 1976 a team of archaeologist under the leadership of  Manolis Andronikos discovered what is thought to be the tomb of either Philip II or of Philip III. Several other royal tombs at Vergina have been uncovered since. 

But while waiting, Perdiccas decided to settle one last piece of business in Asia Minor; to tie off one loose thread.


The old one-eyed satrap of Phrygia had been independent too long. He had disobeyed Perdiccas orders earlier to aid Eumenes in the conquest of Cappadocia, and Perdiccas suspected his loyalty. Antigonas was summoned to appear, a list of charges having been prepared against him.

Sean Connery as Antigonas “One-Eyed”, as a young soldier in Philip’s service to aging “Diadochi”

With the gruesome fate of others who had recently crossed the Regent fresh in his mind, Antigonas decided his best chance of survival lay in fleeing to the only power capable of nay-saying Perdiccas: Antipater and Craterus in Greece.

Crossing the Aegean, he traveled to wild Aetolia in the west, where Craterus was leading the European’s forces in the final stages of their campaign to crush the Aetolians.

Aetolia is a land of forests and mountains, perfect terrain for sturdy and independent hill tribesmen. The Aetolian League was still some years in the future, but even at this early date the Aetolian towns and cantons had banded together in matters of foreign policy. Much like the later Swiss, they had hitherto resisted conquest or dominance by their more “civilized” Greek neighbors. The Athenian general Demosthenes, the best of Athenian commanders in the early years of the Second Peloponnesian War, had been sent packing when he tried to subdue the Aetolians in 426 BC.

They were a notorious hard nut to crack.

But during the Lamian War they had sided with Macedon’s enemies, and noW Antipater and his new son-in-law Craterus were at last bringing them to heel.

They came with a considerable force, victorious veterans of the Lamian war. The Europeans had the largest number of Macedonian infantry (phalangites) of all the armies under service in 321, a very formidable force indeed. Diodorus states:

At this time Antipater and Craterus had taken the field against the Aetolians with thirty thousand infantry and twenty-five hundred cavalry; for of those who had taken part in the Lamian War, the Aetolians alone were left unconquered.[13]

The scrappy Aetolians were not daunted by the armament coming against them. In true hill tribesmen fashion they abandoned those villages and towns in the valleys that could not be defended, strongly garrisoned those well fortified, and took to the remote hills:

….gathering together all who were in the full vigor of manhood to the number of ten thousand, they retired to the mountainous and rough places, in which they placed the children, the women, and the old, together with the greater part of their wealth. The cities that could not be defended they abandoned, but those that were particularly strong they secured, each with a considerable garrison, and boldly awaited the approach of the enemy.[14]

The Macedonians were past-masters at mountain warfare; much of their native land being highland regions. But the Aetolians initially gave as good as they got, repelling Macedonian incursions into their hills with losses. Though the narrative doesn’t specifically state it, the fortified towns were either blockaded or captured. It is likely that the younger Craterus, who had spent many years under Alexander campaigning against hill tribes in Anatolia, Persia, and Bactria (Afghanistan) took the lead in these operations; as the vigorous “Old Rope” Antipater was pushing 77 years old.

The rugged and beautiful landscape of Aetolia provided perfect refuge for its defenders and a graveyard for would-be conquerors. Here Craterus and Antipater campaigned in 321 BC 

As the winter of 321-320 came on, the Aetolians expected the Macedonian forces to withdraw to friendly territory. In this expectation they were dismayed, when Craterus constructed shelters for his troops to winter in Aetolia, preventing the hill-men from coming down from the high places. Faced with the prospect of starvation through the winter, their prospects looked grim. Capitulation seemed a certainty.

Then Antigonas arrived, bringing ominous news from Asia.

Far from being prepared to accept Craterus in Asia as a partner in the Regency for the two kings, as specified in the original Babylon settlement of 323, Antigonas informed his old comrade Antipater and Craterus that Perdiccas was preparing to march into Macedonia to deprive them both of their independent commands.  Worse he would first repudiate his marriage to Antipater’s daughter and marry instead the princess Cleopatra, paving his way to the throne. He also told them of the pitiful fate of Cynane at the hands of Perdiccas’ brother. This spurred the Europeans into action:

Craterus and Antipater, dumbfounded by the unexpected news, met in council with their commanders. When the situation had been presented for deliberation, it was unanimously decided to make peace with the Aetolians on whatever terms were possible, to transport the armies with all speed to Asia, to assign the command of Asia to Craterus and that of Europe to Antipater, and also to send an embassy to Ptolemy to discuss concerted action…[15]

An armistice was hastily made with the Aetolians, while plans were made to move against Perdiccas.


For two years the body of Alexander had waited in Babylon for his funeral carriage to be completed, which would in turn carry his body to its final resting place. What that would be is disputed to this day. Diodorus claims that the leaders agreed in Babylon that the body should be interned at the Temple of Ammon at the oasis of Siwah, in accordance with late king’s own wishes. But Perdiccas had other ideas.

The funeral carriage was now ready, and the body of the dead conqueror, lying in a sarcophagus of hammered gold and preserved “with spices such as could make the body sweet-smelling and incorruptible”  could begin its journey.

The funeral carriage, or catafalque, prepared over two years, was truly a thing of wonder. Diodorus describes it so:

At the top of the carriage was built a vault of gold, eight cubits wide and twelve long, covered with overlapping scales set with precious stones. Beneath the roof all along the work was a rectangular cornice of gold, from which projected heads of goat-stags in high relief. Gold rings two palms broad were suspended from these, and through the rings there ran a festive garland beautifully decorated in bright colors of all kinds. At the ends there were tassels of network suspending large bells, so that any who were approaching heard the sound from a great distance. On each corner of the vault on each side was a golden figure of Victory holding a trophy. The colonnade that supported the vault was of gold with Ionic capitals. Within the colonnade was a golden net, made of cords the thickness of a finger…[16]

Golden tablets showed various martial scenes from Alexander’s life. This magnificent carriage, upon which Alexander’s golden sarcophagus would lie, was pulled by “sixty-four mules, selected for their strength and size. Each of them was crowned with a gilded crown, each had a golden bell hanging by either cheek, and about their necks were collars set with precious stones.”[17]

Two artist’s images of Alexander’s splendid funeral cart

On its journey the funeral carriage would be accompanied by a small army of engineers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, muleteers and sutlers,  and workmen to make repairs along the way to the road it must pass over, and to fix any damage to the carriage itself. It was to be escorted by Arrhidaeus, the officer who had been in charge of the preparation of the catafalque and a force of troops sent by Perdiccas.

As it traveled west, people along the way stopped to gaze in wonder. Crowds followed this moving temple to the fallen conqueror, who was already being worshiped as a god. Diodorus tells us that “from every city into which it came the whole people went forth to meet it and again escorted it on its way out, not becoming sated with the pleasure of beholding it.”[18]

In July of 321, near Damascus, Ptolemy met the funeral procession with a force of cavalry. It may be that Arrhidaeus colluded with Ptolemy in this. Perdiccas’ troops were scattered, and Alexander’s catafalque and the royal corpse within was taken. Ptolemy brought the body of the conqueror back to Egypt. But not to bury it at Siwah, as Alexander had wanted. Instead, he kept it at his temporary provincial capital at ancient Memphis; within sight of the pyramids. Ultimately he planned to house it at his new city of Alexandria at the Nile’s mouth, then still under construction.

Possession of Alexander’s body was Ptolemy’s way of proclaiming himself, in one sense, the conqueror’s heir. In time a story was circulated, from the Ptolemaic court, that Philip II was Ptolemy’s actual father; making him Alexander’s half-brother. This was another way of attaching himself and the dynasty he would found to the magic of Alexander’s name and legacy. With the body housed in the city named for him, the Ptolemies were saying to the Hellenic World that Alexandria was the one true capital of Alexander’s empire and themselves his heirs.

Alexander’s corpse would eventually rest in the city that bore his name, the magnificent Alexandria-in-Egypt. In 321 the city was still under construction, and the body was taken temporarily to Memphis

But that was still in the future. For now, in 321, this theft of the royal corpse was the ultimate act of defiance against the authority of the Regent. It was not the first.

Ptolemy had been given Egypt as his satrapy at the Babylonian settlement in 323 (see Part 2). When he arrived he relieved Alexander’s former satrap, the Greek Cleomenes; who stayed on as his deputy (and likely Perdiccas’ spy).[19] In 322 Ptolemy brought Cleomenes up on charges of financial malfeasance, and after executing him confiscated Cleomenes’ accumulated wealth, which amounted to 8000 talents. (It is not clear if this huge amount was his personal, ill-gotten fortune or money in the provincial treasury Cleomenes had raised during his stewardship.  This large sum allowed Ptolemy to raise a force of mercenaries, some 8,000 strong. His popularity with the Macedonian soldiers, dating back to when he was an officer of Alexander’s, was also attracting to Egypt a number of officers and rankers seeking employment in his private satrapal army.

None of which events went unnoticed by Perdiccas, who watched these activities with suspicion.

In 323 civil strife broke out in the Greek city-state of Cyrene in western Libya, between democratic and oligarchical factions. Cyrene was an ally of the empire, a useful buffer between the Macedonian satrapy of Egypt and the Carthaginian Empire to the west. The oligarchs appealed to Ptolemy for help. In 322 he responded by sending his general, the Macedonian Ophellas, with a force to intervene. Cyrene was occupied, and annexed to Ptolemy’s Egypt. This without ever petitioning the kings (through their regent, Perdiccas) for permission.

Actor Elliot Cowan as Ptolemy in 2004’s “Alexander”

From Perdiccas’ perspective, Ptolemy had for two years been thumbing his nose at the Regent’s authority. The theft of Alexander’s corpse was the final straw. The gauntlet was thrown down, and Perdiccas had either to declare the popular Ptolemy an outlaw or resign his authority as regent.

