1609159 (1).jpgDeadliest Blogger’s historical articles organized in a chronological order, to help my readers place them in some sort of historical timeline.

A girlfriend once pointed out that it would be uber-useful to have a reference guide to all of the various pieces Deadliest Blogger has written over the years; placing each in it historical order. Well, for your convenience, here it is!

Here is a list of all of my historical pieces, placed within a chronological timeline:



The Artwork of War – Heroes of Troy and Mycenae:

15th-12th century BC. Bronze Age Greek world, in the Age of Heroes.



05 Pyrrhus 2The 25 Greatest Commanders of the Ancient World:

1475 BC- 476 AD, Deadliest Blogger’s list of the greatest generals of the Ancient World.





Spartans: Elite Warriors of Ancient Greece:

6th-4th century BC. First in a series detailing the history of the Spartans.




1417290-aGreat Warships of History: The Greek Trireme:

5th century BC. Our series on the great warships that influenced history focuses here on the trireme.



The Lion at the Hot Gates: Thermopylae 480 BC

480 BC. The Battle of Thermopylae




Greece is Save By Its Wooden Walls:

480 BC Battle of Salamis



1551560Spartan Invincibility is Destroyed at Leuctra:

371 BC the Spartans meet the Thebans under the military genius Epaminondas



Great Captains: Alexander the Great:

4th century BC, part of Deadliest Blogger’s series on the great generals of history.



Granicus: Alexander Takes the First Step Toward Greatness:

334 BC, Alexander the Great at the Battle of Granicus



Diadochi: Macedonian Game of Thrones:

321 BC-281 BC: the “Successors” of Alexander fight over the carcass of his empire; and establish kingdoms of their own. First of a series, each new installment linked at the bottom.



Armies of the Successors: The Antigonids:

4th-2nd century BC, an overview of the army of Macedonia after Alexander till the coming of the Romans. First in a series.



Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids:

4th-2nd century BC, overview of the army of the largest of the Diodachi kingdoms. Second in the series.



Armies of the Successors: The Ptolemies:

4th-1st century BC, overview of the army of the Ptolemaic Macedonian kingdom of Egypt. Third in the series.



Great Captains: Hannibal Barca:

3th century BC, Deadliest Blogger’s look at the man who shook Rome to its roots. Part of our series on the greatest generals in history.


Breaching the Alps: Hannibal’s Icy Ordeal:

218 BC, an examination of how and why Hannibal chose to bring an army across the snowy Alps to attack his Roman enemy.



Cannae: Hannibal’s Masterpiece:

216 BC, and Rome suffers one of its greatest defeats.



Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate:

3rd-1st Century BC: the Roman legion eventually replaced the phalanx as the dominant force on the battlefields of the Classical World. Which system was superior, and why?



Mad Kings and Maccabees: the First Hanukkah:

2nd century BC, Antiochus IV’s harsh policy of forced Hellenization ignites a revolution among his Judean subjects; leading to the first Hanukkah celebration.



Disaster In the Desert: Crassus at Carrhae:

54 BC, a Roman invasion of Mesopotamia leads to the death of Crassus.



caesar-bustGreat Captains: Julius Caesar:

1st century BC,  Deadliest Blogger’s look at the “noblest Roman of them all”. Part of our series on the greatest generals in history.


Terror in the Teutoburg Forest!

9, the Roman occupation army of Germany is ambushed in the depths of the Black Forest. The results were to have long-ranging effects on the future of the Roman Empire and Germany.




Adrianople: Twilight of the Legions:

378, the Goths deal the Romans a historic defeat. But why was it such a catastrophe for the empire?



The Age of Arthur:

5th-6th century AD Britain. Were the legends of “King Arthur” and his Knights of the Round Table based on historical events and characters? First in a series.


Attila is Stopped at the Catalaunian Fields:

451, the “Scourge of God” invades the Western Roman Empire; and is stopped at Chalons!



belisarius-2Belisarius at Darus:

530 and the Eastern Roman general Belisarius wins his first great battle against a far larger Persian army. His use of interior lines and field works is a text book case study in generalship.



1432785aDark Ages Elite: The Bucellarii of Belisarius:

6th-early 7th century, the Eastern Roman army is transformed by the methods of Belisarius, which experiment began with his own household regiment. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.


Great Warships of History: Byzantine Fire Dromon:

7th cent, the Eastern Romans create a revolution in naval warfare with a flame-throwing weapon mounted on their nimble galleys. Part of our series on the great warships.


Dark Ages Elite: Caballarii of Charlemagne:

8th-9th century, the armored cavalry elite of Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire become the genesis of the Medieval paladins. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.


