Roman expansion into Germany is forever halted when three legions are massacred in  one of history’s most decisive battles. 

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

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

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

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Early German warriors

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coin bearing the likeness of Q. Varus

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

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

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

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


Arminius’ opportunity came in 9 AD.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern reconstruction of the palisade prepared by Arminius near Kalkriese

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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“By the grace of God I shall yet prove the victor!”

The year 1066 saw Haley’s Comet blaze across the night sky. To the people of England it was a harbinger of invasion and war. Three ambitious men vied for the vacant thrown: Harold Godwinson, the land’s most powerful warlord; William the Bastard, iron-willed Duke of Normandy; and Harald Hardrada, the most feared warrior in northern Europe and king of Norway. Only one could be king, only one would survive. Their struggle for the thrown of England would lead to one of the greatest and most decisive battles in the sanguine history of the British Isles: The Battle of Hastings.

The struggle for the English throne in 1066 was the culmination of years of dynastic intrigue concerning the would-be successor to King Edward the Confessor, a monarch known for his piety but who had failed in his duty to produce an heir.  The issue was complicated by the events a generation earlier in England’s history, when the Danes under their kings Svein Forkbeard and his son, Canute, wrested England from the hands of the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the “Unready[1], descendant of Alfred the Great and scion of the ruling House of Wessex.

The Danish conqueror Canute married Aethelred’s widow Emma, a daughter of the Norman duke Richard I (“the Fearless”). Her two sons by Aethelred, Alfred and Edward, fled the Danes and took refuge in the court of their Norman kinsmen at Rouen. Emma also had a son by Canute, Harthacanute, who briefly ruled England and Denmark following the deaths of both his father and brother. Upon his deathbed, Harthacanute named his half-brother Edward, still in Normandy, as his heir.[2]

1402928.jpgRaised in the court of Normandy, once on the throne Edward favored his Norman kinsmen and friends. He was also naturally suspicious of those English lords who had won favor under Danish rule, particularly the powerful Earl of Wessex, Godwin; who had linked himself to the house of Canute by marriage. Edward the Confessor’s 24 year reign was marked by tension between his English lords and Norman favorites at court. Eventually Godwin forced the Normans out of England, becoming the “strong-man” behind the throne in Edward’s later years as king.

When Godwin died, his place behind Edward’s throne was taken by his strong son, Harold Godwinson, elevated to his father’s title of Earl of Wessex. Harold used his wealth and position at court to amass a private army of professional Anglo-Danish warriors, called Huscarls (or Housecarls, “Household Warriors”). Canute had first created such a force, and Harold’s guards were modeled on that elite body of fighting men. With these he defeated a coalition of rival English lords and the Welsh Prince, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, from 1055-1057. He then warred successfully in Wales in 1063, killing Gruffydd and bringing peace to the Welsh Marches.

The following year a momentous event occurred. Harold and his youngest brother, Gyrth, were shipwrecked off the Norman Coast.

Normandy was ruled by the stern and capable Duke William the Bastard. A cousin of Edward the Confessor, William had been encouraged by the childless Edward in his ambition to be named heir to the English throne. However, William had learned the lessons from earlier in Edward’s reign regarding English hostility to Norman influence, and knew he had to win over the powerful House of Wessex to his cause if he were to peacefully gain the English throne upon Edward’s death.

Fortune intervened in William’s favor when Harold and Gyrth washed ashore in Normandy in 1064. The two Godwinson brothers were seized initially by Count Guy of Ponthieu, a vassal of Duke William, but were ransomed by the Duke and became William’s guest.

William entertained Harold that summer at his court at Rouen. He even took Harold on campaign with him against the rebel Count of Brittany. During the course of this campaign Harold performed acts of heroism, perhaps even saving William’s life, and from William’s own hand received the spurs and accolade of knighthood.

From the Bayeux Tapestry: Duke William knighting Harold Godwinson?

Little details remain and scholars argue over the depth of the two men’s friendship. It seems likely, though, that the two most powerful men on either side of the English Channel developed a respect for each other and friendship that goes far to explaining the enmity and sense of betrayal that underlines William’s later actions.

At some point, while at the court of Rouen, Harold was tricked into swearing, upon a box containing the bones of a long-dead saint, to uphold William’s claim to the English throne. Such an oath carried great weight in 11th century Christian Europe. Harold, once he realized what he had done, is said to have noticeably paled. He was now bound by his honor and oath before God to support the claim of his new-found “friend”, whatever his own ambitions.

1402946.jpg Harold is tricked into swearing on holy relics.

His Norman sojourn resulting in a political disaster for his kingly aspirations, Harold returned to England, where events proceeded rapidly. That year, as though to herald the coming bloodshed, Halley’s Comet blazed brightly in the night sky. It was taken by all as a portent of great (and terrible) events to come.

Harold’s brother Tostig, the earl of Northumbria, had been ejected by his liegemen in favor of two sons of an earlier earl. Recognizing his brother’s poor performance as lord of the turbulent Northumbrians, and wishing to avoid civil war, Harold accepted the new Northumbrian earls, the brothers Edwin and Morcar.

By so doing he earned his brother Tostig’s enmity.

Tostig fled England, and eventually arrived at the Norwegian royal court at Nidaros. This was the seat of power of the redoubtable Norse king, Harald Sigurdsson (called Hardrada, or Hardrede: “Hard-council”, or “Harsh-judgment”).

In 1065, Harald Hardrada was considered the greatest warrior in the North, if not in all Europe. Said to be seven-feet tall and broadly built, he had been a fighting man since old enough to wield a sword.  As an exiled prince in his youth he had ventured to the Court of Byzantium, where he’d won great renown as a leader of the famed Varangian Guard; the Scandinavian “corps de elite” of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperors.

1403013.jpg Hally’s Comet, which appears in the sky every 75 years, arrived in 1066 and was widely taken as an omen of great events to come. Here its arrival is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Returning to Norway in 1046 with both wealth and a store of military experience, Harald seized the throne that had once been his older brother’s. His 20 year reign saw unremitting military campaigns, as he steadily brought the turbulent and independent Norse landholders under royal authority. For many of those years he had campaigned in Denmark in an attempt to unite the two countries under his sword, and create a Norwegian hegemony.

Tostig Godwinson found a patron with a ready ear for intrigue in Hardrada. Between the two of them a scheme was hatched to invade England and unite Norway and England as one land, just as Canute had done with Denmark and England two generations earlier. What Canute the Dane had wrought could not the “Champion of the North” do as well?

Meanwhile, in England, Edward the Confessor’s long reign finally came to an end in January of 1066. On his deathbed he was said to have named Harold Godwinson as his heir. However, in Normandy an outraged William openly disputed this claim as an invention of his rival. Ignoring William’s claim the Witan, the English proto-Parliament, elected Harold Godwinson as their king.

1402956 Harold Godwinson is crowned King

Whatever the Witan decided, Harold Godwinson’s claim was about to be challenged. Both William in Normandy and Harald Hardrada in Norway were laying in supplies and mustering their forces. The summer of 1066 promised to be a bloody one indeed for England.


In Normandy, William prepared to back his claim to the throne of England with force of arms; and to avenge himself upon the erstwhile friend and oath-breaker who had betrayed him. The risk of this undertaking is easily underestimated today, with the ultimate results known in advance. But at the time he proclaimed his intent to invade England, William was venturing upon a dangerous and uncertain endeavor.

England was a far larger and, in theory, stronger country than the Duchy of Normandy. Though largely composed of a national militia of stout English freemen, called the fyrd, if given time to muster this force was potentially large and capable of holding its own in battle. Giving the fyrd more staying power was the wealthier land-owning warrior class, the thegns, and King Harold’s professional Huscarls. England’s fleet controlled the channel, and William had nothing that could be called a navy to oppose the English “Sea Fyrd”. Manned by experienced seamen and captained by men who were in many cases former Vikings, the English longships were filled with detachments of axe-wielding Housecarls, experienced at fighting on shipboard.