Perdiccas chose the former.

The stage was set for war. The First War of the Diadochi had begun. It was the beginning of a struggle that would last, with but brief intermissions, for fourty years. It would rage across Alexander’s empire, engaging its full military resources. The initial struggle would pit Perdiccas, as representative of the central authority, against on the one hand the “Europeans”,  Antipater and  Craterus (and, in a supporting role, Antigonas), and against their junior partner Ptolemy in Egypt.

The Europeans were already marshaling their forces to cross into Asia. Perdiccas decided to deal with Ptolemy, the junior partner, first.



  1. Philip was also married early in his life to a Elimiot princess named Phila. This union produced no children, and their is no record of what became of this wife, or whether or not she preceded or followed Audata in the list of his wives. There is also dispute as to the timing of Philip’s marriage to Audata; whether it was before or after his victory over her father.
  2. Amazon-like warrior women are far more common in myths and legends than in real history. Physiology works strongly against women in all competitive physical activities vis-a-vis men; and this is particularly true in warfare. Men are just by-and-large stronger and faster than women. But there are exceptions, and certainly warrior-maidens must have existed. Illyria in particular seems to have produced a culture that encouraged and engendered fighting females.
  3. Polyaenus VIII, 60
  4. Amyntas was briefly titular king of Macedon, and is thus reckoned as Amyntas IV. But within a year of assuming the regency and guardianship of the boy king, Philip defeated the Illyrians and avenged Perdiccas’ death; and was hailed by the Macedonians as their king. Thereafter Philip took care of his nephew, raising the boy at court. But there was no further talk of his accession to his father’s throne.
  5. Though it is sometimes stated that Antipater waited at the Strymon to stop her, it is impossible to believe that the stern and implacable “Old Rope” could have been there in person and yet allowed her to pass. Almost certainly a mere lieutenant commanded the force sent to hinder her passage, one Cynane was able to over-awe in a way she never could have Antipater himself.
  6. Romm, James, Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire; Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2011, p. 146
  7. Macurdy, Grace Harriet, Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman-Power in Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt, John Hopkins University Press, 1932; p. 51-52.
  8. Arrian, Successors I, 22-24
  9. Polyaenus VIII, 60
  10. Macurdy, Hellenistic Queens; p. 50
  11. Bosworth unkindly referred to their union as that of an “amazon and an idiot”. As previously discussed Philip III Arrhidaeus  was very possibly autistic, if not brain damaged by some childhood trauma. It was suggested by ancient sources hostile to her that Olympias may have deranged the little prince with the steady applications of some toxin, in order to remove a rival to her son. While this would not have been out of character for that Medea-like harridan, it is just as likely that the boy was born with some version of autism. Arrhidaeus comes down in the history as a very sad and sympathetic character; used by those he relied upon for their own ends.
  12. Roisman, Joseph, Alexander’s Veterans and the Early Wars of the Successors; University of Texas Press, 2012; p. 106
  13. Dio, XVIII, 24, 1
  14. Dio, XVIII, 24, 2
  15. Dio, XVIII, 25, 4
  16. Dio, XVIII, 26, 5-6
  17. Dio, XVIII, 27, 5
  18. Dio, XVIII, 28, 1
  19. It has been argued, perhaps correctly, that Cleomenes was merely nomarch of one of the districts in Egypt, rather than the provincial satrap.


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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This time we focuses on the Civil War’s “Wizard of the Saddle”

This is the next in a series of posts examining the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusual for Deadliest Blogger, this will be primarily in video format; posting compelling biographical material.

Perhaps no general in America history elicits such a mix of admiration and repudiation as Nathan Bedford Forrest. While most historians admit his untutored, natural genius for war, they are mindful of his unsavory activities both before and after the American Civil War.

Known as “The Wizard of the Saddle”, Forrest was not only the finest cavalry commander that America ever produced; he was a first-rate practitioner of mobile warfare and combined arms. His campaigns are reminiscent of (and presage) those of such panzer leaders as Guderian and Rommel; and his rapidly moving strike forces were combined-arms formations composed of cavalry and mounted infantry, supported by batteries of horse artillery. He born to be a soldier, just as John Keats was born to be a poet. His grasp of tactics, the operational art, and ability to inspire men in battle were intuitive and self-taught, as he was without any kind of military education or experience.

1549921.jpgForrest’s background was that of a self-made millionaire; his fortune made before the war as a land speculator, planter, slave trader, and even Mississippi Riverboat Gambler! He had also gained a reputation as a duelist and a man of extreme personal courage. His fiery temper was terrifying to subordinates and superiors alike; and on at least one occasion threatened his superior (Braxton Bragg) with death.

A rank amateur with no military training, Forrest enlisted, along with his younger brother and son, as a private in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles when the Civil War broke out; despite the exemption granted major planters from military service. He quickly showed his natural command ability. Upon seeing how badly equipped his fellow soldiers were, Forrest offered at his own expense to outfit a cavalry regiment. Despite having no formal military education, he was commissioned by the state’s Governor as a Lieutenant Colonel and authorized to recruit and train a regiment of Confederate Mounted Rangers. In October 1861 this unit was christened, “Forrest’s Cavalry Corps”. The elite company of this force was his own Escort Company, for which he selected the best soldiers available; and became the best Confederate cavalry in the Western Theater.

1549914.jpgHis bold leadership and the quality of his command won early distinction; particularly at the Battle of Sacramento in December 1861, and two months later at Ft. Donelson. Here he refused to surrender his forces, and broke out of Grant’s encirclement with 4,000 men. After the surrender of Ft. Donelson, with Nashville on the verge of surrender, he evacuated machinery and key personnel from the city before it could fall into Union hands.

The day after the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Shiloh, Grant dispatched Sherman with two infantry brigades and two battalions of cavalry in pursuit of the retreating Confederate forces. At a place that came to be known as Fallen Timbers, Forrest with 300 of his horsemen charged Sherman’s vanguard. The Confederate riders charged through the Union picket line, and nearly captured Sherman himself. As more Federal infantry came up, the Confederates pulled back, except for Forrest; who found himself in the midst of an entire Union Brigade.  After emptying his revolver, he laid about himself with his saber; before being shot at close range, the bullet piercing his side and lodging near his spine. Forrest effected his escape by grabbing-up a union solder, and pulling him up onto the front of his saddle. Using this unfortunate as a human-shield, Forrest spurred out of the encirclement. (Throughout the war he is credited with personally killing, with his own hands, 30 enemy soldiers: the most ever by an American general. He had 29 horse killed under him throughout the war; causing Forrest to comment that he ended the war “one up”.)

1549918In July 1862, Forrest won the First Battle of Murfreesboro, causing the defeat and surrender of some 900 Federal troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Turpin Crittenden with all their armaments. During the Vicksburg Campaign he led his cavalry deep behind the Union lines; discomfiting Grant’s plans with mobile raids behind Union lines. His greatest victory came in 1864, at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. Here with a mere 3,500-man force he defeated 8,500 men under Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis. Using  superior tactics and mobility, he captured 16 artillery pieces, 176 wagons and 1,500 stands of small arms; inflicting on Sturgis’ force 223 killed, 394 wounded and 1,623 men missing (for a cost of only 96 Confederates killed).

Forrest spent the remainder of the war playing hit-and-run against vastly superior Union forces; causing a frustrated Sherman to call him “That devil, Forrest”. Though he never had more than a light division’s worth of troops under his command, and was constantly hampered by the orders of generals inferior to himself in ability, he ended the war as perhaps the most feared commander on either side. When asked after the war what the secret to his success was, he responded, “By getting there first with the most men.” (Not, as often quoted, “Git thar firstest with the mostest!”)

1549919.jpgIn 1866, after the end of the war, Forrest is alleged to have joined the newly formed Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It is thought that Forrest spent some two years with the KKK, before disbanding the group (though it continued on in other forms to this day). Forrest however, in testimony before Congress in 1871, denied association with the Klan. In 1875, Forrest attended a racial reconciliation meeting with black southerners; for which he was criticized by white racists. His speech, which was characterized by the New York Times as “friendly”, seems to make clear that he was at odds with the goals of the Klan then and later:

I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity of saying what I have always felt – that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going…When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.

Forrest died two years later, in 1877.

Forrest’s views on race or negro rights, and his connection (or not) with the KKK are still the subject of controversy. What is not in dispute is his amazing ability to discomfit his enemies by rapid maneuver and sudden and unexpected attack. He practice lightning warfare 80 years before the German blitzkrieg; a man born generations before his time. No less a judge than his old adversary, Sherman, gave him a fitting epitaph:

“He (Forrest) was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.”


Great Captains: Frederick the Great

Great Captains: Napoleon Bonaparte

Great Captains: Alexander the Great

Great Captains: Julius Caesar

Great Captains: Hannibal Barca

Great Captains: George S. Patton, Jr

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“His presence on the battlefield is worth 60,000 men!”

This is the next in a series of posts examining the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusual for Deadliest Blogger, this will be primarily in video format; posting compelling biographical material.

Napoleon Bonaparte bestrode his world like a colossus. Rising amidst the bloody chaos of the French Revolution, he established a new order and left France a mythic hero to surpass Charlemagne. He began his career during the last days of the reign of King Louis XVI, as a young officer of artillery. When the Revolution swept away the monarchy, he pledged loyalty to the new Republic.

Napoleon first made his mark in 1794 as the commander of the artillery during the Siege of Toulon. The following year he saved the Republican government (The Directory) from a Parisian mob, by unleashing artillery fire into the crowd (the “whiff of grape shot”). He was rewarded with command of the French Army operating against the Austrians in northern Italy; all this at the age of 27.

Once in command of his own army, the young Bonaparte went from victory-to-amazing-victory, never looking back.


