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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 Sixteenth-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 Fifteen here. Or start from the beginning,  with Part One!)

As we attempt to reconstruct the life of an “historical” King Arthur, it is important to bear in mind that all of this is highly speculative. We know little of Arthur beyond the legends, and that little we do have in way of “historical” data come from sources centuries later. However, unlike many modern historians who use this paucity of contemporary material as excuse to dismiss an historic Arthur as mere invention, we are here attempting to build a plausible narrative based upon what is available.

Certainly the historical facts support the possibility, even the likelihood, of a British national leader in the late 5th/early 6th century. One who defended the remnants of Roman civilization in Britain and led the resistance to Anglo-Saxon expansion on the island. We see evidence in the archaeological record, including the locations of Anglo-Saxon burial sites: in the early 6th century the seemingly inexorable advance of the Anglo-Saxons across Britain was arrested and thrown back to the eastern fringes of the island.

Procopius, the Byzantine historian of the mid-6th century, noted that there was an ongoing exodus of Saxons from Britain to the continent during his lifetime[1]. Something (or someone) caused this to happen, almost certainly by making successful war upon the hitherto triumphant Anglo-Saxons.  It goes without saying that successful warfare is impossible without good leadership. So such an achievement must be attributed to a otherwise unknown British leader.

Why would not that leader be the basis for the later stories and legends of “Arthur”?

1527660.jpgThat there is no contemporary written record of Arthur’s life and deeds, or a reliable genealogy for his House (the Dark Ages Celts loved to keep elaborate recorded genealogies for their kings and royal houses) are both explainable and, considering the age in which he lived, not at all surprising. There is an equal dearth of record for other, generally accepted contemporaneous historic figures, such as Cerdic, founder of the West Saxon Kingdom;  or Æsc/Oisc Hengistson, from whom the later kings of Kent (the Oiscingas ) traced their descent. Even less is known about Ælle, the chief enemy of the southern Britons at this time and reputedly the first Anglo-Saxon leader to earn the title of “Bretwalda”. Yet few British historians challenges his or their existence as vehemently as they do Arthur’s. Only Arthur is dismissed out of hand as fiction.

The sole near-contemporary chronicler of Britain in this age was the monk, St. Gildas.  As I explained in earlier installments of this series, the Welsh monastic sources indicate a very personal family animus towards Arthur held by Gildas. So Gildas’ failure to mention Arthur by name should not be grounds to dismiss his existence as fable. One must look between the lines of Gildas, often filling in the gaps with knowledge gleaned from later sources (many of which may have had access to more contemporary accounts now lost), from the pertinent archaeology, and from educated conjecture.

1527661.jpg Gildas the Monk, whose De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae recounts the history of the Britons before and during the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, fails to mention Arthur; much less name him as leader of the British forces against the Anglo-Saxon invaders. But Gildas had personal reasons to deliberately omit references to Arthur; as the latter is said to have executed his brother and may have defeated his father, Caw in battle. One of his biographers says Gildas destroyed monastic records of Arthur.

The decline of Roman Britain, the coming of the Anglo-Saxon invaders, the fierce and desperate British resistance, and how Arthur rose to power following the historically-accepted leader of the Romano-British, Ambrosius Aurelianus: all have all been discussed in previous chapters. In building a narrative for the military history of Arthur,  we have drawn on the work of the 9th century Welsh monk, Nennius; whose Historia Brittonum tells of twelve battles waged by Arthur as “Dux Bellorum” (Warlord) of the British. In previous installments, we have tried to place these battle on the map of Britain and develop a plausible explanation for each.

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

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

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

The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Lindsey.

The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas.

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

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

The ninth battle was in the City of the Legion.

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

The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned.

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

Nennius used as source-material earlier (now lost) Welsh sources. Many modern historians dismiss his twelve battles as either from later ages grafted onto the Arthur legend; or simply spun out of whole (and wholly fictitious) cloth. But upon examination, Nennius’ battles, for the most part, tell a story that is both compelling and plausible; of a successful war-leader who, at the head of a band of well mounted, well armored cavalry (perhaps of the type the late Roman’s would have categorized as “Sarmatian“, or even “cataphract”) rode the length and breadth of Roman Britain; galvanizing and spearheading the Romano-Celtic resistance to the invaders. When viewed through the prism of military analysis by one well read in military history and trained in the military sciences, a discernible strategic narrative unfolds that is wholly tenable, taking into account the available data and known outcomes.


(The following is synopsis of material covered in previous installments of The Age of Arthur)

Our explorations into what can be called “the Age of Arthur” have taken us to 511 A.D.  To recap, Arthur emerges initially as the right-hand of Ambrosius Aurelianus (who I have suggested is synonymous with the historical character, Riothamus), “Supreme King”of Britain. Celtic Britain in the wake of the Roman withdrawal is a patchwork of greater and lesser “kingdoms”. Most are tribal in nature, though others are based upon former Roman commands. The “High King” or “Supreme King” is a title indicating the “first-among-equals” of these petty monarchs. Arthur is perhaps Ambrosius’ nephew (as later tradition claims), and acts as his cavalry commander in Ambrosius’ later years.

By 506 at the latest, Arthur begins to emerge from behind the ageing Ambrosius as his successor. (Some Arthur historians put his life somewhat earlier, in the last quarter of the 5th century.) He commands a mobile force of armored horsemen; who, acting as a mobile “fire brigade”, ride throughout the marches between British and Anglo-Saxon territory. Their work is the unsung dirty business of “small war”: repelling incursions, defending endangered British fortresses and towns, and occasionally raiding into the Anglo-Saxon territories in the eastern part of the island.


