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On a hot and dusty plain eight miles from the Roman city of Adrianople, on August 9, 378 A.D., the elite field army of the Eastern Roman Empire and a tribal army of refugee Visigoths fought one of the most celebrated battles in western military history. The results would reverberate for centuries.

The Goths had been enemies of Rome for centuries.

Originating in Sweden (the southern region of which is still to this day called East and West Gautland, i.e., “Gothland”), this Germanic people had migrated in the early Christian Era onto the plains of western Ukraine and northern Romania. Under their greatest king, Ermaneric, the Goths created a powerful kingdom in the mid-4th century.


The broad rivers of Ukraine flow southward, draining into the Black Sea. Throughout the 3rd Century A.D., Gothic longships sailed down these alluvial highways, and from the Black Sea raided the civilized communities along its shores. Passing through the Bosporus and into the Aegean, they brought fire and sword to the ancient towns and cities of Greece and Asia Minor. Athens, Corinth, Argos, Olympia and Sparta: all felt the fury of the Goths. Troy and Ephesus on the coast of Asia were also sacked and pillaged. In the latter the Great Temple of Diana, one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, was finally destroyed for all time.


Perhaps presaging the sentiments of northern Europeans who centuries later faced the depredations of the Viking “Northmen”, Romans living along the Aegean Coast might well have prayed for deliverance from the furore Gothicnorum, the fury of the Goths!

On land the Goths were equally formidable. In 249 an army of Goths and other barbarian warriors under the Gothic king, Cniva, crossed the lower Danube, raiding into the Roman province of Moesia. After nearly 2 years, they were brought to bay by the Roman Emperor Decius near the town of Forum Terebronii (modern Razgrad, Bulgaria). On swampy ground the advancing Roman heavy infantry and cavalry bogged down and were overcome by showers of Gothic javelins and arrows. Decius was killed, becoming the first Roman emperor to be slain in battle.

This defeat by the Goths made a deep impression on the Romans, and though the Gothic menace abated after their crushing defeat at the hands of the Emperor Claudius “Gothicus” at the Battle of Naissus in 269 A.D. they remained a “bogeyman” in the minds of later Romans.

Then, in the 4th Century of the Christian Era, a greater “bogeyman” stormed out of the vast steppes of Central Asia: the Huns!

These nomadic herdsmen had been driven from the borders of China centuries earlier by the Han Chinese. (It is the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate as to whether or not the Huns are the same people as those known in Chinese sources as the Xiongnu. To date there is no consensus on this question.) Over a century, the Huns drifted ever westwards, across the “sea of grass” that covers the Eurasian hinterland. Along their westward trek, they subjugated or displaced other nomadic tribes. In (approximately) 370 A.D., after defeating the Alans, they entered the lands of the Goths.

The Goths, whose armies were still primarily composed of javelin or bow armed infantry, were no match for the swift-moving Huns, armed with the powerful and deadly composite bow. Like that of all Asiatic steppe nomads, Hunnic warfare was based upon “the Great Hunt”: herding or luring the enemy (like wild game) onto killing grounds; where they could be worn down by elusive swarms of horse archers. Once the enemy’s numbers were depleted or physical exhaustion had set in, the Huns would close with the enemy and finished them off with lance, sword, or lasso (which the expert Hun herdsmen used to rope and drag their foemen to their deaths).


The Gothic Kingdom of Ermaneric was overthrown, the old king committing suicide in despair. Rather than submit, a portion of the Gothic nation fled westward. Led by Fritigern, these Goths (who later became known as the Visigoths) found themselves refugees pushing against the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire.

In 376, the Roman authorities agreed to allow the Goths to take refuge within the Empire. The Romans were interested in settling these warlike people along the frontier province of Moesia, an area devastated by earlier Gothic raids. There they would repopulate the province and act as a buffer against future “barbarian” incursions. This arrangement was a common one the Romans employed throughout the empire, enlisting tribes as foederati: tribal warriors allowed to settle on Roman territory in return for military service.

1362427 (1).jpg(Artwork by Howard Gerrard, “Adrianople AD 378”, p.82-83, by Simon MacDowall, © Osprey Publishing)

Under the terms of the agreement, the Goths were to refrain from plundering Roman towns and farms; while for their part the Romans were to supply the refugees with needed food and other essentials. Unfortunately, as was all too often the case, local officials were both corrupt and short-sided. According to the contemporary historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, these Roman officials cheated the Goths and drove them into rebellion.

For the next two years, the Goths pillaged throughout the southern Balkans, as various Roman commanders attempted to deal with them with varying degrees of success.

In the summer of 378, the Eastern Roman Emperor, Valens, arrived back in Constantinople after several years of campaigning in Armenia against the Persians. He decided to take the field against the Goths in person  and bring about a “final solution” to this Gothic menace.


Valens had every reason to anticipate complete success. Early in his reign, in 369, he had won a short war against the Goths along the Danube. Just the previous summer his general (the Magister Peditum) Sebastianus had enjoyed success against Gothic detachments in Macedonia and Thrace by use of guerrilla tactics. Based on these successes the Goths may not have seemed to Valens to be so formidable a foe.

The two armies met 8 miles from the town of Adrianople (modern Edirne). There the Goths had arranged their camp on a hill facing southward, overlooking a broad plain. Their wagons formed an outer defensive perimeter, called a wagonberg, atop the hill. This Gothic camp was not just filled with the booty taken over three years of pillaging in Roman territory. It was the home to a nation on the move: the wagonberg sheltered the warrior’s families as well. Not enough has been made by commentators concerning the morale effect that defending their families and their only homes must have had upon the Goths in the coming battle. Certainly knowing that defeat would mean death or enslavement for their loved-ones and an end to their people must have lent a desperate strength to Gothic arms.

Cognizant of the significance of possible defeat and of the strength the Emperor had arrayed against them, the Goths sent emissaries of peace on both the 8th of August, and again on the day of battle, the 9th. Knowing that only a decisive defeat of the barbarians could guarantee an end to Gothic raids, and perhaps with the example of Claudius Gothicus to draw upon, Valens rejected these overtures. However, negotiations on the 9th took up much of the day, and the battle did not commence till late in the afternoon.


The Roman army of the 4th Century A.D. bore little resemblance to that which had followed the eagles under Caesar or Trajan.

Gone were the 5,000 strong legions of sturdy pilum-and-gladius armed legionaries, who for centuries had hacked their way methodically through every enemy they faced. By Adrianople Roman field armies had evolved into a balanced force of spear-and-javelin (or dart) armed heavy infantry; supported by elite regiments of javelin or bow armed skirmishers and units of heavy and light cavalry.

The core of the infantry was still the men of the legio, the legions. However, the legion of the late empire had shrunk to less than a third its earlier size; becoming instead a compact, mobile regiment of 1,200 men. Their equipment was now a spear (which could be thrown or retained in hand for thrusting or warding off cavalry); augmented with a pair javelins or a brace of throwing darts. These last were called martiobarbuli or plumbata, and came into use in the 3rd century. They were made of a lead sphere to which fins and an iron spike were attached. These were held on a rack of half-a-dozen within the soldier’s shield. Completing their armament was a double-edged spatha. Originally the Roman cavalry sword and ancestor of the Medieval broadsword, it had now replaced the shorter gladius as the standard side arm of all Roman soldiers.

Armor and defensive equipment had changed dramatically as well. Gone was the famous banded metal body armor of the earlier legionaries, the famous lorica segmentata. The milites of Valens either wore no armor at all, or (if officers and front rankers) mail/scale shirts or cuirasses of bronze or raw hide. Also gone were the classical cylindrical-rectangular shields associated with the earlier Roman legionary (and seen in nearly every Hollywood epic involving the Romans). Now Roman infantry used a flat oval shield, closer in design and style to that of the light-infantry thureophoroi of the 3rd century B.C. Hellenistic dynasts!


Under Constantine the Great (circa 300 A.D.), certain units of elite auxilia (light infantry) regiments had been raised from German tribes along the Rhine frontier. These were called Auxilia Palatina; and were afforded the highest status within the ranks of the non-guard portion of the Roman army. These supported the legions much more completely than the auxilia of the earlier empire, taking their place in the first line of battle, the legions arrayed in the second line behind. These Auxilia were armed much like the heavier legionaries: the distinction was often more one of training and mission than equipment. The size of an auxilia regiment was about half that of one of the new legions, some 600 strong.

The Roman cavalry-arm had been expanded and improved during the 3rd century, beginning under the Emperor Gallienus. In the Eastern Empire particularly the best cavalry regiments had status as high (or higher) than that of their infantry counterparts.

Roman cavalry was roughly divided into light and heavy. This distinction reflected mission as much as armament. Heavy cavalry provided a shock force in battle, and guarded the flanks of the main infantry line. There role was to drive off enemy cavalry and, when practical, turn the flank of the enemy line. Light cavalry operated as mounted skirmishers in battle, on the outside end of the battle line. On campaign, they scouted, foraged, and screened the army as a whole, the traditional mission of light cavalry throughout history.


Javelin-armed light cavalry were recruited from Illyria and North Africa, while bow-armed cavalry units were recruited (and mostly deployed in) the East. In most cases such light cavalry wore little armor beyond a helmet; though many of the javelin-armed regiments carried large shields (scuta) for protection.

While the infantry of the late empire were (by-and-large) lighter equipped and less armored than their counterparts in earlier eras, the evolution of Roman heavy cavalry had gone the opposite direction (and there is very possibly a correlation between these two trends). Borrowing first from the Sarmatians and later the Sassanid Persians, Roman heavy cavalry now included units of the very heaviest armored cavalry available: cataphracti and clibanarii. These were lance-armed cavalry, both man and horse covered in banded or scale armor (though not all cataphract units rode armored horses). Their lance was 12 foot long, called a kontos (“barge pole”).


Such units were a tiny percent of Roman heavy cavalry. Though some of the regiments arrayed on the Roman side at Adrianople were clibanarii or cataphractarii (particularly among the Imperial Guard units of the “Scholae“) the bulk of the heavy cavalry were of the more traditional style, armed with javelin or a short, light spear. Some of these regiments were called promoti, suggesting they were promoted from the traditional cavalry detachments once attached to the legions.

In battle, the army deployed in two lines, each as many as eight ranks deep: the first composed of auxilia, supported by the legions in the second. Archers could be formed into a third line, to shower the enemy with missiles from above. Artillery, if available, would be placed on the flanks or, if the army was deployed along a ridge, on the highest ground. Cavalry supported the flanks, with the heaviest units closest to the infantry, and lighter cavalry further out on the extremes of the line. The general (or Emperor) and his mounted bodyguard took position on the right flank of the second line.

Unlike the earlier (mostly heavy infantry) armies of the Republic and early Principate, which were marked by aggressive, offensive tactics, the armies of the Late Empire preferred to stand on the defensive in battle; at least against enemies known for their strong attack or charge, such as the western Germanic tribes, the Sarmatians and Alans of the steppes, or against the very heavy cavalry of the Sassanid Persians. Such an attacking enemy would be greeted by a shower of missiles: javelins, darts, and arrows. If the first line of infantry auxilia were pierced, the attack would wash against the shields of the heavy-infantry legionaries of the second line.


Light cavalry would harass the enemy’s flanks and rear while heavy cavalry would protect the main infantry line, opposing and (if possible) attempting to break the enemy’s cavalry. If the cavalry on the flanks were able to defeat the enemy cavalry, they would pursue them off the field, and if possible turn onto the enemy’s center.

These tactics are in many ways reminiscent of the Hellenistic “Successor” Kingdoms of the 4th-2nd century B.C. It is likely that Antigonas “One Eyed” or Antiochus the Great would have felt more at home in command of a late Roman army than would have either Scipio Africanus or Julius Caesar!

Since the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine nearly a century earlier Roman land forces had been divided broadly into three categories:

1. Limitanei – The garrisons of the frontier fortresses, or limes, these units traced their lineage to the legions and auxiliaries who had held these posts since Augustus. By the late 4th century their quality was relatively poor; though they could be trusted to hold their border forts against most threats. On occasion, the better of them were “seconded” to the mobile field forces. Most of these units were under the command of various Dux (Dukes), commanders of the main fortresses and border garrisons of the empire.