1402964.jpg Anglo-Danish Huscarls

Harold’s Housecarls had a particularly fearsome reputation throughout Europe. These “knights who fight on foot” were all veteran professional warriors, many of which had themselves served in the Varangian Guard in their youth; or in the service of one of the various Scandinavian kings. Their five-foot Danish long-axes were said to be able to hack through shield and mail as if it were tissue.

William, however, had an advantage of his own: the superb mailed heavy cavalry, provided by the Norman knights and mounted sergeants. Norman adventurers had already ventured as far afield as Italy, where they were carving out another Duchy in Apulia. The Norman knight was feared and respected throughout Europe, considered the most dangerous heavy cavalry on the continent. William’s army was a balanced force, with archers and armored foot-sergeants complimenting the mailed cavalry, creating a true “combined arms” fighting force.

However, in 1066 it had yet to be shown that heavy cavalry could prevail over the close-order infantry tactics of the English “shieldwall”, perfected by English and Scandinavian armies over the previous three centuries; and archers, with their rather weak “self” bows had never been a significant factor in western European battles.

Norman cavalry: a Byzantine source claimed they could “charge through the walls of Babylon”!

Though they believed in the righteousness of their Lord’s claim, many a Norman noble must have looked upon the coming campaign with trepidation.

William set about in the spring of 1066 to bolster their resolve, and to gather additional recruits to his banner. To effect this he sought and received Papal support from Rome. Oath breaking, particularly when said oath was given upon the bones of a Catholic saint, was a serious ecclesiastic offense. His Papal petition was aided, no doubt, by the fact that all southern Italy was controlled by the Norman Duke of Apulia, Robert de Hauteville (called Guiscard, the “Cunning”). The Normans of Italy had become the Pope’s chief bastion against the German Emperor’s Italian ambitions. Though politically independent and powerful rulers in their own right, the de Hautevilles were ever deferential to their Duke back home.

William achieved his aim: Harold was excommunicated by the Pope, and a papal legate delivered to William a Papal banner to symbolize the support of Holy Mother Church. In the 11th century the blessing of the church gave William immeasurable political and psychological advantage. The morale of his vassals was greatly strengthened in the fearsome undertaking to come, and few men in William’s ranks doubted now that God was on their side. To augment his own Norman vassals, pious adventurers from all over Northern France now flocked to his banner to win religious indulgence by smiting the “usurper”, Harold.

However, William still had to get his growing and now-eager host across the Channel, in the face of English naval superiority. All that summer Harold’s ships patrolled the southern coast, waiting to intercept the Norman expedition. The English fleet was not his only obstacle. The weather that summer seemed determined to prevent his crossing. William waited and watch for fortune (and God) to send him the opportunity he needed.

1403017.jpg The Norman host prepares in Normandy for the invasion

With two armies preparing to invade, all that summer of 1066 England held its breath. Harold found himself in the unenviable position of having to surrender the initiative to his enemies. He could do naught else but wait, and try to keep his levies in the field. Unfortunately for him, summer turned to fall and still the imminent invasions failed to materialize. Fall harvest made disbanding the  fyrd a necessity, as feudal obligation demanded, and the men of both fleet and army went home to harvest their fields.


No sooner had the English levies disbanded than word arrived from the north that the opening salvo of the three-way campaign of 1066 had come: in mid-September Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson landed near York, coming with a large invasion fleet of Viking longships and experienced Norse warriors, veterans of Hardrada’s many campaigns. By the time word of the incursion reached Harold Godwinson in London the tidings were grim: the Norse had already met and routed the Northumbrian levies at the Battle of Gate Fulford; and York, the second city of England, was on the verge of surrender.

1403031.jpgHarold responded with lightning swiftness. Force-marching north with an army composed of his royal Housecarls and those shire-levies hastily gathered along the way, he arrived near York in time to intercept Hardrada’s army on their way to accept York’s surrender.

On September 25th, along the York road at a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, the English met the Norse marching from their camp on the coast. Not expecting a battle, Hardrada and his men had left their armor back at their ships, coming only with shield and arms.

To buy time for the surprised Norse to form their array for battle, a lone Norwegian champion stepped forward to hold the narrow bridge against the English crossing. His name is now sadly lost. But this fearsome warrior held the bridge against all attackers, hewing down man-after-man with his deadly long-axe. No more than three-at-a-time could approach him on the narrow foot-bridge, and time-and-again he sent Harold’s redoubtable Housecarls dead or reeling back, bloodied. Meanwhile, the Norse formed their shieldwall for battle beneath Hardrada’s famous raven banner, “Landwaster” (Landøyðan); and King Harald sent messengers back to his ships, summoning the rest of his host.


Related image


An incident at the beginning of the Battle of Stanford Bridge: a lone Norse hero held the narrow bridge, allowing the Norwegian army time to deploy for battle.

Eventually, a solution was found to the lone Viking holding the narrow bridge, slaughtering all who approached him. An Englishman, finding a skiff along the river bank, rowed under the bridge. The English warrior struck upwards between the planks with his spear, piercing the Norseman from below. Mortally wounded, the Norse champion collapsed in agony, dying where he lay. [3]

The English were now free to cross the bridge and give battle.

Before the two sides “laid on”, King Harold asked to speak with his brother Tostig under flag of truce. Tostig came forward, and the two brothers parlayed. Harold offered Tostig a pardon, if he would give-up this fight and return to his brother’s side.

“What of my ally, King Harald of Norway”, asked Tostig? “What will you offer him?”

“To the King of Norway”, Harold replied, “I offer naught but six feet of good English earth; or as much more as is necessary to bury him, he being larger than other men”.

This brought negotiation to an end. Both men returned to their forces, and prepared for the fight.

Stamford Bridge was a bloody and hard-fought battle. Though fearsome warriors (and physically larger than most others in Europe), the Norse suffered from their lack of armor. Men fell on both sides, but more Norse than English. King Harald Hardrada is reputed to have fought in the front rank, encouraging his men and laying many an Englishman low. However, an arrow struck him in the throat, ending the storied life of this “Last of the Vikings”.

1403039.jpgLate in the battle the Norse reinforcements arrived from the coast, where they had been guarding the Viking longships. Led by Eystein Orre, the Norse king’s Marshal, they were exhausted by the haste with which they had run the 15 miles from their camp to the battlefield. Eystein reputedly took up “Landwaster”, and initiated a final Norse counter-attack. Nearly breaking the English line, the attack faltered when Eystein too was killed. Defeated, the Norse fled from the battlefield.

Following them, King Harold and the English forced their surrender. The English king was merciful, and allowed the surviving Norse to return home peacefully. Included in their number was Hardrada’s young son, who would return to Norway and rule as Olaf III Kyrre (“The Peaceful”).

Though the redoubtable Hardrada was defeated, Harald Godwinson found no time to savor his triumph. While still at York, word came of a second invasion, this one in the south: William the Bastard had crossed the Channel.


Two very well-made reenactments of the fight at Stamford Bridge; depicting the holding of the narrow way by a single Norse champion:



  1. This appellate may be a misconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon word for “Unwise” rather than “Unready”. Either would be applicable in his case.
  2. Edward’s elder brother Alfred had been treacherously killed by the Danes some years earlier, after being lured back to England.
  3. It should be noted that this entire incident is not mentioned in King Harald’s Saga, and must therefore be treated with caution.

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

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


Continuing on, we are attempting to piece-together a hypothetical career of Arthur, the historical basis for the legendary king. At present, we are drawing upon the work of the 9th century Welsh monk, Nennius. In chapter 56 of his Historia Brittonum (c. 830), he discusses twelve battles fought and won by Arthur as war leader (dux bellorum) among the kings of the Romano-Britons in their wars against the Anglo-Saxons:

At that time, the Saxons grew strong by virtue of their large number and increased in power in Britain. Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [“dux bellorum”]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.