The Vikings: An Enduring Fascination:

793-1066: “From the fury of the Northmen deliver us!” A brief look at the Vikings, and why they continue to fascinate us to this day.



England is Born at Bloody Brunanburh:

937, the grandson of Alfred the Great becomes the first king of a united England.


Dark Ages Elite: The Jomsvikings:

10th-11th century elite Viking brotherhood. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.



Carnage at Clontarf: Ireland’s Darkest Day:

1014 and Brian Boru, faces a coalition of enemies. The Battle of Clontarf was a Pyrrhic Victory, which ended Ireland’s one chance to unit into a single, powerful kingdom.



Dark Ages Elite: Anglo-Saxon Huscarls:

11th century, following England’s conquest by the Danes under Canute the Great, the English thrown was guarded by an elite body of Anglo-Danish warriors: the Huscarls! Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.


1408160Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Norman Knight: 11th-12th century, the Norman knights were the most feared heavy cavalry in Europe. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.




1066: A Bloody and Momentous Year

The year 1066 could be called the Year of the Three Kings. The events culminated in the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings.


Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages: Varangian Guard:

11th-14th cent, the Byzantine emperors are guarded by an elite body of Northmen, Rus, and Englishmen. Part of our series on “Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages”.



Manzikert.jpgThe Terrible Day: Disaster at Manzikert:

1071 and imperial Byzantium suffers a terrible defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks; and Anatolia begins the transformation into “Turkey”.





22853_Otto-IThe 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages:

475-1453, Deadliest Blogger’s list of the greatest generals of the Middle Ages.




The Crusades: A Politically Incorrect View:

1095 – 1204 and tens of thousands of Christians marched east to liberate the “Holy Land” from its Muslim conquerors. A multi-part series on the history of the Crusades.


Myriocephalon: the Byzantine Resurgence Comes to a Disastrous End

1176, the Emperor Manuel Komnenos leads the last great army of the Byzantine Empire into Turkish territory to recover the lost lands of Anatolia. In the ravines and passes of Myriocephalon he is ambushed.



The Knights of France Defeat the Power of the Empire at Bouvines, 1214

Philip II “Augustus” establishes France as the premiere power in Western Europe and the chivalry of France as the greatest fighting men in Christendom.


Great Captains: Chingis Khan:

13th century AD, Chingis (Genghis) Khan unites the peoples of Mongolia and creates the world’s largest land empire. Part of our series on the greatest generals in history.


Legnica: The Mongol Terror Reaches Poland:

1241 and the northern thrust of the Mongol invasion invades Poland. There they meet the armies of Poland and Bohemia.



End of the Caliphate: The Mongol Sack of Baghdad: 1258 and the greatest city in the Islamic World is captured and pillaged by the advancing Mongol horde. In its ashes the last Abbasid Caliph is put to death.


Clash of Titans: Tamerlane at Angora, 1402

The Ottoman Turkish Sultan Bayezid the “Thunderbolt” engaged the invading army of Timur the Lame, the last great Mongol conqueror.


Slaughter in the Mud:Henry V at Agincourt:

1415, young king Henry V of England renews the 100 Years War by invading France. In the muddy fields of Agincourt a tired and hungry English army is brought to bay by a pursuing force five times its size. On St. Crispin’s Day Henry’s wins a miraculous victory.


A Most Sanguinary Affair: Bloody Towton: 

1461, the greatest battle of the War of the Roses, and the largest ever fought on English soil.


Richard III’s Short Reign Ends at Bloody Bosworth:

1485, and the War of the Roses ends with the defeat of Richard III.




The 25 Greatest Commanders of the Renaissance: 1453-1650, Deadliest Blogger’s list of the greatest generals of the Renaissance.



Marignano, Battle of Giants, Ends the Myth of Swiss Invincibility:

1515, King Francois I of France defeats the hitherto invincible Swiss to contest the rule of Northern Italy.


panipat_main-bMughal: “The Tiger” Founds an Empire at Panipat:

1525, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane defeats the Sultan of Delhi and founds the Mughal Empire.



Great Warships of History: Korean Turtle Ship:

1590s, an overwhelming Japanese invasion of Korea is thwarted by Korea’s revolutionary iron-clad “Turtle Ships”. Part of our series on the great warships.


Gustave_Adolphe_at_Breitenfeld-Johann_Walter-f3706497The Lion of the North Roars at Breitenfield:

1631, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden leads the Protestant forces to victory over Tilly and the Imperial Catholic tercios.



revenge-2Great Warships of History: Revenge, Race-Built Galleon:

16th cent, the English lay the foundations for naval supremacy with a revolutionary ship design. Part of our series on the great warships.