2. Comitatensis – The mobile field armies that backed-up the limitani along the borders. Such mobile forces were stationed in the towns of the interior. All of the frontier provinces had such an army supporting the limitani, ready to respond to major invasions. These troops were of higher quality, and though some units traced their lineage to detachments from the legions of an earlier era, many were newer units formed during the 3rd and 4th centuries to combat the invasions and raids that marked that turbulent period, between the reigns of Gallienus and Constantine. These mobile armies were commanded by Comes (Counts).

3. Palatini – These were the elite units attached to the armies that served directly under the Emperor or his top officer, the Magister Militum Praesentalis (“Master of Soldiers in the Imperial Presence”). These soldiers were the elite cavalry and infantry regiments of the Empire. Some of these elite regiments were also detailed-off to various comitatensis armies of the provinces for stiffening.

Both the Eastern and Western Empires had mirror-image versions of this structure. In some case, the titles and exact composition differed. However, most of these differences were superficial, not structural. All units of cavalry or infantry were assigned to one of these three categories.


Valen’s army at Adrianople was drawn only from that of the Eastern Empire. The Western Emperor, Valens’ nephew Gratian, was at that moment marching through Illyria with a Western army to his uncle’s aid. But Valens was loath to wait for this reinforcement, perhaps reluctant to share the “glory” of defeating the Goths with his nephew. Had he chose otherwise, the outcome that day might have been very different, indeed.

The Roman forces at Adrianople were composed of units from three Eastern Roman field armies: the comitatensis Army of Thrace, which normally backed-up the fortress garrisons along the Danube frontier; and the two elite Praesentalis (“In the Presence” of the Emperor) armies of the East. These were normally stationed around the capital, Constantinople and at Antioch, in Syria, respectively. Both these latter armies had returned with Valens from his Armenian campaigns. All were veterans, the very best troops in the Eastern Empire.

There has been wildly varying estimates as to the size of the forces deployed at Adrianople. Enlightenment and Victorian Era historians, who tended to over-blow the importance of the battle, put the number of Romans as high as 60,000; with a Gothic force appropriately larger as well. Modern scholars note that while all three Roman armies, at full strength, indeed numbered some 66,000 troops, this “paper strength” doesn’t take into account casualties from recent hard campaigning (the Army of Thrace in particular having been roughly handled by the Goths over the last two years) nor detachments left to garrison key places. It is highly unlikely that Valens would have left the still turbulent Eastern provinces without some stiffening garrisons. Additionally, after arriving back in Constantinople, some of his forces would have been granted sick leave, and the garrison of the capital reinforced. At Adrianople additional troops were detached to garrison that town as well, where the imperial regalia and the army’s pay-chest was lodged during the battle. By the time the two armies met, the Romans likely numbered only somewhere between 20,000-30,000.

1565686.jpg(Artwork by Gerry Embleton, plate D, “Rome’s Enemies (1)” by Peter Wilcox, © Osprey Publishing)

Fritigern’s forces were even smaller. Marcellinus records that Roman scouts reported the Gothic strength before the battle at 10,000. The skeptical Marcellinus, refusing to believe that the finest army in the Eastern Empire could be defeated by a numerically smaller force of “barbarians”, dismissed this figure out of hand. But if the scouts were indeed reporting accurately what they saw before the battle, their report would not have included the bulk of the Gothic (and allied Alan) cavalry, who throughout the day were returning from a foraging expedition. So, including the absent cavalry, it is very possible that the Goths numbered some 12,000 to 16,000 fighting men: a smaller force than that which Valens brought against them.

Most of the Goths were unarmored infantry, carrying a large oval shield and armed with javelins. The nobles and their household-warriors fought on horseback, as javelin-armed heavy cavalry. Armor would have been scarce, found only upon the richest warriors or nobles and their retainers.


The Gothic position was upon a low hill, behind a barrier of wagons, defending their camp. The Romans deployed in the plain below them. The Roman foot held the center, the cavalry divided on both wings.

Throughout the hot summer day, the Romans stood in ranks under the baking sun, while Fritigern stretched out peace negotiations. No doubt the Gothic leader hesitated to engage in a trial of arms against the elite “Army in the Presence”. Just as importantly, he was stalling for time to allow the Gothic cavalry to return; which, as stated above, were away foraging.

1362607.jpg Looking south over the battlefield from the hill where the Gothic wagonberg was located. This is the view the Goths would have had from their camp of Valens’ army deployed on the plain; and gives a good impression of how difficult a “slog” up this hill, under fire from Gothic bows and javelins, the tired Roman infantry would have had that hot summer afternoon

Late in the day, a skirmish broke out between the Roman left-wing cavalry and the Goths opposite them. Losing patience, Valens ordered a general attack.

Standing in ranks all day under a blazing sun wearing an iron helmet, carrying a 12 pound shield, and in some cases wearing metal body armor will sap the strength of even the best conditioned soldiers. Pushing uphill in the stifling heat, the already tired Roman forces were sluggish. Even so, progress was being made as the Roman foot battled all along the front of the Gothic camp, and the wagonberg was broken into in some places.

Then, at this crucial moment, the Gothic cavalry returned to the field. Clouds of dust kicked up by the advancing Roman forces must have blinded the Romans to the arrival of this threat. With no warning, the Gothic horse fell upon the flanking Roman cavalry on Valen’s left wing.


In a cavalry fight, impetus and momentum are of the highest importance. As the Gothic cavalry charged out of the obscuring dust, the Roman horse were caught “flat-footed”. One moment they were standing idle, mere spectators as the infantry assaulted the wagonberg; the next, they were set upon by furiously-charging Gothic horsemen. After only the briefest struggle, the Roman squadrons gave way, routing from the field.[1]

Deprived of their cavalry and the flank protection it afforded, the Roman attack on the wagonberg faltered. Soldiers looking over their shoulders could see and hear the furious melee on their flanks. And though clouds of choking dust no doubt obscured the details, it must have been apparent that their cavalry was fleeing the field.


The victorious Gothic horsemen now wheeled inward, attacking the flanks and rear of the Roman infantry. At that moment, the Gothic foot sallied forth from their camp and assailed the Romans from the front, driving them back to the base of the slope. Valens and his men found themselves surrounded and attacked from every direction.

Ammianus Marcellinus, himself a soldier, provided a vivid description of what followed:

“Dust rose in such clouds as to hide the sky, which rang with fearful shouts. In consequence it was impossible to see the enemy’s missiles in flight and dodge (them); all found their mark and dealt death on every side. The barbarians poured on in huge columns, trampling down horse and men and crushing our ranks so as to make orderly retreat impossible… “

In the blinding dust clouds that covered the battlefield, all cohesion and tactical control was lost. Under the pressure the Roman lines crumbled inward. Reports tell how soldiers were pressed so closely together that many could not raise their arms from their sides.

“In the scene of total confusion, the infantry, worn out by toil and danger, had no strength left to form a plan. Most had their spears shattered in the constant collisions… The ground was so drenched in blood that they slipped and fell… some perished at the hands of their own comrades… The sun, which was high in the sky scorched the Romans, who were weak from hunger, parched with thirst, and weighted down by the burden of their armor. Finally our line gave way under the overpowering pressure of the barbarians, and as a last resort our men took to their heels in general rout.”

Some of the elite units held their ground, making a last stand. Foremost of these were two of the Palatine legions, the Lanciarii Seniors and the Matiarii. The Lanciari were the senior legion of the Roman army [2], and they showed their quality that day. When all others lost their heads, they seemed to have kept theirs. Valens took refuge in this island of steady soldiers amidst the storm of rout and ruin. He ordered the reserves brought up; but though comprised of elite cohorts of Auxilia Palatina, these too had been carried off in the general panic that gripped the army (and likely without striking a blow). Officers sent to fetch them back followed suit, also deserting their emperor.

1362623.jpg(Artwork by Howard Gerrard, “Adrianople AD 378”, p.82-83, by Simon MacDowall, © Osprey Publishing)

Accounts differ as to Valens fate. One tale has him struck dead amidst these stalwart last defenders. Another, though, states that he was struck by a Gothic javelin or arrow; and was carried wounded to a nearby farmhouse. There, his bodyguards held the Goths off for a time, till the house was set afire; killing all but one, who jumped free of the blaze and was taken prisoner (surviving to later tell the tale of the Emperor’s fate). That Valens’ body was never recovered lends credibility to this version of his death.

The battle ended with the coming of darkness, allowing some survivors to escape the stricken field. On the battlefield, the Emperor and the cream of the Eastern Roman Army lay dead.


The following day the Goths attacked the town of Adrianople, in an attempt to capture Valens’ imperial regalia and treasury. But the garrison left behind managed to drive the Goths back, with help from the townspeople and survivors of the battle; particularly men of the Lanciarii Seniors. These latter, after cutting their way to safety, had arrived at the town in time to join the defenders.

After their victory the Goths spread out throughout the Balkans, ravaging far and wide. They would eventually be brought to terms, temporarily settling in the Balkans. A generation later, a new leader, Alaric, would lead them into Italy and the sack of Rome.

Adrianople is often described in grandiose terms, as the reason for the fall of the Roman Empire; and as the end of the legions and the beginning of the 1,000 year dominance of cavalry in warfare. Recent scholarship, however, contradicts this traditional view. While certainly traumatic for the Roman psyche, this clash between Rome and her hereditary enemy, the Goths, has been overblown in importance by historians of the last two centuries. In truth, the battle, while a blow to both Roman pride and confidence, had little direct long-term effect on the fortunes of the Empire.

The troops lost were few, considering the total number of soldiers comprising the Roman army. At the time of Adrianople, the Roman Army was over a half-a-million men strong; deployed from Hadrian’s Wall in Britain to the Nile cataracts in Egypt. A loss of twenty-thirty thousand, even if of the highest quality, was hardly fatal to the Roman state.

Remember that the Eastern Empire, whose Emperor was slain and whose “Praesentalis” army had been destroyed, lasted for another eleven hundred years, with Constantinople only falling at last to the Turks in 1453. It was the Western Empire, whose army was not even present at the battle, which eventually collapsed, and that not for another century!

The reasons for the Gothic victory has also been misinterpreted. Some historians attribute the barbarian victory to a decline in Roman arms; the legions no longer being of the quality of their predecessors. Perhaps deriving their theories from Gibbon and Oman, other historians credit the Gothic victory to the assumed use of the stirrup by their horsemen. That having stirrups gave the Gothic cavalry a great advantage over their Roman counterparts. Finally, some have blamed Valens for blundering badly, leading his army to disaster.

All of this is, of course, nonsense.

Taking the second point first, the exact date of the appearance of the use of the stirrup in Europe is unknown. But most historians now accept that it was likely the Avars, in the 7th century, who brought this invention from Central Asia. Neither the Goths nor the Romans used stirrups; and did quite well without, as had cavalry for the preceding millennium.

Victorian Age historians, who could not imagine riding without stirrup, have always tended to over-blow the value of this invention. Stirrups give a horseman a more stable seat, to be sure. It allows a cavalryman a better platform from which to hack downward with a saber at men on foot. However, ancient horseman obviously compensated without stirrups. Does anyone imagine that the Macedonian Companion Cavalry of Alexander the Great, who rode without even saddle, were less effective lancers in their day than the Polish Uhlans who served Napoleon? Roman cavalry used a four-horn saddle, which allowed the horseman to use the horns to achieve a stable seat. Modern experimentation has shown these saddles to provide a very stable platform, indeed.


In any case, the Gothic cavalry had no technical advantage over the Romans. What advantage they possessed was simply a tactical one involving surprise, impetus and ferocity. They charged into an unsuspecting and ill-prepared mass of Roman cavalry which was standing idle; always a recipe for disaster for the horsemen on the receiving end. The Romans, already exhausted from long hours in the sun, and who thought the battle all but won were panicked and easily dispersed.

As for the supposed decline in the quality of the Roman foot, just consider: they found themselves charged in rear and flank by cavalry while engaged in assaulting a field fortification. Even the legions of Scipio or Caesar would have had difficulty overcoming such dire circumstances.

It must be admitted that the Roman foot had, to some degree, declined over the centuries. The Limitanei, particularly, were not of the same quality as the troops that had held those very defenses under Augustus or Trajan. But the army at Adrianople was the very best the 4th century Roman Empire could field. While they may have used a different tactical system of weapons and formations than had the legions of Caesar; the Legio and Auxilia Palatina of the Praesentalis armies of the Empire were every bit as good soldiers as any in the world. If not quite as good as the legions of Caesar, they were good enough.

Finally, leadership (on either side) at Adrianople was not the decisive issue. The Romans didn’t lose because of any brilliant ploy on the part of the Gothic leaders, nor by the incompetence of Valens as a commander. If Valens did nothing particularly right, he did nothing particularly wrong. His cavalry failed in their mission to adequately scout the enemy, and to protect the vulnerable flanks of the infantry. This is the mistakes of the wing commanders, perhaps, but the blame cannot be fairly laid at the feet of the Emperor.

Rome suffered a disastrous defeat, but not a fatal one. When compared to the defeats of Cannae, Arausio, or even Carrhae, it was a trivial loss, save for the death of the Emperor. But emperors had fallen or been captured in battle before and would again. Nothing about Adrianople distinguishes it in such a way as to fairly justify the place it holds to this day in the history of the Roman Empire.

Save for one result.

The indisputable outcome of the Gothic victory at Adrianople was that an independent Gothic nation would continue to exist within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Though the Romans would make accommodation with the Goths (who would become known as the Visigoth, to differentiate them from those Goths that remained as subjects of the Huns in their homeland, the Ostrogoths), granting them the status of foederati; in the end their independence and predatory nature would become a cancer that would eat away at the Roman body politic. Under Alaric, in the next generation, they would invade the Western Empire repeatedly, eventually sacking Rome in 410 A.D. From there, they would move on to found a kingdom in southern Gaul and Spain.

This was the legacy of Adrianople, and the battle’s main connection to the fall of the Western Empire. By not destroying the Visigoths when he had the opportunity, the unfortunate Valens helped to doom the Western Empire to eventual extinction, and to open the door to the coming Dark Ages.

1. It is unclear if the Gothic horse initially attack the Roman left; or both flanks simultaneously. Some have suggested that the Roman left broke, and the Roman right-wing cavalry then routed in fear, not waiting to be attacked. This seems unlikely, however; as the highest quality cavalry tended to be deployed on the right wing of any Roman army.

2. The Lanciarii were likely formed by the Emperor Gallienus, as part of the original mobile field army, stationed then at Milan. It has been suggested that he formed this legio by gathering together the lanciarii attached as light troops to the various legions; into a fast-moving legion capable of keeping up with his mobile cavalry force, meant to reinforce armies on the Rhine or Danube in time of crisis. By the 4th century, the Lanciarii Seniores, stationed near Constantinople as part of the Praesentalis army of the East. By this date they were no longer “light infantry”; but a legio palatinae heavy infantry unit. Their designation as “Seniores” is a puzzlement. With the division of the empire into two-halfs, many of the same formations existed in both. To prevent confusion, identical regiments were designated “senior” or “junior”, in either the west or east. In most cases, the “senior” infantry legio were in the West; the “senior” cavalry vexillations in the East; but this was not always the case. As for the Lanciarii, the oddity is that there is no Western equivalent regiment listed in the Notitia Dignitatum as “Lanciarii Juniors“. Therefore, I would tentatively suggest that the designation “Seniors” in the case of the Lanciarii Seniores may indicate their status as the senior legion in the mobile army.

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

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

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

But who was Arthur? Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.

(Read Part Three here, or start at the beginning here)


Returning to Vortigern and the military situation in the 440s, it is important to remember that the Roman fortress garrisons had not all departed with Constantine III in 407. While the bulk of the able-bodied and younger soldiers had crossed the channel with the pretender, their families, farms and chattel remained behind; likely guarded by those too old or infirm to march. Of course, some 40 years later those left behind were all very old or else dead.

Who or what replaced them?

It is very likely that in the old border forts, which had become crowded villages (albeit very strongly fortified villages), sons took their father’s place in the unit. This had been the practice for over a century, with duty in the limitanei garrisons becoming hereditary. By the late 4th century, these troops were no better than territorial militia, available for local defense only. (See Part Three)

1385711.jpgIn most of the southern heartland of Britain, where Roman roots had sunk deep and towns and wealthy villas abounded, defense was only provided by local civic militias and the small retinues of rich landed nobles. Unlike the north, which had the Wall garrisons and fierce tribal allies to defend it; or in the western hills of Wales and Cornwall, where the tribal system was still strong, the southern Britons had grown relatively soft and civilized. It is not surprising that this region of Britain was the first to succumb to the coming barbarian tide.

1385785.jpg The bucolic, Romanized south of Britain was home to many prosperous villas. This region was devastated by the “Saxon Terror” that followed the mutiny of Hengist and the Saxon feoderatii in the mid-century.

The old command of the Comes Litoris Saxonici (“Count of the Saxon Shore”) had deteriorated much more than had that of the Dux Britanniarum in the north. While the coastal forts still remained occupied for several more generations, and were very strong places indeed; they had been stripped to the bone by first Stilicho and later Constantine III, and had no troops to spare to contribute to the defense of the interior.

(Recent scholarship has suggested that many of these “Saxon Shore” defenses were, in fact, manned by Saxon foederati. It has always been supposed that the “Saxon Shore” was so named because it was the target of Saxon raids. However, it may be that it gained its name because of the presence of large number of settled Saxon foederati placed there by the Roman authorities. The presence of Anglo-Saxon grave sites and villages dating to Roman 4th century Britain lends strength to this argument.)


It was in the west, where tribal leaders still had authority and warriors maintained a martial tradition, that troops were to be had who could hold back the barbarian. It is understandable that it is from here that Vortigern, a prince of the Cornovii (and perhaps a former Bishop of London: See Part One), came to take over the leadership and defense of Britain.

So what would Vortigern’s army look like four decades after the withdrawal of Roman authority?


In the 5th century, as the Western Roman authority became increasingly tenuous and the comitatensis armies withered away, Roman generals came to rely more-and-more upon a combination of barbarian foederati and their own mounted bodyguard units. These latter were employed directly by the general, paid out of his own purse (an economic advantage for the ever-strained Imperial treasury) and were members of his Household. They were called “bucellarii“, or “biscuit eaters”, referring to their campaign rations of twice-baked bread (known to 19th and early 20th century horse soldiers as hardtack). Bucellarii were often the professional core of 5th and 6th century Roman field forces. These units could be quite large, depending on the resources and prestige of the general. The largest recorded was the household regiment of the great Eastern Roman commander, Belisarius; which spearhead all of his campaigns and numbered as many as 7,000 men.

The British “superbus tyrannus” Vortigern[1] likely maintained a regiment of bucellarii, recruited mostly from the loyal western tribes. As the memory of Rome faded further and further, and Brythonic replaced Latin as the lingua franca in the former Roman province of Britannia, these body-guard units came to be known as Teulu (“Family” or “Household”). While in the late Roman Empire these were often lance or bow-armed cavalry (and, in the case of Belisarius’ guards, a combination) in Britain they were likely armed with javelins and/or light spear; wearing coats of mail and helmets of late Roman design.

1385737.jpg The court of a Romano-British chieftain, surrounded by his Household (Teulu).

Vortigern’s own bucellarii would likely have been organized in troops numbering between 150 (a common number for the teulu of later Welsh princes) and 300 men (the standard unit strength for Late Roman and Byzantine cavalry regiments). The overall strength of his Teulu is unknowable. But a Welsh poem c.650 AD mentions a certain Celtic prince named Cynddylan maintaining as many as 700 warriors at his court. Another northern British chieftain who was a contemporary of Vortigern maintained a Teulu of 900 cavalry (three troops of 300 horsemen each). Considering his position and prestige, it is unlikely that Vortigern’s Teulu would have numbered less.

Though expected to form the “tip of the spear” of any campaign army, this force was primarily for Vortigern’ personal security: the sources indicate he was never popular with his fellow Britons, and his reign (at least the later portion) depicts a man deeply distrusted by and distrustful of his countrymen. When he moved himself to make war, Vortigern would rely on local militia forces of infantry and (to lesser extent) the mounted retainers of landed magnates and tribal princes to rally around and flesh-out his professionals. These latter would have operated as javelin-armed heavy or light cavalry, in the late Roman style.

These local British militias would be mostly spear and javelin armed infantry, called pedyt (from the Latin “pedites“, or foot) supported by small numbers of archers. They would have been organized and equipped much like the late Roman auxilia and legions; in units of 1,000 (sub-divided into units of 100 men each). One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the 4,000 British casualties at Creacanford as 4 troops, suggesting units of 1,000 each, approximately the same size as the late Roman legio. Body armor would be limited to only the officers, with helmets more ubiquitous. The spatha pseudo-broadsword would be the weapon of second-resort.

1385788.jpg Romano-British “pedyt”. The man on the left would be more typical of the rank-and-file British infantry. The well-armored figure to the right is a member of an elite “teulu” regiment of a chieftain or a ranking officer. (Image by Popius)

When campaigning in the north, a British war-leader might be able to draw from the garrisons of the old Wall forts and settlements. These were likely better armed and armored than the civic militia in the south. Importantly for the future, among these were both the descendants of the Sarmatian regiments stationed there by Hadrian, who likely maintained their ancestor’s heavy cavalry traditions. There were also the north British Votadini/Gododdin tribal nobility, who had a strong cavalry tradition all their own.

The poems and accounts of the Briton’s fight against the Anglo-Saxon invader (such as Y Gododdin) are from a later period, when resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invader was either in the far west or in the north of Britain, where tribal aristocratic cavalry predominated. In the early battles against Hengist and Horsa’s “Saxons” the likelihood is that the composition of British forces was closer to the older Roman model: closely ordered units of spear and/or javelin armed infantry, supported by archers in the rear and javelin-armed cavalry on the wings.

Artillery, in the form of scorpions, catapults, and ballista would be available in defense of city or fortress walls, but unlikely to be used in the field.

These British forces were maintained, as in late Roman times, by “annona”: fixed supplies levied from the nobility and the church of food, cattle and billeting when required.


Moving on to the Anglo-Saxons, what would the warriors who followed Hengist and Horsa to Britain look like, how were they organized and how did they fight?

4566105c58bc3d5260fc32bb879c3ea0.jpgFirst, it is important to understand that these were not a single people. They were, in the earliest years, a warband of semi-professional pirates and adventurers; much akin (both racially and culturally) to the Scandinavian Vikings four centuries later. Hengist attracted landless, displaced men from all over the eastern and southern shore of the North Sea, and around the western Baltic: “Old Saxons” from Saxony in north Germany, Danes from the Danish islands (where the semi-legendary Scyldingas were attempting to form a united Danish kingdom), Geats (the people of Beowulf, from south Sweden), Angles and Jutes (Hengist’s own folk) from the Jutland Peninsula, and Frisians and Franks from the Low Countries.

All of these people shared a common Germanic /Scandinavian culture, and in many cases ties of kinship and friendship. Their languages were, if not exactly the same, close enough that they could easily communicate. They worshiped the same Æsir and Vanir gods of northern Europe: crafty Wotan/Odin, bringer of victory;  Thunor/Thor, god of thunder and protector of Midguard (earth); Tiw/Tyr, the noble war-god; and the twins Freyr and Freya, gods of harvest and of love. And they shared the common Germanic love of war and plunder for its own sake.

The Germanic/Scandinavian society from which they came was a warrior society”

“A German is not so easily prevailed on to plough the land and wait patiently for harvest as to challenge a foe and earn wounds for his reward. He thinks it spiritless to accumulate slowly by the sweat of his brow what can be got quickly by the loss a little blood.” – Tacitus

Hengist sought to provide his followers with what all Germanic warriors sought: a successful and generous leader to follow. One that would ensure they had regular employment and the chance to accumulate booty. The chieftain was the “ring-giver”. Gold and silver arm rings were both jewelry and currency in Germanic/Scandinavian society. The status of a warrior could be judged at a glance, by the amount of rings on his arms he had been gifted by his lord for valorous and loyal service. That, and the completeness and richness of his armor, weapons, and other accouterments.

Hengist, like all Germanic chieftains, was surrounded by a bodyguard of “hearth-warriors“, called his Gesith which Tacitus calls his comitatus.  These warriors were sworn to serve their lord faithfully, much like the 10th-11th century Scandinavian household warriors of Viking chiefs, known as “hirðmen”. This picked band of warriors ate and slept in their lord’s hall, and fought together beneath their lord’s standard.

1385789.jpgThe Germans considered the breaking of an oath and betrayal of one’s sworn lord to be an unpardonable sin, rendering the offender a niðing (nithing): an abject wretch. A special place in Hel’s icy domain awaited such ill-doers! A warrior was expected to stand, and if necessary, die beside his lord in battle; and it was considered disgraceful to fail to attempt to avenge one’s fallen lord.

The three keels of warriors who followed Hengist and Horsa to Britain were likely men enlisted in the brother’s comitatus. Leaving home-and-hearth behind, they expected the “gift-giver” to compensate them with booty or land. A chief was only followed so long as he was successful. Faithfulness unto death by the warrior must be compensated with gold and glory, or the contract was broken.

As these warriors prospered in Britain, a place with far richer soil and a better climate than back in their northern homelands, word spread throughout the Germanic world that Hengist was a chief to be reckoned with. In Mafia parlance, he was “a man of respect”! The arrival of ships bearing his daughter and later his sons indicates that Hengist’s fame had reached his homeland (Jutland), and his fellow Jutes swarmed to join him. Nennius claims that the “Saxon” homeland became depopulated and was left empty as so many came to join Hengist in Britain. Even allowing for exaggeration, this is unlikely to have been Old Saxony in Germany, which remained populated throughout this period and into the historical record. However, we know that Jutland was occupied soon after by Danes from the islands to the east. Since there is no record of the Danish occupation of Jutland being a violent one, it is likely that the Danes occupied abandoned land left largely fallow by the departed Jutes (who themselves were closely related to the Danes in any case).

Which is not to say that the “Saxons“ of this initial migration were all Jutes. Just that Jutes may have constituted a large portion of the earliest invaders who followed Hengist and Horsa.

These “Saxons” would have been equipped with a round shield made of planks of linden wood, covered with tough cowhide, and sporting a heavy projecting iron boss. His chief weapon would have been a light spear, useful for throwing or retaining for melee. Both angons (heavy throwing spears) and francisca (throwing axes) have been found in Saxon graves of this period as well. These were the defining weapons of the Franks, arguing both for Frankish elements in early Saxon warbands and a cross-pollination of weapons (and tactics) in such a heterogeneous force.

1385811.jpgThe hallmark weapon of a Saxon warrior was his seax. This large, single-edged utility knife (hunting or fishing tool, eating utensil, and weapon) was ideal for use in the close-quarters battle that resulted when shield-wall met shield-wall, or when men wrestled on the ground in a death-grapple. It was also perfect for finishing-off the wounded enemies littering a battlefield!

1385815 Modern replica of nobleman’s seax

Chieftains and better-armed warriors would also carry a broadsword, the favorite weapon of the Germanic noble warrior. These were weapons of very high status in Germanic/Scandinavian society. Handed down from generation-to-generation, these weapons carried with them the honor of the family or tribe. Famous men carried famous swords, which bore names of their own and were often imbued with mythical/magical properties. Sigurd the Dragonslayer bore Gram (“wrath”), Beowulf the sword Hrunting (“roarer”), and Hrolf Kraki the blade Skofnung. Later Viking-Age Scandinavian swords bore names like “Leg-biter”, “Skull-splitter”, and “Peace-Breaker”.

1385820.jpg Poorer warriors might carry a scramsax, a longer, heftier version of the seax.

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

Saxon’s weapons and armor were often highly decorated: etched with elaborate designs and symbols, often gilded or silvered. Shields were painted with bright colors, and a dyed woolen cloak complimented the chieftain’s panoply. The Saxon chief in full “war glory” was a splendid sight, indeed!

1385822.jpgIn battle, the Saxons fought as infantry. Even though horses might be used as pack animals or to convey the wealthiest warriors to the battlefield, the Anglo-Saxon was first-and-foremost a foot soldier, who fought his enemies toe-to-toe. (Ironically for a “non-cavalry” people, the Saxons revered the horse. Hengist means “stallion”, while Horsa means “horse”.)

Like all Germanic warriors, two formations were utilized in battle: either the “shieldburg”, or more common in this early period, the svifylking (“Swine Array” or “Boar Snout”).

The first was a rectangular formation in which the front rank’s shields overlapped each other, and subsequent ranks filled in as men in the front ranks fell. While ideally a defensive formation, it could be used on the attack as well.

The “swine array” or “boar’s head” was the favorite attack formation of all Germanic warriors. Legend says that it was taught to man by Wotan/Odin himself. Some recent scholarship suggests this was more a deep battle column than a true wedge.

1385824.jpg Modern Viking reenactors demonstrate the swine array formation

In either formation, the King or chieftain would stand in the front rank, at the point of the wedge or the center of the shieldburg. His best equipped and highest-ranking warriors would form the front ranks around him. Warriors of lesser status (and armor) would fill in behind these.

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

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

1385826.jpg The battle between shield-walls was a savage affair

The goal of the swine array was to penetrate into and break through the enemy shieldburg or line, and in so doing slay its leaders and shatter the enemy formation.  Once the Saxon wedge penetrated the front rank of the enemy formation, the integrity of the enemy line was broken and panic soon followed. Units in ancient battles tended to disintegrate from the rear ranks first, as the less steady men in the rear lost heart and ran.

A Saxon army might form-up in a line of wedges, each composed of the retinues of some leader, or his ship’s crew. Alternately, a line might be formed of one large shieldburg, which could go on the offensive by forming into wedges, as circumstances dictated. In their earliest battles against the Britons, the Saxons were often defending river fords against British attacks, as will be seen. In this role, it is likely that in most cases the Saxon’s employed the shieldburg formation, more suited to holding ground than the wedge.

The coming war for Britain would pit the numerically larger but less experienced British militia against smaller but better quality forces of hardened “Saxon” warriors. The Britons would have one distinct advantage: cavalry. But in the battles to come, skirmishing cavalry would prove ultimately ineffective against stolid Saxon shieldwalls. Only the type of cavalry found in the north of Britain was capable of rocking the Saxons back on their heels: hard-charging Sarmatian-like lancers, descendants or imitators of the warriors of the steppe stationed in Britain by Hadrian, nearly two-and-a-half centuries before.



  1. Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, chapter XXIII
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On the morning of August 2, 216 B.C.,  the largest Roman army ever assembled during the Second Punic War prepared for a decisive battle on the dusty plain of Cannae, in southeastern Italy. The battle that followed would rock Rome to its core. 

The Second Punic War was in its third year, and for the Romans it had thus far been a catalog of disasters. They faced an enemy who had destroyed two Roman armies on Italian soil in as many years, wounding one Consul of Rome and killing another. This deadly foe was Hannibal Barca, chief general and leading statesman of the Carthaginian Empire.

In 216 BC the Roman Senate took the extraordinary step of raising a massive army of eight Roman legions, and an equal number of Italian allied legions. This was an extraordinary step; but these were extraordinary times.

The Senate determined to bring eight legions into the field, which had never been done at Rome before, each legion consisting of five thousand men besides allies…. Of allies, the number in each legion is the same as that of the citizens, but of the horse three times as great…Most of their wars are decided by one consul and two legions, with their quota of allies; and they rarely employ all four at one time and on one service. But on this occasion, so great was the alarm and terror of what would happen, they resolved to bring not only four but eight legions into the field.[1]

Commanding this mighty force were both of the elected Consuls for that year: Lucius Aemilius Paullus and his junior colleague, Gaius Terentius Varro. It was unusual for both Consuls to operate in the same theater of war, much less the same battlefield. But this was a sign of just how desperate the Senate was to bring Hannibal to a final, decisive battle, and end his rampage through Italy.

When war had been declared by the Senate of Rome against its bitter rival, Carthage, it was expected that this conflict would follow the same victorious course that the First Punic War had taken a generation before. Namely, that Roman fleets would sweep the sea of Punic opposition, clearing the way for Roman armies to land in Africa, and to fight the war on Carthaginian soil. After all, under the terms of the peace treaty that had ended that first conflict, Carthage had been barred from rebuilding its once proud fleet. It could in no way compete with Rome at sea, nor impede the transport of Roman armies to Africa. It was a given that in a clash on land, no Carthaginian army could stand before the legions of Rome and her Italian allies. Once in Africa, any Carthaginian army would be quickly defeated and the city placed under siege, its demise just a matter of time.

But Hannibal had other ideas.

 Hannibal Barca (Hannibal, “Grace of Baal”, and Barca, “Thunderbolt”) was the son of Hamilcar Barca, the most successful Carthaginian general in the otherwise stunningly unsuccessful First Punic War. Hannibal had grown to manhood in his father’s camp, surrounded by soldiers. He had learned well the lessons his capable father had taught him. One of these was an undying hatred for their Roman enemies. Upon a sacred alter, the sons of Hamilcar had all sworn an oath to bring destruction to Rome.[2]

Hannibal took command of his late father’s Army in Spain at the age of 26. Now, five years later, he had fulfilled the elder Barca’s wishes, taking the war to the enemy and visiting woe upon the Romans.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 219 BC, Hannibal had seized the initiative, leading an army from his base in Spain across the wild, barbarous lands of the savage Gauls. Against all odds he had succeeded in crossing the snow-covered Alps, to debouch into the plains of northern Italy.[3]

1357682.jpgThere he had defeated the Roman forces that attempted to intercept and halt his invasion. First in a cavalry skirmish at the Ticinus River, where one of the Consuls for that year, Publius Cornelius Scipio (father of Africanus) had been badly wounded; and then at the River Trebia, where he inflicted a major defeat upon a Roman Consular army led by Scipio’s colleague, the other Consul Sempronius Longus. After these victories, the Celtic tribesmen of the Po Valley rallied to the Carthaginian standard, joining forces with Hannibal and restoring his depleted numbers. The following year, Hannibal inflicted a third disaster upon Roman arms. At Lake Trasimene, the Consul Gaius Flaminius Nepos fell into a carefully prepared ambush and perishing along with most of his army along the fog-shrouded lake shore.

All Rome was stunned by these incredible events: Two armies destroyed, a Consul slain, and an implacable enemy on their doorstep. Rome had suffered defeats before, but not since very early in the First Punic War had Roman arms suffered such humiliation.

1357687After the disaster at Lake Trasimene the Senate turned the conduct of the war over to a temporary dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus; who soon won the nickname of Cunctator (“The Delayer”). He had a different and decidedly “un-Roman” strategy in mind. Roman notions of generalship in the mid-Republic could be described as “Nelsonian”: no Consul could do much wrong who brought his legions to battle against the enemy. But three defeats in two years was quite enough to convince Fabius Maximus that something new was called for against this wily foe, who stratagems were characterized as “Punic treachery”.

During the rest of that year, 217 BC, Fabius kept his army just out of reach of Hannibal’s, hovering on the invader’s rear and flanks, all the while harassing and delaying the Carthaginian’s progress through Italy. These tactics constrained Hannibal’s movements and demonstrated to the Italian allies that Hannibal was not free to march wherever he willed.

But this “Fabian Strategy” of harassment and delay was too un-Roman for the hawks in the Senate. The more bellicose members clamored once more for a decisive confrontation on the battlefield. It was intolerable that an enemy army should defy Rome with impunity on Italian soil.

The following year, the Romans elected as one of the two Consuls Terentius Varro, an outspoken leader of the anti-Fabian faction in the Senate. Varro promised to bring Hannibal to battle and destroy him once-and-for-all. To accomplish this mission, the Senate gave both Consuls of 216, Varro and his colleague Lucius Aemilius Paullus permission to unite their forces into super-army, and crush Hannibal once-and-for-all.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 216 BC Hannibal’s army was in Apulia, where it had seized the large supply depot at Cannae. The historian Polybius notes that the capture of Cannae “caused great commotion in the Roman army; for it was not only the loss of the place and the stores in it that distressed them, but the fact that it commanded the surrounding district“. From here Hannibal could dominate the Apulian plains, harvesting grain to feed his troops and attempt to win-over the Italians of the district from their Roman alliance.

The consuls marched southward into Apulia to confront Hannibal. They found him camped on the left bank of the Aufidus River, near Cannae. After some initial minor skirmishes, the Romans set up camp nearby. Each day, command alternated from one Consul to the next. On the first day of August (the day after the Romans had set up camp) Hannibal deployed his army for battle. But Paullus, said by Polybius to be the more prudent of the two Roman commanders (see below), was loath to give battle on the plain against an enemy who had the advantage in cavalry. Hannibal then used his numerous horse to harass Roman foraging parties, particularly those bearing water from the river to their camp. In the hot Apulian summer this threat to their water supply was keenly felt.

Incensed by the Carthaginian’s effrontery, on the following day the immense Roman army out of camp to face Hannibal on the plain. The Battle of Cannae was about to commence.


On the morning of the 2nd of August this massive double-Consular army, nearly 80,000 strong, deployed on the dusty Apulian plain near the village of Cannae (near modern San Ferdinando). This battlefield was circumscribed by a river on one flank and low hills on the other. It was somewhat too narrow for so large a force to deploy with every legion (16 all together, half of which were Roman, the other half Italian allies) in its normal depth. For this reason, the legions were drawn-up in double the usual depth.



The Roman commander had every expectation of victory. He had noted a positive factor for the Romans at both their previous defeats (if anything positive could come from such disasters). At both Trebbia and Lake Trasimene the legions had been able to cut their way through the heart of the Carthaginian army. Though many had perished because of Hannibal’s devilish tricks, those survivors who’d escaped had done so the hard way: cutting their way through the center of the Carthaginian army. In each battle, though they had lost on the flanks, the Romans had won in the middle. It was obvious to Varro (or whoever planned the battle: see below) that the polyglot mercenaries who comprised Hannibal’s infantry could not stand before the hardy miles (soldiers) of Rome.

1357697The plan, therefore, was a simple one: While the cavalry protected both flanks, the legions, drawn up in depth, would simply advance forward, shields held high and swords held low; and hack their way through the enemies center. The secret to Roman victory was what it had always been: attack!

The Roman deployment that morning was likely observed by the one-eyed Hannibal with mixed trepidation and satisfaction. This was a much larger army than he had ever faced, twice the size of his own. However, he outnumbered the Romans in cavalry by the same proportion, nearly 2-1. His advantage in cavalry was qualitative as well. The Gallic and Spanish heavy horse had bested their Roman counter-parts in all the previous engagements; and in his Numidians he had perhaps the best light cavalry skirmishers in the western world. In any case he was supremely confident in his ability to defeat the unimaginative Romans, for he had taken their measure in the previous battles. This day they appeared (in the words of Wellington) to be coming at him in the same old fashion; and he would beat them in the “same old fashion”, though with a tactical twist all his own.

1357887.jpgHard-charging Celtic horseman from the Po Valley of northern Italy were a key part of Hannibal’s heavy cavalry forces. These same Gallic horsemen later served the Romans well in the centuries to come.

As Hannibal deployed his army he did so fully cognizant of the same facts upon which the Roman’s optimism was based: that in each of their previous engagements, his Celtic and Spanish foot had proved unable to stop the Roman infantry. At both Trebia and Lake Trasimene, they had been able to cut their way out of a well-planned encirclement, his infantry center unable to contain them.

But Hannibal was a Barca, son of the brilliant Hamilcar. One of his favorite sayings was, “we will either find a way, or make one”. This problem of a “soft” center could be turned to his advantage. Like a martial artist, who uses his enemy’s weight against him, Hannibal now planned to pull off a brilliant piece of tactical ju jitsu.

As he drew up his battle line, Hannibal placed his veteran Spanish and Celtic infantry in the center. They would be hard-pressed, but he knew they could give a good accounting of themselves, slowing the Roman advance. Under pressure from the mass of pushing, stabbing legionaries they would surely be driven back and eventually broken. But instead of attempting to stand and hold their ground, their orders that day were to slowly give ground, trading space for time. Time was what he needed, for the Romans to advance deeply into his center; and time for him to win the battle on the flanks, where his cavalry had all the advantages over their Roman counterparts.

He started by deploying his Spaniards and Celts in an arc, bulging forward in the middle towards the Romans. This both gave them more space to trade; and acted as a invitation to the Romans to attack here, in the center. It would appear as though he was massing his center, to thwart the expected Roman breakthrough. This, alone, would be a challenge the Romans could not refuse.


This odd deployment (the like of which was never again seen in any battle) gave the Romans no hint that Hannibal planned encirclement: were these his intentions, the Romans would expect to see his forces formed in a crescent, his center refused and his flanks advanced. His deployment, in-and-of-itself, was a piece of tactical deception.

Hannibal had one additional card to play in the center: behind each flank, concealed by the Spaniards and Celts, were his veteran Punic (or “African”) heavy infantry. These were men of mixed Libyan and Phoenician blood (often referred to as “Liby-Phoenicians” by modern writers). Their armament is a source of some controversy. Some writers have suggested that they carried the long Macedonian sarissa, a two-handed pike 5 to 7 meters in length. But Polybius refers to them as bearing the longche, which scholars agree was a light throwing spear. In some passages he describes them being used in the light infantry role; in other as heavy infantry (in pitched battles). They are indeed a conundrum. One possibility is that they were more akin to the Hellenistic “thorakitai”: hybrid troops, infantry who were armored and capable of fighting in the heavy infantry line when the occasion demanded. However, this is mere speculation and the truth is that we just don’t know.

These African Infantry were divided into two equal bodies, waiting behind each wing of his center. They would secure his infantry flanks, and wait in reserve for his signal: once the Romans became fully engaged with his Spaniards and Celts, they would advance on either flank and add their weight to the struggle.

But it would be up to his cavalry to win this battle.

On his left, the river flank, Hannibal posted his 6,000 “heavy horse”. These were composed of Spanish and Celtic nobles, all good horseman and ferocious fighters. They would be facing a mere 1,500 Roman equites (wealthy horsemen of Rome’s upper classes).

Their mission was crucial: first to charge the equites, and drive them from the field. This accomplished, they were to turn to their right and gallop for all they were worth behind the Roman army; and fall upon the rear of the Roman light horse on the opposite flank.

To keep these Roman light horse (provided by the Roman’s Italian allies) occupied, Hannibal opposed them with his 4,000 Numidian light horsemen. Their mission, like the infantry in the center, was to buy time for the heavy horse to win on the opposite side of the field; and come galloping to their aid. These small, dark men (from modern Algeria) riding swift ponies were among the best light cavalry in the Mediterranean, if not the western world. They rode without saddle, nor bit or bridle, guiding their mounts with just the pressure of their thighs.

1357699.jpgImage of Numidian light cavalry, from Trajan’s Column

They wore no armor, and carried only a light hide-covered shield for protection. Their defense was their nimble handling of their swift ponies. That, and their deadly expertise with the javelins they carried as armament. Each man bore a bundle of these missiles; which they could either hurl with deadly effect, or retain in hand to fight at close quarters.

The Numidians would face the Varro’s 4,800 Italian light horse. Though these would outnumber his Numidians, they could be expected to skirmish with javelins rather than close and drive off the Numidians; thus playing into Hannibal’s plans. The Numidians had merely to keep their enemy occupied, exchanging missiles (and perhaps taunts) with their opponents.

Hannibal’s plan was as complicated as the Roman’s was simple. It was in many ways the same plan he had used to good effect at the Trebbia, but with the change in the center, where he had thrown in a new wrinkle, and with no troops waiting in ambush. His men knew their roles, and he was confident they could pull this off.


When both forces had completed their deployment, the battle began with the skirmishers on each side advancing into the “no man’s land” between the two armies. The Roman legions were screened by their velites, teenage boys in their first years of military service. They faced Hannibal’s Spanish and Moorish javelin-armed “targeteers” (so called because of the small round shields they carried), and by the Spanish slingers from the Balearic Islands. These skirmishers opened the battle by exchanging fire at range; while screening the advance of the heavy troops of the main battle lines from harassment.

1358106.jpgThough less than a thousand in number, the Balearic slingers quickly dominated the skirmish battle. Natives of the Spanish Balearic Islands, they were highly prized in the ancient world for their expertise with the sling. It was said that no child among them was allowed his daily meat till he could kill it with his sling. They used smooth sea stones, slightly smaller than a golf ball. Some cast their ammunition out of lead, which flew faster and further. Whether stone or lead, these missiles delivered a deadly blow at considerable range: modern tests showing them capable of reaching out to 470 meters!

The accounts of the battle (found in Polybius and Livy) make no mention of the effect of the numerous javelin-armed light troops on either side. But, immediately, the long range fire of the Balearics drove-in the Roman velites, forcing them to give ground, backing up into the ranks of the now advancing legions. The sling-shot now zipped into the ranks of the legionaries, causing casualties and goading these to hurry their advance; in order to drive in these Balearic gadflies.

1358112.jpgRoman Equites. Usually capable cavalry, at Cannae they inexplicably dismounted moments before engaging with Hannibal’s Spanish and Celtic heavy horse; condemning them to swift defeat.

On the right of the Roman line, the goddess Fortuna smiled upon Hannibal. In one of those strange quirks of fate upon which the outcome of battle sometimes rests, a Balearic slinger’s missile struck the Consul Paullus, mounted at the head of the Roman equites. Paullus either fell from his horse, or dismounted in pain. Polybius tells that the staff officers around him also then dismounted to assist their fallen general. Perhaps seeing their commander and his staff dismounting, junior officers then ordered all of their men to follow suit; so at that moment all of the equites on the Roman right flank inexplicably dismounted as well.

Hannibal, watching from across the battlefield, was astonished: mere moments before the oncoming cavalry clash, the Roman heavy cavalry were dismounting. A cavalry charge relies entirely upon momentum and weight, of horse and man. To receive a charge by dismounting was tantamount to suicide. “They might as well have delivered themselves up in chains”, he reportedly said.

Meanwhile in the center, goaded by the Balearic sling fire, the legions rapidly advanced towards the bulging Carthaginian center. Hannibal’s skirmishers skipped back through the ranks of his waiting heavy troops; their job, well done, now complete.


Both sides raised their war cries, and with a braying of horns and the bellowed commands of burly centurions, the legions charged forward. The Spanish and Celtic warriors raised their shields, and braced themselves for what was coming.

Into their ranks flew first one, then two flights of heavy-weighted pila, the anti-personnel harpoon carried by the Roman hastati (front-rank legionaries). Many front-rankers among the interspersed Spanish and Celtic companies must have been felled by these deadly missiles. Many more had their shields pieced, and if they couldn’t shake the pila off their shields were forced to throw them away and fight at great disadvantage with only with their swords.



They had no time for else, for mere seconds later, the mass of Roman foot smashed into front of the bulging Carthaginian center. Immediately, the Spanish and Celtic warriors were forced back, step by bloody step. Though they planned to do so, there can be little doubt that pulling back while maintaining their order in the face of such pressure must have taken enormous effort, and a discipline unusual to any but the most experienced troops. It is a testament to Hannibal’s ability to motivate his troops that they held together and weren’t swept back in general rout. (It is perhaps to prevent this very thing that Hannibal placed himself behind his center, directing the effort and bolstering his veteran’s morale.)

Simultaneous to this clash in the center, along the river bank on Hannibal’s left, the Carthaginian heavy horse charged into the dismounted equites. As Hannibal predicted, these had no chance, dismounted as they were. Though fighting desperately, trying to pull their enemies from their horses, the Romans were at a terrible disadvantage and were quickly routed from the field.

The departure of the Roman heavy horse uncovered a gap between themselves and the rear of the advancing legions. Maharbal, commanding the Carthaginian cavalry, saw his opportunity. Like Cromwell at Naseby, leaving the frontline squadrons to “keep the skeer up”, driving the broken Equites from the field and preventing them from rallying; he led the uncommitted rear squadrons through the gap between cavalry and legions. Across the rear of the battle they galloped, to the opposite flank of the Roman army. Here, the Roman Ally light cavalry were locked in a cavalry skirmish with Hannibal’s Numidians. Without pause, Maharbal’ squadrons charged into their rear.

Any battlefield, particularly in late summer, is a dusty place. Undoubtedly, in the midst of thousands of careening horses and tens of thousands of trampling foot-soldiers, the battlefield of Cannae became obscured by a vast dust cloud. Thus, the progress of Maharbal’s horseman across the rear of the Roman army might well have gone unobserved by the Romans. His unexpected arrival in their rear struck the Allied cavalry like a thunderbolt from out of the blue. Shattered by this assault, the Roman light horse instantly broke and scattered in panicked flight.

1358121.jpgLeaving the Numidians to keep up a steady pursuit and to prevent them rallying; Maharbal gathered his breathless squadrons together for the final phase of the battle.


Meanwhile, in the center, the battle was unfolding exactly as Hannibal had foreseen.

The legions had pushed back his convex center; first flattening it out into a line, then ever backward till it became a pocket, into which the legions were crowding. The Spaniards and Celts fought fiercely, desperate to hold on. But the line now threatened to buckle and break under the enormous pressure from over 50,000 pushing, heaving, and slashing legionaries.

1358122.jpgFrom Darkness Over Cannae (; wonderful artwork by Jenny Dolfen

Wounded, the Consul Paullus had left the defeated and retreating right-wing horse. Knowing now that all hope of victory lay with the legions breaking the Carthaginian center, he rode back to join his infantry in the center. Dismounting, he threw himself into the fight, encouraging the men to press onward.

For Hannibal, the decisive moment had come. It was time to deliver the coup-de-grace. Seeing that the Romans in the center had pushed the line back beyond where the Punic heavy infantry columns waited to either flank he now ordered these to advance, turn inward, and form from column to phalanx! Pikes (or spears) leveled, these now pressed into the flanks of the Roman infantry.

At the same time, Maharbal, the Celtic and Spanish heavy squadrons in hand, charged into the rear of the heavily engaged legions.

1616204.jpgAttacked now from every side, the Romans had to fight in all directions. The pressure upon them relieved, the Spanish and Celtic warriors in the center pushed forward with fearsome war cries.

The chroniclers all agree that the press was now so great upon the trapped Roman infantry, that the legions lost all order and cohesion. The normal three feet of space each man maintained from his neighbors, to allow room to wield his weapons, collapsed as men found themselves pressed from all sides. Only those on the outer edge of the mass could fight; those in the interior of the mass were pressed so hard together that no man could raise his arms, even to lift their shields or swing their swords.

In the midst of choking dust and the din of savage war cries, the Roman army became a mob of terrified victims. Some, according to accounts, killed themselves where they stood, seeing that all hope was lost. Like pairing away the layers of an onion, the surrounding Carthaginians cut rank after rank of Romans down. The sheer enormity of the carnage argues that the bulk must have broke-and-run, and been cut down in the attempt.

1358127.jpgFor, as the day closed, the largest army Rome had hitherto fielded had utterly perished. Accounts vary, but somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 died on that field. Another 10,000 became prisoners. Hannibal released the non-Roman Italians among them. He did this for propaganda purposes, claiming he had come to fight Rome, not its Italian allies.

The Consul Paullus died in the fighting, as did 80 other officers of Senatorial rank. Hannibal collected over 200 rings of members of the Senatorial class and sent them to Carthage as proof of the enormity of his victory. Varro, who commanded the Allied horse that day, escaped with them off the field.



Cannae was not the bloodiest defeat Rome would ever sustain (that was at Arausio, in 105 BC, against the Cimbri and Teutones). But it was the worst the Republic had experienced to date in their history. In true stoic fashion, the Senate greeted the news of Cannae by issuing a proclamation forbidding public mourning. The following year new Roman armies, as well equipped as that which had perished, took the field and “soldiered on”, as though the loss had never occurred. That, ultimately, was the reason Rome triumphed in the end: her ability to sustain catastrophic losses without qualm or loss of resolve.

Tactically, Hannibal had pulled-off what would become the chimera for all future commanders: a double envelopment of a superior enemy force, and a subsequent battle of annihilation. The German General Staff, in the days of the Kaiser, studied Cannae obsessively. They considered this the epitome of tactical achievement, the blueprint for how a smaller army could defeat a larger. At Tannenburg, in East Prussia in 1914, they would put this study into practice, annihilating the advancing Russian Second Army.

Cannae was Hannibal’s masterpiece, and his last great battle in Italy. After this he was able to convince some of the southern Italian cities to open their gates to him, most notably Capua and Tarentum. But overall his campaign to win over the Italian allies of Rome failed. Though he continued to campaign there for another thirteen years, the Romans avoided battle with him, hemming him into southern Italy with several armies utilizing the tactics demonstrated first by Fabius Maximus.

Hannibal enters Capua in triumph after Cannae, riding his last remaining elephant 

Meanwhile, Hannibal’s keenest student was Publius Cornelius Scipio, son of the Consul defeated at the Ticinus. Scipio had been present as a junior officer at Ticinus and at Cannae (at the latter he had led some 10,000 survivors from the field). In command of his own army in Spain, he developed his own lethal version of the double-envelopment to destroy Carthaginian armies in Spain at first Baecula and then Ilipa.

While Hannibal was occupied in what had become a fruitless campaign in Italy, Scipio invaded Africa with a Roman army. Most of his legions were comprised of survivors of Cannae, men he had led off of that stricken field, seeking redemption. After Scipio destroyed the Carthaginian’s army of Africa at The Battle of the Great Plains, Hannibal was recalled to Africa by the Carthaginian senate. On the plains of Zama, the student would go on to defeat the master himself; earning for himself the cognomen, “Africanus”.

Scipio Africanus, Hannibal’s greatest student.


There is a problem with the accounts of Cannae, concerning which Consul was in command that day and therefore largely to blame for the disaster.

Most of what we know about Cannae (and the Second Punic War in general) comes from Polybius. Even Livy, writing in the reign of Augustus, and Plutarch a few generations later relied upon Polybius as a primary source for their accounts of the “Hannibalic War”. Polybius, in turn, drew largely from the Scipio family library, being an intimate of that distinguished family. He was a friend and employed in the house of Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, the conqueror of Macedonia and son of the Consul Paullus who fought at Cannae. Macedonicus entrusted Polybius with the education of his sons, Fabius and Scipio Aemilianus, who was an adopted member of the Scipio family.

This is germane because in writing his account of the battle, which most if not all later historians draw upon, Polybius seems to have white-washed the role of Paullus (his Roman benefactor’s father) and placed all the blame upon Varro. Our suspicion that all is not correct in the traditional narrative is based on three facts.

First, that Paullus took station on the right wing, and Varro on the left. The traditional place for an army commander in a Republican army of this period was on the right, the place of honor, commanding the Roman cavalry. Or, alternately and less commonly, from behind the center. But never on the left wing. The left-wing Allied cavalry would be commanded by the second-in-command, the “Master of Horse”. Though he claims that Varro was in command, Polybius and all later historians have him taking station with the Allied cavalry on the left, and his second-in-command, Paullus, taking the more authoritative station on the right.

Where a general stood in ancient armies was not merely symbolic. There was a good reason to be on the right-wing as opposed to the left. Most men are right-handed, and therefore their shields are on the left arms. War shields tend to be large, particularly the Roman scutum of the mid-Republic. Therefore, visibility to the left was limited by the shields of the soldiers and their mates to their left. However, visibility was far better to a soldier’s right. He could see his officers in that direction much more clearly than to his left. Also, because the right was the “shieldless side” it was more hazardous, and therefore where a general took station, exposing himself symbolically to the greatest risks.

For Varro to be in command and yet taking station with the non-Roman Allies seems passing strange.

The second clue that all was not as Polybius would have us believe is found in the way Varro was received by the Senate after the defeat. While the surviving soldiers were disgraced and exiled to Sicily (where Scipio Africanus later recuited them for his invasion of Africa), Varro was welcomed back to Rome. There the Senate voted him thanks for “not despairing of the Republic.” Varro went on to a long and distinguished career in military and diplomatic posts.

Does this sound like the treatment meted out to a commander who had suffered the worst defeat in the history of the Republic (at that time)?

Finally, at Zama many years later Hannibal commented that he had faced not Varro, but Paullus, at Cannae. This is a strange thing to say, if in fact Paullus was only the second-in-command on that day.

All this suggests that Polybius, drawing on the Scipio family libraries, was fed the family “myth” that it was not his benefactor’s father that was to blame, but his “hot-headed” co-Consul, Varro. While we can never know at this point, there is reasonable grounds to suspect a whitewash.


  1. Polybius, The Histories;  Book III: 107
  2. Ayrault Dodge, Theodore, Hannibal: A History of the Art of War Among the Carthaginians and Romans Down to the Battle of Pydna, 168 BC.  (1995)
  3. See Breaching the Alps: Hannibal’s Icy OrdealDeadliest Blogger, May 30, 2017

(Thanks to Jenny Dolfen for granting permission to use her images. Visit her site for more:

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.

Thanks to the estimable Peter Connolly for the use of his amazing images.



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This is the third part of Deadliest Blogger’s look at the religious and military phenomenon known as the Crusades. At best, considering the sheer volume of material and scope of history involved, this can only be a cursory examination of the Crusades, but with the politically correct blinders often found in modern scholarship removed. In these initial installments we will look at the First Crusade, and the establishment of the Christian Crusader States in Syria and Palestine.

(To read Part One, go here; for Part Two go here)

After seven-and-a-half months Antioch was at last captured. However, within days the Crusaders found themselves besieged in turn by the late-arriving Muslim relief army under Kerbogha, Atabeg of Mosul. Shams ad-Daula, the cool-headed son of the late governor of the city, who still held the citadel atop Mt. Silpius, rode out to meet Kerbogha while the latter was encamped at the Iron Bridge. He offered to swear homage for Antioch if the Atabeg would avenge his father and destroy the Franks.

“If you can kill all the Franks and give me their heads, I will give you the town, and I will do homage to you and guard the town in your fealty.” [1]

The Crusaders in the city were ill-prepared to sustain a siege. Supplies were exhausted, and what little food had remained in the city had been consumed by the Franks in an orgy of celebration the day after its capture. On his first day outside Antioch, Kerbogha reinforced the citadel from the south side, and an attack was made on the walls by his forces as the now strengthened garrison of the citadel attacked down into the city from above. Fighting behind barricades in the upper streets, the Franks drove the garrison back, and held the walls against Kerbogha as well. Convinced the Christians could not long hold out with no food supplies in store, the Turks camped outside the walls, content to starve the Crusaders into surrender.

Those profane enemies of God held us so enclosed… that many died of hunger because a loaf of bread sold for a besant (a Byzantine gold coin)…. Horse and donkey flesh was sold and eaten. They cooked and ate the leaves of fig trees, grapevine and thistle… Others cooked the dry hides of horses, camels, asses,  or cattle… Such a tribulation, famine, and fears we endured for 26 days.” [2]

Besieged from without, the Franks were also beset by internal strife. Matters between Count Raymond of Toulouse commanding the south French and Bohemond of Taranto and his Normans had soured to a point where the two contingents had to be kept separated or violence would break out. Bohemond’s men held a section of the wall nearest the Turkish-occupied citadel, and the upper streets and buildings along the base of the mountain. Raymond controlled the now-dead governor’s palace, and a stretch of wall of their own. Only the intercession of Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, respected by both sides, kept the two leaders from coming to blows.

But it is always darkest before the dawn, and at this seemingly hopeless moment for the fortunes of the Crusade a simple pilgrim stepped forward to infuse the Frankish rank-and-file with renewed religious fervor. His name was Peter Bartholomew, a Provençal in Count Raymond’s contingent. Known as a man of bad character, it came as a surprise when he told one-and-all that he had been visited in his dreams by St. Andrew, who told him that the very spear that had pierced the side of their Lord Jesus Christ as he hung upon the cross lay buried beneath the Church of St. Peter there in Antioch.

Following his guidance, Count Raymond led a party of twelve men (which included  Raymond of Aguilers, chaplain to the count and subsequent chronicler of the events, as well as the Bishop of Orange and young Peter Bartholomew) to search for this holy relic. Digging up the floor of the church, they worked “from morning till evening.” Raymond left to attend to guarding the citadel, and the work went on.

“The youth who had the vision of the lance disrobed and, taking off his shoes, descended into the (newly dug) pit in his shirt… At length, the Lord was minded to show us His Lance; and I who have written this kissed it when the point alone appeared above the ground. What great joy and exultation then filled the city can’t be described.”[3]

They had found a spear-head just as Peter claimed they would. But the veracity of this relic was much doubted by the leadership, particularly by Bohemond and his Italo-Normans, as nothing more than a stunt by Count Raymond to somehow gain command of the Crusade. Even the papal legate Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy, who was one of Raymond’s vassals, disbelieved Peter’s claims; as the man was known less for his piety than his unsavory reputation. Many believed that Peter had simply secreted a rusted spear head into the dig and conveniently “found it” when the right time had come.

But the common pilgrims that made up the rank-and-file believed the relic to be a true one, and were fired with a religious zeal not seen since the first days of the Crusade. When Peter claimed to have been visited by a second vision from St. Andrew, ordering the Crusaders to fast for five days and then to attack the Turks, this was taken up enthusiastically.

Never one to let an opportunity go by, and understanding the value of high morale in combat, Bohemond put aside his distrust of Raymond and of Peter’s claims and drew-up a plan of attack that was accepted by the other leaders. Fasting was easy to do, in any case, as there was no food to be had in the city; so why not make a virtue of necessity? For the same reason attacking the Turks on the plain outside the town was preferable to waiting for hunger to do Kerbogha’s work for him.

On the morning of June 28, 1098, the Crusaders formed up in column and marched out of the city by the Bridge Gate. Only Raymond (who was too ill to fight) and those others in the same condition stayed to hold the city in case the Turkish garrison within the citadel sallied out. Kerbogha’s army of some 35,000 men was assembled on the narrow plain between the river and the hills; with their camp some 2 miles to the northeast. Raymond of Aguilars says that Kerbogha was caught by surprised by the Frank’s sudden sally, in fact playing chess in his tent. But this seems hardly credible. The army took hours to form in the streets before marching out, observed all the while by the Turkish garrison in the citadel above. A messenger would have been dispatched to Kerbogha in the hours before the Franks emerged. In any case, the plans to first fast and then to attack had been announced in the town five days earlier; and it is likely the Turks had spies in the city who learned of this open secret well before the day of battle.

Seljuk warriors

The Crusaders marched out in the six divisions in which they planned to fight. One-by-one they crossed the bridge and formed a battle line facing the Turks; each succeeding division placing itself to the left of the one preceding it.

The first, leading the column as it emerged from the city, was the north French under Count Hugh of Vermandois, whose position as brother to the King of France earned him pride-of-place and the honor of commanding the van.  They led the column north across the bridge, and then facing right (towards the Turks), formed line with the river anchoring their right flank. They were followed by the Flemings under their own Count Robert of Flanders. Marching past Count Hugh’s division, they then formed-up on the left of his force. Together these formed the right-wing of the army.

The next divisions (or battles, in Medieval parlance) were that of Duke Godfrey, leading the men of Lorraine; and the Normans of Normandy, led by Duke Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror. Together they comprised the solid center of the Frankish battle line. The fifth division was that of the south French, led by Bishop Adhemar in Raymond’s absence.  Before them, held aloft, was the so-called Holy Lance; carried by Raymond of Aguilars. Together with a small force of Bretons, this was the left-wing of the line, closest to the hills.

The final division, that was meant to form the reserve, consisted of the Italio-Normans and a small force of Gascons. This was commanded by Bohemond, assisted by his nephew Tancred. In Medieval armies the last unit in a column was referred to as the “rearguard.” This can be deceptive, as Medieval armies didn’t always keep a real reserve. The “rearguard” sometimes formed up in line with the “van” and the “main,” taking station on the left. So it is not entirely clear if Bohemond’s division was meant to stand to the left of Bishop Ademar’s battle, or to act as a true reserve, remaining behind the main line. However, events were to unfold in such a way as to render the question moot in any case.

As one-by-one the Frankish “battles” crossed the bridge, the Turkish emirs around Kerbogha begged to be allowed to attack the head of the column and destroy the firangi piecemeal. But Kerbogha bid his captains to patience: “Let them come out, that we may the better have them in our power!” [4] Confident of being able to crush the Franks in open battle, he was no doubt pleased they were coming out to fight, and saving him the time of a siege.

11th century Frankish tactics normally relied upon the charge of heavy cavalry (knights and their close retainers) to break their foes. It was said that a Frankish knight could charge through the walls of Babylon! [5] But the Crusade had been mercilessly harsh on horses, with most of the great war horses brought from Europe having perished. On that day the Franks were fighting mostly on foot. Only a few hundred remained mounted, and these rode horses whose strength was wasted by hunger.


The furious charge of western knights, well-portrayed here in the film “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005) was the prime tactic of Frankish armies of the 11th century. However, loss of horses in the first two years of the Crusade forced many knights to fight on foot

However, this worked to their advantage. The favorite tactic of the Turkish light horse archer was to tempt the knights to charge, then, feigning flight, lure them away from their supporting infantry. Once so drawn out, the knight’s would find themselves isolated, surrounded by Turks,  on blown horses. The light Turkish arrows could not pierce western mail. But it could kill or disable the knight’s mount, leaving him on foot as the Turks then closed in for the kill. But now the dismounted knights could not be lured from their infantry. As at Dorylaeum, those knights without mounts took their place in the front ranks of the line, their armor and valor bolstering the staying-power and over-all fighting quality of the common foot. Before Antioch, each of the divisions placed its infantry in front, with the dismounted knights in the first rank. Those knights and commanders who were fortunate enough to still have a horse to sit formed the reserve of each division; supporting and increasing the morale of the infantry. Overall, this led to a better balanced, combined arms force that was less susceptible to the common Turkish tactics.

The large shields and strong armor of the Frankish knights made them formidable infantry when forced by circumstances to fight on foot.

As Bohemond’s final “battle” marched behind the south French, towards their position on the extreme left (now occupied by the Bretons), Kerbogha began the battle with a spoiler attack. A flying column swept around the northern extreme of the Frankish line, between the Bretons and the foothills, in an attempt to get behind and attack the rear of the Crusader army. This was standard Turkish tactics. However, as luck would have it, they instead smashed into Bohemond and Tancred’s division. A fierce fight quickly developed.

Seljuk Ghulam

As this fight was at close quarters, and the Turks gave a good accounting of themselves, it seems plausible that among this force was several Turkish amirs and their household Ghulams: elite slave-soldiers who served as armored bodyguards for the Muslim nobility. Some of this force broke away and rode west, where it was joined by the Turkish forces that had been blockading the western approaches to the city for the last few days.

As the main Christian line began its advance, it too was attacked all along its front by Kerbogha’s main forces. Turkish arrows had little effect, however, on the large shields and strong mail of the front-rank knights that comprised the Crusader line. As they continued to push forward, the Turks fell-back steadily.

It has been suggested that is was Kerbogha’s plan all along to withdraw before the Crusader’s advance (easily done, as many of his troops were mounted horse archers and the Franks advancing at the pace of their heavy infantry). That he had hidden troops in ambush: the forces of the emir of Hims and of Sökmen Ibn Artuk, governor of Jerusalem, were placed in hiding to attack the Crusaders in flank once they had passed their position. Feigned flight followed by an ambush was, as pointed out above, also a common Turkish tactic. However, like the flanking maneuver that began the battle, this too went awry as the “feigned” flight turned to real rout, with large portions of Kerbogha’s Turkish cavalry fleeing the field.

The sudden and inexplicable flight of so many of Kerbogha cavalry is best explained by treachery: Kerbogha had grown too proud and too ambitious (the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum having him not only swearing to defeat the Franks at Antioch, but to also conquer “all Syria, Romania, and Bulgaria, even to Apulia”). Rival Arab and Turkish emirs now deserted him, galloping off the field.

The Turkish infantry auxiliaries, posted further back, attempted to defend the approaches to the Turkish camp; but these quickly broke as well. Only the garrison from Jerusalem fought on and died most valiantly on the stricken field. To cover their retreat, some set fire to the dry grass that covered the plain. This apparently didn’t stop the Crusader’s advance, however. They pursued, killing any who stood; capturing the Turkish camp (and its wealth) and continuing on till reaching the Iron Bridge, site of Bohemond’s earlier triumph.

Battle of Antioch by Matthew Ryan

The only place the Turks gave the Crusaders real trouble was in their rear; where not only did Bohemond have a tough fight before breaking the flanking column; but the force from the west harassed the Franks till Godfrey of Bouillon dispatched the Count of Toul from the center with all the cavalry the Duke had in reserve behind his division. Combined with Tancred’s mounted Normans, they drove these from the field with no few casualties from Turkish archery.

The battle was a complete and unexpected victory for the tired, hungry Franks; and (for them) a vindication of their faith. This was seen as nothing short of a miracle. How else could tired men and starving horses have defeated a fresh and well-fed enemy, who outnumbered them at least two-to-one if not more? Many reported seeing Christian warrior saints coming to their aid from out of the northern mountains, dressed in white. (This may have been an episode of mass hysteria; or a story spread in the aftermath of the victory to explain the inexplicable; or just the sight of white-robed Arab auxiliaries who had been placed in the foothills to ambush the advancing Crusader line, but who instead fled the field as the battle collapsed. Or, alternatively, it may have been a genuine case of divine intervention!)

Bohemond of Taranto was given credit for commanding the Crusader army to victory, and was given Kerbogha’s pavilion as his share of the spoils. That same day, seeing their relief army routed,  the garrison of the citadel surrendered; insisting that they would only lay down their swords to and hoist the banner over the castle of Count Bohemond. From this point forward, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be given Antioch, as he desired.

Bohemond gave the Turkish garrison the choice of going free, or of taking Christian baptism and joining his service at Antioch. The majority took the latter choice: clearly, God was smiling upon the Franks and Bohemond was a very great leader to follow.

As for Kerbogha, he returned to Mosul, a broken man.


With the defeat of Kerbogha, Antioch was now firmly held as a base for the Crusaders to continue their advance on Jerusalem. All had sworn an oath to liberate the Holy City, and to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and most were eager to move onward. But the army was exhausted and needed a rest; and the disposition of the captured city yet to be decided.

All the leaders agreed that the city had only fallen because of Bohemond’s machinations, and that it was by his battle plan they had triumphed at the Battle of Antioch. But Raymond continued obstinately to refuse to leave the city till they agreed to hand it over to the absent Emperor Alexios. The city that summer was a stinking pest hole, filled with dead bodies and undisposed garbage. Typhus broke out, and among those who succumbed was the papal legate, Bishop Adhemar; a sore loss for the Crusade. To avoid the pestilence, many Crusaders left to forage and capture the surrounding territory; most of which submitted without a fight.

In December the town of Maarat was captured by a force of very hungry Crusaders. By this time northern Syria had endured the passing of armies and their foraging parties for over a year; and the land was nearly picked clean of food. It was reported by two contemporary chroniclers that the Crusaders resorted to cannibalism.

“I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth.”[6]

Finally, after six months, the rank-and-file (including many poorer knights) took matters in their own hands and declared they were marching on with-or-without the great lords. This forced everyone’s hand. As Bohemond had made it clear he was remaining there to hold Antioch, Raymond was forced to concede, without grace, departed the city on January 13, 1099. Bohemond remained to rule in Antioch; where, eventually, he established himself as Prince.

Detailed map of the First Crusade. Go here to see in detail

Raymond began the march barefoot and dressed as a pilgrim, with Tancred and Robert of Normandy agreeing to join him with their followers in return for wages to pay for provisions. As they advanced south, they encountered little resistance. However, Raymond had designs on the area around Tripoli in Lebanon, and wished to capture first Arqa (formerly Caesarea) and Tripoli itself, before moving on. Arqa was laid under siege.

Meanwhile, the following month (February) the rest of the pilgrims led by Godfrey, Robert of Flanders, and the Gascon leader Gaston viscount of Béarn mustered at Latakia, and began their own march south. They joined Raymond at Arqa in March, but the siege dragged on till May 13, when the Crusaders gave up and moved on. In truth, there was little stomach for cooperation between the leaders, especially as capturing Arqa (and Tripoli) would only benefit one leader directly, Raymond. The only thing holding the Crusade together at this point was their shared oath to capture Jerusalem.

That holy city had recently undergone a change of rule. After the Turkish garrison had gone north to fight (and be destroyed) at Antioch the Turks main Muslim rivals, the Fatimids of Egypt, had seized the city. Not wishing to fight the Crusaders, the city’s Fatimid governor, Iftikhar al-Dawla, offered peace on the condition that the Franks halt their march south. His offer was ignored.

As they passed Tripoli, the local ruler gave the Crusader leaders a gift of 15,000 bezants and 15 prize horses to placate them; as well as opening his markets for them to buy provisions (including more horses). He also released some 300 Christian prisoners he held in his dungeons, and vowed to convert to Christianity if the Crusaders captured Jerusalem from the Fatimids.[7]

Continuing south along the coast, the Crusaders turned inland at Jaffa on June 3rd, reaching Ramlah, which they found abandoned. On June 6th Tancred and Gaston captured Bethlehem, with Tancred flying his banner from the Church of the Nativity.

On June 7 they reached the object of their three-year ordeal: the Holy City of Jerusalem!





  1. The Gesta Francorum, Ch. 13
  2. ibid
  3. Raymond of Aguilers, Historia Francorum; Ch. 8
  4. Gesta Francorum, Ch. 15
  5.  Anna Comnena
  6. Fulcher of Chartres
  7. Gesta Francorum, Ch. 16


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

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In the 16th century a little-known naval genius helped fend-off a Japanese conquest by use of a unique and effective weapon of war: the Turtle Ship!

In the last decade of the 16th century, the ambitious and capable warlord of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi conceived a plan to invade Ming China, a doddering empire, and to place the Japanese Mikado upon the Celestial Throne in Beijing. As a springboard to this, Hideyoshi planned to first conquer Korea; which stood between the two powers and acted as a stepping-stone.

The Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98) were extremely well prepared, enormous undertakings. In two waves, 300,000 fierce, battle-hardened Samurai warriors and supporting foot soldiers (Ashigaru) crossed the intervening Tsushima Strait and fought their way up the Korean peninsula. Initially the Japanese made great progress, defeating the Korean defenders at every encounter.

1442937.jpgThe Japanese had three advantages in this war. First, their Samurai were among history’s greatest warriors. Superbly trained and disciplined, they were possessed of an indomitable fighting spirit that knew no surrender. They wielded matchless swords and other bladed weapons, of a quality and cutting-power never equaled. Both on foot and as cavalry, man-for-man the Samurai had no equal. The second advantage Hideyoshi’s forces enjoyed was the widespread use (and expertise with) the matchlock arquebus. These had come into use in Japan through contact with the Portuguese; and during the last decades of the Sengoku Period had become a decisive weapon on the battlefield. The final advantage the Japanese armies enjoyed was the vast experience in war gained by a century of civil war: the Japanese troops were all veterans of numerous campaigns and battles; whose tactics were battle tested.

To counter this, the Korean defenders had a decisive weapon of their own: the Turtle Ship!

Developed and deployed by Korea’s brilliant admiral, Yi Sun-sin, the Turtle Ship (known among the Koreans as Geobukseon) was a coastal defense galley; but one possessed of some unique features. First, it was a ship whose sides and deck were covered-over; to protect the crew from missile bombardment. The roof, shaped vaguely like the shell of a turtle, was also covered with spikes to counter the Japanese’s favorite naval tactic: to board and clear enemy ships with their ferocious Samurai. It is also possible (though disputed) that the Turtle Ships were plated with iron, hexagonal plates; at least on the roof. The earliest (contemporary) accounts, including Admiral Yi’s own documents, don’t mention iron plating. However, if they indeed did possess metal armor it would make them history’s first “iron clad” warship.

These were not perfect warships, however. For one thing, they were unsuited for open water navigation; being essentially an armored barge. Their top speed was limited by their “boxy” design, which made them handle badly in strong winds. These were ships designed for a specific purpose: to navigate inter-coastal waterways and interdict enemy shipping.

1442898.jpg(Artwork from “Fighting Ships of the Far East (2)” by Stephen Turnbull © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)

The Turtle Ship’s prime armament was some 26 cannons, of various (usually small) calibers. This gave them a stand-off capability more lethal than the archery or arquebus fire of the marines who manned the Japanese ships they opposed (which were not armed with cannon; a weapon the Japanese failed to adopt). Powered by oars, they were not subject to the vagaries of the wind (though when not in battle their propulsion was enhanced by two sails). This, combined with their design, allowed them to turn on their own radius; making them much more maneuverable than the great lumbering Junks of the Japanese.

Along with cannon, the Turtle Ships were also armed with a smoke emitting device, that produced noxious sulfurous smoke from its dragon-headed prow. This may have served to irritate the eyes of the Japanese archers and arquebusiers.

1606486.jpg(Artwork from “Fighting Ships of the Far East (2)” by Stephen Turnbull © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)

Turtle ships were first used in the Battle of Sacheon (1592) and proved decisive in nearly every battle. At nearly every encounter, they were able to sink their enemies with cannon fire at close range. Their seaborne supply line cut by Yi’s squadrons, the entire Japanese invasion was nearly brought to a halt by the Turtle Ships.

However, after Yi was relieved of command, the Korean fleet was put in the hands of a court favorite and all of the Turtle ships were lost in the disastrous Battle of Chilchonryang. They may have reappeared in small numbers at the Battle of Noryang in 1598, where Admiral Yi was killed.

1442920.jpg Death of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin(Artwork from The “Samurai Invasion of Korea 1592–98” by Stephen Turnbull © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)

Though they didn’t stop the Japanese invasions by themselves (these only ended with the death of Hideyoshi that same year), the Turtle Ships gave the Koreans naval dominance and the ability to hamstring an otherwise unstoppable invasion. They occupy a unique and fascinating niche in naval history.

1442921.jpg Below deck


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ottoman troops,  first-half of 14th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Artist’s images of Timurid warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Timur visiting Bayezid in captivity

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

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

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

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


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

This is the next installment in a series of posts in which we examine the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusually, we do this in video format; posting compelling biographical material; as well as images and a brief narrative.

Few great generals are better known than Julius Caesar. As the only Great Captain of antiquity to write his own campaign memoirs, both the general public of his day and history students today know of his exploits in more (albeit somewhat subjective) details than is the case with any of his fellow great commanders. This is deliberate: Caesar was not only a great general, he was also a very gifted politician and statesman.

1589795.jpgBorn in 100 BC, he was the nephew by marriage of another commander of great ability, Gaius Marius. His family was a poor branch of the Julii, a venerable patrician family claiming descent from Iulus, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas, the man who supposedly brought the survivors of Troy to Latium. Aeneas was, in legend, the son of the goddess Venus and Caesar certainly behaved as though he was descended from the goddess of love, always cutting a swath through the ladies of Rome (and elsewhere).

Caesar spent the first half of his life struggling to find financial security and to carve out a place for himself in the rough-and-tumble politics of his day. As the heir to Marius’ place as political champion of the plebeians and military veterans, Caesar built a strong connection with the “people”; who remained loyal to him till the end of his life. He used this political strength with the voters to win election to one political office after another; climbing the ladder known in Roman society as the cursus honorum. But because by Roman law he could not get an opportunity to show his metal as a general until reaching the appropriate age and standing for those offices which granted the recipient military command. It was not till he was 39 that he received his first independent command. This was as propraetor of Hispania Ulterior. This gave him the opportunity to campaign against the Lusitanians; in which he began to exhibit his gift for command.

He forged a strong alliance with two of the leading men in the Rome of his day: Pompey the Great, Rome’s most respected military leader; and Marcus Licinius Crassus, its leading financier and business leader. Between them, this Triumvirate controlled Roman politics and were able to effectively advance each other’s interests. Caesar was able to win election as Consul in 59 BC, and from there to be appointed governor of the Roman territories abutting Gaul.

Gaul was a semi-barbarous land of Celtic tribes (and some German enclaves in the east), comprised of the modern nations of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Caesar spent the next eight years in continuous campaigns, subduing the territory and creating a loyal and experienced army of 10 legions, a very substantial force. He also spent some of his time composing a narrative of these Gallic Wars, in the form of his “Commentaries”. These became a powerful propaganda tool, sent back in real-time, chapter-by-chapter as the events occurred, to enthrall and delight the Roman people; casting himself in the popular imagination as the hero of the day. Though self-serving, there is no reason to doubt that these very-well written “Commentaries” were accurate; many of the officers who served under him in Gaul later opposed him politically. None (that we know of) ever cast doubt as to the veracity of the narrative, despite having compelling political reasons to do so. What cannot be disputed is that Caesar’s Gallic Wars added a huge chunk of territory to the empire, and proved his ability to command armies in the field and his mastery of strategy.

1589796.jpgIn 54 BC Crassus, in an effort to win as much military glory as his co-Triumvir, Caesar, was killed while campaigning against the Parthians at Carrhae. The Triumvirate was thus reduced to two. After the death of his wife, who was also Caesar’s daughter, Pompey was wooed-away from Caesar by his enemies in the Senate. Civil war followed in 49 BC.

This war between Caesar and the Pompeian forces lasted for four years. During this time, Caesar campaigned from Italy to Spain; from Greece to Egypt; from Anatolia to North Africa. In the process he defeated not only his Roman rivals; but intervened in a Civil war in Ptolemaic Egypt, establishing Cleopatra on the throne and defeating the forces supporting her brother, the boy-king Ptolemy XIII. Leaving the young Cleopatra to bear their son, Caesarion, he next marched against and defeated the Pontians in Anatolia (a brief campaign succinctly summed-up with the words, “Veni, vidi, vici“: “I came, I saw, I conquered”) before returning to Rome in triumph.

Caesar was only in Rome briefly, settling affairs in Rome and quelling a mutiny among some of his legions. Then he departed again to campaign in North Africa against the remaining Pompeian forces; culminating in his triumph at the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BC. He would defeat the last Pompeian army in Spain at Munda a year later. This brought Caesar’s military exploits to an end; and he continued to rule Rome as Dictator till his assassination in 44 BC. In the process, he laid the groundwork for the Principate established by his nephew, Octavius Caesar Augustus in the years that followed.

1589797.jpgCaesar was a man of genius: brilliant general as well as politician, lawgiver, builder, and administrator. His charisma inspired devotion in his army seldom matched in history, a deep loyalty that lasted beyond his life, and was passed to his heir, Octavian; and it is fair to say that the magic of the name “Caesar” attached itself permanently to the office of the princeps  and imperator (to the point that “Caesar” became a title equivalent with that of emperor, the origin of the titles “Czar” and “Kaiser”).

While not as tactically imaginative on the battlefield as either Alexander or Hannibal (he was often content to rely upon the superb fighting qualities of his soldiers, who were always far superior to any foe they faced) he stands with these as among the greatest commanders in all military history. He was without doubt the most audacious commander of the ancient world. Though several times caught off guard by his enemies, he never failed to respond with cool judgement, clear decision, and rapidity of action to any contingency. He routinely seized the initiative from opponents through bold maneuver, and once he had them off-balance he seldom failed to move in for the kill. Like Alexander, he was a master of the art of siege warfare, and his massive field works at Alesia are still studied by military schools today.


This is the first of three parts, found on YouTube

If you enjoyed this, check out the other installments in our series on “Great Captains of War”:

Great Captains: Alexander the Great


Great Captains: Hannibal Barca



Great Captains: Frederick the Great



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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