First, it must be remembered that though he clearly drew on Gildas, a near-contemporary of  Arthur’s, and perhaps other Welsh sources, Nennius wrote centuries after the events he purports to chronicle. At best, we must take Nennius with a grain of salt. However, for purposes of constructing this hypothetical narrative, he is a useful roadmap.

Our discussion to date takes us to Arthur’s ninth battle; which Nennius claims  took place at “the City of the Legion”.

1513311.jpgAttempts to identify this location has (not surprisingly) caused controversy.

Several places in post-Roman Britain could be termed “the City of the Legion”; if having served as the fortress-base of a Roman legion suffices to give it such a sobriquet. York (Roman Eburacum) was home to both the Legio IX Hispana (till about 120 AD) and the Legio VI Victrix thereafter. Chester (Deva), at the northeast approach to Wales, was home to the Legion XX Valeria Victrix throughout most of the Roman occupation. In southeast Wales, in the territory of the Silures tribe, Isca Silurum/Caerleon-on-Usk (also called Isca Augusta) on the River Usk was home to the Legion II Augusta till at least 300 AD. However, this legion was moved sometime in the 4th century to Richborough Castle (Roman Rutupiae), assigned to the “Saxon Shore” garrisons. Finally, Wroxeter (Roman Viroconium Cornoviorum), was home for a time to both the Legio XX Valeria Victrix and the Legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix.

There are many theories as to which of these is the correct location for Nennius’ battle. Of these possible locales, Chester and Caerleon are the most-often cited; and Geoffrey of Monmouth named Caerleon-on-Usk as the site.

An interesting (and original) theory was proposed by Nikolai Tolstoy: Exeter/ Isca Dumnoniorum, as a follow-up of the fight at Land’s End. In this scenario, after his defeat at Caer Guidn, Cerdic and his remaining Saxons take ship and sail for home, the marshes around Southampton. In route, they attack and (improbably) seize Exeter. Arthur, pursing by land, arrives later to expel Cerdic in this, the ninth battle.

However logical from a military-theorist standpoint, creating a neat campaign narrative (see Part Fourteen, the Battle of Guinnion Fort), this theory suffers from one main deficiency: Exeter/Isca Dumnoniorum was never home to a Roman legion. So how can it be termed “the City of the Legion”?

1513315.jpg Isca Dumnoniorum is an attractive possibility for the battle of the “City of the Legions”, tying in with Land’s End as part of a continuous campaign against Cerdic’s seaborne raids. Unfortunately, it was never the base for a Roman legion.

Carlisle/Luguvalium, at the west end of Hadrian’s Wall, was home to legionary detachments at various times in its history, and has been named by recent scholars attempting to make Arthur simply a regional champion, and to place all of his battles in the Old North (Hen Ogledd). But, like all such attempts, is unconvincing and seems artificial.  Carlisle was never truly a “City of the Legion”, in the sense of having a permanent Legionary garrison.

Richborough Castle/Rutupiae can be eliminated from contention, in that it was deep in Saxon/Jute territory by this period. It is unlikely that a British Army would have penetrated successfully so deeply into enemy lands without first being challenged to battle further west; though a deep raid by Arthur’s swift-moving mounted combrogi  could have theoretically penetrated that far into “enemy territory”.

York/Eburacum certainly fits the bill as a legion home; and as such must be considered a possible contender for this battle site. Could the Angles or Saxons have landed north of the Humber again, threatening Ebrauc? Certainly a possibility.

Chester/Deva is a popular candidate for the  “City of the Legion”. A battle was indeed fought here in 615/616, between the Angles of Northumbria and the Welsh. Some scholars suggest that Nennius confused or deliberately assigned this later battle to Arthur’s time. If it was in fact a battle of Arthur’s, separate-and-aside from the 7th century battle, then the location raises questions as to who the Briton’s enemies may have been. This was rather far west of the known “Eastern Front”, the line of demarcation between Anglo-Saxon and British lands.

The same question applies to a battle at Caerleon-on-Usk, the site identified by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This was a major fortress/town in the heart of the British petty-kingdom of Gwent (south Wales); and as far as we know, not subject to attack by foreign enemy.

Perhaps a rival leader or coalition formed against Arthur, as has been suggested occurred in the north with Caw in 509. But no source suggests such discord among the British at this early date.

However, about this time in history an event occurred in Gwent that provides a possible (if unlikely) explanatory hypothesis. It involves perhaps the former character tentatively identified in previous installments (and my Morrison) as a Visigoth fleet commander, granted land in west Cornwall: Theodoric.

In the late 4th century, an Irish group known as the Déisi Muman settled (or were allowed to settle) in Demetia/Dyfed, southwest Wales.  The term déisi is virtually interchangeable with another Old Irish term, Aithechthúatha (meaning “vassal communities”, or “tributary peoples”). It had been suggested that this term might be the origin of the barbarian raiders known in late Roman history as the Attacotti. These people raped Roman Britain in the 360s; and after order was restored, some were taken into the Roman army as auxilia, as attested to in the Notitia Dignitatum.

1513329.jpg Dark Ages Irish warriors. In the Age of Arthur, Gaelic raiders were called “Scotti”.

One suggestion is that this group was granted Demetia/Dyfed by the Roman Governor/Imperial Pretender, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig in Welsh chronicles). Settling allied or defeated barbarian tribes along unstable or vulnerable frontiers was a common Roman practice in the Late Empire; so this is certainly plausible.

Throughout the 5th and into the early 6th centuries, Irish/Scotti raiders had settled in various parts of western Britain. Then, local accounts indicate that Theodosius (or Tewdric, as he was known in Welsh chronicles) campaigned to drive the Irish out of both western Cornwall and southern Wales. In doing so, he placed Aircol Lawhir (“Longhand”, whose Latinized name was Agricola) on the throne of Demetia/Dyfed; and took for himself the kingdom of Gwent.

Morris and Castleden both floated the hypothesis that Tewdric of Gwent is one-in-the-same as the Visigoth admiral, Theodosius; granted land in Cornwall by Ambrosius or Arthur, as discussed here in an earlier installment. With this land grant came a mandate and authority to patrol the southwestern coasts; and to root out existing and prevent further Irish incursions into Britain.

Returning to our narrative, and attempting to develop a hypothesis for Nennius’ ninth battle,  at the “City of the Legion”:

In 511 Arthur and the sub-kings of western Cornwall repel Cerdic’s raid at the “white fort”, Guinnion, identified in this hypothesis as Lands End. This was on the doorstep of Theodosius the Visigoth’s holdings; and it is impossible that he would not have been among the nine “princes” who fought against the invaders under Arthur’s standard; and feasted with him afterward at Lanyon Quoit!

Perhaps immediately following this victory, or perhaps in the next year’s campaign, Theodosius/Tewdric sails across the Môr Hafren, the “Severn Sea” (Bristol Channel) to Wales; to oust the Déisi and place a scion of the old British dynasty of Dyfed, Aircol Longhand. Afterwards, he moved east into Gwent. There, he is joined by Arthur in battle at Caerleon, where Arthur aides him in seizing the throne.

But in this hypothesis, against whom do they battle?

A possible clue is found in monkish chronicles from later centuries; which talk of an Irish expedition led by Fingar of Gwinnear, son of the Irish King Clyto. Arriving at Hayle, Cornwall, with 700 warriors, they are attacked by Theodosius and repelled. But to where? Did they return to Ireland? Or, perhaps, cross the narrow Severn to land in Gwent?

Gwent at approximately this time was experiencing dynastic problems, and fragmenting into ever smaller sub-kingdoms. Could these Irish under Fingar (or a successor, if he was killed in the earlier fighting  in Cornwall) have attempted to fish in Gwent’s troubled waters, taking advantage of Gwent’s weakened condition?

In this hypothetical scenario, perhaps Theodosius’ campaign in neighboring Dyfed followed close on the repelling of Fingar’s Irishmen; following them across the Severn. In the course of dealing with this Irish threat, Theodosius settles Aircol Longhand on the throne of Demetia/Dyfed.

1513320.jpg South Wales, possible scene of action leading to Arthur’s ninth battle.

At Caerleon, the City of the Legion, Arthur joins his ally Theodosius in crushing Fingar’s Irish. Needing a strong ally to secure south Wales, Arthur grants Theodosius a sub-kingdom in the western portion of Gwent, Glywysing. This sub-kingdom names Tewdric as one of its early kings; though the genealogical data in the various monkish chronicles give conflicting dates for his reign.

According to one of these monkish chronicles, the Book of Llan Dav, Theodosius/Tewdric later resigned the kingship of Glywysing in favor of his son, Meurig; to become a hermit/monk! He was later made a Christian saint (St. Tewdric). However, this may be a garbling of disjointed local accounts. It is even possible under this scenario that Theodoric placed his son on the throne of Glywysing in south Wales; and returned to his lands in Cornwall.

Theodosius/Tewdric ended his life, according to the same sources, in battle beside his son; repelling a Saxon attack. He died victorious, a great end for an old warrior. If he was indeed a Visigoth, as Morris suggested, then he led a storied life indeed.  He was buried at Mathern, near Chepstow, in the church dedicated to him.


Two views of Caerleon-on-Usk: (Top) Artists image of Roman Isca Silurum. (Below) Caerleon today. Note the outline of the ancient Roman ramparts and amphitheater in the lower left quarter of the picture.



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On an arid upland valley in Armenia, one hot August day in 1071, the Roman/Byzantine army marched out of camp to battle the forces of the Turkish Sultan, Alp Arslan. There, near the town of Manzikert, the course of medieval history and the map of the Near East would be changed forever. It was a seminal moment, one that would set in motion a chain of events whose impact is felt to this day. The battle that ensued would sow the seeds for the future Turkish nation, and spell the doom of Byzantium.

In the latter half of the 11th century, the Eastern Roman Empire[1] was the strongest and most developed nation in Europe and the Near East. It possessed the only truly professional military in the world, the linear descendant of the armies of the Caesars. At its greatest extent in the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian , the Empire had stretched from Spain to the Euphrates River.

In the wake of the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, Byzantium (as it has come to be called) had shrunk to an area encompassing the Balkans in Europe, and the Anatolian peninsula in Asia. Under the very capable Macedonian Dynasty  the Romans had enjoyed a resurgence of power, pushing back and expanding their borders in both the east and the west. In the first decades of the 11th century the “hero Emperor” Basil II had completed this process, and the borders of the empire reached the furthest they had since the days of Justinian (see “Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages“). The Muslim Emirates of eastern Anatolia had been conquered absorbed and the whole of Anatolia reclaimed for the Empire. Armenia, long a battleground between Rome and whatever power ruled in Persia, was again subject to the Empire. Even southern Italy again bent knee to the emperor in Constantinople.


The empire at its greatest extent under Justinian, in the 6th century


The empire at the death of Basil I, before the Manzikert campaign

However, since the death of Basil II in 1025 the Empire had been in a slow but steady decline. Civil wars had wracked the empire, and two unofficial factions had developed in the capital whose partisanship would ultimately undermine the Empire’s very existence.

One was the “Soldier’s Party”, which stood for a strong defense and championed the cause of the small farmers of the countryside. These latter provided the semi-professional militia force that was the backbone of Imperial defense. Its chief members were the great families of the provinces (called “themes”); who were also the strategoi (generals) of the thematic armies and governors of the themes. These country magnates understood that the security of their lands depended upon a strong defensive force; which their free farmers were a vital part of.

The other faction was the “City Party”, composed of the wealthy aristocrats and members of the civil bureaucracy who lived in or around the capital, Constantinople. The wealthy among them resented the taxes they paid to maintain a strong provincial defense. The members of the bureaucracy (many of which were eunuchs) distrusted the provincial nobility, which had from time-to-time rebelled against the city and placed one of its own on the imperial throne. Both these groups saw little need for the vast Byzantine military establishment. With Constantinople itself protected by the most massive and comprehensive defensive walls in the world, these grandees of the city were themselves secure enough, and had little concern for what occurred in the distant provinces. So what if a few farms got burned by the occasional Arab raid, or a few farmer’s daughters were carried off. It was a cheaper price to pay than the exorbitant taxes required to prevent it!

This factional infighting led to a cycle of civil war; with provincial generals marching periodically on the capital to replace the current occupant of the palace. Win or lose, soldiers died and the empire was weakened. When a candidate from the Soldiers Party held the throne, they attempted to shore up imperial defenses. Conversely, when the City Party was in power, it retaliated by disbanding native units, increasing taxes on the provincials (which drove many of the small landowners to financial ruin, thus reducing the supply of regular troops to the army), and replacing native Roman regiments, who might loyally follow their strategos into rebellion at some future date, with foreign mercenaries who were devoid of political interests. Under Constantine X Dukas, an emperor of the City Party, the army that garrisoned and defended Armenia, on the forward edge of the battle with Islam, had been disbanded; along with many of the regiments of other eastern Themes.

Meanwhile, on the Empire’s eastern frontiers, the rival Islamic Caliphate had become home to a new race of hardy warriors: the Seljuk Turks.

Established in the wake of conquest which followed the death of Mohammed in the early 7th century, the Caliphate was the Empire’s great rival in the Middle East. These two “super powers” of the day were often at war, and the border regions between them were the scene of regular raid-and-counter-raid by Christian Akritai and Muslim Ghazi.

The Turks were newcomers to the scene. A nomadic people, they had migrated several generations earlier from their homeland on the Central Asian steppe. Arriving in the lands of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, the Turks had converted to Islam and become eager warriors of the Prophet.

1373544Successive Caliphs had enrolled the warlike Turks as mercenaries into their armies. In time these Turkish mercenaries became the strongest force in Islam, and had supplanted the secular authority of the Caliph with that of their own Sultan; relegating the Caliph to the position of religious figurehead. (In several ways this arrangement between Turkish Sultan and the Abbasid Caliph in the 11th century mirrors that in feudal Japan between the Shogun and the Mikado, the Japanese Emperor.) Thus, by the 11th century A.D., the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad had become overlaid by the Seljuk Turkish Empire.

Filled with all the zeal of new converts, the Turks happily conducted jihad upon the neighboring Christian Roman Empire. The usual situation of low intensity raids-and-reprisals along the border grew larger and more dangerous. Turkish forces penetrated deep into Anatolia on several occasions, finding the interior of the Roman provinces rich pickings; their garrisons reduced in strength by decades of military cuts. In 1067 the ancient city of Caesarea (formerly Mazaca in Cappadocia), capital of the Charsianon Theme was sacked by one of these deep-penetrating Turkish raids, and the population massacred. Three years earlier, in 1064, a large Seljuk army, led by their Sultan Alp Arslan, attacked the Armenian capital of Ani, denuded of its Roman garrison following the withdrawal of troops by the late Constantine X. After a siege of 25 days the Turks captured the city and massacred the population. An account of the sack and slaughter is given by an Arab historian:

“The (Turkish) army entered the city; massacred the inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive… The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000…” [2]

Then in 1068 a new soldier Emperor took the imperial diadem. A leader of the Soldier’s Party, Romanus IV Diogenes gained the throne by marrying Eudoxia, widow of Constantine X Dukas. Her son by her late husband, the 17-year-old Michael VII, was too young to rule and had, in any case, shown little inclination or ability. At his mother’s marriage to Romanus Michael was relegated to the position of powerless “co-Emperor” to the mature soldier, Romanus Diogenes.

The Dukates were a leading family of the City Party, and deeply resented Michael being supplanted by his mother’s new husband. Though they were unable to prevent Romanus’ accession to power, they were determined to undermine his reign. Romanus was aware how precarious was his perch, which could only be made secure by a military victory: as a hero-emperor he could stand against the Dukates on his own. In 1070, he decided to lead a massive army east; to bring the Turks to a great battle and by inflicting upon them a crushing defeat stabilize the eastern frontier for a generation.

1373554Romanus spent the year mustering troops from all over the Empire, assembling the combined forces of the European and Asiatic themes: the banda (companies) of professional kataphractoi, the heavy cavalry that were the backbone of the imperial army. In addition he brought the elite Imperial Guard regiments stationed in or around Constantinople. These were collectively referred to as the “Tagmata”. Mostly composed of regiments of kataphractoi, these also included units of klibanophoroi, the super-heavy armored lancers that were the iron core of the emperor’s strike force. Many of these guard regiments dated back to the Emperors Diocletian and Constantine. But a more recently raised force was the storied Varangian Guard. Raised by Basil II, these were axe-wielding Scandinavian and Russian heavy infantry. Famed for their giant stature and ferocious courage, they were much feared and respected in the east; and formed the Emperor’s personal bodyguard, always attendant upon his person.

1373556The total force Romanus took east was 60,000 strong, and represented nearly every soldier available to the Emperor at the time. To appease his Dukate rivals, he was forced to appoint as his second-in-command a young dandy of the city: Andronikus Dukas, cousin of his co-Emperor, Michael, and a man devoid of military experience. This promotion of a political enemy to high command was to have disastrous results in the coming campaign.

The year 1070 was spent chasing small bands of Turkish raiders out of Anatolia. with the imperial grande armée advancing ever eastward. By the summer of 1071, the emperor had reached Armenia, a land of high hills and long, deep valleys.

Ancient Armenian church Khor Virap Mount Ararat looms majestically behind the monastery of Khor Virap in southeastern Armenia.

There Romanus split his army. While he and the largest part marched on the fortress town of Manzikert, Romanus detached a strong force of Roman regulars (perhaps including some of his Varangians) as well as Pecheneg and Norman mercenaries, to besiege the fortress of Chliat, a day’s march away. Manzikert was easily captured on August 23, and Romanus camped in the valley and waited for Chliat to fall and for that detachment to return.

1373562Unbeknownst to Romanus, the Turkish Sultan and his army were at that very moment marching directly upon him.

Earlier in the year Sultan Alp Arslan (“The Mountain Lion”) had made peace overtures. But Romanus needed a victory, not a negotiated settlement. He rejected the Sultan’s offer, and now Alp Arslan was coming to give Romanus what he desired: a great and decisive battle.

Roman scouting was unaccountably poor, and the first indication the Romans had that a large Turkish army was in the vicinity was when foraging parties were driven-in by large, aggressive bands of Turkish horse archers. A considerable force of Roman regular cavalry, under the general Basilakes, Dux of Theodosiopolis (a Roman fortress town near the eastern frontier, now the modern Turkish Erzurum) was dispatched to drive off what was thought to be just small groups of Turkish raiders. Instead, Basilakes blundered into the Sultan’s army, and his command was annihilated. Another contingent under Nikephoros Byrennios, commander of the forces of the European themes, was dispatched to aid Basilakes. These too were roughly handled, and retreated back into the Imperial Camp.

As swarms of Turkish horsemen poured into the far end of the valley, the Emperor and his commanders realized this was no raiding force, but the Sultan’s main army.

1373565Alp Arslan again sent a delegation to request a cessation of hostilities; but, as earlier in the year, Romanus rejected this overture. Sending messengers riding post-haste to Chliat, Romanus prepared to give battle the next day.


The following morning, August 26th, 1071 the last great native Roman army the Empire would ever field marched out of camp and prepared for battle.

The exact number of Romanus’ deployed forces is unknown. Though originally 60,000 strong, the detachment sent to Chliat (the size of which is unclear) and the loss of Basilakes force had reduced this figure. They were facing a boiling cloud of some 40,000 Turkish light cavalry horse archers, led by Sultan Alp Arslan in person. He was attended by a number of heavy cavalry, Ghulam slave-soldiers who comprised his personal household guards. All factors considered, the armies opposed may have been roughly equal in number.

The Romans deployed in the usual formation recommended by Byzantine tactical manuals when faced with swift-riding nomadic horse-bowmen: two divisions in line, one behind the other, a bow’s shot apart. Though it is not stated, each of these lines was composed of 3-6 ranks of horsemen. The first line was to advance steadily against the enemy, attempting to come to close quarters if possible; but maintaining an advancing wall of armored men and horses, forcing the lightly armed and largely unarmored nomads to fall back. The second line was to follow the first, preventing its encirclement (the favorite tactic of the steppe nomad, utilizing their speed and mobility to encircle and attack from flank and rear slower-moving formations). Should the Turks get behind the first line, the second line would then charge those enemy forces; “sandwiching” and crushing them between the two lines.

1373566Romanus’ first line consisted of the professional banda of the empire. In the center, surrounding the emperor, were the elite regiments of the tagmata,  between three and six thousand strong (actual numbers are not given by the sources). On either flank of these were the kataphractoi of the European and Anatolian themes, on the left and right respectively. The Emperor personally commanded this first line, surrounded by his guards and beneath the sacred, gem-encrusted banner of the holy Labarum, the ancient standard first carried by Constantine the Great at the battle of Milvian Bridge.

The second, supporting, division was composed of the feudal retainers of the great landed gentry of the eastern frontiers, the akritai. Much like feudal men-at-arms among the Franks in the west, these troops varied in quality; but all were armored cavalry capable of roughly handling a lightly clad Turkic nomad if it came to close quarters. Armed with bow as well as lance, they were also capable of skirmishing at a distance with the Turks as they attempted to close with and destroy them.

This was a textbook plan, as taught by Byzantine manuals such as “The Tactica” of the Emperor Leo the Wise; proven over centuries of warfare to be the most effective way of defeating elusive nomad horse archers. The weakness in the Emperor’s deployment was not military but political: Andronicus Dukas, his political enemy, was given command of the tactically vital reserve force that comprised the second line.

All that long, hot August day the steel-clad Roman horsemen advanced up the highland valley. Tantalizingly just beyond the reach of their lances, a cloud of Turkish horse-archers continued to skirmish. Arrows flew back-and-forth, doing little damage to either side. The Turks refused to stand against the mailed Roman bands, and all day continued to fall back before the Byzantine advance. Exchanging arrows, the Turks refused to stand and fight at close-quarters. By mid-afternoon the advancing Roman line passed over the campsite occupied that morning by the Sultan’s army. Still the enemy fell back down the long valley, loosing arrows as they withdrew.

1373568Casualties were likely few on either side during the day-long, rolling skirmish battle. The Romans were well armored, and few of the light Turkish arrows would have wounded or killed a man. A horse killed or lamed would dismount its rider, but as the Romans were advancing and the enemy retreating, such an unlucky victim could pass back through the ranks of his comrades and return to camp. For their part, Roman arrows falling among the loose-ordered and constantly boiling ranks of the Turks often as not missed their rapidly moving targets. As each Turk maintained a string of additional ponies a slain or lamed mount was quickly replaced.

Near evening, frustrated by the Sultan’s unwillingness to come to grips, the Emperor reluctantly ordered the Roman bands to wheel-about and return to camp.

No sooner had the Romans shown their backs to the enemy then kettle drums began booming, and the Turks closed-in like a pack of wolves.

1373569.jpgFor the next hour as the Romans retired towards their camp the Turks pressed hard upon their rear. The Romans were able to keep their enemy at bay with controlled “pulse charges”, in which individual banda  would suddenly wheel about and charge those Turks nipping at their heels. The Turks would scamper off on swift ponies, out of range to regroup, while the charging Roman band would return as quickly to its place in the retreating line. Only the best drilled and disciplined soldiers in the world would have been capable of such maneuvers. It is a testament to their quality that though greatly stressed by the factional strife that ripped the Empire throughout the century, the Roman army was still capable of this most difficult of maneuvers: a fighting withdrawal.

1373570 View of the battlefield from the rising ground to the south. It was from here that the Sultan viewed the oncoming Romans and the slow withdrawal of his horsemen before them. It was in the flat ground in the center of the picture that Romanus ordered the Byzantine forces to “about-face” and return to camp; a move that triggered the Seljuk counter-offensive.

Toward sunset, the Turks seemed to make a fatal mistake: around both ends of the retreating Roman first line swarmed light horse archers,  into the space between the first and second lines. It was an obvious attempt to separate them and destroy the Emperor’s first division in detail, the very thing the Roman deployment was meant to counter.

For Romanus and his tired troopers, the opportunity had come to at last smash these impudent rascals at close quarters!

Imperial trumpets blew the order, calling for the still retreating second line to halt, wheel-about in-mass, charge and smash the foolish interlopers between the army’s two iron-clad divisions.

Instead, to the dismay and growing horror of the soldiers of the Emperor’s division, the second line continued to withdraw from the battle. Either because he misunderstood the order (unlikely), or willfully and treasonously disobeyed it, Andronicus Dukas led the second line off the field. The Emperor and the professional regiments of the Eastern Roman Empire were abandoned to their fate.

(The Dukates would later defend Andronicus’ actions by claiming that Romanus and the first division was hopelessly cut off and doomed; and that Andronicus was wise to save what he could of the army, refraining from what amounted to throwing good money after bad. This argument, however, is all too self-serving to be convincing.)

Kataphract of the Tagmata battles Seljuk Ghulam near the Labarum in the closing stages of the battle

The first division found itself surrounded and attacked from all sides. All order and command-and-control vanished, as the battle dissolved into swirling chaos. First the right-wing, composed of the troops from the themes of Anatolia (the senior regiments of the army) broke and fled back up the valley. This freed more Turks to join those swarming around the armored guard regiments massed about the Emperor’s standards. Then the left-wing, the thematic regiments of Europe led by Byrennios, cut their way out of the encirclement, seeking refuge in the nearby hills. This left only the emperor and the elite tagmata desperately fighting on.


The Sultan Alp Arslan had known from the beginning that at some point he would have to fight the Romans at close quarters in order to break them and gain a total victory. Now, as chaos reigned in the Roman ranks, the Sultan put aside his gilded bow and drew his mace (the favorite weapon of Turkish heavy cavalry). Surrounded by the armored Ghulams of his personal guard, he now charged into the center of the Roman masses, where the Emperor could be identified still fighting, surrounded by his Varangians beneath the holy Labarum.

1373579The fighting was vicious and at close quarters, and the weary and outnumbered Romans were overpowered. Romanus was captured, trapped beneath his fallen horse. He was taken before the Sultan, who treated him as a guest, not a prisoner. Among the other spoils on the battlefield was the Labarum, as well as the standards of the various guard regiments that, like it, dated back to Constantine.



Romanus was held for only a few days before being released by the Sultan, who treated him with every courtesy and even arranged an escort back into Roman territory. The defeated emperor returned to find the Dukates in rebellion, with young Michael VII now declared sole ruler. In the resulting civil war, Romanus was captured and blinded by the vengeful Dukates in such a severe fashion that he died of the injury.

The result of that “Terrible Day” at Manzikert (as Roman chroniclers referred to it) was not immediately so terrible. The Turks were granted certain towns on the periphery, but of these only Antioch was of any great consequence. But the loss of so many trained troops was serious, and the decade of civil war that followed depleted the imperial power even more. While so occupied, clans of Turcomans only nominally under the control of the Sultan drifted into undefended Anatolia. They occupied the land, killing or driving off the Roman farmers that were the backbone of the empire. Within a decade, Anatolia was lost to the empire.

The loss of Anatolia was ultimately a death-blow for the empire. Here was the breadbasket of the empire, the rich lands whose grain and taxes had fed and clothed the empire. From where the highly professional armies of the past centuries had been recruited and based. While some of the army survived to return to their garrisons in Europe or Asia, the parts were never again assembled as one mighty strike force. Without Anatolia, no native “Roman” army could be recruited of any size to regain the lost lands.

By the time Alexios Komnenos had consolidated power and established a new dynasty in 1081, the damage was irreparable, and the Turks would never be driven from these lands again. For the remaining centuries of its declining existence, the Eastern Roman Empire would be forced to rely largely on mercenary soldiers, of often dubious quality and loyalty, to fight its battles.

1373581Anatolia, once the fertile heart of the Hellenized Roman east, became after Manzikert a vast arid steppe; as the nomadic Turks deliberately turned farmland into pasture for their sheep. By the time the First Crusaders passed through on their way to Jerusalem, the once fertile farmlands of Anatolia had been reduced by the Turks to a desert.  In the years after, ancient cities that had seen the passing of Darius and Alexander, of Caesar and Belisarius, decayed and were abandoned. Romania became Turkey, which of course it is to this very day.[3]

The result of that “terrible day” was a catastrophe from which the Roman Empire in the East never recovered. The Byzantine/Roman army had for centuries shielded the West from the forces of militant Islam. Without this bastion, the west would have to rise up and provide its own military response to the march of Islam: the Crusades.


To this day we still feel the echo of those distant centuries of conflict. The hatreds and paranoia engendered by those wars between Christian Europeans and Muslims still affect relations between the Islamic world and the west today.

There is a sobering lesson to be learned from Manzikert, pertinent to America: when partisan hatred is so great and a nation’s politics become so poisonous that defeating ones’ domestic political opponents becomes more important than defeating a deadly enemy abroad; then any treason is possible to further that despicable cause. Certainly the partisans of the House of Dukas never accepted their responsibility for the disaster at Manzikert. The defeat of their political rival, Romans Diogenes, justified in their minds betraying the empire they served.


1. The term “Byzantine” was an invention by later historians, and would have seemed bizarre to the men of the time, who thought of themselves as “Romans”, and their land Romania. In Greek, the language of the Empire, their realm was called Basileia Rhomaion; and in the West was referred to in Latin as the Imperium Romanum.

2. This gruesome account comes from a friendly, Muslim, source. It should be noted that the sack and slaughter of captured enemy cities was not uncommon. Up until the 20th century it was an accepted law of war that a city that failed to answer the call to surrender by a besieging army could expect little mercy once the city was stormed. When modern (revisionist) historians point to the sack of Jerusalem by the First Crusaders as evidence of their barbarism the reader should bear this in mind, as well as the (then) recent example of the sack and slaughter at Ani and other Byzantine cities by the Turks in the years preceding the Crusade.

3. Modern Turkey sprang-up out of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. The Ottoman Turks were a different clan than the earlier Seljuks. They migrated from their central Asian homeland into Seljuk Anatolia, fleeing the Mongols under Genghis Khan. They were settled as ghazi in Bithynia, on the borders of much-reduced Byzantium. From here they slowly grew into a powerful kingdom that swallowed both the Byzantine and the Seljuk realms into their own larger empire.


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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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! 

In the summer of 216 BC  the Second Punic War had raged for three years. Rome 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. Thus far for the Romans the struggle had been a catalog of unmitigated disaster.

That year the Roman Senate took the extraordinary step of raising a massive army of eight Roman legions, and an equal number of Italian allied legions; 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 on 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 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. Like another great captain of war, Alexander of Macedon, 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. Not all were tactical. One of these was an undying enmity for their Roman enemies. Upon a sacred alter the three 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]


Hannibal leads his bodyguard cavalry, supported by elephants, through a Celtic ambush in the Alps

There 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 Hannibal’s nemesis, Scipio Africanus) had been badly wounded; and then at the River Trebia, where Hannibal inflicted a major defeat upon a Roman Consular army led by Scipio’s colleague, the 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 perished 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[4].

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 at the head of their great army to confront Hannibal. They found him camped on the left bank of the Aufidus River, near Cannae. After some initial minor skirmishing, the Romans set up camp nearby. Each day, command alternated from one Consul to the next. On the first day of August (one 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 (but see below), was supposedly loath to give battle on the plain against an enemy who had the advantage in cavalry.

Hannibal used his numerous cavalry 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. Feeling the shortage, on the following day the immense Roman army trudged 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 plain 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 maniples were drawn-up in double the usual depth, 20 ranks deep by 6 men across.



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.[5] 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 (to paraphrase Wellington) to be coming at him in the same old fashion; and he would beat them in the same old fashion[6]; though with a tactical twist all his own.

1357887.jpgHard-charging Celtic horsemen 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 as auxilia 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, his infantry center unable to contain them, the Romans had cut their way out of a well-planned encirclement.

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 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, swarthy 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  advancing from each side 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, called targe, that 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, Hannibal’s 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 charging into battle. Usually capable heavy cavalry, at Cannae they inexplicably dismounted moments before engaging Hannibal’s heavy horse; condemning them to a 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 minutes before going into action, all of the equites on the crucial 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 the 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, heavy scuta tight to their shoulders, smashed into front of the bulging Carthaginian center. Immediately, the Spanish and Celtic warriors were forced back, one bloody step at a time. 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 soldiers 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, dismounted as they were these had no chance. 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 scattering 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 front-line squadrons to pursue the broken Equites from the field and “keep the skeer up”[7]; he led the uncommitted rear squadrons through the gap to his right between cavalry and legions. Across the rear of the battle they galloped, to the opposite flank of the Roman army. Here, the Roman Allied light cavalry were locked in their own cavalry skirmish with Hannibal’s Numidians. Without pause, Maharbal’ squadrons charged into their unprotected 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 cloud of dust. This explains why 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 (darknessovercannae.com); 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 led his Celtic and Spanish heavy squadrons charging into the rear of the heavily engaged legions.

Attacked 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 each room to wield their weapons, collapsed as men found themselves pressed from all sides. Only those on the outer edge of the mass could fight; while those in the interior ranks 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 down rank-after-rank. 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 goodwill campaign to win over the Italian allies of Rome failed. Though he continued to fight on in Italy for another thirteen years, the Romans avoided battle with him, hemming him in the south 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 defeat the master; 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 during  the reign of Augustus, and Plutarch a few generations later relied upon Polybius as their primary source for their accounts of the “Hannibalic War”. Polybius, in turn, did his research in 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 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 Varro 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, and out of the tradition of Roman military practice.

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 what was, at that time, the worst defeat in the history of the Republic?

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
  4. In 255 BC a Roman army under the Regulus was destroyed at the River Bagradas by the Carthaginian army commanded by a Spartan mercenary, Xanthippus. (This may be the same Xanthippus who a decade later commanded Ptolemaic forces successfully against the Seleucids in the Third Syrian War.)
  5. The Romans would soon recruit auxiliary cavalry from all of these peoples following the end of the Second Punic War, and continue to utilized the excellent services of these martial horsemen for centuries to come.
  6. “They came on in the same old way – and we defeated them in the same old way.”  –The Duke of Wellington’s alleged, phlegmatic appraisal of the Battle of Waterloo.
  7. A favorite term used by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, to describe prolonged cavalry pursuit of a broken enemy.

(Thanks to Jenny Dolfen for granting permission to use her images. Visit her site for more: http://darknessovercannae.com/)

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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 In one of the most decisive battles of the 13th century King Philip II Augustus establishes France as the premiere power in Medieval Europe. 

Philip II “Augustus” can fairly be called the greatest of France’s Medieval monarchs. Not since Charlemagne had a French king wielded such royal authority over the fiercely feudal nobility that ruled the duchies and counties of France.

But his reign began at a very different place. 


When he ascended the throne in 1180, Philip II of the House of Capet inherited a royal power whose writ barely extended beyond the area immediately surrounding his capital of Paris. The true rulers of France were its great feudal magnates. While owing fealty to the Capetian kings in Paris, the nobility had a free hand in their own lands, acting as near-independent overlords. The king only directly ruled, and drew revenues from, the crown lands (domaine royal); and the history of his house was a constant struggle to expand the royal domaine.

The strongest and most independent of the great lords throughout the 11th and 12th century were the Dukes of Normandy; one of which, in 1066, also became the King  of England following the Norman Conquest.

The 12th century in Europe could fairly be called the Norman Century, as these intrepid descendants of Viking settlers conquered England, created a Duchy (later a kingdom) in southern Italy and Sicily, and won a principality in Antioch and northern Syria[1].  In the mid-century Henry II Plantagenet, scion of both the Norman and Angevin houses, combined his inheritance in France and England with those of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine to create a burgeoning Plantagenet Empire. By the time of his death in July of 1189 Henry II ruled over more of France than did the King of France.

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Philip II’s early years as king of France were spent in political and occassional military struggle with the brilliant Henry. At times he allied himself with one or more of Henry’s often rebellious sons, attempting to drive a wedge into and exploit fractions within the House of Plantagenet. In all of these he was ultimately thwarted.

But Philip learned, and his early struggles with Henry II made him a far more canny politician than most of his predecessors.

Henry’s son and successor, Richard Cœur de Lion, spent most of his 10 year reign absent on the Third Crusade or a prisoner in Austria. But Richard was a renown warrior and military leader, and while he lived the Plantagenet lands in France were (for the most part) defended against Philip’s ready aggression. 

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Philip II and Richard the Lionheart

But after Richard’s death in 1199 the Plantagenet realm passed to his mercurial brother,  John I (Prince John of “Robin Hood” fame). John was called “Lackland”, because of all Henry II’s four sons he was the only one to hold no lands during his father’s reign.[2]  This lack of experience (combined with a temperament wholly unsuited to the task of ruling a feudal kingdom) caused the Plantagenet lands in France to fall away under the relentless predation of Philip of France.  By 1204 all of the Plantagenet Empire in France had been taken by Philip save the Duchy of Aquitaine in the south.


Following the loss of Normandy in 1204, John sought to restore the Plantagenet lands in France through a series of (mostly failed) military efforts. In 1212 John successfully concluded alliances with his nephew Otto IV “the Welf”, a contender for the crown of Holy Roman Emperor in Germany; as well as with Count Renaud of Boulogne and Dammartin and Count Ferdinand of Flanders (a Portuguese royal prince, who acquired the title and lands of Flanders through marriage to the heiress). Though baronial unrest in England delayed the campaign[3], by 1214 John and his Imperial allies were prepared to strike.

The plan of operations called for the allies to approach Paris from two directions: John’s forces, based in Aquitaine from the southwest, while Otto’s Imperial forces attack from the northeast. This would threaten Philip and Paris from two directions, potentially paralyzing him till the allies could unite.

King John of England

However, as is so often the case with even the best laid plans, it soon went awry.

In response to these movements Philip took personal command of the northern front against the emperor and his allies, while his son Prince Louis was dispatched to contain John coming from the southwest. As John advanced he enjoyed some initial success against Louis, recapturing Anjou by late June. But when faced with battle, John’s bad relations with his vassals damaged his cause: the local Angevin nobles refused to advance; and, left with insufficient forces, he was forced to retreat back to the port of La Rochelle.

In the meantime, Philip, who had grown as a commander since his early years on the Third Crusade (where he played “second fiddle” to John’s elder brother Richard the Lionheart), now turned upon the Germans. He outmaneuvered the sluggish Otto and forced a battle on his own terms, on a plain suitable for cavalry; the arm Philip most trusted in.

The armies met on July 27, 1214 east of Bouvines in Flanders.

At this period in history France was the cultural center of Europe, from which the cult of chivalry and the troubadour had sprung. But the Holy Roman Empire was considered the dominant military power. At Bouvines the chivalry (knights) of France would have the opportunity to test their prowess on the battlefield against their Teutonic rivals. This would be the greatest battle fought between the East and West Franks since the dissolution of Charlemagne’s empire[4].


To the field at Bouvines Philip brought an army of between 5,500 and 7,600 men. The all-important cavalry component, the battle-winners of 13th century Europe, numbered roughly fifteen hundred. Most of these were in fact knights, rather than just mounted sergeants or squires[5]. The French were slightly outnumbered by their Imperial and allied opponents, who numbered as many as 9,000 and may have outnumbered the French in mounted knights by a few hundred. An English contingent, led by the renown William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury (King John’s illegitimate half-brother) comprised part of the Imperial right.[6]

The French were drawn up facing northeast, the emperor and his allies the opposite. Both armies placed their infantry in the center, the heavy cavalry divided on both wings, and a mounted reserve behind the center. On the French side, Philip placed the knights of Champagne and Burgundy, commanded by the Duke of Burgundy, on his right. On his left was a mixed force from mostly Ponthieu and Brittany, commanded by Count Robert of Dreux (brother of the Count of Brittany) and Count William of Ponthieu. The French infantry in the center were town militia drawn from the Île de France and Normandy. His central reserve was composed of 700 knights, 175  of which were members of his own Mesne du Roi, his household knights. The military standard of France, the sacred  Oriflamme, flew behind the infantry and in front of the king’s reserve.

Otto deployed his forces with Renaud de Dammartin, Count of Boulogne and Dammartin commanding the right, composed of Brabant (Low Country) infantry and English knights under the command of William Longsword.  The Flemings were placed on the Imperial left, under the command of their lord Count Ferdinand. Otto himself commanded the Imperial center, along with Theobald Duke of LorraineHenry Duke of Brabant, and Philip Courtenay, the Marquis of Namur. In front of the center the emperor placed high-quality Flemish and Saxon infantry. Otto was himself surrounded by a guard of 50 picked German knights, renown for the their stature and prowess in tournament and battle.

The front of both armies stretched nearly three miles across.

The battle began on the French right, and soon became general as both armies advanced straight ahead and engaged the forces before them. No attempt was made by either commander to maneuver for tactical advantage. Nor was there coordination between the divisions of either army, and even within each division feudal households seem to have operated as independent entities. Knights on both sides sought out and fought each other for personal reputation and to gain ransoms from capture of noble opponents. In essence this was a tournament writ large, the grand melee where knights fought for glory and to gain captives for rich ransoms. A chronicler known as the Anonymous of Bethune even praised the fighting as “good tourneying”!

In the center the Imperial Flemish and Saxon infantry, considered the best in Western Europe, pushed back the French town militia, dismounted sergeants and feudal levies. Philip was forced to lead forward his reserve of 700 knights to try to stem their advance. In the ensuing melee the king was unhorsed and almost slain when dragged from his horse by a hooked pole arm. Only the quality of his armor and the steadfast loyalty of his household knights prevented his death; and Philip was remounted on a borrowed horse. The Imperial foot were only driven back after a furious melee.

“Lances are shattering, swords and daggers hit each other, combatants split each other’s heads with their two-sided-axes (?), and their lowered swords plunge into the bowels of the horses when the iron protection which covers the bodies of their masters prevents iron from penetrating”. [7]

On the allied right, William Longsword and Count Renaud charged forward, initially pushing back the French left and succeeded in inflicting heavy casualties on Count Robert’s forces and threatening to turn the flank. Meanwhile, on the opposite wing, the Flemish knights were bested by the Burgundians when Count Ferdinand, exhausted after hours of combat and weakened by wounds, was taken prisoner. After this the Flemish resistance collapsed and many fled.

In the center, Otto led his fresh mounted reserve of Imperial knights against Philip’s household cavalry. In the resulting melee, and despite their fatigue from earlier combat, the French knights got the better of their German counterparts. The emperor was cut off from his bodyguard and assaulted by one French knight after another. Wielding a falchion “like a halberd”,  Otto struck fiercely to all sides, fending off one attacker after another. His horse was killed beneath him, and this time it was the emperor’s turn to be rescued and remounted by his loyal retainers. With the Imperial center collapsing around him, and the Burgundians now joining the fighting here after the collapse of his Flemish allies, Otto could only escape capture by fleeing the field. But not before the French captured the Imperial banner bearing the double-headed eagle.

                                                                                                                                                                                    William Longespée

The battle continued on the French left, where the English under Longsword pressed hard their opponents until the Earl was unhorsed and captured by Philip of Dreux, the fighting Bishop of Beauvais, brother of Count Robert and a veteran of the Third Crusade. The French pressed their advantage as the English contingent lost coherence, and the survivors of the Imperial right formed a circle of Brabanter pikemen, under Count Renaud and fought to the bitter end. Renaud was captured at last, and his men slaughtered; ending the fighting at Bouvines and leaving Philip triumphant.


The French victory at Bouvines had wide-ranging consequences.

In Germany it led to the emperor Otto’s deposition. He was replaced  by his rival, the Hohenstaufen prince Frederick II. Frederick would go on to become one of the most powerful and celebrated rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, an enlightened prince who would come to be called by his contemporaries Il stupor mundi (“the astonishment of the world”).

Bouvines doomed John’s last chance of recovering the lost Plantagenet lands in France. His humiliating loss would lead to a baronial rebellion against his tyrannical rule in England; and the following year, at Runnymede, his barons would force him to sign the Magna Charta, England’s first step towards a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy.

In France Philip would use the prestige of his victories and the lands captured from John to establish the tradition of a strong, central monarchy. Bouvines also granted the chivalry of France “bragging rights” as the most valorous knights in Christendom; a reputation they would maintain throughout the Middle Ages.


  1. See Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Norman Knight by this author.
  2. Henry had granted John the rule of the Plantagenet lands in Ireland, originally conquered by the Norman “Marcher Lord”, Strongbow. Henry’s plan was for John to be proclaimed “King of Ireland”; just as his eldest son Henry was his co-ruler (in theory) and Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, while Richard ruled Poitou and Aquitaine (with his beloved mother, Eleanor), and Geoffrey was given Brittany. In 1185 John came to Ireland for the first time. He infamously offended the local Irish rulers, making fun of their unfashionable long beards. At the same time he utterly failed to win over his natural allies and subjects, the Anglo-Norman settlers. When the Irish rose up against him, John was forced to flee back to England. Thus of all the sons of Henry II, only John had no lands to govern during his father’s reign.
  3. A problem John would experience continuously throughout the later years of his reign; and which would eventually spark into full-fledged rebellion in that of his son, Henry III.
  4. The kings of France retained the title of “King of the Franks” following the breakup of the Carolingian Empire; while the kingdom of East Francia (Ostfrankenreich) became the Regnum Teutonicum (“Teutonic Kingdom”) and eventually the Holy Roman Empire. Philip II was the first French monarch to style himself “King of France” instead of “King of the Franks”.
  5. The ratio of knights to mounted sergeant (sergeants-at-arms) seems disproportionately high, compared to examples we have from later Medieval practice. A knight was usually accompanied in battle by a mounted squire, himself armed-and-armored not much lighter (if at all) than the knight he served; and often a pair of sergeants or alternately a a crossbowman. By the late Middle Ages France had developed the lances fournies, a squad-sized unit comprised of a knight or man-at-arms, a squire armed in similar though lighter fashion, one or two archers, and a servant with the rather sinister title of  “coutilier” (literally, “dagger man”). This ratio of one or two men-at-arms per unit five (or six) may be a later, 15th century innovation. But it is unlikely that this was far out of the norm from early practice.
  6. Verbruggen, JF,  The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages: From the Eighth Century to 1340 1997, pp. 245–247. Traditional numbers for both armies are considerably higher; but author makes compelling case for the lower number used here.
  7. William of Breton, The Battle of Bouvines


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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