The Last Hurrah of the Winged Hussars:

1683, the legendary Polish cavalry broke the Siege of Vienna and saved Europe from the yoke of Islam.


18th – 19th CENTURY


Great Warships of History: The Ship of the Line:

17th-19th cent, the battleships of the Age of Sail. Part of our series on the great warships.



fritzGreat Captains: Frederick the Great:

18th century AD, the career of “Old Fritz” is examined in another installment of our series on the greatest generals in history.


article-0-183b67b900000578-145_640x816Great Captains: Napoleon Bonaparte:

Late 18th-early 19th century, another in our series on history’s greatest general.




Sabres in the Snow: Murat at Eylau, 1807!

Marshal Murat saves the day with one of history’s greatest cavalry charges.



Napoleon’s Last Campaign: 1815

Deadliest Warrior takes a deep dive into the Waterloo Campaign in this multi-part series.



80da27526558cac0321c1ee30fece812_f803“Old Hickory” Breaks the Thin Red Line at New Orleans:

1814, the British gambit aimed at seizing the mouth of the Mississippi River is thwarted by Andrew Jackson’s rag-tag force at New Orleans.


alamo-213 Days of Glory: the Alamo, 1836

The Battle of the Alamo is examined in detail.



gandamuck-2Massacre in the Passes: Elphinstone’s Disaster: 1842

The First Anglo-Afghan War leads to one of Britain’s most humiliating defeats.



220px-sir_harry_smithA Perfect Battle: Harry Smith Smashes the Savage Sikhs at Aliwal

1846, First Angl0-Sikh War.  Sir Harry Smith fights the perfect battle and defeats a larger Sikh army.




Great Captains: Nathan Bedford Forrest

1861-1865, the career of America’s “Wizard of the Saddle” is examined in this installment of our series on history’s greatest generals.


Zulu: Death and Redemption in the African Sun

1879, Britain’s Zulu War opens with disaster and a desperate victory as Deadliest Blogger examines the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.



A “Most Savage Battle”: Abu Klea, 1885

The British battled the Dervishes in the Sudan.






Juramentado: Moro Suicidal Assassins:

Early 20th century, Muslim assassins terrorize the Philippines and give the English language the term “run amok”.



Germany’s Schlieffen Plan: A Study in Economy of Force

1914, the outbreak of WW-I and the Germans develop a brilliant plan to defeat France in months and end the war in the west. What went wrong?


Great Captains: George S. Patton, Jr

 1940-1945, the life of America’s greatest WW-II battle commander is examined.



Great Warships of History: The Bismarck

1941, Germany’s greatest warship threatens Britain’s supply line and leads the Royal Navy on a merry chase! Part of our series on the great warships.


The Devil’s Guard: Hitler’s Waffen SS

 1935-1945, and examination in multiple parts of Hitler’s elite combat force, the Waffen SS.


Great Warships of History: The Yamato

 World War Two, part of our series on the great warships.




God Sides With the Big Battalions

An examination of some of the principals of war, force multipliers, and the danger of relying upon small elite forces.



Deadliest Bloggers’ Greatest Quotes on War: Part One


Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Two 


Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Three


Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Four


Deadliest Blogger’s Greatest Quotes on War: Part Five


“History Bites”: The Fork, “a Hateful Vanity”

A “bite-sized” look at history.



“History Bites”: Son of a Gun

A “bite-sized” look at history.



If World War One Were a Bar Fight!





If World War Two Were a Bar Fight!





1609159 (1).jpg




Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments



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 Seventeenth-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 Sixteen here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)

In the previous chapter we examined Nennius’ tenth of Arthur’s battles, that at the River Tribruit, wherein we built a case for that battle to have been fought on the River Forth, eight miles above Stirling.  This has long been known as the “Gateway to the Highlands” and the site of William Wallace’s famous victory over the English. Arthur is  called north by his brother-in-law, King Lot, who is threatened by a strong band of outlaws called the cinbin. “Cinbin” (or Cynbin) translates as “dog-heads”. These brigands are led by a savage character named Garwlwyd, who is possibly synonymous with the figure known in the Welsh Triads as Gwrgi Garwlwyd.


From their lair along the marches between the British Kingdom of Gododdin and the Pictish highlands the Dog Heads raid into Gododdin, carrying off plunder and prisoners; two of which (a boy and girl) they supposedly eat daily!