After defeating the Austrians in Italy (1796) and conquering Mameluke Egypt (1798), he returned to France to take over the reins of government as First Consul of the Republic. After defeating the Austrians in Italy again in 1800 at the Battle of Marengo, his popularity and political dominance over France were assured. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of the French (L’Empereur des Français). At the head of a well-trained and drilled “Grande Armee“, he went on in the next eight years to conquer an empire surpassing that of Charlemagne. At its peak, the Napoleonic Empire spanned Europe from the Tagus to the Nieman; from Straits of Messina to the Skagerrak.

1342045.jpgBut after the disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812, which resulted in the destruction of the Grande Armee, Napoleon faced a determined coalition of hostile nations; financed by the wealth of the British Empire and determined upon his overthrow. In the battles of 1813-1814, he was continually beaten and forced to retreat; ultimately to the very outskirts of Paris. Despite a brilliant defensive campaign by the now-aging Emperor, the will amongst his Marshals to continue the struggle eroded away; and one-by-one they surrendered to the Allied armies invading France. Napoleon was forced to abdicate. In 1814, according to the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he was granted a genteel exile upon the Island of Elba, near Corsica, the place of his birth. After his departure, the Bourbon monarchy was restored, backed by allied armies that ringed the country.

1342050.jpgIn February of 1815, in response to growing national disaffection with the Bourbon government and the arrogance of the returning expatriate aristocracy, as well as a belief that the Allies were planning to violate the treaty and exile him to a small island in the South Atlantic; Napoleon returned from exile. Marshal of France Michel Ney was dispatched with forces to arrest the exile. Ney promised the King he would bring “the Ogre” back to Paris in a cage. Instead, he and the veterans he commanded rallied around their former master; and the Bourbon’s once again fled France. Returning to Paris, Napoleon was once again firmly in place as Emperor of the French.

Immediately the Allied Powers prepared to invade France. For the next 100 days, Napoleon’s fortunes and the map of Europe lay in the balance, as events hastened toward the climatic battle of the Napoleonic Wars. At Waterloo, Napoleon faced the combined Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies; as well as the most capable of his enemy’s generals: the Duke of Wellington. A “near run thing”, he lost this, his last battle; and with it his throne and freedom.

1525649.jpgHe was taken by the victors to exile on St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic. He died there on May 5, 1821. His legacy is still debated. What is not is his extraordinary genius for war.



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Foolish political policies and military incompetence lead to bloody disaster for the British in the First Afghan War!

In 1876, George Armstrong Custer and some 268 some members of the US Army’s 7th cavalry were “massacred” in battle against native Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. This signal, but ultimately meaningless, defeat of a “modern” military force by technologically inferior tribal warriors is very well known in America thanks to countless books and not a few films that deal with the subject.

What is almost universally forgotten is the far greater and more politically significant destruction of a much larger British army just 34 years earlier, by Afghan tribesman in the snowbound passes of eastern Afghanistan.

1461069.jpg Afghanistan was a pawn in the “Great Game” for control of Central Asia and India. Seen here in a political cartoon of the day, Afghanistan is courted (and squeezed between) its two suitors, the Russian bear and the British lion.

The First Afghan War (1839-1842) is best understood in context of the so-called “Great Game”: the contest for influence and ultimate control of Central Asia, between the Russian Empire and Great Britain. India, “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, was governed from Calcutta by the Honorable East India Company (colloquial known as “John Company”). The vast sub-continent was garrisoned by an army of largely British-led native troops, called sepoys (from a Turkic/Persian term for professional soldier, sipahi). These sepoy regiments were supported by a core of British “Queen’s Regiments”, units of the British Army rotated into India from the United Kingdom.

1461037.jpg“John Company” Sepoy soldiers. Though brave, loyal, well-trained and equipped with the same weapons as their British counterparts (in “the Queen’s regiments”), the Bengali sepoys often lacked shoes or wore sandals; and suffered terribly in the Afghan winter

The great fear among Britain’s leaders was of a Russian invasion of the Indian Sub-continent. With reinforcement from England half-a-year’s journey by sea from India, an invasion in force by Russian forces based in Central Asia had every chance of prying the “Jewel in the Crown” from Britain’s grasp.

To invade India from their dominions in Central Asia, the Czar’s forces would need to transit through independent Afghanistan. In 1838 Russia’s ally, the Shah of Persia, laid siege to the western Afghan city of Herat. This caused ripples of fear within government circles in Calcutta, that this was the prelude to just such an invasion.

The Kingdom of Afghanistan at that time was ruled by Shah Dost Mohammed of the Durrani dynasty. For a variety of (irrational) reasons, it was felt that Dost Mohammed should be replaced with a ruler more pliable to British interests. The British Governor General of India, Lord Auckland, decided that the deposed and aged former ruler of Afghanistan, Shuja Shah Durrani, would be restored by armed force to his lost throne in Kabul; as a British client-ruler.

The stage was thus set for the First Afghan War.


In the early months of 1839 an East India Company army of 20,500 men, commanded by Sir John Keane (a veteran of the Peninsula War and the Battle of New Orleans), invaded Afghanistan. The British entered the country through the Bolan Pass, initially meeting no resistance. Once in Afghanistan, they marched north toward Kabul, Dost Mohammed’s capital. The “John Company” troops proved irresistible, storming the “impregnable” fortress of Gazni; the Medieval capital of the 11th century conqueror, Muhammad of Ghazni. Marching on Kabul, Dost Mohammed fled and the British captured the city.

1461080.jpgThe Afghans were overawed; impressed by the seeming unbeatable British forces. Shuja Shah was installed within the massive walls of the Bala Hissar, Kabul’s Medieval fortress. The fugitive Dost Mohammed was soon captured and taken back to India as a “guest” of the British Raj.

With Shuja Shah in place, the war seemed over, a complete and very lopsided British victory. With the “mission accomplished”, the majority of the conquering forces withdrew back to India. To keep order in the country and forestall Russian invasion, garrisons were established at Kandahar, Gazni, Jalalabad, and, primarily, in unfortified cantonments outside of Kabul. In total, only 8,000 troops were left to hold down the entire country.

1461081.jpgUnfortunately for British fortunes, the main force of some four Brigades at Kabul were placed under the command of one of history’s most ineffectual generals: Major General Sir William George Keith Elphinstone.

Known as “Elphy Bey” by the sepoy troops under his command, Elphinstone was a veteran of Waterloo, where he had commanded a battalion of foot. By the time he was assigned to command the Kabul garrison, he was a Companion of the Bath and former aide-de-camp to King George IV. Sadly, he was also a doddering 60 years old; and by his own admission, not fit for command.

He was not only old, he was also perpetually ill. Beyond that, he was a man who seemed at every turn incapable of making a decision, and vacillated constantly between one option and another. To make matters even worse, he was peevish and jealous of his younger subordinates, refusing to delegate decisions.

It was a myopic appointment and the best argument against a strict seniority system: granting command of an army in one of the most dangerous countries in the world to a dithering old man. The blame for what was to follow rests equally on the frail shoulders of Elphinstone and those in Calcutta who appointed him.

1461097.jpgA flattering portrait of Lord Elphinstone (“Elphy Bey” to his troops). At the time of his appointment to command the Kabul garrison, he was a doddering 60 years old; far to infirm to be placed in command of an army occupying one of the most warlike and volatile places on earth. His dithering indecisiveness allowed a series of minor provocations to go unchecked and ignite a general uprising.

The late historical fiction writer, George McDonald Frasier, through the mouth of his creation, that incomparable rascal Harry Paget Flashman, sums up Elphinstone’s contribution to what followed thus:

“Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth-century – Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan – I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgment – in short, for the true talent for catastrophe – Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.
“Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War (to spiral out of control) and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision; and managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, wrought out of order complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.”[1]

An excellent assessment of the incompetent General Lord Elphinstone!

With the British occupation forces reduced, and with the Afghans becoming familiar with their occupiers (and with familiarity came contempt), trouble soon began.


It started with minor incidents in the distant hills, where tribesmen began sniping at isolated British garrisons and columns.

In Spring of 1841, despite these signs of simmering discontent among the hill tribes, and following the misguided advice of the British Emissary in Kabul, Sir William Hay Macnaghten (who as Lord Auckland’s senior aid had been the principal architect of Britain’s Afghan involvement), the Government in Calcutta further reduced not only the garrison strength of Elphinstone’s Army of Kabul from four to two brigades. At the same time it was decided to reduced the subsidies (i.e., bribes) paid to the tribes in the hills to keep open the vital passes connecting the British forces with their base in India.

1461100.jpgThe result was predictable. Taking insult, the tribes rose in rebellion, immediately closing the passes. Throughout the hill country that summer and into the autumn, British patrols found themselves engaged in running skirmishes with local tribesmen; and every remote outpost subject to desultory harassment. In November, one of the withdrawing Brigades, under the command of General Robert (“Fighting Bob”) Sale, in route though the passes back to India, found itself under attack; and had to cut a bloody path out of Afghanistan.

On the afternoon of November 2, a mob rose in Kabul and marched on the house of the British political agent in Kabul, the celebrated Sir Alexander “Sekunder” Burnes. Burnes had been warned by his Afghan servants that there was a stir in the city, and that, if he remained his life would be in danger. With a insouciance bordering on arrogant stupidity, Burnes dismissed these warnings. An “old hand” in the region and fluent in several of the Afghan languages and dialects, he was sure he had the measure of the local temperament, and that there was little danger from “the Kabul shopkeepers”.[2]

1615363.jpg Burnes in local garb. Fluent in the local languages, Burnes liked to go out among the population to “take the temperament” of the man on the street; and to fraternize with local Afghan girls. This latter activity earned him resentment which ultimately flamed to hatred.

When the mob attacked and set fire to the gate to his home, attempting to storm the compound, Burnes and those inside (his younger brother Charlie, his political assistant Major William Broadfoot[3], and a guard of 15 sepoys) fought back fiercely. Burnes was informed that help was on the way from Shah Sujah in the Bala Hissar. Burnes took to the roof, watching for relief; but none was forthcoming. For hours he waited in vain. When an Afghan offered to lead them safely out of the compound to the Bala Hissar, Burnes and his party disguised themselves in local garb. However, two blocks away the mob caught them in a garbage-strewn back-alley, and butchered all with knives and cleavers. The mutilated bodies of Burnes, his brother, and Broadfoot were hung from meat hooks in the city’s bazaar.

1615364 Murder of Burnes and his party.

Elphinstone, with an army only 1.5 miles outside the city, could decide on no course of action in response. For hours, while the Kabul mob besieged Burnes’ residence, the furious troops, ready to rush to the aide of their famous countryman, remained idle in their cantonment. When word came of Burnes’ death, the soldiers were eager to be led into the city to exact retribution. But, at Macnaghten’s urging, Elphinstone decided to take no action other than retrieving the remains of Burnes’ and the others; then retreating back into their camp. This humiliating failure to protect their own against a mob of “shop keepers”, or to seek revenge after the fact, was seen by the Afghans as evidence of British weakness, and only fanned the flames of revolt.

1461083.jpg The British cantonments outside of Kabul; seen here in an almost idyllic painting, before the rising of the tribes. In the far background is the city of Kabul; the Medieval walls of the Bala Hissar rising up the hill on the left. The Beymaroo Heights, from which Afghan snipers fired down upon the camp, can be seen on the right of the painting.

Afghan warriors began streaming down from the hills, to strike a blow against the hated ferengi[4] at Kabul. By mid-November, the British found themselves under virtual siege in their lightly defended camp; with Afghan snipers firing into the camp from the surrounding high ground. On November 23, a large force of Afghans occupied the Beymaroo Heights, overlooking the British cantonments; laying down a deadly fire with their jezails (the ubiquitous Afghan long-barreled rifle) and from a pair of guns.

Two attempts were made to drive the Afghans off the heights. The first time the Afghans retired, but returned soon after the British withdrew back into their cantonment. A second attempt was made ten days later, this one led by Elphinstone’s second-in-command, the equally incompetent Brigadier John Shelton; leading the single British regiment on scene, the 44th Regiment of Foot. The Brigadier had lost an arm earlier in his career, but despite this handicap was a pugnacious fighting leader. Stubbornly brave, he was unfortunately not blessed with an abundance of good judgement. Where angels feared to tread, Shelton bulled his way through. Taking the 44th up the sloops of Beymaroo, he occupied the heights, his command taking heavy casualties to long-range fire from the Afghan’s jezails. These out-ranged the British soldier’s smooth-bore Brown Bess Muskets, and the Afghans quickly learned exactly how close they could safely come to a British formation.

Once atop the crest of the heights, the British stood for hours while under sustained long-range fire from all around, to which they could not reply effectively. Compounding their dilemma, Shelton had the men form squares; a formation suitable for repelling cavalry attack, but which made the closely-packed troops better targets for the Afghan skirmishers harassing them. One officer, Lieutenant (later Major General) Vincent Eyre, scathingly observed:

“All have heard of the British squares at Waterloo, which defied the repeated desperate onsets of Napoleon’s choicest cavalry. At Beymaroo we formed squares to resist the distant fire of infantry, thus presenting a solid mass against the aim of perhaps the best marksmen in the world, the said squares being securely perched on the summit of a steep and narrow ridge, up which no cavalry could charge with effect …” [5]

Captain Colin Mackenzie, wounded during the battle, wrote:

“The front ranks had been literally mowed away … Our ammunition was almost expended and by one pm the men were faint from fatigue and thirst. But no water was procurable and the number of killed and wounded was swelled every instant. I tried to persuade Shelton to effect a retreat only to be told: ‘Oh no, we will hold the hill some time longer.’ On Shelton’s refusal to retire, Colonel Oliver, who was a very stout man, remarked that the inevitable result would be a general flight to cantonments, and that, as he was too unwieldy to run, the sooner he got shot the better. He then exposed himself to the enemy’s fire and fell mortally wounded.[6]

For hours Shelton kept the 44th sitting on top of the barren heights, exposed to a destructive fire. Finally, the troops could take no more and Shelton (himself having sustained five wounds) attempted to withdraw back to camp. Carrying the numerous wounded was slow going, and as the British were still descending the slopes, Afghan cavalry, brandishing wickedly-sharp talwars, swarmed up to and occupied the crest of the heights they had just abandoned. Stragglers, many of whom were wounded and unable to keep up with the main body of the regiment, were were cut off and butchered. The horsemen then charged down upon the retreating 44th. The regiment responded with a massive volley of musketry. So old and inaccurate were their Brown Bess Muskets that when the smoke cleared, not a single Afghan appeared to have had been hit. Astonished and demoralized, the regiment broke, pursued back to the safety of the camp by whooping Afghan horsemen. George St. Patrick Lawrence, who had watched helplessly from his post in the cantonment during the battle, wrote of his horror at witnessing how “our flying troops [were] hotly pursued and mixed up with the enemy, who were slaughtering them on all sides: the scene was so fearful that I can never forget it.”[7]

As can be expected, this disastrous engagement had a terrible effect on the army’s morale. Shelton came under general opprobrium for his disgraceful lack of judgement. Captain Mackenzie (quoted above), who like most of the officers blamed the reverse on Shelton, wrote that the Brigadier’s incompetence “neutralized the heroism of the officers. Their spirit was gone and discipline had almost disappeared.” No less an observer than General Charles Napier, conqueror of Sind, later went so far as to blame Shelton for the debacle about to unfold, writing after the fact, “It seems to me that to Shelton may be traced the whole misfortune of this Army.” Napier went on to suggest that Shelton should have been shot as “the author of all ill”. While all this may be warranted, Elphinstone was the man in command of the Army of Kabul, and bears ultimate responsibility. It should be noted that Elphinstone showed not the least initiative, doing nothing to support his Second-in-Command in his (ineffectual) efforts on the Beymaroo Heights.

After this, no more effort was made to clear the heights of snipers. Shelton recommended an immediate withdrawal from Kabul back to India, before the tactical situation grew worse and the winter closed passes. Elphinstone however dithered, unable to come to a decision. Instead, he held daily “command meetings”, scornfully described by Eyre as “Jackdaw Parliaments”, during which Elphinstone seemed to be swayed by the argument of the last man speaking. By this time even the most junior officers held their commander in contempt, and spoke to him in a manner “most insubordinate and at times down right rude”.[8]

Time was running out for a decision to withdraw, yet still Elphinstone vacillated, unable to decide. He sent for reinforcements from Kandahar to the south, but the snows of winter had by now closed the southern passes. Sale’s Brigade, which had reached Jalalabad on November 12 after weeks of fighting; was unwilling to come back through the blood-stained passes they had just traversed. The decision made in the spring to reduce the size of the Kabul army (not to mention cutting of the subsidies paid to the hill tribes) must have, on reflection, seemed foolish in the extreme.

At this moment the situation worsened for Elphy Bey and the British at Kabul with the arrival on the scene of Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammed’s deceitful but charismatic and capable son. Possessed of great charm and some degree of military ability, Akbar Khan soon became the rallying point and leader for the anti-British/anti-Shuja forces.

1461101.jpg Akbar Khan

At the instigation of Akbar Khan, peace talks were initiated. Macnaghten and an escort of British officers met the young Afghan prince outside the cantonments. Arriving at the designated location, an open meadow beside the river, the British party found a carpet spread and Akbar waiting with a small band of warriors.

The British reined-up, but had no sooner dismounted to greet the Afghans than Sir William was seized and murdered; along with several of the officers of his escort. Thus ended the less-than-illustrious career and life of William Hay Macnaghten, the man whose foolishness had done much to create the disaster unfolding at Kabul.

1461104 The seizure and murder of Macnaghten and his escort by Akbar Khan and his guards.

Again, as when Burnes was murdered, Elphinstone did nothing but dither.

Finally, in late December, negotiations were renewed. With troop morale in complete collapse, and his subordinate officers incapable of agreeing on a course of positive action, Elphinstone accepted Akbar Khan’s offer of safe conduct for the British army out of Kabul, back to India.


The retreat from Kabul started on January 6, 1842. Snow was falling, and the temperatures were dropping rapidly. The mountains before them were already ice-capped, and the passes promised to be treacherous.

Elphinstone’s army at this point consisted of the one British infantry battalion, the 44th Regiment of Foot; three Sepoy regiments of regular Bengal Native Infantry; one regiment of Afghans loyal to Shah Shujah (who was retreating out of Afghanistan along with his patrons); two regiments of Bengal Horse; and six guns of the Bengal Horse Artillery. In total, there were 700 British and 3,800 Indian troops. Including camp followers (mostly the families of the soldiers, British and Indian), 16,000 souls set out under the nominal leadership of Elphy Bey for Jalalabad, some 140 km away.

1461108.jpgBetween them and safety lay 85 miles of high mountains and icy cold, snow-bound passes.

With the 44th forming the vanguard, the column set off with some attempt at military order. The march started late, as arrangements between the British and Akbar concerning where the column was to camp that first night were still not complete. Despite Akbar Khan’s guarantees of safe passage, the rear guard of the column had not yet completely marched out of the cantonments when bands of Afghan horsemen descended upon the camp like jackels. The stores of supplies meant to feed the column on the march were lost, before the British had even gotten free of the cantonments. Stragglers were cut down by Afghan horsemen, who hovered at the rear and flanks of the column like packs of hungry wolves. The British wounded, left behind under pledges of protection, were butchered in their sick beds in the camp hospital.

1615374.jpg 1879 panoramic photo of the Bala Hissar

As they passed the grim battlements of the Bala Hissar, the British could even at this late moment have saved themselves by turning and occupying the fortress; which course many officers (and Shah Shujah) begged Elphinstone to take. The Bala Hissar was well-provisioned and situated for defense. From its safety the army could have held Kabul until spring opened the passes for a relief column to reach them.

Instead, the column trudged on fatefully towards the glowering mountains, and the shadowy passes winding their way through.

Though it was militarily necessary to push through the first of the great passes ahead, the looming Khord-Kabul Pass, on that first day; the column, encumbered by 12,000 cold and terrified camp followers and 2,000 camels and other animals loaded with stores and baggage, moved at a snail’s pace. Instead, Elphinstone chose to halt the march that first day at 2pm just 6 miles outside Kabul and stopping for the night make a cold camp. Without tents or food, the army shivered all night long in the snow.

1461109.jpg This pass, through some of the highest mountains in the world, was covered with snow and ice when Elphinstone’s column retreated through it those terrible day in January 1842

The next day was wasted in frequent halts while Elphinstone attempted negotiations with Akbar, who continued to promise food and firewood, as well as escort; none of which appeared. Instead, Afghan tribesmen sniped continuously from the heights above, which the British failed to picket in advance. Occasionally, bodies of Afghan horsemen would savage the column, cutting down the shivering and miserable fugitives.

Oddly, no attempt was made by Elphinstone or Shelton to send detachments to clear and picket the heights overlooking the passes. This was rudimentary tactics in mountain warfare, and by just such expedient Alexander the Great had moved through these same mountains unmolested. It was not as if such history was unknown to the educated British officers: Even Lady Sale, the formidable wife to Brigadier Robert Sale and among the non-combatants in the column, noted the lack of pickets and suggested (to no effect) that Elphinstone correct the situation.[9]

The British soldiers time-and-again sallied forth with bayonet to drive marauding Afghans from the way; or to protect women and children. But at every turn, their efforts were hampered by the narrowness of the terrain (in places the passes were only yards wide and the cliffs thousands of feet high); and by the throngs of terrified and stampeding non-combatants.

1461110.jpgThis was the pattern that would continue for the next five days, as the Army of Kabul slowly died in the snow. Each morning those strong enough to go on rose out of the snow that had covered them in the night, and trundled along on bloody and frozen feet. Like sheep, the non-combatants would at times break into panicked flight, as harassing Afghan cavalry galloped among them, slashing and killing with wicked sharp blades.

In the myriad of vicious little skirmishes over those terrible eleven days, Shelton found some measure of redemption. Responding to attacks up and down the column, Shelton led a small “fire brigade” in attempting to repulse the reivers. Captain Hugh Johnson wrote:

Nothing could exceed the bravery of Shelton. He was like a bulldog assaulted on all sides by a lot of curs trying to snap at his head, tail and sides. Shelton’s small band was attacked by horse and foot, and although the latter were fifty to one, not a man dared to come close.[10]

1461687.jpgAt one point, Akbar demanded that Elphinstone, Shelton, and the senior non-combatants such Lady Sale, be handed over to his “protection”; and to the shame of the British Army, Elphy Bey and his senior officers surrendered themselves while their troops pushed on without them. (To his credit, Shelton protested and demanded to be allowed to return to his men.)


The bottleneck passes of the Khord-Kabul, the Huft Kotul, the Tezeen, and the Jugdulluk were scenes of unspeakable nightmare; as women and children were butchered and left in piles. The Sepoys were particularly affected by the cold (many had no shoes); and in the end merely huddled like sheep, waiting for the butcher’s knife to put them out of their misery.

1461688.jpg Jugdulluk, seen in the spring 1842 when the British Army of Retribution returned through the pass. They found the way carpeted with the skeletal remains of the dead from Elphinstone’s column.

In this last pass, Jugdulluk, the Army of Kabul finally died. In this grim, mountain-shadowed place the Afghans blocked the way with logs of prickly holly-oak. The soldiers tore at the sharp spiny branches with bloody hands, to clear the way; all the while the Afghans poured deadly fire from the heights above. With scimitar in hand, tribesmen rushed down on the column, butchering the defenseless women and children. Finally, the few surviving men of the 44th fought through the blockage and gained the relative safety beyond. Of the 4,500 soldiers Elphinstone had departed Kabul with just 6 days earlier, only twenty officers and forty-five soldiers survived the Jugdulluk massacre.

1461115 (1).jpgThese surviving scarecrows reached the village of Gandamack on the 13th of January. At first the villagers came out to greet them and engaged in seemingly friendly conversation. But they soon attempted to seize the soldier’s muskets from their hands. Driving them fiercely away, the British sealed their doom.

They were surrounded on a hillock by gathering villagers. When called to surrender, one British sergeant gave the famous answer, “Not bloody likely!”

The last stand of the 44th at Gandamack

The Afghans swarmed about, shooting the soldiers down at their leisure; then rushed in with sword. Only a bare 6 men of Elphinstone’s army survived to be taken prisoner.

At Jalalabad, General Sale’s Brigade, ignorant of what was befalling their comrades in the passes, waited for the army to arrive. At last a lone horseman, an army surgeon named Dr. William Brydon, rode up to the gates. Asked where the Army of Kabul was, he replied: “I am the Army”!


Dr. Brydon rides into Jalalabad, the sole man of Elphinstone’s army to make it through the passes.



The First Afghan War didn’t end there. The British returned that summer and exacted bloody revenge on the populace of Kabul, destroying much of the city in the process. They relieved their remaining garrisons; and the hostages and prisoners were returned, including Shelton (who was subsequently court martialed) and Lady Sale. Elphinstone died in captivity, his last words reportedly being, “‘It really is too bad.”

Then, Britain’s policy having changed, they withdrew from the country altogether; returning Dost Mohammed once more on his throne with a treaty of friendship in place.
The disaster was forgotten by many in the years that followed. But it was not without lasting consequences.

Before Afghanistan, the British and John Company’s army had an almost mythical reputation, an aura of invincibility. After The Retreat, that myth was forever shattered. Following Kabul, the Sikhs of the Punjab, a strong military state, lost their fear of Britain’s displeasure. The bloody Anglo-Sikh Wars would follow just a few years after Kabul; and just a few years after these, the Great Mutiny would shake the Empire to its core.

Blame for the disaster must be placed squarely upon the foolish appointment of one frail, dithering old man to command an army on deadly ground. But a lesson from today can also be drawn here: In the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, where every tribal male was a marksman and a warrior; where tribes fight each other constantly, only uniting to eject foreigners; no effort to modernize and “nation build” by an outside power has any chance to succeed. The Afghans are best left to their own devices, a good buffer state but an impossible vassal.

DTCP_03_06_08_Afghan_Assault_25.jpg Modern British soldiers patrolling the fields of Afghanistan, where their red-coated ancestors once fought and bled; pawns in the “Great Game”.


1. Fraser, George MacDonald, Flashman; Barrie & Jenkins, 1969

2. Burnes was a famous explorer of the remote regions of India and central Asia in the 1820s and 30s. His 1834 book, “Travels into Bokhara”, was a bestseller in England. He spoke Persian fluently, as well as Pashtan and several other dialects of Central Asia. Burnes was particularly hated by the local Afghans in Kabul, not only as a visible symbol of British occupation; but because he was very active with the local Afghan women. Burnes was not alone in “fraternizing” with Afghan women, who at least in Kabul were more-than-willing to engage in relations with the foreign conquerors. However, in a land where women were and still are routinely killed in “honor killings” for the mere suspicion of engaging in extramarital sex, and which is seen as a slur against the manhood of their male family members, this activity fanned the flames of hatred against the British and Burnes in particular.

3. William Broadfoot was the brother of the more celebrated George Broadfoot ; who had gained a great reputation with the Afghans and was then serving with Sale’s Brigade at Jalalabad. George Broadfoot would himself die in battle 4 years later, in the First Sikh War.

4. Ferengi, the Arabic term for “foreigner”; deriving from the Persian word for “Franks”, or Europeans.

5. Eyre, Sir Vincent (1843). The Military Operations at Cabul: Which Ended in the Retreat and Destruction of the British Army, January 1842. With a Journal of Imprisonment in Affghanistan. John Murray. pp. 115–16.

6. Dalrymple, William (2013). Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 332

7. Macrory, Patrick: The Fierce Pawns; J.B. Lippincott Co., 1966; P. 208. The author is working off of the first-hand accounts of eye witnesses.

8. Eyre, p. 123

9. Dalrymple, p. 372

10. Dalrymple, p. 380

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

(To read Part Four, go here)


Following the debacle at Emmaus, the Seleucid regent Lysias realized that his position and very life depended upon destroying Judah Maccabee and his rebel forces. The “mad king”, Antiochus IV, had departed to fight the Parthians in the east; commanding Lysias in his absence to crush the Judean rebellion and punish the Jews. His mercurial master was unforgiving of failure: Lysias had no choice but to personally attend to this matter, leading the next campaign in person.

To this end he set about raising yet another army. This was no easy task, as the bulk of the Seleucid royal army had gone east with the king, and those remaining troops that were left to the Regent had already been raised and sent south on Nicanor and Gorgias‘ doomed expedition. Lysias managed, despite these difficulties, to raise another army; perhaps calling-up those cleruch military settlers remaining after the king marched east. If he did this was a sign of just how extreme the situation had become, as the phalanx was only called-up in time of major campaigns or threat to the integrity of the kingdom.[1]

First Maccabees states the numbers raised by Lysias for this campaign:

In the following year Lysias gathered an army of 60,000 well-trained infantry and 5,000 cavalry, intending to conquer the Jews. [2]

The Second Book of Maccabees goes into more detail, but presents an even more improbable figure of horse and foot:

He (Lysias) became angry (following the Battle of Emmaus) and led 80,000 infantry and all his cavalry against the Jews with the intention of turning Jerusalem into a Greek city.[3]

Considering the strain to its military manpower the empire must have been experiencing at this time, both these numbers seem impossibly high. The “grande armee” of the Seleucid empire, fully mustered for war and led by the king in person could scarcely number 50,000 foot and 6,000 horse at this time in its history.[4] While we can only guess at the force Lysias was able to muster in 164 BC, a more plausible number is around 20,000 (heavily augmented by those local levies gathered on the march); a similar number to that raised for  Nicanor and Gorgias’ expedition.

Advancing south, Lysias bypassed Judea. Learning from the failures of past incursions against the Jews, he avoided the obvious routs of entry onto the Judaean plateau from the north and west; which paths were well-observed by Judah’s forces and supporting populace. Instead he took his army southwest of Judea, to march on Jerusalem from friendly  Idumaea (Biblical Edom), where the defeated general Gorgidas was still governor, and likely mustering local contingents for Lysias’ army).

The southern route to Jerusalem climbs out of the Valley of Elah onto the Judaean plateau.  

The fortress of Beth-Zur, some 27 miles from Jerusalem, blocked approach to the city from the southwest. In later years it was strongly fortified by Hasmonaean princes, and Josephus calls it the “mightiest stronghold in Judea”. But we do not know to what extent it was fortified in Judah’s time. Lysias had first to secure Beth-Zur before moving on to Jerusalem, where he could reinforce the Seleucid garrison holding the Akra, and bring Judah to battle on ground of his choosing.

At the foot of the road that climbed the southern face of the Judaean plateau lies the fertile Valley of Elah. Here the forces of Saul had in ancient times faced the Philistines, and David had slain Goliath. No doubt Lysias rested his forces here before beginning its march towards Beth-Zur, on its way to Jerusalem.

Judah Maccabee, like all successful guerrilla leaders throughout history, maintained an extensive intelligence network of spies and informants. He was likely aware of the regent’s approach. The account in Maccabees states, however, that he first got word of Lysias’ attack when the regent was laying siege to Beth-Zur. This may be a case of the author confusing the later campaign of 162 that led to the Battle Beth-Zechariah , for we cannot be certain that Beth-Zur was fortified and garrisoned by Maccabean troops this early. In any case, Judah assembled his forces, some 10,000 strong, and marched on Beth-Zur to meet the regent.

The battle is poorly described in both First and Second Maccabees:

The battle began, and in the hand-to-hand fighting about 5,000 of Lysias’ men were killed. When Lysias saw that his army was being defeated and when he saw the reckless courage of Judas and his men, who showed that they were ready to live or die with honor, he returned to Antioch.[5]

Second Maccabees gives tells a similar (and similarly simplistic) tale:

Then they charged into the enemy like lions, killing 11,000 infantry and 1,600 cavalry, and forcing the rest to run for their lives. Most of those who ran were wounded and had lost their weapons, and Lysias himself managed to escape only because he ran away like a coward.[5]

While it is possible that the Jewish forces fell upon the head of the Seleucid column and inflicted a bloody reverse, it is unlikely that Lysias lost anything like the numbers stated above. He would have had lost his position and his head had he led another army to annihilation. What is more likely is that seeing a large Maccabean force drawn up in the high ground at the top of the pass and waiting, and his plans to attain the top of the plateau without a battle thwarted; that he withdrew, perhaps after a bloody skirmish.

What is more likely to have determined Lysias’ withdrawal is dramatic news from the east: the Mad King was dying!


It was the life-long goal of Antiochus IV Epiphanes to restore the Empire of the Seleucids to its former glory. He saw that the disparate peoples of this vast swath of territory, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush, could become a mighty nation, one perhaps capable of standing up to Roman bullying, if its people were unified under one culture. That culture, of course, being Hellenism. To this end he promoted the establishment and enhancements of Greek colonies, temples, and civic centers throughout his empire.

Besides lavishing his treasure upon the adornment of existing Greek cities (founded by Alexander or earlier Seleucid monarchs), he created new ones. He also adjusted the constitutions and forms of city life more closely to the Hellenic ideal.  The capital (Antioch) naturally received a great share of his attention. He added a new quarter, Epiphanea, which climbed the slopes of Mount Silpius behind the older Antioch, and included within its wall precipitous places and rushing torrents… The theater, whose remains can still be traced, was in this region. It had perhaps existed before the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, only without the city. Here too was the Senate- house, erected doubtless by Antiochus, and perhaps already adorned with the porticoes and pictures described by Libanius. High up in the new city, near the ” Citadel,” … Antiochus reared a temple of Jupiter Capitolinus — at once gratifying his passion for splendor and advancing his policy.[6]

Antiochus’ persecution of the Jews comes out of their stubborn refusal to accept Hellenism, the worship of Zeus (Jupiter Capitolinus) as the supreme god, and to take a subordinate place within the Hellenic nation the king envisioned. Certainly Antiochus saw himself as a physical manifestation of Zeus Nicephoros, “victory-bearing”. His surname “Theos Epiphanes” proclaims as much, god made manifest in human flesh. While other Hellenistic and later Roman rulers were proclaimed “divine” either during or after their life times, Antiochus IV seems to have placed more stress upon this claim than other monarchs, certainly those of his dynasty. This megalomania, reminiscent of Caligula (minus the violent and delusional paranoia and extreme sexual excesses) may have also contributed to his hatred of the Jews, who refused to acknowledge his divinity.

The cost of Antiochus’ magnificent building projects was staggering, and very soon exhausted the imperial treasury. Ever short of funds, the “Mad King” resorted to confiscation of rich temple treasuries throughout first Syria, and then throughout the empire.

His march east against the Arsacid Parthians, then encroaching on Media, brought him first to Armenia, a break-away province that fell from Seleucid control after his father’s defeat at Magnesia. Antiochus defeated the local dynast, but left him enthroned as a Seleucid client. We lose sight of his progress after this, but he appears to have come to Media, and perhaps strengthened it against Parthian incursion. The northern region about Rhagae had fallen to the Parthians before his ascension to the throne; but the bulk was still administered for the Seleucid realm by his governor, Timarchus of Miletus. There is no mention of a battle against the Arsacid forces, but Media remained in the Seleucid fold for at least another 30 years. His establishment of Hellenistic cities, and reestablishment of older ones in the model of the Hellenic polis  extended here to the ancient Median capital of Ecbatana, once a Persian royal residence. It was now  refounded as an “Epiphanea” in the sovereign’s honor; and perhaps received a colony of Greek settlers.

Marching south, he entered Mesopotamia and Babylonia, founding or refounding Greek settlements as he passed. At the confluence of the Tigris and the Eulæus west of Susa he refounded one of Alexander’s establishments, which had fallen into disrepair, as another “Antioch”; again likely placing a colony of Greek (or Hellenized Syrian) settlers in place to hold it loyally for the dynasty.

It was here in Elymaea (ancient Elam) that Antiochus got into the same deadly sort of skirmish with locals that took the life of his father. While attempting to confiscated the
treasures which were heaped up in the Elymaean temples of some native goddess (Istar or Anaitis) his guards were set upon by the priests and the local populace. He fared better than his father in so far that he escaped with his life. But as seen in Judea, against a people filled with religious frenzy the soldiers fighting merely for pay could make no headway.

Soon after this Antiochus Epiphanes was seized by a fatal malady. He is recorded as falling from his chariot (more likely a horse, as chariots were not used for conveyance at this late date in history). It has been suggested that he had an epileptic seizure, though an aneurysm bursting would make just as much sense. The every high-strung king was given to bursts of erratic energy and irrational decisions. One cannot help but see the vein of (brilliant) madness lying just beneath the surface in Antiochus IV all through his life. Perhaps the pressure of kingship and the Herculean task he had set himself of restoring a crumbling empire proved in the end too much for his system.[7]

He died at Tabae in Persis in the winter of 164. With him passed the last best chance for the House of Seleucus.

News of the king’s illness and then death reached Lysias just after the campaign the culminated in the repulse at Beth-Zur. For this reason he hastily withdrew back to Antioch, to take possession of the heir and the court, and to secure his own position. For now, the matter of Judea was on the “back-burner”.


With Lysias withdrawal, the Hellenized Jews and other Seleucid supporters were without protection. They took refuge within the mighty walls of the Akra in Jerusalem. For Judah and the Maccabean rebels the way was now open to take the city and blockade (and later siege) the fortress.

The first order of business was the Temple.

They found the Temple in disgraceful condition. Weeds grew between the flagstones of the outer courtyard. Within the Holy of Holies now stood a statue of Olympian Zeus, and the remains of burnt animals sacrifices lay on an altar erected to the chief pagan deity. The symbols of pagan worship were dismantled and taken away, buried in a cave. The Temple was purified, and uncut stones were used to build a new alter, in the traditional manner. Judah then made new holy vessels (among them a candelabrum, an altar for incense, a table, and curtains) and set the 25th of Kislev as the date for the rededication of the Temple. They made offerings to the Lord in his Temple for the first time in two years:

Now Maccabeus (Judah) and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; and they tore down the altars which had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they burned incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence. And when they had done this, they fell prostrate and besought the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.[8]

So on the third anniversary of the profaning of the Temple, when sacrifice to Zeus was made on God’s altar, the priest of Israel “offered a Lawful sacrifice of burnt offering which they had made”. There followed eight days of celebration and festivity.

This was the first Hanukkah celebration!

In later centuries a legend grew that the priests found only enough oil to light the menorah for two days. But when kindled, the oil lasted for eight days. This “miracle” became part of the legend of the first Hanukkah. However, this story is almost surely a myth. Even the Encyclopedia Judaica states, “All these stories seem to be nothing but legends, and the authenticity of the ‘oil cruse’ story has already been questioned in the Middle Ages.”

The real “miracle” of Hanukkah is this: that a handful of “freedom fighters” stood against one of the great powers of the ancient world and saved their culture and religion from destruction. Had Judah and his followers chosen the “easy” way of submission to authority, of place their personal gain over the welfare of their people, there would be no Jewish people today. The Jewish faith would have succumbed to the allure of Hellenism, and the Jewish people faded away as just another minority within ancient Middle East.

Without Judaism surviving into the first century AD, there could have been no Christianity to build and expand upon it. Thus Judeo-Christian values and culture would not have spread throughout the Roman Empire, and through that become a moralizing force within Western Civilization. Nor, for that matter, could Islam have grown as it did out of Judaism under its Prophet. Thus the world’s great monotheistic religions would never have come into being had Judah Maccabeus failed in his mission to save his people.


The struggle against the Seleucids did not end in 164 BC with the purification of the Temple and the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Various Seleucid regents and rulers would attempt to regain control of Judea for decades. Judah Maccabeus would fall in battle at Elasa just four years later. But his brothers would carry on the fight, and in the end establish an independent Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean dynasty, that would last into the first century AD; eventually becoming first a Roman client, before being absorbed into that mightiest of ancient empires.


  1. See Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids
  2. I Maccabees 4:28ff
  3. II Maccabees 11:1-2
  4. A generation early, during the reign of Antiochus the Great, when the empire had extended beyond the Taurus Mountains and reached to the Aegean Sea, the army at Raphia numbered some 62,000 infantry (32,000 of which were phalangites, the rest lighter infantry) and 6,000 cavalry. At Magnesia the Seleucid infantry numbered between 45,000 and 58,000 supported by 12,000 cavalry. These numbers must be accepted as representing the maximum levy of the empire at this period; again, a time when it was stronger, wealthier, and encompassing greater territory than it did a generation later at the time of the Maccabees revolt. Thus the numbers suggested by First and Second Maccabees must be dismissed as absurd.
  5. I Maccabees 4:34-35
  6. Bevan, House of Seleucus, Vol II, p. 149
  7. Polyb claims that he was supernaturally deranged; while the story in 2 Macc. 8, 7, that he fell out his chariot may be true. It is more plausible than the sensational description of his disease as a corruption of the flesh (reminiscent of how Herod the Great was said to have suffered and died; a common trope with Jewish historians, inventing just ends for evil or tyrannical enemies).
  8. II Maccabees 10 (RSV)
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In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee, “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.

(To read Part Three go here)

It was in 167 BC that the deep resentment among the Jews towards the Hellenization policy of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes exploded into active rebellion. The spark was struck in the village of Modi’in, 19 miles to the west of Jerusalem.

Living in Modi’in  was an elderly priest of an ancient family, the Hasmoneans.  His name was Mattathias ben Johanan. He and his five  sons had returned to Modi’in following the Seleucid sack of Jerusalem and the purge of its Orthodox Jewish citizens the previous year (see Part Three).

To Modi’in came an official of the Seleucid court, whose name is now lost to history. He ordered the people of Modi’in and those in the region thereabout to gather together in the village center. Here an alter was set-up by the official’s servants. Standing before the throng the royal officer turned to Mattathias, standing with his sons in the forefront of the crowd. As a senior and respected priest, the official called upon Mattathias to comply with Antiochus’ orders and lead the Jews of Modi’in in giving sacrifice to the Olympian gods of the Greeks.

You are an honorable and great man in this city and strengthened with sons and brethren: Therefore, come and be first to fulfill the king’s commandment, like all the people of his empire have done; including the men of Judah and such as remain at Jerusalem.”

Before Mattathias he dangled a carrot:

“Do this, and your House will be numbered among the king’s friends (philoi), and thou and thy children shall be honored with silver and gold, and many (additional) rewards.”[1]

Mattathias would gain royal favor if only he would lead his fellow Jews in sacrificing to the Gods of the “gentiles”. But neither the king’s good will, nor the promise of riches held any allure for the old man. We can only imagine the stern set of his weathered countenance as he answered with loud voice:

“Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments: Yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances. We will not hearken to the king’s words, to go from our religion, either on the right hand, or the left.” [2]

Such a  firm and principled refusal can only have shocked and galvanized those Jews gathered that day. When another priest stepped forward to make the sacrifice in his place, rage overcame Mattathias. He slew the other priest, and in the scuffle that followed, the Seleucid official and his guards were all slain, likely by Mattathias’ sons and their friends.

With a bloody sword in hand, Mattathias addressed the assembled Jews: “Let everyone who has zeal for the Law and who stands by the covenant follow me!”

The die was cast, the gauntlet thrown down. Mattathias, his sons and their supporters fled into the hills. There, they resolved to defend their religion and their people’s unique place in the world from desecration and destruction.


This would be a struggle not only for the existence of the Jewish people’s unique culture; but for monotheism over polytheist paganism. Would the Jews become just another Hellenized Syrian people? Or would they remain a singular people, considering themselves especially chosen by God, and governed by the laws of Moses?


Mattathias and his sons fled into the hills of Samaria and northern Judea. There they gathered men likewise resolved to resist Seleucid authority. This armed band roamed from village-to-village, proclaiming revolt and destroying the pagan alters of the Hellenizers.  It can be presumed that they also attacked isolated Seleucid outposts and detachments, gathering up supplies in the process.

Mattathias died a year later. He left the leadership of the rebel movement in the capable hands of his strong son, Judah; who showed exemplary leadership skill and had likely been the military commander even while his father lived.

Meanwhile, word of what had occurred at Modi’in reached the Seleucid capital, Antioch and the sons of Mattathias and their small band of followers were declared outlaws.  Apollonius, Seleucid governor of Samaria[3], set out with a small force of some 2,000 soldiers (likely light-infantry mercenaries from local garrisons) to track down and destroy the rebels. He was the same man who had conducted the massacre at Jerusalem a few years earlier, and established the fortress known as the “Acra” in the heart of the city.

For days Apollonius soldiers searched the hills, with Judah’s small band eluding them. Tiring work for troops more used to the easy life of garrison towns. As the column wound its way through the Samarian hills, Judah and a force of some 600 fighters waited for them at a place called Nahal el-Haramiah (the wadi Haramia).

The modern road snakes through the hills around the wadi today; likely following the ancient track used by Apollonius’ army.

From the hills above, Judah’s warriors sprang from hiding, pelting the surprised Seleucid soldiers with javelin and sling-stone. Before the soldiers could organize themselves from road-march formation, Judah’s men charged down hill, falling upon Apollonius’ tired troops with a fury. Apollonius was among those cut-down, and by Judah’s own hand. His surviving soldiers fled.

This was the Jewish rebels first victory in battle against their foe. Judah took for himself Apollonius’ sword. He would use it for the rest of his life against their oppressors.


A replica Greek kopis: very possibly the style of sword captured by Judah from Apollonius

It was about this time that Judah acquired the surname “Maccabee“: the “Hammer”[4]. Relentless foe of the gentiles and Hellenizing Jews who threatened his faith and his people’s identity, this was the first of many victories to come.

Following this victory, recruits flocked to the standard of the Maccabee. But Judah understood that the Seleucid army was nearly invincible on anything resembling flat or open terrain. Local Seleucid garrisons, comprised of low-quality militia or light-infantry mercenaries were one thing, the Seleucid “regular” army quite another.

The Seleucid king had a standing army of some 12,000 professional soldiers stationed around Antioch. These were Hellenistic phalangites and armored heavy cavalry of the Royal Guard. If called up from their farms or their military settlements all throughout Syria, the “regular” Seleucid army could also field some 20,000 additional Graeco-Macedonian phalangites. These cleruchs  were descendants of the veterans settled by the great Diadochii Antigonas One-Eyed and Seleucus Nicanor; men who’d fought for Alexander the Great or his Successors.  The “Macedonian” phalangites were the battle-winners of Hellenistic warfare and considered the best heavy infantry in the world for nearly two centuries. In the 2nd century BC, only the Roman legions were more respected and feared on the battlefield[5]. The Seleucid authorities could also call upon some 5,000 “imitation” Roman legionaries that comprised half of the king’s royal foot guards (See Armies of the Successors: the Seleucids). In battle, these formed the anvil upon which an enemy would be broken. The mallet was the superb armored cavalry lancers of the horse guards (the Hetairoi, or “Companions”, and the “Agema” elite regiments) and “line” cataphract regiments. These could scatter lighter-armed cavalry, and then roll-up the enemy’s main battle line. If this were not enough, the Seleucid dynasty famously maintained a royal herd of Indian elephants. The largest of the pachyderm species available to the ancient powers, these were highly prized and fearsome weapons on the battlefield.


Judah understood that before his people could be free the formidable Seleucid army would have to be defeated . But he also understood that to have any chance of victory, he  must fight them at a time and place of his choosing. The rough, rocky hills of Samaria and Judea were the perfect terrain for a light guerrilla force such as his own; where Seleucid detachments could be ambushed as he had Apollonius’ army at the Haramia wadi, or fought on rock-strewn plains that would break-up the phalanx’s tight formation.


Following the defeat of Apollonius another force under an officer named Seron was dispatched to avenge the Seleucid defeat. This army was twice the size of that which Judah defeated at Nahal el-Haramiah, some 4,000 troops. Again, we have no knowledge of the composition of these forces; but it is likely that these were, again, mercenaries drawn from Seleucid garrisons in southern Syria.

The sources say Seron spread his forces to avoid the kind of ambush that had destroyed Apollonius’ forces. But tactically this makes little sense, as doing so instead invites defeat in detail. As the writers of these sources are all Jewish, they likely had no real understanding of Seron’s strategy. A more plausible theory is that he spread his forces in a wide net across the Samarian hills, moving south toward Judea, attempting to locate and bring the Maccabeean forces to battle. What we know is that Judah eluded detection, and instead caught the main detachment under Seron himself isolated as it climbed the pass of Beth Horon. This place had some  significance Jewish history, as it was the same place where the Israelite hero Joshua defeated the Amorites. No details survive of the Battle of Beth Horon, other than that Seron suffered the same fate as Apollonius, and his troops scattered in terror.

1880 drawing of the “ascent” of Beth Horon: A perfect place for Judah’s forces to attack from the heights above.

Once again, the doughty Jewish patriots had defeated the imperial forces; and the legend of Judah “the Hammer’s” continued to grow.


That same year, 166 BC. the Seleucid Empire was threatened by another, far deadlier enemy; far to the east. From out of the arid plains of central Asia, a nomadic people called the Parthians had invaded the so-called “Upper Satrapies” (modern eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan). In 167, the year before, they had captured the region of Herat, called by Herodotus “the bread-basket of Central Asia”.  Antiochus Epiphanes’ father, Antiochus the Great, had won great fame by restoring this region to the empire following a three-year campaign (209 BC – 206 BC).

The revolt of the Maccabees was (at this stage) more annoyance than real threat to the Seleucid state. But the Parthian conquest of Herat threatened control of all the Upper Satrapies, and of cutting the Seleucids off from India, source of rich trade. Antiochus Epiphanes, the “Mad King”, now departed  Antioch at the head of a large army to repel the Parthians and restore the situation in the east. He appointed as regent and guardian of his six year old son-and-heir, the future Antiochus V Eupator, one  Lysias; a “distinguished man of royal lineage”[6]. He left his regent with a mandate “to conquer Judea, enslave its inhabitants, utterly destroy Jerusalem and abolish the whole nation.”[7] While the 1st century historian Josephus may here be engaged in hyperbole, and Antiochus may not have ordered the destruction of the whole Jewish nation (only a small portion of which was actively engaged in revolt); it is clear he left instructions to his regent to crush the Maccabeen rebels and punish any who sided with them. Judea and Samaria were to be pacified, no matter how much blood it would take to do so.

Lysias organized a large expedition (at least 5,000 men [8]) to carry out the king’s wishes,  under two generals: Nicanor son of Patrocles, a member of the king’s inner circle of “Friends” (philoi basilike) and another  general named Gorgias. Gorgias is a few years later found as the Seleucid military governor of Idumea, and he may have held this position at this earlier date. He is described only as “a general and a man of experience in military service”; and later in Second Maccabees he is called “the accursed man”[9]. Responsibility for overseeing the royal punishment of the rebels fell upon the shoulders of the Seleucid governor of Coele Syria (Palestine) and Phoenicia, Ptolemy, son of Dorymenes.

The composition of the Seleucid force is again unknown. But as the bulk of the “regular  army”marched east with the king, presumably including at least a large portion the elite royal guard units of foot and cavalry; what remained to Lysias in Antioch was those guards remaining and mercenaries. It is unlikely that he called-up the Seleucid phalanx, composed of Graeco-Macedonian settler-farmers. These were only mustered for major campaigns, and if any were mobilized for war in 166-165 BC they would likely have accompanied the king on his eastern expedition. As what guards remained in Antioch were likely there to protect the king’s heir and the royal family, what Lysias sent south with Nicanor and Gorgias were almost certainly mercenary foot, perhaps stiffened with a small number of “regulars”.

Marching along the coastal plain of Philistia (an area with a long history of hostility to the Jews of the interior), the Seleucid forces were accompanied by “a thousand slave-dealers”, to buy the vast number of prisoners anticipated.  Here the Seleucid force was augmented by garrisons and contingents from the coastal cities of Philistia, no doubt dispatched by order of the governor, Ptolemy son of Dorymenes. Contingents also arrived from Iudmea in the south, perhaps including an elite cavalry continent of Thessalian settlers (see Note 8). With these reinforcements, the Seleucid force may have numbered the 20,000 cited by 2 Maccabees.

The army turned east and camped  at  Emmaus at the mouth of the Ajalon Valley, 7.5 miles from Jerusalem and astride the road between that city and the coast. Located on the edge of the Judean hill country, from here the Seleucid generals could launch patrols into the hills that were home to the Maccabean rebels, and control egress from the hills into the coastal plain (still loyal to the Seleucid government). From this base they prepared for extensive mopping-up operations.

1615351.jpgAncient road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, winding through the Judean hills. 

Judah Maccabee had an active and effective intelligence and communications network, essential to the success of any guerrilla movement. Aware of his enemy’s movements and (likely) divining their intent, Judah here showed his abilities as a guerrilla-fighter of genius, as he prepared to bait for his foe that would prove irresistible.

Gathering his forces at Mitzpah, on the plateau north of Jerusalem, Judah arranged for word to leak to the Seleucid commanders at Emmaus of his presence there. Nothing could be more enticing to a regular force engaged against an elusive foe than the chance of catching and crushing that enemy encamped, unawares and concentrated at one vulnerable position. Leaving Nicanor and the contingents from the coast to guard the camp, Gorgias set out at sunset with 5,000 infantry (likely the troops from Antioch) and 1,000 “picked cavalry” (see Note 8, below) to conduct a march up into the hills with the intent of conducting a night attack on the rebel camp at Mitzpah.

This was precisely the response Judah was hoping for: he had lured his enemy into dividing their army.

Judah now carefully organized his forces. He selected his men according to the strict precepts found in the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy; weeding them down to a select 3,000 men. These were then organized into squads and companies, each assigned a specific task in what he planned. To prepare them and bolster their morale, he recalled for them the victories of old, in the days of Joshua and Gideon, when Jewish guerrillas routed much larger forces.

He then set out from Mitzpah, on a circuitous night march of his own. Taking advantage of his intimate knowledge of the terrain, he avoided Gorgias’ approaching forces. When the Seleucid attackers arrived at Mitzpah, they found the camp deserted and their enemy gone. Thinking the Maccabean rebels had fled into the surrounding hills, Gorgias ordered his men to spread out and find their trail.

However, Judah was not fleeing; he was counter-attacking.

In the pre-dawn hours the Jewish rebels arrived in the hills south of Emmaus. From these heights, Judah could see the enemy camp below. As dawn broke, the Maccabee forces attacked, rushing down upon the  unprepared camp. Awakening from the their slumber, Nicanor’s men were astonished at the sudden appearance of the Jewish attackers, who they assumed Gorgias had put paid to that very night. Surprise turned quickly to panic, and the poorly trained levies fled in utter rout. Nicanor, the sources say, did not stop till he reached Antioch!

Though they found the camp filled with rich loot, Judah did not allow his men to get out of hand. But, maintaining their discipline, they took what they could carry and burned the rest. When Gorgias and his force returned later that morning, they found their base in flames, and Judah’s army drawn up and ready for battle. Astonished and demoralized by this sudden reversal of fortune, he avoided battle and withdrew as well.

Emmaus was an utter disaster for the Seleucids in their war against the Jewish rebels. Ptolemy son of Dorymenes, governor of Coele Syria, who was responsible to the capital for crushing the rebellion, was soon after sacked, losing his position. For Judah Maccabee, it was the greatest victory thus far. As they marched back into the Judean highlands that were their stronghold, the Jewish rebels rejoiced.

On their return they sang hymns and praises to Heaven, for he (God) is good, for his mercy endures forever. Thus Israel had a great deliverance that day… [10]



1. 1 Maccabees 2, 17-18
2. 1 Maccabees 2, 20-22
3. 2 Maccabees 6:1–11 suggests that Apollonius may have been an Athenian “senator”. If so, he may have been a friend of King Antiochus’ from his days in Athens prior to becoming king.
4. There are alternative explanations for this surname. One of these is that the name Maccabee is an acronym for the Torah verse Mi kamokha ba’elim Adonai, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?”; that  this may have been the battle-cry of the Jewish rebels. An even more obscure explanation comes from Rabbi Moshe Schreiber; who writes that it was an acronym for his father’s name, Mattityahu Kohen Ben Yochanan. Some scholars even maintain that the name is a shortened form of the Hebrew maqqab-ya ¯hû (from na ¯qab, ‘‘to mark, to designate’’), meaning ‘‘the one designated by Yahweh.’
5. See my earlier article,  Phalanx vs Legion 
6.  1 Macc 3:32. We know little more about Lysias’ lineage. Perhaps he was a cousin of the king. He almost certainly must  have been a member of Antiochus Epiphanes’ inner circle of trusted officers, the philoi basilike (“Royal Friends”).
7. Josephus, Antiquities, XII, vii, 2. Here Josephus may be engaged in hyperbole.
8. 1 Macc 3:39 – “…sent with them forty thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry to go into the land of Judah and destroy it, as the king had commanded.” These numbers are preposterous. The “grand army” of the Seleucid Empire numbered some 60,000 – 70,000; of which less than 40,000 were “regulars” (the rest being light-infantry skirmishers drawn from Asiatic levies and subject hill tribesmen); of which 7,000 cavalry would represent nearly the entirety of available Seleucid regular forces. But such armies were only mustered rarely, and always under the direct command of the king in person. With Antiochus Epiphanes leading a large force into the eastern satrapies, no such grand muster as would be required to field such an army was possible for Lysias at this time. It is more likely that the 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry Gorgias took with him to attack the Maccabee camp at Mitzpah was the bulk of the forces assigned for this expedition.  1 Macc 4:1 refers to the horsemen as “picked”.  At the Daphne parade in 166, there was a regiment of cavalry called the Epilektoi (“Picked”), numbering 1,000 troopers. These were recruited in the Seleucid military colony of Larissa in Trans-Jordan, named for the city in Thessaly and populated by Thessalian horsemen who’d served under Alexander. These were an elite among Graeco-Macedonian cavalry. It is likely that the “picked” cavalry under Gorgias was this regiment; especially as Gorgias was certainly later and may have at this time been governor of Iudmea, which province the colony of Larissa might have been a part of.
9. 2 Macc 12:35
10. 1 Macc 4:24-25


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