These warriors (who call themselves Combrogi, meaning “fellow-countrymen“, but perhaps used as we would the term “comrades”)  are recruited from the horse-riding class of Britain, sons of the British nobility, raised in the saddle from boyhood. Some, perhaps, may have been descendents of Sarmatian horsemen long settled in northern Britain; and from the Alani settlers of Armorica/Brittany, who since the mid 5th century have lived side-by-side in harmony with the British émigrés who arrived at about the same time, fleeing the “Saxon Terror”.

Campaigning together year-after-year; living in the close quarters of camp and bivouac; fighting together side-by-side in desperate battles or recounting tales around glowing fires: Arthur’s Combrogi must have become a true “band of brothers”.  Some few are remembered by name, and survived to be included in the later legends of King Arthur: Cei, “the unrelenting warrior”, comes down to us as Sir Kay, Arthur’s foster brother and later seneschal, as well as one of the first Knights of the Round Table. Another is Bedwyr “of the Perfect Sinews”; who in Monmouth and  Mallory is portrayed as Sir Bedivere; one of Arthur’s last surviving, loyal knights. Arthur’s Combrogi were well known to Welsh storytellers; in the romance Culhwch and Olwen, written around 1100, the protagonist Culhwch invokes the names of 225 individual warriors affiliated with Arthur. They are the basis for the later “Knights of the Round Table“.

In 507, while Ambrosius (who, according to some scholars, dies about this time) is conducting his last campaign against Cerdic and the West Saxons in the south; Arthur begins the campaigns that encompass the twelve battles noted by Nennius.

First he rides to Lindum (Lincoln), where the Angle leader, who Geoffrey of Monmouth called Colgren is laying siege to the town. In route, he intercepts and smashes a new landing at the River Glein (Nennius’ first battle); near the estuary of the Wash. Moving north, he takes Colgren’s forces by surprise at Lindum, breaking the siege (Nennius’ second battle). He drives the Angles eastward, over the River Dubglas (the “Black Water”); identified herein as the river Witham, which runs through Lincolnshire.

1527700.jpg Map showing the proposed location and date of Arthur’s battles, as presented by Nennius; numbers one through nine.

Arthur pursues, and battles Colgren’s retreating forces at a ford of this river. In this, the third of Nennius’ battles, the Angles repel the British; and Arthur withdraws back to British territory for the winter.

The Angle campaign resumes the following spring (herein identified as 508), as Arthur joins local forces in Lindsey (southeast Lincolnshire). He forces a crossing of the Dubglas (Nennius’ 4th battle); and finally brings the retreating Colgren to decisive battle (Nennius’ 5th). The Angles are defeated, Colgren is slain, and the remnants of their colony in Lindsey becomes subject to the local British authority.

Arthur turns north, as news of rebellion reaches him. Caw o’ Brydyn (or Prydain), chieftain (or petty-king) in north Strathclyde, has openly rebelled against Arthur’s authority; making common cause with the Picts to the north. Arthur’s hard-riding Combrogi gallop up the Roman roads, arriving at Caw’s doorstep before news of their coming reaches the rebels. Caw is defeated at the Battle of the Bassus (Nennius 6th) near modern Glasgow, before he can fully assemble his forces. Caw is deposed from his throne, and goes into exile in Wales. (Caw is the father of St. Gildas. This is the first instance of Arthur running afoul of the chronicler’s family. Later, Arthur will execute Gildas’ brother Huail ap Caw for piracy.)

Arthur rides next against the Picts, as they come south to reinforce Caw. He catches them unaware and ambushes them in Nennius’ 7th battle: the Celyddon Coed (Caledonian Forest). The Pictish force is shattered and driven back into the highlands.

Arthur spends the winter in the north, settling affairs in Strathclyde and Gododdin. He confirms his brother-in-law, Lot, as petty-king in northern Gododdin; and places his friend, Dyfnwal of Strathclyde, over southern Gododdin. He also encourages Fergus Mór mac Eirc, semi-legendary progenitor of the kings of Scotland, to come from Dál Riata in northern Ireland, to establish the Kingdom of Dal Riada on the Argyll peninsula; based around the stronghold at Dunadd.  These Irish “Scotti” would act as a counter against the power of the Picts; contending with them for supremacy in the Highlands for centuries; and eventually supplanting them and forming the Kingdom of Scotland.

The following spring, Arthur returns to the south to find Cerdic’s West Saxons raiding the Cornish coast. At Land’s End, warded then by a fortress known as Guinnion (the “White Fort”), he and the local lords of Cornwall catch the raiders and cut down many before they can return to their ships. This battle, Nennius’ 8th, is remembered in local Cornish legend as the Battle of Vellan-Druchar.

Later that year or the following, an Irish landing in Cornwall is repelled by Arthur’s ally (and possible neighbor in Cornwall), Theodoric. Theodoric, whose duties include patrolling the southwestern coasts, follows the survivors to south Wales. Here he drives out an Irish dynasty ruling in Demetia/Dyfed; placing on the throne instead Aircol/Agricola Longhand.

511 AD or 512 AD sees Arthur joining Theodoric in southeastern Wales, in Gwent. This petty-kingdom is experiencing dynastic strife; and Irish raiders driven from Cornwall and Dyfed have moved into the kingdom to fish in its troubled waters. Arthur and Theodoric defeat the Irish at Caerleon, the “City of the Legion”; in what was Nennius’ 9th battle. Theodoric is given the western portion of Gwent, Glywysing, as reward; which he, in turn, bestows upon his son, Meurig. He is remembered in local legends and genealogies as King Tewdric; being revered as an early Christian saint! In later years, he died in battle, aiding his son Meurig to repel an Anglo-Saxon incursion.

This brings us up to date: 511-512. Arthur has emerged as the paramount warlord amongst the Britons. He is styled “Dux Bellorum”: the “Duke of War”, or “warlord”.  Though the most successful of the British leaders, he is not ready yet to take the title of High King, as was born by Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus before him. But events are in motion that will bring Arthur to the pinnacle of his military career; and pave the way for him to emerge as Arthur: High King and Emperor of Britain.


Our discussion now comes to this tenth battle, at “river called Tribruit”.

In or about 514-515 A.D. events in Gododdin in the far north of Britain, threatened to unravel Arthur’s Northern Settlement (see Part Thirteen).

As detailed previously, between 508 and 510, Arthur had campaigned north of the Wall. He’d nipped-in-the-bud a conspiracy by the chieftain Caw o’ Brydyn [2], crushing his forces at the Battle of the Bassus  (tentatively placed near modern Glasgow). He then turned back an incursion by the Picts (possibly coming to join in Caw’s rebellion) at the Battle of the Celyddon Forest. Arthur spent the rest of that year and, perhaps, part or all of the next in settling affairs in the north to his liking.

In the process, we have suggested he placed his brother-in-law, Lot (rendered alternatively as Lleu or Leudonus), as petty-king of northern Gododdin. Lot’s fortress was at Din Eidyn (Castle Rock, Edinburgh); referred to in the Y Gododdin poem, from the seventh century, as Lleu’s Rock. As “Lleu”, he is remembered in the Welsh Triads as one of the three “Red Ravagers of Britain”. Lot is the eponymous king of Lothian in legend.

1538246.jpgEdinburgh Castle (ancient Din Eidyn) from the north

Arthur also enlarged the holdings of his ally and possible childhood friend, Dyfnwal of Alclud, by placing him in charge of southern Gododdin. By these measures he brought the otherwise over-strong and independent Kingdom of Gododdin to heal.

But in doing so, he perforce made enemies. These settlements would have left powerful and ambitious men disappointed or dispossessed. These would have bide their time, gathering strength in secret; waiting for the moment to strike. A natural place for them to gather would have been along the marches, the wild “debateable lands” north of the Gododdin, along the Pictish border.

Nennius’ states that Arthur’s tenth battle was along the river called Tribruit. As with all such battles, the location is debated. But most scholars agree that it was north of modern Edinburg, then a seat of power for the Gododdin. O.G.S. Crawford theorized the fords of the River Forth, called the “Fords of Frew”, some six miles upstream from Stirling as the location [3]. His suggestion is persuasive: He asserts this as a three river system flowing into the estuary, and that the Forth was once known as the River Bruit. Combine “Tri”, meaning three, with “Bruit” and one has “Tribruit”.

1538250.jpg Old Bridge over the Forth at Frew

The Fords of Frew have long been a site of strategic military importance. Its crossing point provided raiders or invading armies with a means of crossing the river while bypassing and avoiding the fortress of Stirling. It was here in 1745 that Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebel Army crossed the Forth on its way to the Battle of Prestonpans. So important (and picturesque) were the famous “Fords of Frew” they were considered among the Seven Wonders of Ancient Scotland.

With a tentative location established, the question becomes against “who” and why” was Arthur battling?

Some have suggested Arthur was facing another Pictish invasion, or perhaps a landing by Angles or Saxons. However, an intriguing explanation is suggested by an older Welsh source.


In the eleventh century Welsh poem known as “Pa gur yv y porthaur” (“What Man is the Gatekeeper?”), or simply as Pa Gur, a battle is mentioned, called Tryfrwyd; which most scholars agree is synonymous with Nennius’ Battle of at the river called Tribruit. In this poem, the battle is fought against a group called the cinbin. “Cinbin” (or Cynbin) translates as “dog-heads”. They are led, in the poem, by a character known as Garwlwyd (“rough grey”).


Who could these “dog-heads” and their leader, Garwywyd, be?

During the Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxons and Norman-English referred to an outlaw as a “wolf’s head” (translated from the Latin, Caput lupinum). Robinhood, famously, is addressed as such by his enemies Prince John and Guy of Gisbourne. In the much earlier Dark Ages British/Celtic society could “dog-head” not be of similar meaning: an outlaw? If so, then perhaps  Arthur’s 10th battle at the crossing of the Forth was against an uprising of “outlaws”? Broken or disgruntled men, banding together to oppose Arthur’s imposed order in the north?

Just as plausibly, these outlaws might have taken the name “Dog-Heads”, and even used such as their standard.

In this scenario, in the years since Arthur and his band of mounted combrogi returned south, these “dog heads” coalesced around a leader named Garwlwyd. Perhaps he was a Gododdin nobleman, dispossessed by Arthur or by the leadership put in place by Arthur’s settlement. Or, like the later Scottish hero, William Wallace, a man of lesser rank who rose to the occasion, a self-proclaimed champion of his people. Alternately he may have been naught but an leader of brigands.

Garwlwyd may also be synonymous with a character found in the Welsh Triads: Gwrgi Garwlwyd (“man-dog rough-grey”, though perhaps a better translation would read, “rough-grey man-dog”); who is a savage, man-eating character sometimes identified as a werewolf! In the Triads he is credited with making a corpse of a Briton every day, and two on Saturday so as not to have to kill on a Sunday!

Gwrgi Garwlwyd is identified in the Welsh Triads as the first of  “the three disgraceful traitors” of the Britons (or Cambrians/Welsh in the Triads); whose actions weakened and betrayed Celtic Britain to the Anglo-Saxon conquest.

 “The three disgraceful traitors who enabled the Saxons to take the crown of the Isle of Britain from the Cambrians: The first was Gwrgi Garwlwyd, who after tasting human flesh in the court of Edlfled the Saxon king, became so fond of it that he would eat no other but human flesh ever after. In consequence of this, he and his men united with Edlfled king of the Saxons; and he made secret incursions upon the Cambrians, and brought a young male and female whom he daily ate. And all the lawless men of the Cambrians flocked to him and the Saxons, for they obtained their full of prey and spoil taken from the natives of this Isle.”

In our scenario, this fearsome cannibalistic warrior, Garwlywd, has gathered a band of exiles and outlaws to his standard (a dog’s head?). He is opposed to Arthur’s settlement and to the rule of Arthur’s brother-in-law, Lot. He has made common cause with an Anglo-Saxon warlord or pirate, Edlfled (who has been tentatively identified by some scholars as Æthelfrith of Bernicia); perhaps planning a joint assault on the Gododdin stronghold of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh).

With northern Gododdin so threatened, and in fear for his authority and perhaps his life, Lot sends urgent word to Arthur to come to his aid.

Lot’s appeal reaches Arthur at his favorite residence, Kelliwic (Killibury/Kelly Rounds) in Cornwall, where Geoffrey Ashe and (particularly) Rodney Castleden suggested he had his “seat of power” as lord of the region known as Trigg (in Brythonic) or Tricurium (in Latin)[4]. Arthur soon sets out at the head of his 300 (?) armored combrogi.


It is a journey of some 515 miles. A mounted force such as Arthur’s, used to hard riding and utilizing the very good Roman road network, could at a controlled canter make 50  miles in a day. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Arthur’s horsemen arrived at Din Eidyn in ten to eleven days after leaving Kelliwic.

There he joins Lot’s forces and moves north against the outlaw army. Garwlywd is camped (perhaps) near the Fords of Frew (then called Tribruit); from which he threatens and raids into Gododdin. With his characteristic speed and vigor, Arthur crosses the river and attacks the outlaw band before warning of his coming can reach Garwlywd’s ears.


The Pa Gur speaks of the deeds of Arthur’s champions in the battle: Cei (remembered in the later romances as Sir Kay the Seneschal) and Bedwyr (in legend Arthur’s last loyal knight, Sir Bedivere) in the battle. The fighting is fierce and bloody; and is portrayed as in the nature of a civil war fought between men who knew each other and regretted the strife between them. Cei pleads with his opponents; perhaps exhorting them to surrender, to throw themselves upon Arthur’s certain mercy.

“Cei pleaded with them / While he slew them three by three. . . . Cei pleaded with them / While he hewed them down.”

This “pleading” with his opponents by Cei validates the theory that this was not a battle against foreign enemies, but between fellow Britons. This fits well the scenario we have suggested here: that these are Britons, likely men of Gododdin, some of which may have known their opponents from childhood, who are now in rebellion against Arthur’s authority.

 Bedwyr is mentioned as slaying  his opponents “by the hundred”; and  fighting the ferocious Garwlwyd himself:

“They fell by the hundred before Bedwyr of the Perfect-Sinew. On the shores of Tryfrwyd fighting with Garwlwyd furious was his nature with sword and shield”

1538257.jpgThe battle ends with Arthur’s victory, but perhaps not a decisive one. Arthur would have to fight again very soon at nearby Din Eidyn; and the “Dog-Heads” leader, Garwlwyd, perhaps escaped. According to the Triads, Garwlwyd was “assassinated” by one Diffydell mab Dysgyfdawd, in one of the three so-called “Fortunate Assassinations”. Either Diffydell slew the villain Garwlwyd during or after the battle of the Tryfrwyd (in which case it can hardly be called an assassination); or Garwlwyd escaped the battle and was later assassinated.
No mention is made in the Pa Gur’s (admittedly) scant account of the battle of the Angle allies the Triads accuse Garwlwyd of making common cause with. Could “Edlfled’s” Angle allies have struck by sea, landing south of the Forth and seizing “the hill of Agned”, near Din Eidyn?


* All dates are speculative. Scholarly debate places the life and deeds of Arthur at some point between 480 A.D. and 535 A.D.

  1. Procopius, Debellis 8.20
  2. Caw o’ Brydyn (or Prydain), was a chieftain (or petty-king) in north Strathclyde. He was the father of Huail/Hueil ap Caw, who was at some point one of Arthur’s combrogi cavalry; but eventually fell out with Arthur and the men became bitter enemies. Caw was also the father of St. Gildas, the future monkish chronicler of the period; and of daughter, Cwyllog, who may have been the wife of Medrawt/Mordred, Arthur’s killer. (Mathews, John: King Arthur:Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero, P. 19. Rosen Publishing Group, 2008).
  3. Ashley, M. A Brief History of King Arthur, P. 157. Running Press (2010)
  4. Castleden, Rodney: King Arthur: the Truth Behind the Legend. P 127. Routledge, NY (2000)


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



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ln 1881, in the Sudan, a leader emerged as if from out of the sands. He was a man of the desert, a mystic and a man of God. His name was Muhammad Ahmad and claimed to be the “Expected One”, the true “Mahdi”. He soon gathered a force of followers from the desert tribes, and declared jihad.

The Mahdi’s Army grew and his revolt spread. The Dervishes (as they came to be known) captured towns and defeated small Egyptian forces sent to destroy them.

Then, in 1883, the Turkish governor of Egypt hired William “Billy” Hicks, a retired British Colonel and several British subordinates to lead a modern army into the Sudan and crush the Mahdi. Hicks Pasha had at his disposal 10,000 regular infantry armed with modern rifles, 1,000 irregular cavalry, 14 field pieces and 6 Nordenfelt multiple barrel machine guns.

The Mahdi (R), and as portrayed by Sir Lawrence Olivier (L) in the 1966 film, “Khartoum”

On paper it was an imposing force. But the infantry had been recruited from pardoned rebels and the cavalry were undisciplined bashibazouks. In the words of Winston Churchill, it was “perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war”: unpaid, untrained, undisciplined, its soldiers having more in common with their enemies than with their officers.

The Mahdi awaited them, with 40,000 spear and sword-armed tribesmen. They had few rifles and no field guns; but they had something perhaps even greater. The Mahdi promised them a miracle, and they believed him.

They also knew the desert.

Dervish weapons, shields, and a mail shirt

The Mahdi retreated, and Hicks pursed. Further and further the Mahdi drew his enemy, and Hicks followed; slowed by an immense train of 5,000 camels. The Egyptians withered in the blistering desert heat, their water supplies dwindling. Day after day, they marched on, the Dervishes always just beyond their reach.

Finally, his army spent, Hicks ordered a retreat back to El Obied. It was then the Mahdi stopped retreating, and turned on his enemy. The Egyptians were soon surrounded. For two days their square held, until it collapsed. Hicks and all of the European officers perished; and only 500 survivors returned to Egypt. They left in the Mahdi’s hands all of their equipment. If formidable with spear and sword, how dangerous would the Dervishes now be with modern weapons?

The harsh, forbidding Sudanese desert. It was in just such terrain that Hick’s column was destroyed by the Dervishes.

The loss of Hick’s army was a deep embarrassment to both Egypt and British government. While technically a part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was effectively under the protection of the British Empire. Its army was trained and led by British officers. Pride aside, of more concern was the loss of more than 8,000 rifles and the 14 pieces of modern artillery. The government of Prime Minister William Gladstonewas forced by an outraged public to take action.

In contrast to his arch political rival, Disraeli, Gladstone was a staunch anti-imperialist; and was loath to commit British forces to a war in the Sudan. However, to ease British public opinion, Gladstone appointed a retired national hero, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, as Governor-General of the Sudan. While most famous for having led the Chinese Imperial government’s “Ever Victorious Army” to final victory in the Taiping Rebellion; Gordon had served as Governor of the Sudan in the 1870s, where he had suppressed the slave trade. It was a popular appointment both in Britain and in the Sudan.

Charles “Chinese” Gordon (right), and Charleton Heston, who portrayed Gordon in the film “Khartoum” (1966)

But Gordon was not sent to the Sudan to fight the Mahdi. He had no troops at his disposal, and none were promised should he get himself into trouble. He was sent in hopes that his name alone would rally support to the government and against the Mahdi; and failing that, to organize the evacuation of all European personnel from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Gordon arrived in Khartoum in February, 1884. However, Gladstone had overestimated both the dampening effect Gordon’s arrival in the Sudan would have on the Mahdist revolt; and Gordon’s willingness to obey orders. Once ensconced in the Governor’s palace in Khartoum, Gordon began calling for Gladstone to send troops to help his beloved Sudanese in resisting the Dervishes. Meanwhile, he spent the year preparing Khartoum to stand siege till relief arrived.

As the Mahdist revolt spread, Gordon and Khartoum were increasingly isolated. A loose Dervish blockade of the city began on March 18, 1884, with the telegraph line to Cairo being cut and river traffic interdicted. Fearful for their hero’s life, the British press and public called for a relief expedition. A stubborn and incensed Gladstone resisted as long as was politically possible. Then, in August 1884 he ordered a British relief force to Gordon’s rescue.

Called the Khartoum Relief Expedition (or, more popularly in the press, the Gordon Relief Expedition), a force of 4,500 crack British regulars were placed under the command of Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley, Britain’s most eminent general. Steaming from England to Alexandria, the expedition then set out from Egypt and up the Nile in two columns. The largest was led by Wolseley himself, and traveled south down the Nile by riverboats. The other, the elite Camel Corps, was commanded by Sir Herbert Stewart. These took the direct route from Wadi Halfa across the desert.

Stewart’s force, 1,400 strong, was composed of some of the best units in the British army:

1. The Heavy Camel Corps, comprised of the Household Cavalry, Dragoon Guards, Dragoons and Lancers.

2. The Guards Camel Corps, comprising Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards and Royal Marine Light Infantry.

3. The Mounted Infantry Camel Corps, drawn from the 1st Battalion the Sussex Regiment.

4. Four light field pieces and a small Naval Brigade manning a Gardner machine gun completed the force.

The men of the Camel Corps, 1885

Contrary to what was portrayed in the 2002 film, The Four Feathers, the men of Stewarts command did not wear the traditional British redcoat. Instead, they wore grey tunics, cord breeches and pith helmets stained brown. The infantry of the Sussex Regiment wore khaki tunics. The British troops were all armed with the Martini-Henry breach-loading rifle, equipped with a 22 inch sword-bayonet. Both infantry and cavalry units were mounted on camels, except for the 19th Hussars, who alone retained their horses, and carried carbines and swords instead of rifles.

As Stewart’s column neared the oasis of Abu Klea on January 16, 1885, pickets of the 19th Hussars encountered parties of Dervishes. It could be seen that a large force was waiting at the wells and ready to give battle. The British had left the last water some 43 miles before and were in need of replenishment. Nevertheless it was apparent that Abu Klea could only be taken by assault. Stewart halted two miles short of Abu Klea and camped.

The following morning, January 17 the British waited a Dervish attack behind a zereba (hedge) of thorn brush they had erected around their camp. Mounted parties were sent out to skirmish with the Dervishes, in hope of stinging them into a costly assault on the well-defended British camp. When the Mahdist failed to take the bait, Stewart broke camp. Forming up his command into a large, hollow square with the camels in the center, Stewart’s dismounted force advanced on the wells of Abu Klea.

Awaiting him was a 13,000 strong force of fierce Dervish warriors.

Mahdist/Dervish warriors

For Herbert Stewart and the British, the Battle of Abu Klea began with inauspiciously with mishap. At around 9:30am, as the British square wheeled to the right to move onto higher ground, the Dervishes emerged from the concealment of a nearby gully and charged the square. At this critical juncture, the British fire was hampered by the presence of their own skirmishers between them and the enemy. These had to be permitted to regain the square before volley fire could commence. The rapidly approaching Dervishes followed close on the retreating skirmishers, consequently coming to within 200 yards or less of the square before the first volleys could be delivered; depriving the British of long-range fire.

The Martini-Henry rifle with bayonet types

Near disaster loomed when, at this most inopportune moment, a potentially fatal gap opened in a corner of the square. This was partially due to the uneven nature of the ground, and to the inexperience of the Naval Brigade and the dismounted cavalry contingents, who were attempting to fight as infantry. The Dervish charge was delivered at the section of the square held by the Mounted Infantry Regiment of the Camel Corps. Captain Lord Beresford of the Naval Brigade brought his Gardner gun from its position at the rear of the square and took it out through the Mounted Infantry line and opened fire on the charging warriors. But after firing just some 70 rounds, the Gardner gun jammed; something it had an unfortunate tendency to do. Before it could be cleared the Dervish spearmen swarmed over and overwhelmed the detachment; slaughtering all but Lord Beresford, who fell under the gun, along with one of the junior men.

Despite this reverse, the heavy volley firing from the Mounted Infantry and shrapnel from the 3 guns in their front repulsed the Mahdist charge, which coursed around the left face of the square to fall on the gap, where the Heavy Cavalry Camel regiment was posted.

The troopers of this Regiment were defending themselves with the long infantry rifle, a weapon they were unfamiliar with. The cavalry officers had no experience in defending an infantry square. The result was perhaps predictable: swarming forward, the Dervishes penetrated through and into the square.

At this moment the renown Colonel Frederick Burnaby of the Horse Guards rushed forward to stem the tide. A large man who famously loved a good fight, Burnaby waded into the oncoming horde. Fighting with sword from horseback, Burnaby fenced with onrushing warriors, till a thrusting spearman, coming from his flank, caught him in the throat, mortally wounding him.

Rushing past the dying Burnaby and on into the interior of the square, the Dervishes were balked by the mass of camels packed into the interior, which prevented the Dervishes from smashing into the exposed rear ranks of the British troops on the opposing faces of the square. As the camels scampered out of the way, the rear rank of the Mounted Infantry in the front-face of the square, and the Foot Guards and Royal Marines on the right-face turned about; and opened a devastating fire on the blood-mad Dervish warriors. Their attack was soon broken, and thrown back.

The battle was only ten, frantic minutes long. It resulted in 76 dead and 82 wounded British soldiers. The Mahdists took approximately 1,500 casualties. By 4 pm, the British had taken the wells and the Dervish force was in retreat. Winston Churchill, in his book “The River War” called the fight at Abu Klea “the most savage and bloody action ever fought in the Sudan by British troops…”

Two days later, Stewart was mortally wounded by a stray bullet in a skirmish. The advance continued unabated. Concerned with Wolseley’s column approaching as well along the river, the Mahdi decided to order an assault on Khartoum, before the relief columns could arrive to break the siege. Despite his careful preparations, Gordon’s defenses crumbled and the city fell. Gordon died on the steps of his palace to a Dervish spear.

The death of Gordon

The Gordon Relief Expedition arrived at Khartoum two days later. Finding Gordon and the European nationals dead, the British withdrew; and the Mahdi took complete control of the Sudan.

Six months later, the Mahdi died of typhus. But the Dervish state continued on for another 14 years, till Britain sent a second army under Sir Herbert Kitchener to finish what Wolseley and Stewart had begun.

Scene from the 1966 film, Khartoum, depicting (inaccurately) the Battle of Abu Klea. Note the total lack of Dervish foot, among other flaws. (At least music is stirring!)
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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The War of 1812* was a mere sideshow for the British, desperately committed as they were to the titanic effort of defeating Napoleon in Europe. Most of the battles in America involved less than 2,000 combatants on either side; compared to those fought in Europe, where tens of thousands were engaged. But for Britain the American War was a nuisance that needed to be brought to a successful conclusion, and the American upstart put firmly in its place.

In 1814 Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of nations and “the Ogre”  (seemingly) safely sent into exile on the Island of Elba. The greater enemy behind them, the British now turned their full attention to finishing their war in America. Even while negotiations with the United States were underway in the Belgian city of Ghent, the British were transporting a new army of 15,000 men to America. About half of these were veterans of Wellington’s Peninsular War, commanded by the Iron Duke’s own brother-in-law and former division commander, Sir Edward Packenham.


The British operational plan called for the seizure of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. This would stop the flow of commerce up-and-down the river.  As a bargaining chip in the ongoing peace talks, it would give the British excellent leverage. America had only recently acquired the vast territories of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. With New Orleans in their grip the British would be in excellent position to claim these as spoils of war. The fledgling United States could then be cut off from the American west by British holdings, and its expansion across the continent curtailed.

The future of the fledgling United States hinged  upon the outcome of this campaign.

On December 14, 1814, the British fleet cleared the approach to the city in the Battle of Lake Borgne; and the morning of the 23rd the British vanguard  of 1,800  men landed on the bank of the Mississippi, at Lacoste’s Plantation just 9 miles south of New Orleans. This was Packenham’s 3rd Brigade, commanded by  the veteran General John Keane, who would later lead the British conquest of Afghanistan at the start of the First Anglo-Afghan War. The veteran Irishman was within hours of seizing the undefended city, and accomplishing the campaign’s main strategic goal on Day One of the campaign. But Keane made the fateful decision to encamp for the day and organize his brigade, rather than push on.


Fortunately for the American cause, a small but well-led American force was rushing to the city’s succor: 1,000 regulars commanded by General Andrew Jackson. Known admiringly by his troops as “Old Hickory” (“tough as an old piece of hickory wood!”), Jackson and his men were fresh from victory in the Creek (“Red Stick”) War; and from driving the British out of their base at Pensacola, Florida.

“Old Hickory” had a very personal hatred for the British: In 1780 during the Revolutionary War, when Jackson was 13 years old, his home had been used as a billet for a British officer.  When Jackson angrily refused to clean the officer’s boots the Englishman sabered the youth, leaving him with scars on his left hand and head. He and his brother Robert spent a year imprisoned by the British, and Robert died in captivity of smallpox. For these and likely many other reasons Jackson was delighted to have the opportunity to lead an army against this hated enemy.


In all,  Jackson was a “fighting general”, whose fiercely indomitable spirit and will to win infused the troops under his command.

Upon his arrival Jackson took charge of New Orleans. The city was in a near panic, and some of the leading citizens advocated surrender in the face of what seemed an overwhelming threat. Jackson would entertain no talk of surrender, and instead placed the city under martial law. He arrested anyone who interfered or disagreed with his plans for defending the city, including a lawyer, a Louisiana legislator, a federal District Court Judge. “Old Hickory” was going to stop the British, and devil take whoever stood in his way!

The Buccaneer (1958):  Jackson (Charleton Heston) takes charge of New Orleans  

Learning of Keane’s presence at Lacoste’s Plantation, Jackson famously cried, “By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!” Gathering what troops he could find at hand (about two thousand men), Jackson raided Keane’ camp on the evening of December 21st. A vicious hand-to-hand skirmish ensued by the light of campfireThe British repulsed the brief attack, and Jackson withdrew. But Keane was unsettled by the sudden appearance of American forces. For the next few days, he did nothing, choosing to wait for Pakenham and the main force to come up. Combined with his decision not to advance immediately on the 23rd, this nighttime skirmish which convinced Keane to hold in place saved New Orleans.


Coffee’s Tennessee Militia attack the British camp at Lacoste’s Plantation on the night of the 21st December

Jackson used the respite to fortify a narrow position across the British line of advance to New Orleans, beside the river and behind the shallow Rodriguez Canal; about four miles south of the city at Chalmette Plantation. Jackson’s small force of “regulars” was swelled to some 4,700 with volunteers, drawn from local militia, woodsmen, and even a force of pirates under the famed French pirate and privateer, Jean Laffite. The pirates provided something even more important to Jackson’s cause: heavy guns and expert gunners from their ships and base at nearby Barataria. With these and other field pieces he was able to glean Jackson had at his disposal a sizable battery; which included one 32-pound gun, three 24-pounders, one 18-pounders, three 12-pounders, three 6-pounders, and a 6-inch (150 mm) howitzer. This was a very formidable array, much more typical of the battery of a fortress than what would normally be found upon a battlefield of the day[1]. This very strong American defensive position was called “The Jackson Line”. Supporting this position was a 20 gun naval battery on the west bank of the river, commanded by a Commodore Daniel Patterson.

On Christmas Day, General Edward Pakenham arrived on the battlefield and ordered a reconnaissance of the American earthworks on the 28th. Unhappy with the prospect of attacking this position, that evening Pakenham held a command conference with General Keane and Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commander of the British naval forces. Pakenham suggested reembarking the land force, and outflanking Jackson’s position with a new landing north of New Orleans, utilizing the  Chef Menteur Road. The pugnacious Cochrane argued for an assault against Jackson’s makeshift position, underestimating the strength of the position and insisting that Pakenham’s veterans should be able to easily drive the Americans from their redoubt; and that if the army couldn’t do it, he (Cochrane) would land his sailors and see it accomplished!

Despite Sir Edward’s misgivings, the decision was made to attack Jackson at Chalmette.


On the dark, fog-shrouded morning of January 8 Sir Edward’s force of 8,000 men launched a two-pronged assault against Jackson’s line. With bagpipes, fifes and drums the red-coated ranks advance with measured tread across the boggy ground.  General Samuel Gibbs commanded the brigade tasked with the main thrust on the British right, spearheaded by the 1st Battalion of the 44th East Essex Regiment of Foot, along with the 21st Reg of Foot, and the West India Regiment. General Keane commanded the left-hand prong, along the river, comprised of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders (who later gained fame as the “Thin Red Line” at Alma and Balaclava); and companies of the 43rd Foot. The whole British advance was screened by a 500-man “demi-battalion” of the elite 95th Rifles (the famous Green Jackets of “Sharp’s Rifles” fame).

A secondary attack would be made against Patterson’s battery on the west bank. This force of 780 men was comprised a battalion of 85th Regiment of Foot with detachments of sailors and Royal Marines, commanded by Colonel William Thornton. Their role was to overrun the American guns and turn them against the flank of Jackson’s line.

In all, as sound a plan as could be made under the circumstances.

From The Buccaneer (1958), The British attack begins 

Unfortunately for the British, the fog lifted just as the attack was crossing the open ground; and the British right-wing came under intensive and deadly artillery fire from the American parapet. Even so, Gibbs’ force pushed on, displaying the dauntless courage British regulars were famous for. But as they reached the American trench defending the parapet, the British plan began to unravel; as it was found that the 44th had inexplicably forgotten the ladders and fascines needed to cross the canal and scale the earthworks. Confusion and carnage followed as the storm column, halted in place, was lacerated by point-blank grape shot and rifle fire from American marksmen. To make matters worse Gibbs was killed and Pakenham was wounded and unhorsed. The General was subsequently killed as he was helped off the field, his spine shattered by grapeshot.

pake-woundedPakenham is shot from his horse

On the British left, progress was made and the Highlanders stormed the American parapet. But seeing the disaster unfolding to his right, Keane left the detached companies of the 43rd to hold the ground taken, and took the Highlanders across the field to rally and support the main attack. As they crossed the field, the 93rd were raked by fire from the guns of the American center, and pinned down. Keane became the third senior officer to fall wounded.


The two main assaults having failed, a third attempt to storm the redoubt was made by Major Wilkinson of the 21st North British Fusilier Regiment. They were able to reach the entrenchments and attempted to scale them. Wilkinson scaled the parapet, reaching the top before falling wounded to American fire. Impressed with his courage, the defenders carried him behind the rampart.


With most of their senior officers dead or wounded, the British soldiers, including the 93rd Highlanders, having no orders to advance further or retreat, stood out in the open and were shot apart with grapeshot from the Jackson Line. The “immense bravery” shown by the 93rd under this maelstrom of fire was noted by Jackson biographer Paul Wellman:

To the very edge of the canal before the rampart the few that were left of the kilted regiment marched, then halted there. The men who had been detailed to bring scaling ladders and fascines had failed to come up. Unable to go forward, too proud to retreat, although the regiment behind them had all fallen back. At length a mere handful of what had been the magnificent regiment slowly retired, still in unbroken order, still turning to face the foe. From the ramparts the Americans cheered them wildly. All rifle fire ceased. [2]

Meanwhile, the progress gained on the left was halted as the American 7th Infantry came up and threw-back the British lodgement on the redoubt. Within 20 minutes, their ranks decimated and the attack in shambles, the British survivors were ordered to retreat by General John Lambert, commanding the reserve brigade.  Lambert, now the senior officer still standing, took command. He gave the order for his reserve to advance and cover the withdrawal of the army from the field.


The one British success that day was on the opposite side of the canal. Here, Thorton’s attack on the naval battery was successful, and were able to turn the guns to enfilade Jackson’s line across the canal. Unfortunately, this was too late to influence the battle, and Lambert ordered this force to abandon its gains and retreat as well. The irony of this is that when he learned the British held the opposite bank allowing enfilade fire upon his line, Jackson was prepared to withdraw the American forces if the British renewed the attack.


In all the British had suffered 2,042 casualties: 291 killed (including both Generals Pakenham and and his second-in-command, Gibbs), 1,267 wounded (including General Keane and Major Wilkinson) and 484 captured or missing.[3]

Jackson’s men had suffered a mere 71 casualties: 13 dead; 39 wounded and 19 missing.

The news of victory, one man recalled, “came upon the country like a clap of thunder in the clear azure vault of the firmament, and traveled with electromagnetic velocity, throughout the confines of the land.” Jackson became a nation hero, receiving the Thanks of Congress as well as a Congressional Gold Medal. The fame he gained at New Orleans would sustain and propel Jackson into the White House.  Once Jackson was elected to the Presidency in  1829, the “8th of January” was celebrated as a national holiday until 1861 brought the American Civil War.

Actor Charleton Heston brought Andrew Jackson to the screen twice in his career. In 1958s The Buccaneer, and the first time in this film from 1953, “The President’s Lady”; which focused on the love affair with his wife, Rachel. In this clip, we see Jackson during his run for the Presidency, leading to the last scene, his Inaugural.

The irony of the Battle of New Orleans was that the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, had been signed on December 24th. However, that doesn’t rob the American victory of significance. Had the British won the battle and seized New Orleans, they may well have leveraged such a victory to gain better terms; perhaps even taking the Louisiana Purchase territories from the United States.

The history of the United States and North America could have been very different, indeed.




*Known as The American War to the British and Canadians

  1. The largest guns in Napoleon’s “grande batterie” at Waterloo the following year were only 12 pounders, much smaller than the 32 and 24 pound naval guns Jackson had in place at Chalmette.
  2. Wellman, Paul, The House Divides: The Age of Jackson and Lincoln, From the War of 1812 to the Civil War. Foulsham Publishing
  3. The 44th suffered heavy casualties at New Orleans that January, 1814. Less than thirty years later, the same regiment would suffer annihilation in January of 1842 in the icy passes of Afghanistan during the Retreat from Kabul.
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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.

Image result for barritus war cry

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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