Making common cause with an Angle pirate chief named Edlfled, the Dog Heads plan to converge  upon and capture the hillfort of Dùn Èideann from land and sea.

As recounted in the previous chapter, Arthur and his 300 mounted Cymbrogi rush north from Cornwall, a distance of approximately 515 miles, to arrive in 10 days at Dùn Èideann.  Joining with Lot’s forces they move against Garwlwyd, who is camped at the crossing of the Forth at Tribruit (the Fords of Frew). In the resulting Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd the Dog Heads are destroyed, though Garwlwyd may have escaped (to be later assassinated).

Meanwhile, unaware of Garwlwyd’s defeat his ally, the Angle chieftain Edlfled, has landed in Arthur’s rear near Din Eidyn.


Nennius states that the 11th of Arthur’s battles was at a place called “the hill of Agned”. Many scholars agree with the often-fanciful Geoffrey of Monmouth that this was at or near Edinburgh.

Like Rome, Edinburgh is built on seven rocky, volcanic hills. Three of these, Castle Rock (upon which the Gododdin fortress of Din Eidyn is thought to have sat), Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat are in or near the center of the modern city. The four other hills, Corstorphine Hill, Blackford Hill, Braid Hill and Wester Craiglockhart are a bit further out. Any of these, admittedly, could have been named “Agned” in the early Dark Ages.


Two views of Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, above. Below, two images taken from Edinburgh Castle by author in 2019. One looks at Arthur’s Seat from the castle, the other looks toward the nearby waterway. It is easy to imagine Angle long boats landing on the shore, and raiders occupying Arthur’s seat to use as a temporary base and a stronghold from which to besiege the castle. 

However, Arthur’s Seat must have had another name before the life of Arthur. Could it have been called “Agned“?

It is a logical place for an attacking force of Angles, landing on the nearby coast as part of a concerted strategy to take Lot’s fortress of Din Eidyn, to make camp. This rocky, defensible hill so close to their target (Castle Rock/Din Eidyn) would have made an ideal place to hold up while they awaited their allies arrival, and at the same time begin to raid the surrounding area and place Din Eidyn under loose blockade.

With the Hill of Agned tentatively identified as Arthur’s Seat, and Arthur’s opponent being an Angle raiding party, we must consider next the question of who could this “Edlfled” have been?

As stated in the previous chapter, some scholars have attempted to identify the Edlfled of the Triads with Æthelfrith of Bernicia. This Angle ruler was the first to unite both of the northern Angle kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira under one crown; and in doing so founded the embryonic Kingdom of  Northumbria. However, these Angle kingdoms in the north were established in the later 6th century and Æthelfrith ruled from the end of the 6th century through the first half of the 7th century. As such, he is too late to have faced Arthur (first decade of the 6th century), and cannot be synonymous with the Edlfled we are discussing.

It must be born in mind that the Triads and other Welsh sources are suspect in many cases, as they sometimes conflate events separated by as much as a century. It is entirely possible that even if the events described by Nennius, as well as in the Triads and the Pa Gur, relate to the same historical event (the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd); the accounts may have become confused with later events.  They may have brought Æthelfrith of Bernicia/Northumbria into the events that took place during the Age of Arthur. Similarly, there is no certainty that the Garwlwyd referred to in the Pa Gur is the same man as the Gwrgi Garwlwyd of the Triads.

These doubts put aside for the moment, if there was a Bernician-Angle leader named Edlfled/Æthelfrith who fought Arthur at the Hill of Agned, he cannot have been the founder of Northumbria. What is more likely is that this character was an otherwise unknown “Viking”[1] leader then raiding the Lothian coast, and that this Edlfled made common cause with fellow outlaws (the Dog Heads) to prey upon Gododdin.

It should not be ignored, either, that the form of the name, Edlfled, if spelled as Æthelflæd (a more faithful rendering), is the feminine form of this name. Anglo-Saxon nobility bore family names, which were applicable to both the male and female members. To designate gender, a masculine or feminine suffix was applied: such as “fled/flæd” or “wynn”, in cases of females; while “frith”, “red” or “wulf” were added to denote males. Thus Æthelfrith, Æthelred,  Æthelwulf for a male; and Æthelflæd  or Æthelwynn for a female (to cite a few examples from the royal family of Dark Ages Wessex). Clearly, the Cumbric-Welsh rendering of this Angle leader’s name is the feminine form.

Could Edlfled have been a woman?

Scandinavian/Germanic culture allowed for women who took up arms to fight beside men as warriors. “Shieldmaidens” (skjaldmær in Old Norse; Schildmaid in German) are referenced in later Scandinavian Sagas. But many of these chronicle events of about or near this period (the events described in both Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki are roughly contemporaneous to the age of Arthur; more on that in later installments). Two of the most famous of these legendary/archetypal warrior maidens include Brynhild in the Volsunga saga, and Hervor in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (“The Saga of Hervar and Heidrek”).

1553829.jpgThree hundred shieldmaidens are said to have fought in the semi-legendary Battle of Bråvalla in East Götaland about 750AD, one of whom bore the Danish banner. The Byzantine historian Skylitzes records armed women among the defeated Varangian-Rus warriors at the Battle of Dorostolon in 971.

True warrior maidens are exceedingly rare in history, but not impossible or unheard of. It is therefore not beyond the realm of possibility for such a force of Angle “Vikings” to have been led by a “skjaldmær”.

Whoever the mysterious Edlfled was, it was at his/her hall (Germanic chieftains did not maintain palaces, but instead had their centers of power in Long Halls, where they entertained visitors and feasted their household warriors) that Gwrgi Garwlwyd, leader of the outlaw “Dog Heads”, acquired his alleged taste for human meat:

 “…who after tasting human flesh in the court of Edlfled the Saxon[2] king, became so fond of it that he would eat no other but human flesh ever after.”

Cannibalism was never an accepted practice in either Scandinavia or the British Isles. However, it is of course possible that such a fringe group of renegades and outlaws may have practiced ritual cannibalism; perhaps to create a savage reputation and as a way of intimidating their enemies. Cannibalism is also a way of bonding a group together in such a way as to forever set them outside of the bounds of normal society. Any or all of these reasons may account for both the Dog Heads and Edlfled’s band of Vikings taking up this abominable practice.

Two days following the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd, Edlfled and her band are camped atop Agned Hill, unaware that their ally has been defeated and his warband is no more. Expecting Garwlwyd’s imminent arrival, it is must have been with astonishment that Edlfled and her Angle pirates see Arthur and Lot’s victorious forces arrive below them,  the famed dragon standard waiving in the northern breeze!

1553830.jpgThe Britons assault the hill, numbers and high morale making up for the disadvantage of terrain. The Angles put up a fierce and desperate resistance. But in warfare the impact of morale is decisive (Napoleon observing that “in war the morale is to the physical as two-to-one”; i.e., morale factors are twice as important as all mere “physical” factors ). This unexpected turn of events likely drained the pirates of their courage. In the battle of shieldwalls, the rot begins with the back ranks slipping away. A trickle of the cowardly soon becomes a flood, as the Angle line breaks in panic. Men (and women?) run for the safety of their  ships, moored in the estuary, with the blood-hungry Britons close on their heels!

With the battle won and the north once again secure, Arthur and his Cymbrogi feast with Lot and his Gododdin warriors that night. The following day, atop Agned’s heights, Arthur gives judgment to the captured, both “Dog Heads” and Angles. Perhaps among them was the fearsome “shieldmaiden” leader, Edlfled.

Here where Arthur sat in judgment the hill will forever after be remembered as “Arthur’s Seat”.

The fate of captured outlaws and pirates then, as now, was bleak. The usual and sundry atrocities aside, their crimes included cannibalism and the daily, ritual killing of a British boy and girl. They neither expect nor receive any mercy. Arthur condemns them all to death beneath a headsman’s ax.

The crisis in Gododdin is ended. But a far greater threat to the British kingdoms is looming in the south.


Winston Churchill, in his splendid “The Birth of Britain[3], wrote: “Of all the tribes of the Germanic race none was more cruel than the Saxons”. In their first devastating wave of invasion in the 450’s, they created such a record of slaughter that this episode in British History became known as the “Saxon Terror[4]. Though slave-taking and trading was a lucrative business throughout the world in this (as in most) periods of human history, for whatever reason the early Saxon attacks on Britain were distinguished by rapine and wholesale slaughter on a scale not seen in early “barbarian” invasions of the Roman Empire and its former territories. Only the Huns built up a greater reputation for bloody-minded ferocity.

We have seen that in 477 a new Saxon warlord named Ælle landed in southeastern Britain. That after taking the British fortress of Anderida (Pevensey) and putting the inhabitants to the sword, he founded the kingdom of the South Saxons (Sussex). He soon became the paramount ruler of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in Britain, taking the title “Bretwalda”. He was, in fact, the first Saxon king to be so acclaimed. Even Æsc/Oisc”Big Knife, King of Kent and the son of the famous Hengist, as well as Cerdic of the West Saxons, acknowledged his over-lordship.[5]

Now it was the summer of 516, and among the Anglo-Saxon peoples of the eastern lands the war arrow had been passed. Ælle was calling for all to join him in a final reckoning with the hated Welsh, a call to rapine and conquest.


  1. In this context, the term “Viking” is used in the sense that it was in ancient Scandinavia: a pirate/outlaw crew; not subject to any recognized king or authority. In the early Dark Ages Scandinavia, such outlaws preyed upon settlements and shipping there as elsewhere; and were eventually put down by the emerging authority of jarls and kings.
  2. Though referred to here as a “Saxon”, it should be remembered that the Romans and their Romano-British and later Welsh successor collectively referred to all the various Scandinavian and Germanic raiders of Britain as “Saxons” (Saxones and Sassenach, respectively).
  3. Churchill, W, A History of the English Speaking People: The Birth of Britain, Ch IV, p 50
  4. See Part Five of this series.
  5. Part Seven
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


A millennium-and-a-half before Frederick the Great, Epaminondas of Thebes changes the face of warfare with the oblique attack and forever destroyed the myth of Spartan invincibility !

The Peloponnesian War indisputably established Sparta as the paramount power in the Greek World. Though that long conflict had been waged, ostensibly, by Sparta to free the Greek city-states of the Delian League from Athenian dominance; the Spartan victory merely replaced Athenian hegemony with Spartan.

Though superb soldiers, the Spartans were educationally and temperamentally ill-equipped to deal with the subtleties of statecraft and diplomacy necessary for managing an empire. Over the next 33 years following the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta faced sporadic challenges from the other leading Greek states; with coalitions forming against her and her interests. Of these, the Thebans were both the most implacable and the most dangerous.

Thebes had been an ally of Sparta against Athens; and had even pushed for the total destruction of that city after its surrender in 404 BC. However, the following year Thebes aided in the restoration of the Athenian democracy; rightfully perceiving a revived Athens as a counter-balance to Spartan power. Over the next two decades, she often found herself at odds with Sparta; culminating in defeat in the Corinthian War, after which her Boeotian League (through which Thebes exercised leadership over the other Boeotian cities) was dissolved. The crowning agony came in 382 BC, when a Spartan force treacherously seized and occupied the city; establishing once again a oligarchical government.

1551580.jpg Theban hoplites (drawing by James Carrozza*)

Three years later, the pro-Spartan government was overthrown by a coup, led by the dashing young Theban firebrand, Pelopidas and his friend, the philosopher-soldier, Epaminondas. A virulently anti-Spartan democracy was installed; and for the next eight years a desultory war was waged to drive the Spartan garrisons out of Boeotia and reestablish the Theban-dominated Boeotian League.

During this period Epaminondas and Pelopidas alternated command; training and improving the Theban forces. Pelopidas was particularly successful at leading small-unit operations; and in his hands the 300 strong Theban corps-de-elite, the Sacred Band became a formidable and professional body of soldiers, fully capable of facing the vaunted Spartan hoplites in battle. Skirmishing with the Spartans year-after-year, the Thebans both learned the Spartan’s method of making war; and lost their awe of Spartan military prowess.

This small cadre had started its existence as the citadel guard of the city; all chosen for their valor. Uniquely in Greek history, the entire corps was composed of homosexual couples; each man paired side-by-side with his lover. It was felt that lovers would fight like lions to protect their beloved; and under Pelopidas’ leadership the Sacred Band were indeed a corps of lions.

1551562.jpg Boeotian hoplites. Boeotians fetishized the naked male form to a higher degree than perhaps any other Greeks; and partial nudity may not  have been uncommon, even in battle. Note the boots worn by the central figure: while most Greek warriors fought barefoot, the Boeotians often wore boots. The back figure (in red) is a Theban. Note the “club of Heracles” device, the symbol of Thebes on his shield. This might have been the shield device used by Theban hoplites; while the lion head might have been used, alternatively, by the members of the 300-strong elite corps, the Sacred Band.

In 371 B.C. the hitherto invincible Spartan army once again invaded Boeotia, this time with the purpose of finishing Thebes for good.

The Boeotians had little time to muster their full soldier levy. In consequence, they were outnumbered by the Spartan invaders when the two sides met on the plain of LEUCTRA, in southern Boeotia. The Spartan army numbered some 10,000 hoplites, at the core of which were 700 elite Spartiates, the true Spartan citizen-soldiers; and 1,000 cavalry. The Boeotians numbered approximately 6,000-7,000 hoplites, perhaps 1500 cavalry, and a similar number of skirmishers. Of these number, no more than 4,000 were Thebans.

Neither side was initially eager for battle. The Spartan King, Cleombrotus, was convinced by his senior officers that he must fight or be indicted by the ephors when he returned to Sparta. The Boeotians were even more nervous about facing the Spartans. But the Thebans knew that if this army didn’t fight now, their Boeotian allies would return home to defend their own cities; and the Spartans would isolate and besiege Thebes. For several days the Boeotarchs [1] debated offering battle to the superior Spartan forces. But Epaminondas, who argued for giving battle, won the day.

The intellectual Epaminondas, a military innovator of the first-order, had devised a plan to defeat the vaunted Spartans (who had not lost a pitched-battle in three centuries). Though most of his Thebans were not as well trained as the Spartans, they were mainly comprised of “big country boys”; farmers who were both strong and large. Boeotia means “cow land”; comprised of broad pasture land, where cattle grazed. Likely the Thebans had a larger amount of beef in their diet; which would also account for a larger, heavier man. By contrast, the Spartans tended to be smaller and wirier of build, due to the spare, near-starvation diet they were raised on in the Spartan Agoge [2]. Epaminondas knew from experience that in a pure shoving contest his larger and stronger Thebans were a match for the Spartans.

One of the hallmarks of Greek hoplite warfare was a tactic called othismos, the push of shields. Though the precise explanation of this tactic is debated by scholars, I believe it involved each hoplite in the phalanx pressing his shield into the back of the man in the rank in front of him; and using the weight of the entire phalanx to press the enemy phalanx backward. Once falling backward, a phalanx quickly lost cohesion as men tripped over each other, and rout soon followed. The Spartans were masters of othismos, advancing in ordered ranks with measured tread, every man keeping time to the trill of the flutes; steadily and silently bearing down upon the enemy.

Few Greeks would stand up to the feared Spartans. At Mantinea of 418 BC the Arcadian and Athenian phalanx broke and fled from the Spartans before making contact:

(they) “did not even stand to fight, but they fled as the Spartans approached; some were even trampled in their hurry to get away before the enemy (Spartans) reached them.” [3]

However, Epaminondas knew that his Thebans would meet the Spartans, and in the push of shields his larger, stronger Thebans would have an inherent advantage. And with the fiery Pelopidas leading the Sacred Band, spearheading the Theban attack, he was confident he had men equal to the Spartans in valor and skill at arms.

Unlike the Spartans, who advanced at a measured walk, the Thebans had trained and practiced advancing rapidly, and as they neared the enemy to break into a dead run, aiming to shatter the enemy formation rather than merely pushing them back.

Epaminondas had one more trick to play, and this one would be revolutionary.

First, knowing that in Greek hoplite battles each side always placed their best troops on the far right of their battle line; he deviated from the norm and placed his best troops, the Thebans, on his left flank, opposite the Spartans themselves. The rest of his forces, comprised of the allied non-Theban Boeotians, were to be  back to the right. By this he was gambling that his Thebans would defeat the unbeatable Spartans; and keep his less reliable Boeotian allies out of the battle till a decision could be reached.


Never before had a phalanx deployed in echelon formation; nor had the best troops been placed on the left end of the line.

To give even great pushing power of his Theban hoplites, he arrayed his Thebans in an uncommonly deep formation.

Greek phalanxes deployed in an average depth of 8-12 ranks. In fact, as few as four ranks were not unusual. The Spartans, masters of phalanx warfare, deployed their own phalanx that day 12 ranks deep, as Epaminondas expected. The Thebans, at least since the Peloponnesian War, had experimented with phalanxes twice as deep as the norm; making up with mass what they tended to lack in training.

At Leuctra, Epaminondas arrayed his Thebans in an unprecedented, massive column almost as deep as it was broad: a human battering ram 50-men deep (or, as the Greeks would term it, “shields” deep); with Pelopidas and the Sacred Band at its head. Their orders were to charge foremost, leading the rest of the Theban phalanx; and to aim directly for the Spartan king, Cleombrotus, where he would have taken his station: on the rightmost of the Spartan line, surrounded by his bodyguard of Spartan knights, the “hippeis”.

Thus, Epaminondas’ plan was to strike the strongest point of the Spartan army, where their king, his bodyguard, and the Spartiates would be stationed. If these were defeated, and quickly, he reasoned the rest of the Spartan army, comprised of allies who looked to Sparta to lead the way, would lose heart. In essence he planned to cut off the head of the snake, and let the rest of the body die on its own.

The battle began with the skirmishers and cavalry dueling between the two hosts. In this initial phase, the Theban cavalry got the better of the fight. Then, as the two opposing phalanxes approached each other, these got out-of-the-way for the main event: the push of shields.


As the Theban column bore down on them across the shallow valley, the Spartans were unconcerned. They had fought the Thebans many times before, and knew their proclivity to charge in column. The counter to which, as with any column attack, was to extend ones own line and envelop the column once it had become bogged down in the shoving contest. Cleombrotus gave the order for his Spartans to extend their line, the rear 6 ranks of the phalanx attempted to spread out to their right, sacrificing depth for frontage.

What the Spartan king didn’t foresee was the dash and élan with which Pelopidas and the Sacred Band would close the distance between them.

Coming on at breakneck pace, the Theban spearhead struck the Spartans while still in the midst of this change of formation. The Spartans were caught unprepared, moving; rather than braced for the collision of two phalanxes.

Pelopidas and the Sacred Band smashed into the Spartan hippeis at the very point where Cleombrotus and his command staff were standing, directing the realignment. Disaster for the Spartans quickly followed, as the king and the hippeis were at first born backwards like flotsam on the tide; then overthrown and trampled into the dust. Cleombrotus was mortally wounded and ushered off the field, his men desperately covering his retreat.
Lending their weight to the Sacred Band’s assault was the massive Theban column; a shimmering tide of brazen shields and helmets, and glittering iron spearheads. They pushed into the chaos created by the Sacred Band’s assault, further ripping apart and trampling the thin red Spartan line. The Spartans held for a short time, fighting stubbornly as they were born backward.

In minutes, the history of Greece was forever changed, and the myth of Spartan invincibility overturned. As their king and his officers fell, the Spartan ranks shattered and then broke.

As Epaminondas had hoped, his Boeotian allies never had to strike a blow: When they saw the Spartans break, the Peloponnesian allies withdrew back to the Spartan camp, without striking a blow.


The Thebans made no effort to pursue them. As was customary in Greek warfare, they instead erected a trophy of stacked enemy shields and spears taken from the fallen; and sent a herald to the Spartan camp, granting permission to come and collect their dead and wounded. This customary permission by the victor to the vanquished was formal recognition by both parties of who held the field. For the Spartans, long accustomed to granting and not receiving such permission, this must have been a bitter pill to swallow, indeed!

The Spartans lost 1,000 men. Of these, 400 hundred were elite Spartiates, who died where they stood. At that time in its history, the manpower of Sparta had been in sharp decline for over a century. The total manpower of Sparta at this time was only some 1,200 true Spartiates. Thus, at Leuctra a third of the military manpower of Sparta died along with their king.

Though the Spartan would attempt once again to best Epaminondas and his Thebans at Mantinea in 362, it would prove a repetition of Leuctra; with Epaminondas gaining a second victory, though losing his life in the process.

In its day, Leuctra was the “shot heard round the world”; a signal moment in which the balance of power shifted forever from Sparta and the Peloponnese. First to Thebes, which would establish in the decade after a brief hegemony; then, a generation later, to Macedon. Young Philip of Macedon was a hostage in Thebes in the years immediately after Leuctra; and was able to study the methods of Epaminondas and Pelopidas first-hand.

Greek warfare would never be the same. No longer would a two phalanxes of citizen hoplites dominate the battlefield; with a simple push of shields deciding the issue. Commanders were finding new ways to utilize their heavy troops, new methods of piercing an enemy line. Combined-arms forces of cavalry and light infantry, augmenting the heavy infantry of the Greek battle line, would replace the hoplite armies of old.

Epaminondas had not just revolutionized Greek warfare, he had given future tacticians a new trick to add to their playbook: the echeloned (sometimes called an “oblique”) advance. This tactic would allow armies to gain a local superiority at one, decisive point on the battlefield; while withholding their most unreliable troops from combat till a decision was reached. It would be used by the great Macedonians, Philip and Alexander to effect; Frederick the Great of Prussia would win immortal fame at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757 using just such an approach.

1551577.jpg The Leuctra monument at the battle site. Note the representations of Spartan shields along the top.

Here is a very well done documentary by History Channel:


[1] The chief officers of the Boeotian Confederacy

[2] The “Rearing”, the training program all Spartan boys underwent from age 8 till manhood. The boys were given little to eat; and were encouraged to “forage” from the countryside.

[3] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 5:63

* Visit James Carrozza’s website here!


Masters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders From the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era

And this one:

Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power

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.
Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments


1527083 (1).jpg

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.



Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments


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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment



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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments


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.

Image result for Germanic warrior

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.

Related image

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.

Related image

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.

Image result for Teutoburg Forest - Great Bog

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment