The 30 Years War had raged for ten years, and for the Protestant cause it had been a string of disasters. Then a new champion took-up the sword to defend the faith against the Catholic armies of the Empire: Gustavus Adolphus, the “Lion of the North”!  In his first battle against the ever-victorious army of Catholic League General Tilly, the Swedish king would prove his name and cement his renown as one of history’s “Great Captains” of war.


In 1628, the Hapsburg dream of a united Catholic Germany, ruled from Vienna, seemed nearly realized. Ten years into what would become known as the Thirty Years War, Catholic-Imperialist forces had crushed all opposition from Bohemia to Denmark. The Protestant Electors of the Rhine principalities had been humbled, the Czechs brought back into the Catholic fold, and the Danes defeated and humiliated. By 1630, the Imperial armies of Tilly and Wallenstein were camped along the Baltic shores, with Germany seemingly pacified behind them.

Only Protestant Sweden, across the icy waters, remained defiant.

When King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden crossed the Baltic and landed in Germany with a mere 13,000 men, the Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand II sneered, “So, we have another little enemy!”

However, the “Lion of the North” was an enemy of no little ability.

Scion of the warrior Vasa dynasty, Gustav II Adolf was the most brilliant offshoot of a family tree known to produce soldiers and statesmen of exception. Coming to the throne in 1611 at the age of 16, he inherited three wars from his father: against Denmark (the Kalmar War), Russia, and against Poland. The first was concluded by treaty in 1613; and the second ended in 1617 with the Treaty of Stolbovo, which excluded Russia from the Baltic Sea. The Polish war dragged on till 1629, ending with the Truce of Altmark, which transferred the large province Livonia to Sweden.

1580309.jpg Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden

These conflicts early in his life not only greatly enhanced the territory and power of the Swedish Empire, which now controlled the eastern Baltic; but honed Gustavus’ native abilities as a commander. In Poland he faced a very good commander in his own right, the great Hetman of the Polish Commonwealth, Stanislaw Koniecpolski. Much of the talent he showed later for rapid and unexpected maneuver may have been learned fighting against this Polish hero, whose operational hallmark this was. Gustavus also no doubt used the Polish war to develop his tactical theories and to train his small, professional Army into a finely tuned machine.

In June of 1630 Gustavus landed in Pomerania, where Sweden already had a base at Stralsund. The Swedish expeditionary force was financed, in large part, by French money: the far-sighted Cardinal Richelieu preferring a continuation of the religious war in Germany to a united Hapsburg Germany on France’s doorstep. Gustavus was also aided by the Emperor’s dismissal of Wallenstein earlier that year, after that great Imperial commander’s failure to capture Stralsund. While the bulk of Wallenstein’s army joined Tilly’s, many thousands of veteran mercenaries abandoned Imperial service in disgust, and instead joined the Swedish king.

Gustavus set about methodically taking one north-German fortress and town after another. Many surrendered upon a mere show of force, as the northern Germans, largely Protestants, were inclined to support any Protestant champion.


Even so, at the start of the following year the Swedes were still too weak to offer battle against Tilly’s superior army. Negotiations for a strengthening alliance with the Protestant states of central Germany seemed to be going nowhere, as the timid princes were unwilling to brave the wrath of Tilly’s Imperial army. Then Protestant Magdeburg was captured and sacked by Tilly’s army on the 20th of May 1631, in an act of barbarity so savage it shocked the sensibilities of Catholic and Protestant alike. Of the 30,000 citizens, only 5,000 survived the orgy of rapine and murder by the Imperial army. For the subsequent fourteen days, burned and mangled bodies were carried down the Elbe River, which became choked with the dead. The Imperial cavalry commander, the Graf zu Pappenheim, wrote:

It is certain that no more terrible work and divine punishment has been seen since the destruction of Jerusalem. All of our soldiers became rich. God was with us.

When Tilly moved into Saxony, pillaging far and wide to feed his ravaging host the Elector was finally moved to throw his lot in with the Swedes. Gustavas marched on Leipzig, which Tilly’s army had just captured along with enormous booty. His 23,000 Swedes were now reinforced with 18,000 Saxon troops, creating a united force of some 41,000.

The Swedish lion now offered Tilly battle a few miles northwest of Leipzig, on the plain of Breitenfeld.

1580310.jpg Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly  


Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, the seventy-two-year-old Walloon general commanding the Imperial army, had learned his trade in the Low Countries under the famed Duke of Parma. He was an accomplished commander, and had defeated every enemy who’d dared face him in battle. Though outnumbered in the coming battle, experience had shown that his 35,000 professionals were the equal of any number the Protestants could raise against them.

As veteran as their commander, Tilly’s Imperial army had campaigned for 10 years from the Bohemian Alps to the Baltic. Trained in the Spanish model, the heart of this force was the Imperial tercios: massed blocks of pike-and-musket armed troops. Like moving fortresses these ponderous squares varied between 3,000 and 1,500 men each, drawn-up in up to 30 ranks. Tilly had seventeen tercios deployed at Breitenfeld, in all about 25,000 trained and experienced infantry. By reputation these were the best foot in the world.


(Above) Imperial/Spanish tercio, detail from contemporary illustration. (Below) Breakdown of pike vs “shot” Spanish_Tercio_Formation

By contrast, Gustavus’ reforms of the Swedish infantry had created a much different tactical force. Disdaining the ponderous tactics of the tercio, and building upon the work of Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus’ foot were organized into smaller, more flexible regiments and Brigades, the latter of 1,500 men. Unlike the Imperial tercio, the Swedes deployed in only 4-5 ranks deep; each brigade formed in a cross-shaped formation of pike and supporting musketeers. In battle, these brigades formed-up in two lines, with the brigades of the second line supporting the gaps between each brigade in the first. The Swedish system allowed the units to maneuver more rapidly on the field, without crowding each other, and to deliver a much higher rate of fire against the enemy.

Swedish Brigade Formation

In numbers and quality of infantry the Imperial forces had the advantage, particularly in quality. Tilly deployed about 25,000 veteran infantry to the Gustavus’ 15,000 Swedish veterans. Though Gustavus’ Swedish Brigades were trained to high level of excellence, the 9,000 Saxon allied infantry were poor quality militia, armed and trained in outdated pike tactics and with few muskets. Tilly had little to fear from these.


17th century pikeman, set to receive a charge

In the 17th century infantry were the solid core of an army, with the great blocks of pike-and-shot lumbered across the battlefield like human fortresses. But cavalry were the decisive arm in battle, maneuvering on the flanks and in the gaps: the hammer to the tercio’s anvil. Cavalry were a large and effective part of both armies at Breitenfeld.

IMG_172917th century musketeer

There were of three types of horse during this age in Western Europe: cuirassiers, harquebusiers, and light horse.

The first of these, the cuirassiers, were the supreme heavy cavalry of the day. These were horsemen equipped in three-quarter plate armor (including a cuirass that was proof against firearms) and armed with sword and pistol. They were trained to charge the enemy, the first two ranks discharging their pistols at close quarters before drawing their swords and galloping into the enemy’s ranks. Sweden, poor in resources and lacking large horses, fielded only one regiment of these in the war. The Imperials, on the other hand, had the services of many thousands of such cuirassiers, commanded by Pappenheim, who due to the color of their armor were sometimes referred to as the “Black Cuirassiers”.


The second type, the harquebusiers, were a hybrid “medium cavalry”, the archetype for the dragoons of the following century. Though equipped and trained with a harquebus to skirmish with the enemy, mounted or dismounted, they were also quite capable of charging with sword, and many regiments equipped their troopers with a cuirass and helmet.


Finally, there were the light cavalry. The Imperial army had a number of Croat and Hungarian light horse. These were skilled scouts and foragers (the Croats in particular earning a fearsome reputation as plunderers), and in battle could harass the enemy’s flanks or ruthlessly pursue a broken foe. Their counterpart in the Swedish forces was provided by Finns, commanded by the capable Gustav Horn. These were excellent scouts and foragers, and even more feared in battle than the Croats. These were known as Hakkapeliitta, there name based on their battle cry: hakkaa päälle (“Cut them down!”).


Swedish cavalry

In pure numbers Tilly’s Imperial cavalry were outnumbered by their Protestant opponents: 9,000 to Gustavus’ 13,000. But the allied cavalry were more lightly equipped, and none were as heavily armed (and armored) as Pappenheim’s feared Black Cuirassiers. Worse for the Swedish king, 5,000 of Gustavus horsemen were Protestant German contingents of doubtful quality.

In Poland, a land of superb cavalry, Gustavus had resorted to the Huguenot practice (from the French Wars of Religion in the previous century), of detailing small units of musketeers to support the cavalry with fire. These “commanded shot” gave the otherwise over-matched Swedish horse a fighting chance at breaking the charge of better mounted and equipped Polish cavalry, particularly the famed “Winged Hussars”. This practice continued in Gustavus’ German campaigns, and would play a key part in the coming battle.

Only in number and quality of guns was the Imperial army at a disadvantage. Tilly’s were larger but less mobile than those of the Swedes. Once placed these overly-heavy guns were difficult to move, and so usually stayed in one place throughout the battle. The Swedes and their Saxon allies had as many heavy guns, but Gustavus, a great proponent of artillery, had reformed that arm; standardizing the calibers in use and lightening the guns themselves.  The Swedish guns were thus easier to maneuver and faster to load. Additionally, each of the Swedish Brigades had their own integral light artillery, in the form of six light 3 pounder “regimental guns” per Brigade. These were easy to manhandle in battle, and could sustain a relatively rapid rate of fire. Finally, Gustavus had cross-trained his cavalry and infantry as gunners so that in a pinch they could man guns whose crews were slain, or turn captured enemy guns against their previous owners.

ReggunSwedish regimental 3lb gun  


The morning of September 17, 1631 dawned bright and hot. Tilly drew up his 35,000 strong Imperial army along some two miles of frontage. He deployed these in two lines, with a small cavalry reserve. In the Spanish custom, he posted the bulk of his cavalry on both wings, covering the flanks of his stolid tercios in the center. The heavy Imperial guns were spread evenly across the front. A gentle slope favored his dispositions, and the day would begin with the sun at his back and in the eyes of his Protestant foes.

The Imperial forces were resplendent in the imperial colors of red and yellow, in what passed for uniforms, beneath buff coats and steel cuirasses.


The Imperial left was commanded by the renown Pappenheim,  at the head of seven full cuirassier regiments.  On the opposite flank, facing the Saxons, the Count Egon von Fürstenberg commanded another five cuirassier regiments, supported by a regiment of dragoons and one of Croat light horse. Fürstenberg also had a large number of heavy guns supporting his wing, destined to play a critical part in the struggle.

By contrast, Gustavus allied army must have presented a much meaner appearance than their Imperial foes. After months of sleeping in plowed fields, the Swedes in tattered blue and brown homespun presented a rustic site compared to splendidly-accoutered Imperialists across the field.

Pike_and_shot_modelSwedish musketeers and pikemen in a  life-sized diorama at Swedish Armeemuseum, Stockholm

Gustavus drew up the seven brigades of Swedish foot in two lines, backed by a reserve of Finnish horse. His Saxon allies he placed on his left. The Swedish Brigades were deployed a chessboard fashion, the three brigades of the second line covering gaps equal to their frontage between the four brigades of the first line. Across their front were  twelve heavy guns in one grand battery (this aside from the 42 light regimental guns integral to the infantry Brigades). The “grand battery” was commanded by young Lennart Torstensson, a gifted artillery prodigy who, one day, would prove his own worth as an army commander. The infantry of the center were commanded by Maximilian Teuffel, a German soldier in Swedish service.

On the Swedish right were 4,100 horse supported by 1,200 “commanded” musketeers, the wing commanded by the veteran Johan Banér. The Swedish left comprised 2,300 cavalry supported by 800 musketeers and commanded by Gustavus’ second-in-command, Horn.


Beyond Horn’s cavalry wing and facing Fürstenberg was the Saxon army, under the nominal command of their Elector, John George, assisted by a professional German soldier-of-fortune, Hans Georg von Arnim. The Saxons deployed their blocks of pikemen into a wedge formation, supported on either wing by massive wedges of cavalry. Such a formation can only be of use in the offense, and it is evident that Gustavus, who planned to let the Imperial army break itself against the superior Swedish firepower, was not on the same page as his ally. As events would show, this would prove very nearly disastrous for the Protestant allies in the battle soon to unfold.


The battle began with the Imperial screen of Croat light horse attempting to interfere with the Swedish deployment. They were thwarted when Banner unleashed the shaggy Finnish Hakkapeliitta upon them. The Finns gave the Croats the kind of savaging they were used to dealing out, and the Croats scattered back to their own lines. No doubt satisfied with themselves, the Finns fell back through the gaps in the Brigades and rejoined the reserve.

The battle then settled down into an artillery duel, over the next two hours, each side attempting to silence the other’s guns.  The Swedes’ better trained crews fired three-to-five times faster than their opponents and soon got the upper-hand. In response, Tilly ordered his cavalry on both wing to attack. [1]


On the Imperial left the fiery Pappenheim led some 5,000 of his Black Cuirassiers in a furious charge on the Swedish right-wing horse under Banér. Expecting to crush the lighter Swedish horse (even whose “heavy” regiments had little more than a simple cuirass worn over a buff coat), Pappenheim’s squadrons received an unexpectedly stout reception: disciplined volleys by the Swedish “commanded” musketeers supporting the Swedish horse. These salvos was followed-up by short, sharp charges by Banér’s squadrons. This “one-two” punch through Pappenheim’s riders back on their haunches. Attempts to swing wide and outflank the Swedish line were met by squadrons and companies of the second Swedish line, who, drilled to meet just such a move, coolly wheeling out to meet and greet the Imperialists in similar fashion.

Seven times that afternoon Pappenheim, the scarred veteran of countless charges, reordered his squadrons and flung them once again against the ill-mounted, contemptible Swedish horse and the impudent musketeers operating between their squadrons. Each time these latter darted out, deployed, and discharged a deadly hail of lead into his massed squadrons. Into the resulting confusion, the Swedish horsemen again-and-again counter-charged,  then falling back in disciplined fashion to reform. Pappenheim’s dwindling regiments recoiled each time frustrated and bloodied.

1536652_493087044144146_269198103_n Imperial cuirassiers, discharging pistols into the faces of their enemies

Meanwhile, on the Imperial right, Fürstenberg’s cuirassiers enjoyed a very different outcome against Gustavus’ Saxon allies. Supported by heavy cannonade the Imperial cavalry charged the inexperienced and poorly led Saxons that formed the left of the allied line. Deployed for attack and not defense, the Saxons were ill-prepared to receive this assault, which proved too much for the ill-trained militiamen.Despite their officers best efforts to steady them, they dropped their weapons and fled the field in utter rout! With the blades and pistols of Fürstenberg’s riders in their backs, the 18,000 strong Saxon army quitted the field in mass.

At a stroke, Gustavus was deprived of forty-five percent of his army, and his left-wing laid bare. The veteran Tilly saw his opportunity, and now ordered his infantry to advance to their right at the oblique, in an effort to take advantage of the situation and outflank the Swedes.

Fortunately for the Protestant cause, Fürstenberg needed time to reorder his squadrons; while the infantry of the Imperial center also took time to respond: like an elephant the tercio had great mass but little spring. As they ponderously advanced into the void left by the Saxon rout, Gustavus’ intrepid second-in-command, Gustav Horn, had the time needed to order a response.

Coolly and quickly Horn ordered the Swedish second line of foot and horse (which included General John Hepburn’s crack Green Brigade of doughty Scotsmen) at right angle to their main line, facing and covering the exposed left. As Tilly’s infantry came around the flank into the ground deserted by the now routed Saxons, and began to wheel to their left, they were brought under fire by regimental light guns and some of the heavy guns of Torstennson’s main battery. Worse for Tilly, their redeployment was further slowed when Horn counter-attacked Fürstenberg’s horsemen, who’d attempted an ineffectual spoiler attack against Horn’s redeploying reserves but were instead thrown back into their own advancing tercios, causing disorder and delay.


At 6 pm the battle reached its climax on the Swedish right. Following the repulse of Pappenheim’s seventh assault, Gustavus took personal command of the squadrons on his right. Aware of the rout of the Saxons and the crises on his other flank, it was time to put-paid to Pappenheim and free his right from interference. Putting himself at the head of the savage Finnish Hakkapeliitta of his reservehe led a counter-attack in mass against Pappenheim’s recoiling Imperials before they could reform. Repulse turned to rout, and the famed Black Cuirassiers were stampeded from the field, a portion of Banér’s squadrons in close pursuit. They did not stop running till they reached Halle, fifteen miles to the northwest.

The oblique advance of Tilly’s infantry to their right had left the Imperialist artillery batteries, which were stationary and unable to maneuver with the infantry, all but deserted where their front line had once been. With both his Hakkapeliitta and the remaining squadrons from Banér right-wing in hand, Gustavus swept across his own front to overrun Tilly’s guns, scattering the small body of Imperial reserve cavalry that attempted to interfere. Simultaneously, the unoccupied infantry of the Swedish center began wheeling forward to their left, as the whole battle shifted 90 degrees.

HakkapeliittaThe cross-training of every Swedish soldier as gunner now paid dividends, as the Swedish horsemen dismounted and turned Tilly’s guns against the left flank of the tercios. Here they delivered a withering enfilade fire against their erstwhile owners. Torstennson’s main battery, no longer occupied with counter-battery fire against the Imperialist guns,wheeled 90 degrees and joined in smashing the tightly packed ranks of the Imperial infantry.

Even the best of soldiers can only endure so much. As casualties mounted, the ever-shrinking ranks of the Imperialist soldiers began to look to their rear. At that moment, Gustavus delivered the coup-de-grace, attacking simultaneously with cavalry and foot from his right wing and center; just as Horn led a charge of his left-wing cavalry around the right flank of the tercios. Facing envelopment, and the threat of having all retreat cut off, the Imperial army broke.


The Swedish cavalry were not inclined to mercy, and in close pursuit rode down the fleeing masses, inflicting with cold steel “Magdeburg quarter”. Only growing darkness and the presence of a deep wood to the rear of the battle put an end to the pursuit and gave the surviving Imperialist soldiers a place of succor.

Tilly, thrice wounded during the fighting and unconscious, was carried from the field by a small escort.

The battlefield was a charnel house, with perhaps as many as 12,000 Imperial dead or dying on the field. 7,000 had grounded arms and surrendered, most of which (being mercenaries) took service with the victor. Of the allied Swedish-Saxon army, some 5,000 were casualties, the majority of which were Saxon (by some accounts, the Swedes loss a mere 200 men).

Capturing the Imperial camp intact, the victors found it well-victualed, a victory feast prepared in advance and awaiting on Tilly’s richly appointed table. Gustavus and his officers dinned in Tilly’s own pavilion, while his army celebrated this titanic victory feasting and drinking from Imperial stores.


When news of Breitenfeld reached Vienna, the Imperial court was “thunder-struck”. This was the first battle victory by Protestant forces since the 30 Years War had begun in 1618. Throughout the Protestant world there was rejoicing with a fervor that knew no bounds. At last a champion had appeared, in the form of the “Lion of the North”, and a hopeless cause had been restored.

In Halle, Tilly could rally a mere 600 foot. Pappenheim joined him, with just 1,400 horse remaining under the Imperial banner. Worse news soon followed, as word came that Gustavus’ forces had overrun Merseburg, and after a brief skirmish forced the surrender of another 3,000 Imperial troops. The battle was a disaster for the Catholic cause, and overnight the Imperial army that had brought Germany to its knees ceased to exist.

Breitenfeld was that rare thing: a decisive battle. It utterly changed the tide of a war that had seemed all but over, following 13 uninterrupted years of Catholic-Imperial victory. The 30 Years War would drag on for another 17 years, claiming the lives of both Gustavus and Tilly (and, ultimately, Tilly’s successor, Wallenstein) and countless others, soldiers and civilians alike. But Breitenfeld accomplished the succor of the Protestant movement in Germany; and it was never again close to extinction, as it had been before the battle.

The battle accomplished one other thing as well, and this perhaps not to the benefit of the German people. It prevented an early unification of Germany under Hapsburg rule. It would take another two-and-a-half centuries and the genius of Otto Von Bismarck to achieve that goal.

Militarily, Gustavus ushered in the era of linear formations and firepower as the decisive factor in battle. His infantry, fighting in lines of fewer ranks and greater frontage, allowed less men to cover more ground, and to deliver a greater volume fire to greater effect. Though the pike would continue in use among infantry till the early 18th century, the ratio of pike-to-shot would continue to shift towards firearms; till the invention of the bayonet allowed every infantryman to be both pikeman and musketeer.

In the artilleryman’s art Gustavus was both visionary and revolutionary. He was the first to make good use of light, mobile field guns in battle. In the future all European powers would experiment with and develop this arm. Eventually it would lead to mobile “horse gun” batteries, and more and greater field artillery in every army. Before Gustavus artillerymen were military contractors, hired by generals and princes for each campaign. After Gustavus, they were all military professionals, a branch of every nation’s armed forces.

Breitenfeld solidified Gustavus Adolphus’ reputation as a commander. Though he lost his life a mere fourteen months later at Lützen , he would forever be rated, by such experts on the subject as Napoleon and Clausewitz, as one of history’s greatest commanders.

(For more on Gustavus Adolphus and other leaders mentioned in this piece, see my article,  “The 25 Greatest Commanders of the Renaissance“.)



  1. Some scholars of the battle say Pappenheim’s assaults on the Swedish right were impetuous and launched either without Tilly’s sanction or at least prematurely. That Tilly meant to wait on the defensive till reinforcements joined him. Scholars to this day puzzle over what Tilly planned; but as neither Tilly nor his lieutenants penned an account of the battle, we can only speculate. Some have suggested the old Walloon soldier planned an audacious double envelopment maneuver; using his qualitatively superior cavalry to break both wings of his enemy’s forces; while their center was pinned in place by the mass of his infantry, and with the artillery of both sides still pounding away at each other. This may well be the case: Pappenheim’s massive heavy cavalry attack initially on the Swedish right-wing cavalry is reminiscent of Hannibal’s opening gambit at the Battle of Cannae. There, the Carthaginian heavy cavalry led by Maharbal thundered against the Roman left wing horse; shattering them and sending them fleeing from the field. But Gustavus was no Varro (the ill-fated Roman commander at that ancient debacle); and he had an effective counter to Pappenheim’s impetuous assaults.


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

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“We saw it! The hussars let loose their horses: God, what power! They ran through the smoke and the sound was like that of a thousand blacksmiths beating with a thousand hammers. Jezus Maria! The lances bent forward like stalks of rye driven by a great storm, bent on glory! They crash into the Swedish reiters…Overwhelming them! They sliced without effort through the whole army…”

This breathless account of a 17th century battle from Potop (“The Deluge”), by Henry Sienkievich captures well the furious charge of the famed Polish “Winged Hussars”. For roughly a century (1576-1683) they were the premiere cavalry in Europe, if not the world. In battle-after-battle, their crushing charge dealt the coup-de-grace to every enemy they faced. While suffering the occasional (even crushing) defeat, their century-long record of success is unsurpassed in the annals of cavalry warfare.

The towarzysz (“comrades”) of the Polish Husaria were armored lancers, their primary weapon the very long (and light) kopia. This differed from the standard lance of the Medieval knights in that it was hollow, thus allowing greater length without commensurate weight. Many writers have opined as to the reason for the great length of the 18-21 foot kopia, suggesting that it was to give the lancer greater reach in order to defeat the pike-armed infantry formations of the day. But its use in such an action is only apparent in one battle of the many the Husaria engaged in, and accounts differ as to whether or not on that occasion the enemy square was broken by flank or frontal attack.

1386388.jpgAs backup weapon, the Hussar carried a variety of weapons: saber, long sword, mace and even war-hammer (nadziak). Pistols, musketoons, and even composite bows could be carried as well.

The most famous piece of a Hussar’s equipment was his wings.

These varied over the heyday of the Husaria, from mere wings painted on or hanging from the Hussars shield, to two large “skoklosters“, hooped wooden frames onto which eagle feathers were attached. These latter were mounted on the Hussars back, or the back of his saddle.

1386395.jpgThe purpose of the wings is controversial. Some writers suggested that the wings made a frightening noise when the Hussar was at a gallop. This is almost certainly apocryphal: modern reenactor Rik Fox of the Los Angles-Based Suligowski’s Regiment Husaria reenactment group assures me that no such sound is apparent; or would be heard above the din of battle, in any case. Others have put forth the theory that the fluttering wings frightened enemy horses unaccustomed to the sight, causing enemy cavalry charging against the Hussars to balk. This is more plausible: the fluttering lance pennants and feathers might indeed “spook” an enemy horse unaccustomed to the sight. It has also been suggested that the wing-frames may have acted to deflect Tartar lassos or enemy sabre cuts.

All that we know for sure is that they lent the Hussars a unique and spectacular appearance.

Though for a time the strongest state in Eastern Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was beset by a plethora of enemies. Though its Hussars could tip the scales and win battles, these were a relatively small, elite force; never exceeding 3,000 armored lancers. Despite such battlefield successes as they enjoyed, the far-flung kingdom was beset on all sides by aggressive neighbors. Ultimately Poland was for time overrun and on the verge of collapse (“The “Deluge“, 1648-1667).

But Poland reemerged, and in 1683 under its heroic king, Jan Sobieski, the Hussars enjoyed their most celebrated success, riding forth to save Europe one last time from the advancing tide of Islam!


John Sobieski


Since its emergence in the early 7th century, the warriors of Islam had been battering at the gates of “Christendom”. The early surge of Muslim invasion overran much of the Christian Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire, taking Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. Crossing into Spain, the Muslim Moors destroyed the Visigoth Kingdom, establishing first an Emirate and later a break-away Caliphate, centered on Cordoba.

This first onrush of the Muslim tide was stopped in the east at the Anatolian mountains by successive Byzantine soldier-Emperors. In the west, Muslim conquest was stopped by the Frankish hero, Charles Martel (“the Hammer”), deep in France at the Battle of Tours (732 AD).

After fighting off Christian Europe’s attempt to regain the lost territories of Syria and Palestine (the “Holy Land”) during the period known as the “Crusades“, Islam was once again on the march into Europe. From the 14th century onward, under the Ottoman Sultans of Turkey, the borders of Islam had advanced steadily into Eastern Europe.

An outgrowth of a militant “Ghazi” state on the frontiers of the fading Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Sultanate was the dominant Muslim power in the world from the 15th century onward. Its Sultans, adopting for themselves the titles of “Defender of the Faithful” and “Sword of Islam”, saw their mission as one of pushing the frontiers of Islam deep into the Christian lands of Europe.

The Turks captured Constantinople, the decaying capital of ancient Byzantium, in 1453. In the following decades, the Turks battled their way into Serbia, Wallachia, and Bosnia. In 1526 their Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent,  conquered the Kingdom of Hungry following the (for the Christians) disastrous Battle of Mohács.

1386406.jpgIn 1529, Suleiman pushed into the heart of Europe, attempting to capture Vienna, capital of the Hapsburg-led Holy Roman Empire. This first Siege of Vienna ended in failure for the Turks, temporarily halting their advance. The central Balkans thereafter became the frontier between Christian and Muslim for the next century-and-a-half in a desultory war of raid and counter raid.

Then, in 1683, the Turks were back, again laying siege to the Hapsburg capital, Vienna.

Europe may have looked ripe for conquest to the Sultans and their viziers in Constantinople (later Istanbul). The Protestant Reformation had given rise to the Wars of Religion in France and the devastating 30 Years War in Germany (which killed an estimated 25%-40% of the population). Though the Peace of Westphalia had brought active hostilities to a close, the Protestant and Catholic states were still deeply divided.

Europe was not only divided along religious lines, but along national lines as well. Poland wasn’t the only nation beset by troublesome neighbors. The Hapsburg rulers of Austria were under pressure from the expansionist policies of the French “Sun King“, Louis XIV. This brilliant and aggressive monarch was fast making France the greatest power in Europe, pushing the borders of France into Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland at the expense of the Empire. This threat from France had Hapsburg Austria fixated on their western borders.

Against this backdrop, the Turks prepared for a renewed thrust into central Europe. Careful preparation over many years, building up supply depots, repairing roads, and the massing of troops came to fruition in 1683. A massive Turkish army (estimated by various sources as between 150,000 and 300,000 strong), led by the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, marched north from Adrianople on April 2, 1683. Their goal: the capture of the Hapsburg capital.

1386408.jpgBy mid-July, the Turks were before the city. The second siege of Vienna began.

From July 14 through mid-September the Turks bombarded the city with 300 guns. Though the garrison was small (only some 2,000 troops, augmented by civilian militia) and the defenses incomplete, the city stubbornly refused to surrender. Much of the battle was conducted underground, where Turkish miners, tunneling under the defenses and attempting to plant explosives, were met by Austrian counter-mines. Fierce struggles took place below and above the fortifications, with the defenders slowly losing ground.

1466195.jpg The Turks swarm forward into a breach in the defenses, while Austrian defenders stand firmly against them!

By September the city was in desperate straits, and its fall imminent. For the Turks the long-sought goal of capturing Vienna and using it as a spring-board for expansion into the heart of Europe seemed within their grasp.

Fortunately for Vienna and Christian Europe, the Muslim tide was about to break upon a Polish rock!

In early September, a relief force was coming to the city’s aid. This coalition army consisted of 47,000 German troops from Austria and the Holy Roman Empire led by Charles Duke of Lorraine; and a Polish army of some 37,000 led by King Jan Sobieski, the cream of which was the 3,000 strong Husaria.

1386412.jpgOn September 10, the coalition army made its way through the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), the series of forested hills ringing Vienna to the south and west. Their destination was the Kahlenberg ridge overlooking the Vienna plain, where lay the Turkish camp. It was incredibly rough going, the terrain cut by ravines and valleys, vineyards and stone walls. Slowly, the allied contingents pushed through, the sound of the Turkish guns bombarding Vienna growing ever closer. Fortunately for the allies and for the city the Turks did little to oppose their advance; as Kara Mustafa concentrated on capturing the city before the relief force could arrive. This failure to oppose the allies in the difficult terrain of the Wienerwald was to prove a fatal error.

On the morning of September 12, the allies had obtained their goal, and were poised to attack onto the plain. Still, there were villages, hills, and orchards between them and their target, the Turkish army. It would take most of the day to push through into the relatively flat plains where the Polish cavalry could charge with effect.

Kara Mustafa could no longer ignore the coming relief force. Leaving troops to continue the assault on the city, he deployed the bulk of his army in line facing the allies advancing from the Kahlenberg ridge.

1386576.jpgAll day long the allies slogged forward through the broken terrain. Lorraine and his sub-commanders found themselves fighting countless minor skirmishes over every farmhouse and vineyard, as the allied forces inched forward.

On the allied right, Sobieski and the Poles were the last to arrive in position, having the furthest to travel and very tough terrain to traverse. Finally, at 1 pm the Poles were in position atop the Kahlenberg. The advance was led by infantry as they pushed through broken terrain, clearing away Turkish skirmishers and brushing off periodic attacks. At 2 pm, the Polish Royal Army came in-line with the rest of the struggling allies. A great cheer rose from the Imperial troops, greeting the Poles’ arrival.

The allied lines advanced. By 4 pm the Hussars had reached the flat ground necessary for a successful charge. Now they moved to the front, through the intervals in the infantry line. Their feathered wings and bright lance pennants fluttering in the breeze, they were by all accounts a splendid and impressive sight.

First a few companies were detailed to probe the enemy’s center, where they succeeded in disordering the Turkish first line. As the Poles withdrew, the Ottoman commander on the Turkish left must have thought the Poles were now vulnerable to counter-attack and ordered the Ottoman cavalry on that wing to attack Sobieski’s horsemen.

1386423.jpgAs their rearmost squadrons cleared a last line of vineyards, the Hussars began a charge in mass. With the cry of “Jezus Maria ratuj“, the password of the day on their lips, and with their king at their head, the Hussars advanced at a canter. The Imperial infantry to their left paused in their own attack to take in the awe-inspiring sight. At 50 paces, with the order “Zlozcie kopie” (“lower lances!”) the Hussars broke into full gallop, their lances lowering like “stalks of rye in the wind”. Into the oncoming Turkish cavalry, Sipahis and akinci alike, they tore!

A witness to the charge wrote:

“No sooner does a Hussar lower his lance than a Turk is impaled on its spike; disordering and terrifying the foe. That blow cannot be avoided or deflected…Oft transfixing two persons at a time. Others flee in eager haste… Like flies in a frenzy!”

1386417.jpgScattering the Turkish cavalry Sobieski now ordered the Hussars to charge home against the center of the Ottoman camp. At 6 pm, in coordination with the Imperial forces under Charles, Sobieski led the largest cavalry charges in history: some 20,000 German and Polish riders. At their head, the Polish king leading the way, were the 3,000 strong Hussars.

1608538.jpg1608537.jpgWith a deafening crash and shattering of lances they smashed home into the Janissary infantry defending the camp. The Turkish line recoiled, and after receiving still another charge from the far-right squadrons of Polish horse, crumbled. Soon the entire Turkish line was fleeing headlong in a disorderly mob from the pursuing Hussars. They left behind on the plain some 8,000-15,000 dead, with another 5,000 captured.


Three hours after it had begun, the battle was over. The Turks were in full flight, and the allies entered Vienna in triumph. Afterwards Sobieski paraphrased Julius Caesar, saying “Veni, vidi, Deus vicit” (“I came, I saw, God conquered”).

September 12, 1683 was the day that saved Europe. The siege was over, Vienna succored. In celebration, the bakers of Vienna made tiny pastries shaped like the crescents on Turkish banners. Their fellow bakers all over Europe soon copied: thus the croissant was born. The Turkish drive into central Europe was turned back in defeat, and in the coming years the Imperial forces, led by the brilliant Prince Eugene of Savoy would drive the Turks out of Hungary entirely.

1608460.jpgThe laurels that autumn day in 1683 belonged to Jan Sobieski and the Polish “Winged Hussars”. This was their last hurrah, a glorious final charge that helped to save the West from Muslim domination. But advances in fire-arms and artillery, as well as the expense of maintaining them would soon make the Hussars obsolete.

As writers of the day noted, the Hussar was a specialist, good for only one thing: to charge spectacularly in battle and break the enemy. They were no good at the sundry other common-place duties necessary for cavalry on campaign. Their place would be taken by cheaper, more versatile dragoons and light cavalry. But as one military observer of the day noted:

“Like the heavy artillery, most of the time they are but a burden on the baggage train. But like the heavy artillery, when put to the use for which they are designed, nothing is better! Good for only one day of battle? Yes, but what a day of decision!”


For a more hyperbolic view of the Winged Hussars, go to Badass of the Week’s take:

“…it’s time that the Polish cavalry – and particularly the Winged Hussars – get appropriately recognized as one of the most eye-skeweringly hardcore associations of asskickers ever assembled. These daring, brave, unabashedly-feathered badasses crushed throats up and down Europe for two centuries, annihilating battle-tested armies three times their size with nothing more than a huge-ass lance, an awesome set of ultra-cool wings, and a gym bag full of iron-plated armor ballsacks.”

1386420For an excellent biography of the heroic Jan Sobieski, read Miltiades Varvounis Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe

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

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1563826 (1).jpg

Sparta’s greatest moment came in 480 BC, when a brave king led 300 volunteers to a narrow pass in the north of Greece, to buy time with their lives while their countrymen prepared for war!


In all of human history no nation has been more devoted to warfare than Sparta. Under the constitution established by the legendary Spartan lawgiver, Lycourgos, all Spartan males were trained to one purpose, to become the best soldiers in the world. While subjugated serfs (“helots”) worked their land, every Spartan male had but one profession: the practice of arms.

The origin of this unique society begins sometime around 1000 B.C., when a handful of Dorian-Greek villages in the valley of the Eurotas River in the southern region of the Peloponnese called Laconia (or Lacedaemon) joined to form a single city-state (“polis”) called Sparta. In time, Sparta became the leading Dorian city in Greece.

Laconia occupies the broad and beautiful Eurotas valley. Surrounded by land-hungry neighbors, the Spartans had to fight to keep hold of this fair land. In time, they came to dominate the territories surrounding Laconia, expanding their dominion to the north and west. By the 7th century B.C., Sparta had developed into the unique political entity entirely devoted to the arts of war.

1563860.jpg Sparta today, nestled in the Eurotas Valley, with Mount Taygetos looming above on the right; and the ruins of ancient Sparta in the foreground.1400515.jpg

The Spartan constitution of Lycourgos, called the “Great Rhetra”, was more than just a set of laws or penal codes. It encompassed all aspects of the Spartan life. The Great Rhetra not only established the various branches of the Spartan government, and the enumerated the powers of each; it informed the Spartans how to conduct their lives. In many ways it occupied a place similar in their culture as the Torah does for the Jews: part holy book, part book of law.

These laws dictated the education of boys and girls. They told the Spartans the proper way to speak (in short, pithy, sarcastic sentences, the style of which came to be called “Laconic”); how they must wear their beards (without mustaches) and how to wear their hair (long, it being said that long hair made a handsome man handsomer; and made an ugly man look fierce).

1400580.jpgLycourgos the Lawgiver, in modern Sparta

The Rhetra was designed to produce, by 20 years of age, a Spartan citizen ready to take his place in this unique, warrior society. The history of Sparta is an experiment in utopia; a “perfect” society comprised of supermen and women.

Throughout his life a Spartan was tested to see if he had “the right stuff” to be considered one of these elite supermen. The first test of a Spartan citizen came at the child’s birth, when the newborn was inspected by the Ephors.  If it were found to have any deformities the child was not permitted to live: only perfect specimens were fit to become Spartans. A baby found wanting was taken to a spur of Mount Taygetos, and cast into a gorge. (In recent years scholars debated the fate of these infants and the practice of infanticide. It has been proposed that such infants were merely left on the mountainside, with the possibility of adoption by passing shepherds or peasant families. However, the fact is that infant skeletons dated to this period have been found in a gorge below Mt. Taygetos.)

At the age of seven Spartan boys were taken from their mother’s softening influence and enrolled in the Spartan military education system, called the Agoge (“the rearing”). For the next thirteen years, the boys were systematically trained to be Spartans. Only royal princes in direct line to inherit one of the two Spartan thrones were exempt from the Agoge. The boys were under the direction of an official called the Paidonomos (literally, the “Boy-Herder”), whose job it was to oversee their training. This education focused on discipline, endurance, and on inuring the boys to all forms of privation and suffering. They were taught wrestling and weapons-handling, to throw javelin and discus, racing and leaping. Trained from boyhood, the Spartans won more laurels in the ancient Olympic games than citizens of any other Greek city-state.

1400537.jpgSpartan boys slept outdoors all year around by the banks of the Eurotas, reeds cut from beside the river their only bed. Each boy was issued a single woolen cloak at the start of each year, to keep them warm or covered in all weather. For food they were expected to forage in the countryside, stealing what they couldn’t hunt: a valuable skill for soldiers on campaign in foreign lands. However, while successfully stealing food was rewarded, a boy who was caught in the act was whipped: only failure was unforgivable in Sparta.

The boys also learned music and dance, which had military applications; and it was said that the Spartans were the most musical people in Greece. Spartans perfected the so-called “Pyrrhic Dance“, the armed dance of the Greek warrior. Performed in tight formation, this dance taught the Spartans foot work and how to operate in close-order with other warriors, as a single unit; invaluable in phalanx warfare.

1400538.jpgThe Pyrrhic Dance, the armored war dance used to train Greek warriors in footwork

Along with the girls, Spartan boys performed complicated corral dances during the frequent religious festivals (the Spartans were a notoriously pious people), and for these even the maidens danced nude. Like all Greeks the Spartans had no nudity taboo, and these dances gave boys and girls both the means to perfect their physical forms, and the forum in which to display them.

By the time a boy graduated from this harsh training at 20 years old, he was ready to take his place amongst the toughest and most disciplined fighting force the world has ever known.

However, before he could call himself a Spartan, he had to overcome one more hurdle: acceptance into a military mess (“sussition”). These military messes were more than a dining facility. They were both barracks and mess-hall, in the modern military sense. But they were actually more a cross between the modern college fraternity and the Victorian Age’s Gentleman’s Clubs. In fact, it is thought that they developed from the more ancient Greek institution of the phratry, or “Brotherhood”,  in Latin translated as “Fraternity”.

A Spartan youth who failed to gain acceptance into a sussition could never become a full-fledged Spartan.

Once graduated from the Agoge, and accepted into a military mess, a young Spartan took his place as a hoplite (a heavy infantry “man-at-arms”) in the ranks of the Spartan army. However, he would have to wait another decade before gaining the full rights of a Spartan citizen.

It was not until he reached the age of 30 that a Spartan male was finally counted among the ranks of theSpartiate, the fully enfranchised Spartan warriors called “the Equals”. Now he could take his place in the in the assembly of the people, the Apella; voting “yay” or “nay” to new laws proposed by the Gerousia, the Spartan “Senate”. These Spartiates were an elite few, never more than 5,000 at Sparta’s greatest period of prosperity. In the 5th century BC, the “Spartiates” and younger Spartan warriors took the field in regimental-sized units. By the 4th century, however, shortages in Spartan manpower forced the Spartiates to only take the field as officers among allied or subject regiments, or in small numbers to “stiffen” allied forces.

The Spartan Army (stratos) was the finest fighting force in the Greek world for three hundred years. It was composed of all adult Spartan males, organized into platoons (Enomotia), companies (Lochoi), and regiments (Mora). The numbers and organization for the Spartan army varied over the centuries of Spartan greatness. But at the dawn of the 5th century, Sparta was at the height of its military power, with an army of nearly 5,000 Spartiate hoplites, and as many allied perioikoi (non-Spartan Laconian allies) hoplites.

1400583.jpgIn their companies and battalions, the Spartan hoplites formed a dense, compact battle formation called a phalanx. The phalanx was drawn up in files of 6 to 12 men deep. Each man stood close enough to his neighbors to overlap shields, presenting their enemies with an unassailable front of brazen shields and thrusting spears.

One of Sparta’s two kings always commanded the Spartan army on campaign; though on occasion smaller expeditions could be commanded by one of the senior officers commanding the moras, the polemarchs.


Sparta’s finest hour came in the early 5th century B.C., when Persia, the greatest empire that the Ancient World had yet produced, launched two separate invasions of Greece and Europe.

1412178.jpgThe Persian Empire had been founded by Cyrus (Kūrosh) the Great in the 6th Century B.C. Under Cyrus and his successors, this empire had devoured all the other states of the Middle East. By the dawn of the 5th century, the Persian Empire covered an expanse of land that stretched from Libya in the west, to India in the east. Its northern borders rested on the edge of the vast Eurasian steppes; its southern on the Indian Ocean. In the west, the Persian Empire bordered on the Aegean Sea; across which it eyed the turbulent, independent city-states of Greece with suspicion and disdain.

1412181.jpgIn 546 B.C., the Cyrus the Great had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) into his empire. But in 500-499 B.C., these Greek cities of Ionia had rebelled against Persian rule. In this the rebels were aided by the Ionian “mother city” Athens, along with the small city of Eretria on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived.

But Persian memory was long.

In 490 B.C., Darius I (called “the Great”) dispatched an expeditionary task force under Datis and Artaphernes to punish Athens and Eretria. The size of the force has at times been exaggerated, but was likely around 50,000 men. It was transported across the Aegean by a substantial fleet of warships.

The Persians quickly overcame and destroyed Eretria. The force was then landed at the beach of Marathon, only 25 miles from Athens.

In the midst of this dire threat, the Spartans received a request from Athens for aid. But at that moment the Spartans were in the midst of one of their many annual religious festivals; and would be delayed till its completion, many days later.

So with only the 10,000 hoplites of their own city (plus a minor contingent from the nearby town of Plataea), the Athenians engaged the Persians on their own at Marathon.

The Battle of Marathon demonstrated for the first time the inherent superiority at close-quarters fighting of Greek hoplites over the lighter armed archers of Asia. The Persian Army, despite its numerical advantage, was routed and thrown (literally!) back into the sea.


Ten years later, Darius’ son and successor Xerxes launched a second invasion. This one was far, far larger in size and scope than his father’s. Darius had sent a punitive expedition. Xerxes led an invasion, the purposes of which was to bring the free city-states of Greece into “the fold” of the Persian Empire.

1412185.jpgTo this end Xerxes massed an army of immense size, drawn from the farthest regions of his vast empire. It included not only Persians, Medes, and Elamites, the “first races” of the Perisan Empire; but contingents levied from the far-flung corners of the empire and from beyond its fringes. Scythians from the steppes of what is now the Ukraine marched in line with warriors from far southern Ethiopia. Contingents from distant Bactria (Afghanistan) served with Ionian Greeks from the Asian coast. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived through and wrote shortly after the Persian Wars (as the Greeks came to call them), claimed that the Persian host numbered at over one-million fighting men. However, most modern scholars believe the number to be between a quarter to a half as much as Herodotus assumed. Even so, it was an army so large that it is reputed to have drunk whole rivers dry as it passed!

Across the approximately one mile wide Hellespont (modern Dardanelles) a pontoon bridge was erected. Made of several hundred biremes and triremes lashed together and supported by several hundred tons of flax and papyrus cable, it supported a packed-earth road over which the Persian horde marched, dry-footed, from Asia into Europe. This was a major engineering accomplishment, dwarfing Caesar’s famous bridge over the Rhine; the likes of which would not be seen till modern times.

1412203.jpgThe Thracians and Macedonians submitted to the Persians without a fight, giving tokens of “earth and water”: symbols of obeisance to the Great King’s authority. The way was clear for Xerxes to march into Greece unmolested.

The Greeks took council at Corinth, to decide how best to meet this deadly threat. After much debate, it was decided to dispatch an expeditionary force to Thermopylae (the “Hot Gates”), a spot along the coast where the mountains come down to the sea, creating a narrow passage. At the same time, a coalition fleet would protect that force’s seaward flank by taking position to the east, at Cape Artemisium, from where they could block the progress of Xerxes’ fleet south, or into the Malian Gulf to support and supply the Persian army at Thermopylae.

1412159.jpg The battlefield, looking from in front of the Phocian Wall toward the narrow West Gate. The ancient shoreline has been restored, where the highway runs today

Though Thermopylae was not the only way the Persians could enter central Greece, it was the only practical way. The vast Persian host was far too large to feed itself on what it could carry, drag along, or steal from the surrounding country as it passed. It relied on the fleet to carry or transport from Asia enough stores to supply it as it marched south into Greece. Therefore, the army must hug the coast, maintaining close contact with the equally vast armada Xerxes had levied from his subject-states throughout the eastern Mediterranean; and the coast road ran past Thermopylae.


It was decided at Corinth that the Spartans would lead in this war to save Greece from Persian domination. Therefore, the commander of the expedition to Thermopylae would be one of the two Spartan Kings.

The ephors and kings took council, and consulted with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. ThePythiareturned a disturbing prophecy: either Sparta, or a Spartan king, must perish! For Athens, the Oracle’s prophecy was even more terrifying: “Flee, doomed men, to the ends of the earth!” However, upon “further review”, the Oracle modified the prophecy, adding that Athens would find salvation in her “wooden walls”. The meaning of the latter was taken by some leading Athenians, particularly her statesman Themistocles, as meaning that Athens’ fleet, made of wood, would provide the wall of salvation between her and the Persians.

1412207.jpgIdyllic Delphi, site of the oracle of Apollo. It was here that the Greeks came to learn their future from the Pythia, the priestess of the god. 

At last it was decided that King Leonidas, of the senior branch of the monarchy, the Agiadae, would lead a picked band of 300 Spartiates to Thermopylae to spearhead and command a relatively small Greek advance guard of some 7,000 hoplites from various other cities. Each of Leonidas’ 300 was chosen for two attributes: first, that they were men of proven valor; and second, that they all had living sons to take their place, should they fall. These were not the lean, muscled young men portrayed on-screen. Considering that a Spartan was not allowed to marry till he was 30 years old, and that “living sons” would likely mean grown or nearly grown young men, then these picked 300 Spartans were men in their 40s and 50s. Leonidas, born in the 540s, was himself a vigorous man in his 60s at the time of Thermopylae!

Late in the summer of 490 B.C., Leonidas and the 300 marched north to the pass, taking their station at the head of the allied force.

SONY DSCStatue of Leonidas at Thermopylae. While no contemporary statue of the brave king exists, this modern one conveys an impression true to what we know of this, Sparta’s most famous ruler.

Religious festivals and the coming Olympic Games kept the Greek states from immediately mobilizing their strength. It can also be speculated that in every Greek polis there were men in positions of influence who were pessimistic regarding resistance; and were simply hedging their bets, unwilling to commit too much of their manpower resources to trying to stop the seemingly unstoppable. Therefore few troops from other cities came to join the Spartans at Thermopylae. In all, some 7,000 Greek hoplites and skirmishers would comprise the defenders at the Hot Gates.

Though they comprised only 300 out of that force of 7,000, the Spartans and their king took command over the whole. One of the allied commanders, a Phocian, questioned the Spartan’s right to leadership when their contribution to the coalition was so small. Leonidas asked, “How many soldiers did you bring, friend?”

The Phocian replied, “We came with 1,000”.

Leonidas then asked him what he did for a living under normal circumstances. The Phocian, replied, “I am a potter”.

Leonidas turned to another Phocian standing beside his command. “What do you do, friend”? I am a farmer, this one answered.

Leonidas asked each of the Phocians standing nearby, and each gave a similar answer to the first: they each had a “civilian” occupation.

The Spartan king finally gestured towards his men, busy oiling their armor and sharpening their weapons.

“Well”, Leonidas pointed out, “I bring 300 soldiers”.[1] Every Spartan was a soldier, a professional, every day of the year, in war or peace.


The Persian hordes arrived  in late summer, and camped on the plain of the Spercheios River, at the northern end of the Thermopylae pass. Xerxes had his tent set up on a hilltop with a view of the Hot Gates. From there he could sit his high throne and observe his warriors as they advanced to destroy the defenders. Looking down, he saw what he thought, in the distance, were women sitting on stones, combing their hair. Standing beside Darius was a Spartan traitor: their exiled former king, Demaratus.

1412285.jpg“Those are no Amazons”, warned Demaratus; “they are the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), your majesty: My own people, the bravest warriors in the world. They wear their hair long by law. For in Sparta long hair is considered to make a handsome man look even handsomer, and an ugly one look fierce!

“They comb their hair before going into battle. For the Spartans go into battle as joyfully as other men go to a feast.”

Xerxes sent a herald forth to demand that the Spartans surrender. He warned the Greeks that resistance was futile; that the Great King’s army was so vast, “their arrows would blot out the sun”.

Dienekes, a Spartan officer who would later be esteemed by the Spartans as the most valiant man to fight in the battle to come, quipped back to the Persian herald, “All the better. Then we shall fight in the shade!”

The herald, astonished at this insolence, demanded one last time that the Spartans lay down their arms.

Now Leonidas responded: “Molon Labe!”

This taunt, in Greek, meant “Come and take them!”


The pass of Thermopylae was divided by three so-called “gates”. The narrowest section of the pass, where Mount Kallidromos pressed closest to the sea was the “West Gate”. This was the entrance through which the Persians must pass to get at the Spartans.

1412315.jpgBeyond the “West Gate” the pass opened up to a plain wide enough for fifty men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. It was here, in front of a ruined wall built in the past by the local Phocian people, that Leonidas planned to fight his battle.

East of the Phocian Wall was the Middle Gate, and a mound which would later play a part in the battles final chapter. Past these was the East Gate, terminus of the pass of the Thermopylae.

That afternoon, the Great King watched from his high throne as his first division, the Medes, funneled through the narrow West Gate.

1412316.jpgThe second people of the Empire, this division of the army gave pride-of-place only to Xerxes own Imperial Guard, the Immortals. The Medes entered in their battle splendor, stepping proudly in their long flowing embroidered robes and trousers, cuirasses of bronze scale girding their bodies, shields of wicker and bows and short spears competing their panoply. Supporting the Medes in this initial assault were the Cissians, another proud people of the empire, differing from the Medes only in that they wore turbans instead of the bullet shaped, Assyrian-style helmets of the Medes.

These two divisions together numbers 20,000 troops. But Xerxes was to discover that though he had untold number of troops, he had few men!

On the plain in front of the Phocian Wall, the Spartan phalanx stood waiting. Though the usual battle depth of their phalanx was 12 ranks deep, there was room in the narrow pass for 300 men to form-up 50 shields across, and 6 ranks deep. Other Greek allies likely formed behind the Spartans, lending weight of depth to their phalanx.

Leonidas allowed the Medes to enter through the narrows, between cliff and sea. But once their vanguard began deploying in front of the phalanx, the Greeks advanced with locked-shields, closing rapidly with the Medes before their arrows could have much effect.

1412317.jpgHowever brave, the Medes’ lighter shields and shorter spears were no match for the great bronze-covered aspis and long thrusting spears of the Spartans. While the armor and shields of the hoplites would turn or blunt their enemy’s blows, Greek spears pierced both wicker shields and scale cuirass of the easterners. Never before had these men of the empire faced a foe so heavily armed, nor so trained in close-quarter combat. All of their experience was against foes who fought like themselves: at a distance with barrage of arrow or javelin; only using the spear as a last resort, or to close and finish an enemy weakened by their arrow storm. By contrast, the Greek hoplites relied on othismos, the push of shields, driving their enemy back and breaking their formation.[2]

But the Greek style of war proved its superiority that day, again confirming the verdict of Marathon: that the Greek method of war was by far the deadlier. It was one which distilled warfare down to its essence, to close with the enemy and butcher him where he stood!

1412318.jpgThe Spartans showed on that day what a life-time’s training in arms could do for a warrior. Though the battle raged all throughout that morning and into the afternoon, the Spartans never fatigued, nor their courage flag. Several times Leonidas gave the command to fall back, and the Spartans would feign flight, as though finally panicked into fleeing. The Medes and Cissians would break ranks and give chase, falling for the ruse; only to have the Spartans turn about upon them, reforming instantly their bristling phalanx of spears and locked-shields. The carnage would then be especially terrible for the surprised and disordered Medes.

Seeing his first efforts come to naught, Xerxes recalled the bloodied Medes late in the day. To Hydarnes, commander of his elite Immortals, he now gave the command to clear the pass of these pesky Spartans, bringing back only a few survivors to be displayed in cages, as one does captured lions, throughout Asia!

Instead, to the Great King’s shock and horror, the Immortals received the same rough handling the Medes had been dealt earlier. Three times Xerxes leapt up from his throne in terror for the fate of his soldiers, as they fell in droves beneath the Spartan’s spears. Others were driven back upon the ranks behind them, pushing these in turn back towards the narrowest section of the pass, where the sheer press caused many to fall into the sea and perish.

1412320.jpgThe sun set that first day at Thermopylae with the Spartans still in possession of the pass and the Persian host shaken and demoralized.

While the Spartans and other Greeks had been giving the Persian land forces a very rough handling, the Greek fleet had been equally successful in blocking Xerxes fleet at Cape Artemisium. In the first day of what would be a three-day naval engagement, concurrent with the fighting at Thermopylae, the much larger Persian fleet (composed of contingents from the maritime peoples of the empire, particularly the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Ionian Greeks) was repulsed, losing 30 ships captured or sunk. Held fast at Artemisium, they were unable to reach Xerxes camp with much needed supplies, nor to threaten the seaward flank of the Greek army holding the Hot Gates.

The second day at Thermopylae went much like the first, with division-after-division of the Persian host entering the pass. All met the same fate as those who’d come before.

1563930.jpgThe Spartans were “spelled” from time-to-time by the other Greek contingents. Many had by this time succumbed to wounds or fatigue, and not a Spartan still alive was free of wounds. But they held the pass, and for every one that fell twenty of their foemen died first.

That evening, Xerxes despaired of ever budging the Greek defenders from the Hot Gates. There was fear among his officers that if he continued to order them to what seemed certain suicide against the fearsome defenders of the pass, he risked mutiny; especially among soldiers of the disaffected subject nations. Supplies must have been quickly dwindling, with so many mouths to feed, and with the supply ships unable to breakthrough at Artemisium.

At that darkest moment, a Greek goatherd entered the Persian camp with information to sell. This traitor, named Ephialtes of Trachis, was a “local” who knew the surrounding hills. He offered (for a price) to show the Great King’s troops a way around Thermopylae, by a hidden trail through the hills which would bring the Persians behind the Spartan position.

1412326.jpgThat evening Hydarnes and the remaining Immortals followed the traitor along this narrow goat path. Up and over the girding mountains beside the Hot Gates, till dawn found them descending again toward the sea. But now they were to the east of the pass, behind the defenders and threatening their line of retreat.

Unlike Xerxes, Leonidas was aware of the threat this path posed to his position in the pass. He had posted a force of Phocians in the hills along this track, to guard against such an eventuality. However, seeing the mass of Immortals descending toward their position, the Phocians loss heart and withdrew into the hills, allowing Hydarnes’ force to continue on.

1412162.jpg From the 1962 film, “300 Spartans”: Hydarnes and the traitor Ephialtes lead the Immortals through the mountains behind the Spartan position in the pass.

Word of Hydarnes’ movement reached Leonidas at his station in the pass. The Immortals were still in the hills, winding their way down, and the retreat south not yet blocked. Realizing that the defense of Thermopylae was no longer tenable, Leonidas dismissed the other Greek contingents, sending them home. Greece would need them alive to fight another day.

For the Spartans, there could be no retreat.

Their pride and reputation would not allow it. Further, they had been ordered to hold the pass at all costs, till reinforced or dead. As no reinforcements had arrived, Leonidas and the survivors of the original 300 were prepared to obey their orders and die defending the Hot Gates. Every Spartan spent his life in search of one thing more than any other: Kalos Thenatos, the “Beautiful Death” in battle. Here was the perfect time, the perfect place to leave an immortal name!

It should also be remembered that Leonidas was himself aware of the Delphic Oracle’s prophecy: that either Sparta or a Spartan king must die! To save Sparta, he was prepared to sacrifice himself as had kings of old; to propitiate the gods with his own royal blood.

In any case, a rearguard must delay the Persians, and not allow the Persian cavalry a close pursuit.

With the retreating Greeks Leonidas sent a message to his wife, Gorgo. Much younger than himself, he bade his wife marry a good man, and bear many good Spartan children.

With the Spartans rearguard remained two other Greek contingents: those of the city of Thebes, and that of another Boeotian town, the Thespians. The Thebans were suspected of harboring pro-Persian sentiments (joining the Persians was referred to as “Medizing”), while the Thespians begged to be allowed to stand with the Spartans to the end. All would subsequently give their lives that day to buy time for their comrades to escape.

Leonidas bid all remaining to eat a good breakfast that morning; for, he told them, by evening they would all be dining in Hades!

At mid-morning, Xerxes ordered a frontal attack on the pass. Leonidas, knowing that Hydarnes and the Immortals would soon be coming up from behind them, ordered the Greeks forward to meet them and find death bravely.

1412332Herodotus says that here, during these final hours, the carnage was at its worst and the dead beyond counting. The dispirited Persian soldiers were driven forward with whips by their officers, while the Spartans fought with the reckless courage of men who know death awaits and have resigned themselves to taking as many of their foes with them as possible.

Spears were sundered, swords broken, shields shattered, till the Spartans had nothing left to fight with but rocks picked-up from the ground; or like wild beasts, their teeth and nails! Yet still they fought on.

At some point, fighting in the foremost rank, Leonidas fell. A great struggle began over his body. Four times it switched hands. Like a scene out of “The Iliad”, the Greeks and Persians battled for the body of the Spartan king. The Spartans finally recovered their king, just as Hydarnes’ force appeared in their rear.

1412168 Two views of the hill where the Spartans made their final stand. Above, the hillock viewed from near the ancient shoreline. Below, looking from “last stand hill” toward the battle plain and the West Gate in the distance. The road seen at the lower right is approximately where the ancient shoreline ran. 1412171.jpgDrawing off to a small hillock (known unofficially as “last stand hill”) the Spartans and the other surviving Greeks formed a circle, around the body of Leonidas. There they stood their ground, as the Persians pelted them from all sides with missiles; till not a man remained alive.[3]



The Persians had forced the pass, and Greece lay before them. But at the Hot Gates they had paid a ghastly price for the real estate they had captured.

No source lists the number of Persian dead. But it is not likely that less than 20,000 Persian troops fell there (and the number may have been even higher). Among the dead were two sons and two brothers of Xerxes himself. Worst, the entire Persian army was demoralized. They had met the Greeks in a place where numbers counted for little, where only courage and skill at arms meant victory. In this they had clearly been bested. There was little doubt in the minds of every man in the Great King’s host that had not the traitor shown them a way around the pass, retreat or death would have been their only options.

In Sparta, the news from Thermopylae was greeted with no outward sadness. Mourning robes were nowhere in evidence, nor was their wailing and lamentations. The Spartans who had died were martyrs to Greek freedom, and were honored above all men as heroes of Sparta.

Thermopylae was, in many respects, the Spartan Alamo. It became a source of intense pride, and a rallying cry for every Greek. Free men had stood their ground, and proven superior fighters to mere “slaves” of the Great King. By giving Greece the pride and will to resist what had seemed an unstoppable enemy, Thermopylae saved Greece. By extension, it saved Western Civilization!

Later at Thermopylae, atop the hill where the 300 had made their last stand, the Spartans erected a memorial tablet. They commissioned the lyric poet, Simonides of Ceos, to inscribe these words:

“Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here obedient to their laws we lie.”


The Persian invasion would end the following year. The Persian fleet was first destroyed in the naval victory off Salamis against the combined fleets of the Greek states. His supply line compromised, Xerxes was forced to withdraw with more than half of his army. The remaining portion of the Persian forces, under Xerxes’ brother-in-law Mardonius, would be destroyed the following year at Plataea by a Spartan-led coalition force. There the full Spartan phalanx would withstand a devastating arrow storm, followed by a charge of Persia’s finest armored cavalry, led by Mardonius himself. The Persians were utterly routed, with Mardonius slain in the fighting!

1412338.jpgThermopylae and Plataea demonstrated the superiority of the Greek warriors over all others. The Spartans in particular gained a reputation for invincibility and unshakable courage, which would last for two generations. Only against other Greeks would the Spartans meet opponents worthy of their arms and which would challenge their hard-won status as the greatest fighting men in the world.

A word about Leonidas, the “lion at the Hot Gates”.

He was not the greatest Spartan king. Before Thermopylae, he wouldn’t have rated amongst the top five. But he is the only one that most people today can name. Like William Barret Travis, who commanded the Texan defenders at the Alamo, the manner of his death reversed a life spent in relative obscurity, and made his name immortal.



1. A suspiciously similar story is attributed to the Spartan king Agesiilaus, nearly a century later. See Bradford, E. Thermopylae: the Battle for the West, De Capo Press, 1980, P.66

2. For a detailed discussion of ancient Greek warfare, see Phalanx vs Legion.

3. There is an alternative story, told in Diodorus (Book 11) and in Plutarch’s polemic “On the malice of Herodotus”, that the Spartans perished in a suicidal attack on the Persian camp that last night. The story is that knowing their end was near, Leonidas led a surprise night attack on Xerxes camp, with the ultimate purpose of killing the Great King in his tent. According to this version, the Spartans did much damage in the resulting confusion. But, with daybreak, the Persians realized how small were their numbers, and fell upon them with bow and javelin. This story, while possible, is highly implausible.

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























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

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

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

(Read Part Four here; or start series from the beginning!)


Vortigern had nurtured the Saxon wolf, from mere pup to full grown lupine menace. Like Fenris of Norse legend, the beast could be chained no longer. Hengist and his Saxon foederatii turned upon Vortigern and the Britons, devouring their host.

1392223.jpg The brawny Horsa and the wily Hengist

The precise year of the Saxon mutiny is unknown. It is unlikely to have occurred earlier than 449, and certainly no later than 455[1]. Nor do we know the number of Saxon warriors involved in the insurrection. An estimate based upon the number of Saxon ships that according to the sources joined Hengist in Briton prior to the mutiny render a number not less than 1,000 warriors, and not more than 3,000 (a high and unlikely estimate).

1392202.jpgFurthermore, in his time as the High King Vortigern’s chief captain, Hengist may have plotted with and been able to win over those descendants of Saxon foederates settled in Britain by the Romans in the 4th century. Archaeology has revealed that Saxon settlements may have dotted the eastern fringe of Britain along the so-called Saxon Shore. These settlers might have risen at Hengist’s signal and joined their ethnic cousins in pillaging their Celtic neighbors.

However many or few, Hengist’s foederates constituted the only standing body of “professional” troops in the heart of Britain, aside from Vortigern’s own household troops (bucellarii or teulu), who would have numbered a few hundred at best. Little stood between them and the nearly undefended civilized heartland of Roman Britain. Saxon warbands fanned-out throughout the countryside and spread fire and bloody destruction throughout the prosperous southeastern and central portion of Britain. Farms and manor houses were pillaged and burned, towns were sacked and likewise put to the torch. Men were slaughtered, women raped and murdered or, along with children, enslaved. These pagan Saxons had nothing but contempt for Christian places of worship: churches were robbed, their priest’s butchered, their alters desecrated.


Gildas, writing nearly a century later, states that the Saxon violence:

“…devastated all the neighboring cities and lands, and did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean.

During this time many thousands of wealthier Romano-British and their retainers fled the country in despair, crossing the Channel to find sanctuary in Armorica (modern Brittany) in Northwestern Gaul, which bears their name to this day. This was not a process of months but of years. Throughout the century, Brittany remained an alternative refuge for Romano-Britons. In their haste to escape the murderous Saxons, many buried coins and other valuables to lighten their burdens and in hopes of one day returning to their estates, when they could be recovered. Archaeology has recovered hundreds of such coin hoards, mute testament to the effects of the Saxon Terror.


What role did Vortigern, the ageing High King, play in these events? Was he a helpless bystander, deserted by his Saxon mercenaries who now too orders only from their own leaders? Or was he Hengest and Horsa’s puppet ruler, either a willing collaborator or their hostage? The narrative provides no clear answers. But his final chapter in the unfolding tragedy was yet to come.


Events in Britain did not occur in a vacuum. Britain had been part of the Roman world for four centuries. It would continue to trade with the Roman Mediterranean, importing (among other things) pottery till into the 6th century. As we have already seen (Part Two) in the previous decade the Britons had appealed to the Roman general Flavius Aetius, the Magister Militum in Gaul, for aid. Aetius served the weak and ultimately paranoid emperor Valentinian III. But for two decades Aetius had been the real power in the Western Roman Empire. Much of his efforts had gone to stabilizing Roman authority in Gaul, which by the late 440s had produced positive if not yet conclusive results.

1392227.jpgFlavius Aetius surrounded by his barbarian bodyguards (bucellarii)

Thus the promise (or threat?) of Roman intervention, and reestablishment of authority in Britain, was a very real possibility throughout the first half of the 5th century. But in 451, on the eve of Saxon Terror, any chance of Roman aid to Britain evaporated, as Aetius and the Western Roman Empire had to deal with a deadly threat to Gaul and to the very existence of the Roman Empire in the West: Attila the Hun!

The Huns had long been the bogeyman hovering just beyond the Roman world. Their push into the plains of the Ukraine in the 4th century had shattered the Gothic kingdom of Ermanaric and pushed the Visigoths into the Roman Empire with disastrous results for the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. The Huns had steadily moved further and further westward in the late 4th century and first decades of the 5th, pushing before them like a gust front the Germanic peoples of eastern Europe. Aside from the Visigoths, the Vandals, Alans, and Seubi had pushed into and settled parts of the Western Empire. Others, like the Ostrogoths and Gepids had been absorbed into the expanding Hunnic Empire as subject peoples.

The Huns were the barbarian that all other barbarians feared!

By the first quarter of the 5th century the Huns had settled in mass within the devastated and largely depopulated former Roman province of Pannonia. Straddling the Danube, the heartland of the new Hunnic territories included the plains of what would come to be known as “Hungary”: perfect grazing land for a nomadic steppe people.

Once they had become accustomed to each other, Huns were often found serving as mercenaries within Roman armies. Aetius in particular had long used Hunnic warriors in his own household regiment (bucellarii). In his tenure as Magister Militum of the Western Empire it is very likely Aetius introduced the widespread use of Hunnic-style horse archery to the Roman Army (spreading to the Eastern Roman Army as well). To insure his position of primacy against rival generals in the Western Empire he needed a steady and available supply of these hearty, ferocious warriors.

Upon becoming king of the Huns in 434, Attila began a policy of alternatively extorting and raiding the Eastern Roman Empire. In the 440’s, the Huns devastated the Roman Balkans, defeating Roman forces on several occasions and ultimately extorting a large annual tribute in gold in return for withdrawing beyond the Danube. In 451, Attila turned is attention to the Western Empire, and invaded Gaul with a large army (the exact size is speculative, but between 30,000 and 50,000 men would seem a fair estimate). This invasion would culminate in Attila’s defeat at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (also called the Battle of Chalons).

With Aetius’ forces tied up in the defense of Gaul, and the Roman presence in Gaul seemingly on the verge of extinction in any case, the question arises: could not the anything-if-not-opportunistic Hengist have been emboldened to mutiny by Aetius’ distraction with Attila’s invasion, and with this the removal of any threat of Roman intervention in Britain? We can never know, of course. But the possible link between these two events is intriguing.

As stated earlier, this was a period of Romano-British diaspora, with many thousands of Britons leaving the island to find refuge in Armorica/Brittany. There they became neighbors with clans of Alani tribesmen, an Eastern European horse people settled in Armorica by Aetius. This was to prove a serendipitous convergence of events that would pay dividends in the years ahead during time of Arthur.

The Alans were a Massagetae people, perhaps related to the Sarmatians. They were excellent horseman, noted for their skill with lance, bow, and javelin. There is no record of conflict between these and the émigré Britons. What seems likely is that the two got on well together, supporting and eventually amalgamating into one “Breton” people by the Middle Ages. The Medieval Bretons were noted horseman, and their use of traditional steppe warfare tactics, such as feigned withdrawal to lure an enemy into disastrous pursuit.


Like the Sarmatians long settled in the north of Britain, the Alans in Brittany had a tradition of heavy shock cavalry: the one decisive weapon against which the Saxons had no defense. Now, in Brittany, a generation of Roman Britons (who like all Celts had a cavalry tradition of their own) would grow to manhood exchanging knowledge with their new neighbors; as well as inheriting a blood vendetta against the Saxon invaders of their homeland.


At this point in the narrative the British tradition (as chronicled in the Historia Brittonum by the 9th century Welsh monk Nennius, elaborating upon Gildas; and in the fanciful Historia Regum Britanniae penned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century) parts company with the near-contemporary (to Nennius) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), penned by Saxon monks in 9th century Wessex.

Let us start with the British version of events first.

In the British tradition, Vortigern’s son Vortimer (in Welsh, Gwerthefyr), now takes center stage, taking up his aging father’s mantle to lead the British counter-attack against their erstwhile allies. It should be recalled that Vortimer’s mother was Vortigern’s first (?) wife, possibly a daughter of Constantine III, Imperial pretender (and perhaps the last Comes Britanniarum, or “Count of Britain”), or even of another late-Roman emperor from Britain, Magnus Maximus. She had been repudiated in favor of “the pagan woman”, Rowena, daughter of Hengist (see Part Two). Vortimer may have broken with his father over his mother’s mistreatment. It is not unlikely that he now led a cabal within the Council of Britain that set aside his father’s over-lordship, deposing the old man (who may well have been a virtual prisoner of the Saxons by this time, if not a quisling puppet-ruler) and taking vigorous command of the British counter-attack.

1392235.jpgReturning to the British version, Nennius speaks of three battles across the Kentish landscape. First at the river Darent/Derwent; the second at Epsford/Aylesford (dated 455 in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle), where both Horsa and another son of Vortigern’s, Catigern are slain; and lastly at Rutupiæ (Richborough), “near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea” (Ebbsfleet, the channel between the mainland and Thanet Island?), where the Saxons were defeated and fled to their ships. In this final fight, Vortimer was badly wounded, perhaps mortally.

In the British tradition, the Saxons were thus driven from the island, albeit temporarily.

By contrast, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (again, written by English monks in the 9th century) makes no reference to British victories, nor to Vortimer, son of Vortigern, leading the British war effort. In the ASC entry for the year 455, the Chronicle details that Hengist and Horsa fought with Vortigern at Aylesford (a river crossing of the Medway), and that Horsa died there. That afterwards Hengist took control of the kingdom (implying that Horsa had been the King before his death), along with his son Esc/Oisc .

In 457 Hengist and Esc/Oisc again fight the “Brettas” at Crecganford (Crayford?) on the river Darent, “and there slew four thousand men“, and driving the Britons back to London. In 465 Hengist and Esc/Oisc once again fight the “Welsh” in the Battle of Wippedesfleot (Ebbsfleet), the channel separating the Saxon stronghold of Thanet from the mainland. In the year 473, the final entry in the Chronicle mentioning Hengist, the Saxon leader and his son Esc are recorded as having fought “the Welsh” (Britons), having taken “immense booty” and the Welsh having “fled from the English like fire“.


1392238.jpgReturning to Nennius and the British version of events: following the expulsion of the Saxons after Wippedesfleot /Ebbsfleet, young Vortimer dies of wounds received in the fighting. (Geoffrey of Monmouth dramatically has Vortigern’s Saxon bride, Rowena, poison the young prince!) Vortigern (at Rowena’s urging) sends emissaries to Hengist, requesting a peace-conference. In truth, Vortigern’s position was weak, blamed by all for his disastrous Saxon policy, which had brought such death and destruction upon the land. He had everything to fear from his British subjects and rivals. If he was to hold onto power, he needed his Saxon Praetorians more than ever!

The Saxons agree, and a feast is organized with leaders from both sides attending (at Stonehenge, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth). The wily Hengist instructed his thegns (aristocratic warriors) to come armed with their seax-knives hidden on their persons (normal practice in Germanic society was for all weapons to be left in a vestibule-chamber before attending feast: alcoholic beverage consumption and edged weapons being poor companions).

At the feast, each Saxon was seated beside a Briton. As the evening drew on, with many toasts to renewed friendship and peace, the Saxons were careful to imbibe but sparingly. At some point, Hengist raised his drinking cup in a final toast. This was the signal: as the British officers drank deep to peace, the Saxons pulled out their daggers and fell upon the Britons beside them, slaughtering all.

1392240.jpgThe “Night of the Long Knives” (this is the earliest recorded usage of this term) resulted in the decapitation of the British leadership. Only Vortigern was spared, the horrified and befuddled old man being bound and taken captive. In return for his life, he granted Hengist all the southeastern portion of Britain, the lands that came to be called Essex, Sussex, Middlesex.


So, here we are left with two versions that diverge greatly on the details. The Saxon version of events presents an 18 year progression of victories by the Saxons from 455 to 473, advancing ever westward. The British version is one of a relatively short campaign of hard-fought battles; of victories won, but ultimately thrown away by Vortigern’s foolishness and Saxon treachery.

How to reconcile the two?

First, we look at where they agree.

Both the Saxon and British versions agree on the battles, their names and/or locations. That there were three battles in Kent following the Saxon mutiny thus seems to rest on solid ground[2]. But who won these battles, and over what time-period?

The Saxon version has the virtue of simplicity of narrative. We know that the Saxons ultimately retained control of Kent: that much is certain. The Saxon version neatly supports the ultimate outcome.

What argues for the British version (or at least the bare elements of it) is the geographic progression of the battles: with the final one taking place where the Saxons first landed, on the eastern-most tip of Kent. Clearly, the Saxons are losing ground after each battle. This would seem to bring into question the ASC (Saxon) version of an ever-victorious Saxon march.

We can never know the truth of the matter, but a working theory that reconciles the two versions can be constructed:

Vortigern, perhaps too old to lead his army in person, or no longer trusted by his own people, cedes or loses control of the war to his son and successor, Vortimer. In 454, late in the year, Vortimer leads the British forces into Kent. The battles are fought at river fords, which the numerically inferior Saxons defend. Fiercely contested, the casualties are high on both sides, with the defending Saxons having the advantage, killing more of their enemies and thus able to claim victory. But they are forced to fall back after each as their own numbers dwindle. Finally, defending their original base at Thanet, the Saxons oppose the Britons at Wippedesfleot/Ebbsfleet. Perhaps Vortimer’s army crosses the channel at low tide. Driven out of their base, the Saxons take to their ships. This is a tactic used centuries later by the Danes under similar circumstances, and it seems reasonable that Hengist would have cut his losses and reverted to pirate.

1392257All this takes place in the campaign season of 455, extending perhaps into 456; not over ten years as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle maintains (though a later Saxon victory in 473 is surely plausible, in light of events to come). Shortly thereafter, Vortimer dies of wounds received in the hard fighting. The British militia disperses to their homes or garrisons. The following spring, having licked his wounds and gathered new recruits on the continent, Hengist returns, landing again at his original base at the Island of Thanet.

The “Night of the Long Knives” can be dismissed as pure invention. Had such an event actually occurred, it surely would have been remembered in the Saxon tradition. Such treacheries were celebrated in Northern sagas and applauded as cunning stratagems by clever leaders: the Scandinavian and Germanic sagas are filled with just such episodes. Would not Hengist or his successors (the future kings of Kent) have ensured that court bards recorded and retold the event in song and saga? Clearly, this is the Welsh monk’s attempt to reconcile his claims of British military victories with the ultimate Saxon triumph that followed.

What is far more likely is that events outside of Kent overtook Vortigern and the Britons, shifting the focus away from Hengist and Kent. The Saxons returned to a Kent depopulated by the tide of war, and over the next two decades had only to defend their new home against sporadic attempts by the distracted Britons to push them out.

Vortigern has directed British affairs for 3 decades. His Saxon policy, never popular, has proven disastrous for the country. His heroic son and successor was dead, along with many of Vortigern’s household troops, killed in the previous year’s fighting.

Now, a hated rival and old nemesis returned to challenge the old man’s withered authority.



  1. There is a school of thought that the arrival of the Saxons can be placed decades earlier than either Bede or the ASC indicate, sometime in the 420s. This would allow for a much earlier mutiny of the Saxon foederatii, and with it an earlier Ambrosius and Arthur. This theory has the advantage of not needing to hypothesize two Ambrosius’, father-and-son. Its greatest weakness is of course its variance with all the known sources.
  2. Scholarly arguments attempting to place the battles elsewhere are mostly specious or beg credulity.

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.


For some a terrific read on these events, try David Pillings novel:


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Still sore from the night before, Germany has had one too many pints. It is sucking up to Russia, deciding it doesn’t want to pay for the drinks that France insists it owes. They then drunkenly shout out that Austria is its brother, man, and Italy is their long time best friend.

Sauced now and belligerent, Germany is glaring angrily about the bar. Italy is already marching around, challenging everyone to step outside. America had left the bar some time ago and no one was sure where it’d gone.

With nothing better to do, Germany challenges Soviet Russia to an arm wrestling match at the Spanish table, while Japan was in the back room whacking China with a pool cue.

Arm-wrestling over, Germany goes to the bar again and orders another pint and one for Austria. Glancing over to Czechoslovakia, Germany says, “Hey, nice shirt. I want it”.

Before Czechoslovakia can jump from the bar stool and take a swing, Britain walks over and stands between the two, saying, “Can’t we just get along? Come on, now, Czechoslovakia, just the shirt, that’s all.”

Humiliated, Czechoslovakia hands over the shirt and Britain walks back to the corner table with France saying, “See? Peace in our time.”

At the other end of the pub, Italy has finally found someone to fight: it kicks Ethiopia in the goolies as they walk in. Germany, raises their pint glass in salute to Italy.

Then they look at Russia who’s wandered back in after checking on Japan in the back room and both look over at Poland who’s been sitting by themselves at a small table….. right next to Germany. England and France stare at Germany and England wags their finger at Germany. Germany gives them an “aw shucks” grin and then turns and knocks Poland’s beer off the table.

Poland stands up to confront Germany beckoning for England and France to come over and help. Russia then taps Poland on the shoulder and when they turn around Germany grabs the chair and smashes it over Poland’s head. Russia then rushes in and begins kicking Poland repeatedly as they lay writhing on the floor.

Germany turns to England and France and makes a “come on then” gesture, but England and France slink back to their table and continue to utter threats in low voices. Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Belgium who popped in for a quick one after work all look worried and finish their drinks in a hurry and yell for the bill.

Finland who’s been sitting in a corner quietly notices Russia is distracted going through the unconscious Poland’s pockets, and quickly sneaks up behind them and smashes a vodka bottle over their head.

Russia gets up, shakes their head, grabs Finland by one arm and tosses them against the wall, knocking them completely out. Russia then goes back to their table in the far corner and sits down to sulk. Japan notices this and slinks out back to see if China has woken up yet.

England grabs the phone and calls Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India and tells them to get down here right quick and oh could one of them pop around to the United States and tell them to grab their baseball bat and come over. Then England walks over and stands by France confronting Germany, Italy and their mates now standing in the middle of the room.

Everyone else quickly pays their bill and heads for the door.

Germany crosses the room, rolls up its sleeves and with four punches knocks Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium out cold. Germany then grabs all their wallets and tosses them on a table to sort through later.

France is upset that its little cousin Belgium has been taken out and rushes to get at Germany. Italy has finally finished going through Ethiopia’s pockets sees France on the move, sticks out its leg and trips them. When France gets up Germany picks up an entire table and smashes it over their head. France is knocked out for several hours and when they finally wake up they’re slightly schizophrenic and crawl off into a corner to argue with themselves.

Outnumbered and alone England barricades itself behind the bar and begins tossing empty pint glasses at Germany, hoping the kids show up soon.

Germany and Italy begin sorting out the other tables and strut around the bar. In a corner booth Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania seeing what just happened, stand up and declare that Germany and Italy are their new best mates and buy them a round.

Across the street the United States is getting concerned about all the noise and broken windows and wants to go over and take a look, but the missus tells them to sit down and finish their dinner.

Shortly after dinner, United States hears a noise in the backyard and investigates just in time to see Japan smashing its tiki themed patio set in retaliation for suggesting they had too much to drink. United States is very upset at this and heads down to bar. Japan also eggs The Netherlands’ house and moons Australia as it heads back to pick on China some more.

Italy, while the Germans have their backs turned, decides to pick a fight with the Balkans Football Club which has been sitting in the corner. The BFC is a lot tougher then they look and offers Italy a few good smacks to the face. Italy quickly runs behind Germany and peeks out from behind their legs. Germany turns around with a “WTF!”

After sorting out the BFC with some help from its new bestest bud Romania and Hungary, Germany looks around the shambles of the room. England is yelling threats at them from behind the bar and Canada is behind them passing a fresh supply of empty bottles to toss.

Then another cry for help from Italy – they’ve decided to rifle the pockets of Egypt who passed out earlier in the children’s sandbox in the corner, but England sicked Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on them and they’re all smacking Italy about the kneecaps. Germany sighs and wonders where it can get some better allies.

As Germany makes its way to the sandbox, it makes eye contact with a stretching, knuckle cracking Japan, who gives a knowing nod. Japan puffs its chest and makes its way through the ocean of spilled beer to the United States, who’s standing there flat-footed, laughing hysterically, one hand slapping its knee. But USA looks up just in time to see Japan mid-swing with a big section of broken table. USA reels backwards into Germany, which is not amused and promises to get USA once it’s taken care of the sandbox. Japan, in the meantime, turns around and wails on poor Netherlands, cowering on the floor.

The Philippines meanwhile walks out the door, vowing to return. At the end of the bar, India, trying hard to mind its own business gets splashed with beer and starts to get up.

After dealing with the sandbox, Germany walks over to Russia hand outstretched in greeting. Russia takes it and get rewarded with Germany’s boot to the nads, and Finland, Hungary, Italy and Romania all pile on. Bloodied and dazed Russia backs off into the storeroom.

To distract Germany, England whispers something to Canada, who sneaks across the room and tries to smash a beer bottle on Germany’s head. The bottle fails to break and Germany turns around, grins and punches Canada in the nose. Holding their bloody nose Canada retreats, but keeps a supply of empty pint glasses flowing to Britain. Australia and New Zealand get an urgent call from their wives to come home because Japan is lurking in the garden, and they dash out. South Africa still pissed at England for making them take on both Italy and Germany and continues to sulk in the kid’s sandbox.

Germany goes looking for Russia in the storeroom to punch it some more, and notices the attractive walk-in freezer with hanging loops of sausage and schnitzel, not realizing Russia is hiding inside waiting with a frozen haunch of ham….. Germany otherwise occupied, Britain kicks sand in Italy’s face. With things getting a bit too quiet in the main bar, Britain and Canada start throwing pickled eggs at Germany’s back.

Germany and Russia, encouraged by their new buddies Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Finland and Ukraine, have started a serious game of Russian Roulette in the freezer, so Germany fails to hear Italy’s pitiful screams for help.

Italy, having decided that beating up on Ethiopia was training enough to punch at their own weight level, decided to take on Britain, but runs away after getting sodomized by their giant British boot.

Meanwhile, our friendly bartender Switzerland is still sitting there, watching this all unfold, dishtowel in one hand, drink in the other, ducking the occasional flying bottle/chairleg/billiard ball. Our other friendly bartender Sweden is still sitting there, watching, order pad in one hand, weapons licenses for sale in the other and selling brass knuckles to both sides.

USA, Canada and England now working together, pile-drive Italy and knock them unconscious. Then, South Africa, New Zealand and Poland (who left to get a new set of trousers and just got back) all join together and rain blows and kicks and elbows on Germany until it can’t help but beg for mercy. Even Brazil from down the street jumps in as does France who appears to be fine again. Italy and Germany decide that enough’s enough and cry for surrender, with the bar now completely and utterly ruined.

Japan is still poking USA in the back. With a little help from some engineers patronizing the bar, USA heaves the piano over the second floor railing and it lands with deafening noise squarely on Japans head. From underneath a tiny white flag rises from rubble.

(See the companion piece, IF WORLD WAR I WERE A BAR FIGHT)

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Long before George R.R. Martin penned his tale of war, intrigue and treachery the ancient world was scene to its own version of The Game of Thrones.

(This is the fourth in a series concerning the Wars of the Diadochi. Part 1 can be read here, and includes comprehensive biographies of the players in this drama. It is strongly advised that you start there before reading on here. Stay tuned to this blog for future installments! For Part 3, go here.)


The winter of 323-322 BC passed, with Antipater the Regent bottled-up in Lamia, besieged by a Hellenic League Army commanded by Leosthenes the Athenian. Antipater’s agents in Macedon were raising mercenaries for the coming campaign season. Meanwhile, in Asia across the Hellespont the ambitious Leonnatus was planning to march as soon as weather permitted to Antipater’s rescue and, he hoped, to military glory. Further east in Cilicia the popular Craterus was also planning a spring march back to Macedon. He had started home from Babylon with 10,000 discharged veterans before Alexander’s death. Aside from leading these veterans home, he had also been given orders by the now-dead Alexander to relieve Antipater of his command and take over the governorship of Macedon. However, the king’s death and the rising of the Greeks had thrown such plans into question. Always the selfless soldier, he was prepared to return and serve Macedon (and Antipater) in whatever capacity was needed.

In the far eastern parts of the empire the Greek settlers left by Alexander in the so-called Upper Satrapies (Northeastern Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan) were also in revolt. It had been Alexander’s policy to found settlements of aging Macedonian veterans and Greek mercenaries throughout the east, as Hellenizing agents in his vast domain. Settling these Greek mercenaries in the east might also have been Alexander’s attempt to solve the issue of a surplus of Greek soldiers causing social and political unrest which had been a constant source of problems in the Greek world since the end of the Peloponnesian War. If so, it went counter to the interests of the professional class of mercenary captains (such as Leosthenes) whose living was dependent upon the easy availability of such men. But Macedonian leadership was never popular among the Greeks, and such captains were able to play upon their simmering resentment.

1523737.jpg The eastern territories of Alexander’s Empire; showing the Upper Satrapies

This resentment showed its head as early as Alexander’s Indian campaign, when false rumors spread of his death upon the Indus. At that time some 3,000 revolted, led first by a soldier named Athenodorus and then by one Biton, and marched all the way home to Greece. Now in 323 a more widespread rising occurred, throughout the Upper Satrapies. Reminiscent of Xenophon and the 10,000 eighty years earlier, they were preparing to attempt a “march to the sea” and return home to Greece. According to Diodorus they numbered 20,000 foot and 3,000 horse; and elected Philon, an Aenian, as their commander.

Was this eastern rebellion timed to coincide with, and perhaps be part of the general Greek rising known as the Lamian War? We have no way of knowing from this distance, but this possibility needs to be considered, as does the composition and numbers given in the sources.

Starting with the last of these, the numbers given[1] for these Greek rebels in the Upper Satrapies seems high, particularly in cavalry. 20,000 Greek foot is twice the number of hoplites that Athens, the largest city in Greece throughout the 5th century, during its “Golden Age”, could field. Alexander had a total of 16,400 mercenary infantry and 2,600 mercenary cavalry with him in Bactria in the winter 329-328 BC[2]; and even if he had left all of them behind as garrisons (unlikely), the total still falls short of the number given for the rebels.

They may have been reinforced by locals. But if it was a purely Greek movement, bent on returning home, this cannot have been the case. However, if this was part of a general anti-Macedonian conspiracy (linked to Leosthenes’ actions in Greece), perhaps resentful Bactrians were induced to join the Greek settlers against their new Macedonian rulers, marching with them at least while still in Bactria if not all the way to Greece.

Peithon the Bodyguard, appointed Satrap of Media at the Babylon partition that summer (see Part 2), was given orders by Perdiccas to crush this dangerous rebellion. He took with him 3,800 Macedonians (almost certainly phalangites), with authorization from Perdiccas to raise an army from the Macedonian satraps of the east. This he accomplished, mustering a further 10,000 foot and an imposing force of 8,000 cavalry. The bulk of these were Iranians, the cavalry including Persians who’d served in Alexander’s Companions on the Indus.

Like most of the Macedonian leaders, Peithon had plans for his own aggrandizement. It is believed that he hoped to create a fief of his own out of the sprawling Upper Satrapies. As a Bodyguard and Satrap of the large and strategically placed province of Media, he had more auctoritas than any of the other Eastern governors. To make his scheme work in the long run he needed a large number of Hellenic (Macedonian or Greek) heavy infantry loyal to himself. To this end, he entered negotiations with the Greek rebels.

He succeeded in detaching one of their leaders, an otherwise unknown officer named Letodorus. When the clash of arms was imminent, this captain led his 3,000-man detachment over to Peithon’s forces. Already intimidated by the vast cavalry force arrayed against them, this sudden desertion caused morale in the rebel ranks to collapse. The Greek rebels surrendered on terms, Peithon promising them their lives and property if they laid down their arms. No doubt this clemency was meant as a first step to recruiting them into his own service, giving him the core of a strong army with which to assert his independence. However, Perdiccas had ordered the rebels to be destroyed, and to incentivize them had promised the Macedonian infantry he’d lent to Peithon the rebels property as their lawful booty. Following the surrender the Macedonian soldiers, took matters into their own hands and massacred the prisoners. Peithon could only look on, helpless to stop them, for fear of losing control of his own army.

1523755 Macedonians murder captured Greek mercenary

This was both an incalculable blow to Peithon’s ambitions and to the general cause of Hellenism in the east. We don’t know what became of Letodorus’ detachment: they may have suffered the general fate of their erstwhile comrades, or been the only survivors of the Greek army in the east. If the former they may have taken service with Peithon as garrison troops in Media, or returned to their erstwhile homes in Bactria. Peithon himself returned to Perdiccas in Babylon, temporarily chastened. His relation with his fellow eastern satraps was damaged by this incident, and from this point forward they looked upon him with suspicion.


As spring 322 approached the Greek cause was further, perhaps mortally, wounded by the death of their commander. Leosthenes, who with Hyperides had been the leader of the rising against Macedon, had bottled up Antipater in Lamia the previous autumn. He had refused Antipater’s offer of terms, demanding unconditional surrender. Perhaps unaware that  Peithon had defeated the Bactrian rebels, he was expecting a larger rising across the Macedonian Empire. Then he was killed before the siege works at Lamia, repulsing a sally. His replacement, Antiphilus, a fellow Athenian, was competent but did not have the personal authority to make the ad hoc coalition of mercenaries and city-state contingents work well together. From that point forward the Greek cause lost the initiative.

With spring coming the way was clear for reinforcements to move to Antipater’s aid. On the Asian side of the Hellespont, Leonnatus prepared to cross into Europe. His aim was two-fold: to defeat the Greeks and win a name for himself as a successful commander; and to wed Alexander’s widowed sister, the princess Cleopatra.

Throughout the winter negotiations had gone on between Cleopatra in Macedon and her scheming mother, Olympias, still in Epirus, on the one hand; and Leonnatus in Hellespontine Phrygia on the other. He was their first choice for husband/consort for the princess, a kinsman of the royal house who had (likely) grown up with Cleopatra. With her at his side (and a military victory under his belt) he could claim the Macedonian throne. That throne was now held in name by absentee kings: Alexander’s mentally-defective (perhaps autistic) older half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, and Alexander’s infant son by his “barbarian” wife, Roxane. As these two kings were both in Babylon, in the custody of Perdiccas, the schemers were hoping that the famously provincial Macedonians in Europe would reject both in favor of a true (and mentally fit) Macedonian prince and princess of the royal house.

1523742.jpg Two busts of Alexander. The one on the right is a copy of one carved by Lysippus, which the conqueror sat for. It is thought to be the best likeness of Alexander, in the last years of his life. The bust on the left, carved later, bears many of Alexander’s characteristics, but is not a good likeness. Leonnatus, a kinsmen of Alexander’s, bore a resemblance and accentuated it by wearing his hair long and consciously aping Alexander’s mannerism.  The man on the left looks unpleasant, arrogant and harsh. Could this actually be Leonnatus rather than Alexander?

With Leonnatus had come Eumenes of Cardia, formerly Alexander’s personal secretary; who’d been appointed as satrap of Cappadocia, with a mandate to subdue that independent satrapy-turned-kingdom. But Eumenes was given no army to accomplish this task, only orders to Leonnatus and  Antigonas “One-eyed” (Monophthalmus), Satrap of  Greater Phrygia (which he governed from Celaenae), from Perdiccas to lend Eumenes assistance in this endeavor.

However, help was forthcoming from neither.

Antigonus, perhaps keeping an eye on events in Greece, chose to stay where he was and see how events played out. In any case, his forces were limited, likely less than a few thousand mercenaries,  insufficient to the task. By contrast Ariarathes, the Persian noble who had proclaimed himself as king of Cappadocia, and who Eumenes must subdue,  had raised an army of some 30,000 (at least some of which were Greek mercenaries), and could rely on the superb heavy cavalry provided by the Cappadocian nobility and their feudal retainers.

As for Leonnatus, he was concerned with his own, larger ambitions, and events in Greece rendered Perdiccas’ orders obsolete, in any case. Subduing Cappadocia must take a back-seat to the vital task of restoring the situation in Greece.  Instead of aiding him in Cappadocia, Leonnatus now tried to enlist Eumenes in his plans for taking the Macedonian throne.

A long-time friend and servant of the Macedonian Royal House, Eumenes had entered Philip’s service as a young secretary, and continued in this capacity under Alexander. He also maintained a long-time friendship and loyalty to Olympias. Perhaps Olympias (or Cleopatra) had advised Leonnatus that he was a friend and likely ally. However, if this was his expectation then Leonnatus was to be disappointed. While loyal to the royal house, Eumenes’ new patron was the Chiliarch Perdiccas; and his loyalty now extended to Alexander’s infant son (and perhaps Philip Arrhidaeus as well). He was taken aback by Leonnatus’ ambitious scheme to seize the throne, and perhaps tried to talk him out of it. In any case, he was a Greek, and felt that “as a foreigner had no business to meddle in the differences between Macedonians”[3] and could offer Leonnatus no help.

Afraid that his plans would be revealed prematurely to either Antipater or Perdiccas, Leonnatus now tried to murder Eumenes. The details are  lost, but in this he failed, and Eumenes escaped.

Leonnatus now crossed into Europe, and marching through southern Thrace (gathering troops along the way) he came to Macedon. We don’t know what forces he brought from Asia, but he soon was prepared to move to Antipater’s relief with an army of 20,000 (though only 1,500 horse). That he didn’t wait for Craterus, who was also marching to Macedon and at most two months behind him, can be interpreted as evidence that he wished to garner the laurels of victory for himself, and not share them with a colleague. Alternatively, it may simply have been that Antipater’s besieged forces in Lamia were in dire straights. Food supplies had to be running low after a long winter’s confinement; and time may well have been of the essence. On this subject, the sources are no help.

At Pella, the Macedonian capital, he likely met with Cleopatra, his intended. They had grown-up together, but had not seen each other since her wedding to her uncle, Alexander of Epirus in 336 BC. Then she had been but a girl of 20 (and he about the same age). Now she was a 35 year old widowed queen, and though we have no idea if she was a beauty, taking after her mother (as had Alexander), or instead resembled her father. Regardless, based upon the status she would convey upon any man she married she was perhaps the most desirable woman in the empire. It is not unlikely that they renewed their friendship and confirmed their coming alliance before he moved south with his army.

Through the Vale of Tempe, the gateway to Greece, and on into Thessaly Leonnatus marched toward Lamia and a fateful engagement with the Greeks. His approach placed Antiphilus and the Greek coalition forces on the horns of a dilemma.

The besiegers of Lamia numbered some 22,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, most of the latter comprised of the superb Thessalian horsemen under Menon of Pharsalus (maternal grandfather of Pyrrhus of Epirus). With a clear advantage in men (and most importantly in cavalry), it would behoove the Greek confederates to meet Leonnatus on an open plain. However, the area immediately north of Lamia was mountainous. To maintain the blockade and give battle north of the city at the same time would mean engaging Leonnatus in the hills that ringed the town to the north. This would not only mean meeting the excellent Macedonian infantry in broken terrain unsuitable to cavalry; it risked being attacked in their rear by Antipater’s forces, sallying from the city. The old Regent had a considerable force within; and though we don’t know how many of his original 13,000 remained, even a few thousand sallying forth at the wrong moment could turn the tide of a desperate battle.

1523743.jpg Thessalian cavalrymen, from tomb found in Thessaly. His equipment was little different than that of the Macedonian Companion cavalry; and were second only to these in prestige and ability in the Macedonian army. During the Lamian War, with the Companions in the east, they gave the Greek forces a cavalry edge that was never completely overcome.

This left Antiphilus with only two other options: retreat south, perhaps offering battle on the plain of Trachis; or to march hurriedly north, through the passes of the Orthys Mountains and meet Leonnatus on the plains of southern Thessaly. However, either of these options would mean lifting the siege of Lamia entirely, or leave a skeleton force to try and contain Antipater within.

We can deduce from what followed that Antiphilus (following the advice of a council of leaders) chose this latter course. Leaving as many men as could safely be left around Lamia without sacrificing numerical advantage in the coming battle, the Greeks crossed the mountains and deployed on the edge of the Thessalian plains. There, they met Leonnatus and the relieving army from Macedon.

We have no details of the ensuing battle. Not even its name survives. But once again, the Thessalian cavalry under Menon of Pharsalus carried the day. Leonnatus’ force was defeated on its flank(s), and Leonnatus himself slain in the fighting. It was a second disaster for Macedonian arms.

However, the force left to leaguer Antipater in Lamia was insufficient to keep the old fox contained. Using his opportunity, Antipater broke out. He marched with those forces that remained to him north, with the intent of intervening in the battle. He was too late to save Leonnatus, but he arrived in time to take command of the survivors and unite these forces with his own. Unwilling to continue what may have been a difficult fight with the united Macedonian forces, and with his forces likely exhausted and depleted after their victorious struggle, Antiphilus stood aside and allowed the Macedonians to retreat north, back to Macedon.

The death of Leonnatus must have come as a severe blow to Olympias and Cleopatra. Once more, fate had taken a hand in overturning the chessboard just as they seemed ready to checkmate their old adversary, the Regent. It must have been particularly disheartening for Cleopatra to watch old Antipater (with his detested son, Cassander, at his side) ride back into Pella at the head of the returning army, instead of her now-dead betrothed.

For Antipater the matter could not have come to a more satisfactory conclusion. Aware of the intrigues that had gone on between Leonnatus and Cleopatra (and Olympias), he can no doubt have been pleased to have Leonnatus removed from the board, and the younger man’s troops now at his (Antipater’s) disposal.



These events likely occurred in the late spring or early summer of 322. For the Greeks, this was the high-water mark of their war of liberation. For the rest of that summer, one event after another went against them. Though having enjoyed some successes, the Greek cause was showing signs of fraying.

The Hellenic League should have been able to raise 40,000 men, as well as a considerable fleet. But it never succeeded in raising more than half that many. Aetolia and Athens were largely left to bear the brunt of the effort alone.

While moving to oppose Leonnatus in Thessaly, Athens dispatched its fleet (200 triremes and 40 of the larger quadriremes) under the Athenian admiral, Euetion to close the Hellespont and prevent further Macedonian forces from crossing into Greece from Asia. They won over Abydos, and were in place to prevent Craterus from joining Antipater in Macedon. However, Antipater had 110 ships of his own, and these were reinforced by a part of Alexander’s imperial fleet under Cleitus the White. These reinforcements included penteres/quinqueremes, the largest galley available at the time (although, from this time forward, larger-and-larger ships would appear in the naval battles of the Successors). The Macedonian fleet entered the Hellespont, and Cleitus drove off the Athenians. No details survive, but it is likely that the larger Macedonian penteres made the difference.

1523754.jpg The penteres (more commonly known by its Roman name, the Quinquereme) was war galley configured as a bireme (two oars to a bank) in which 3 rowers pulled on sweep; and two rowers the other. It was the workhorse battleship of the Successor and later Roman and Carthaginian fleets; replacing the trireme as the main warship of the ancient world from the late 4th century till the Battle of Actium, in 31 BC 

The way was opened for Craterus to cross into Europe. He did so with 1,500 horse and 1,000 Asiatic light-infantry archers; and, most importantly, a force of 10,000 crack Macedonian veterans of Alexander’s long campaigns. Though perhaps too long-in-the-tooth to be climbing siege ladders in the Punjab, there was enough fight left in these grizzled veterans to sort out the Greeks! When he arrived in Pella, Craterus put himself and his troops under Antipater’s command. There would be no arguing over the supreme command when Macedon itself was threatened.

The Athenians responded by regrouping, and a second fleet of some 170 ships was ready by mid-late summer. Euetion took station at Samos, likely so as to be in position to interdict seaborne Macedonian reinforcements coming from Syria. However, Cleitus with 240 ships engaged the Athenians once again off nearby Amorgos, and won a decisive victory[4], Athenian sea power was broken forever. It was the end of an era that began with Themistocles. The city that once ruled the waves would never again be a factor in naval affairs. For the next century, the Eastern Mediterranean was a Macedonian lake.

In August of 322 BC Cleitus’ fleet moved into the Saronic Gulf and blockaded Piraeus, the port of Athens. At the same time, Antipater and Craterus marched south into Thessaly to engage the League army. The sources claim they led 43,000 foot and 5,000 horse (this latter figure almost certainly an exaggeration). At Crannon they engaged Antiphilus and Menon’s army of  23,000 foot and 3,500 horse. The battle supposedly was fought on the anniversary of the Battle of Chaeronea, where Philip had cemented Macedonian dominance of Greece. (This seems a bit too neat to be taken at face value.)

With Athens blockaded by Cleitus’ fleet, the League needed a decisive victory.

1523748.jpgInstead, the battle was a draw, or perhaps a minor defeat for the Greeks. In the following days, Antiphilus and Menon (as spokesmen for the Hellenic League forces) asked Antipater for terms. Antipater announced he would only treat with the various cities individually. At first the League resisted, till the Macedonians stormed several nearby Thessalian towns. The League collapsed as most of its members scrambles to seek peace.

The Lamian War was over, and Macedon once again asserted its dominance.

All the former states of the Hellenic League surrendered or were captured. In September, 322, a Macedonian garrison was installed in Munychia, overlooking the port of Piraeus. Athens would be occupied for the next 15 years. As within the rest of the captured towns and cities, Antipater installed oligarchs loyal (or beholding) to him alone. His own or Macedon’s enemies were condemned, and many fled. Hyperides was captured at the Temple of Poseidon on Aegina, and put to death. Demosthenes, a long-time enemy of Macedon who had returned to Athens only at the commencement of the Lamian War, now committed suicide before the hated Macedonians could take hold of him.

1523752.jpg The port of Athens, Piraeus. In late summer or autumn of 322 BC, the port was blockaded by the Macedonian fleet under Cleitus the White. After the end of the Lamian War, the hilltop fortress of Munychia (on the right) was held by a Macedonian garrison for the next 15 years.

Only Aetolia fought on, isolated and alone. Antipater and Craterus invaded the western hill country the following autumn. However, their invasion was soon interrupted by events in Asia.


1. Diodorus XVIII, vii

2. Curtius VII.X.11; and Arrian IV.viii.2

3. Plutarch, Eumenes iii

4. Diodorus’ is unclear as to whether there were two or three naval battles before the Athenians were finished. This has led to a good deal of controversy and speculation among scholars.`

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On 22 August 1485 the War of the Roses reached a bloody climax at Bosworth Field. Here, Richard III, England’s most controversial king, defended his crown against the Lancastrian champion Henry Tudor.

The thirty-year long Wars of the Roses was a dynastic struggle between rival branches of the ruling royal family of England, the Plantagenet. These two Houses, cadet branches of the Plantagenet, were descended from sons of the prolific Edward III: the House of York, whose symbol was the white rose, and the House of Lancaster, represented by the red.

After the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 and the subsequent death of the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, the war seemed to have come to close. The Yorkist leader Edward IV was firmly in command of his kingdom; and would rule undisturbed till his death in 1483. However, Edward left as heir his son Edward, not yet thirteen years old. The dead monarch’s younger brother, Richard of Gloucester was named as guardian for the young prince and Lord Protector of the Realm.

1370655.jpg The War of the Roses raged across the map of Britain for 30 years, decimating the nobility of England.

Throughout his brother’s reign (and the struggle for Yorkist victory that established it) Richard of Gloucester had ever been Edward’s capable, trusted, and loyal lieutenant. As Warden of the North he had proven himself an able captain; successfully campaigning against the Scots, temporarily occupying Edinburgh and capturing the mighty fortress of Berwick in 1482. But as Lord Protector for his young nephew, King Edward V, Richard quickly found his authority challenged by his brother’s widow, the Queen Mother Elizabeth Woodville and her ambitious family.

In the brief struggle for power that followed, Richard outmaneuvered the Woodvilles and took custody of both the young king-to-be and his brother, Prince Richard. The two princes were lodged in the Tower of London; then still used as a royal residence as well as a prison for the most important of prisoners. Over the next month, the boys coronation was postponed; while rumors were circulated that the marriage of Edward IV to Elisabeth Woodville had been illegal. The prince was ultimately disinherited, and on 25 June, an assembly of Lords and Commons declared Richard to be the legitimate king; later confirmed by act of parliament.


This painting of Richard from the National Portrait Gallery in London shows the king as a pinch-faced man living with a life of endured pain; and bears a striking resemblance to actor Tom Courtenay (below)

Thus began the reign of Richard III, perhaps England’s most controversial king.

The displacement of his brother’s son and heir alienated some supporters of the House of York. The disappearance of the two princes in the tower and rumors of their murder (later confirmed) further tainted Richard’s reign with the charges of usurpation and regicide.

Though there is no evidence that Richard was a “bad king”, division within the Yorkist ranks invited adherents of the House of Lancaster to plot a renewal of the War of the Roses. Taking advantage of the disaffection, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, scion of the Lancastrian dynasty, landed in Wales on August 7, 1485 with a force of French mercenaries.

1370657.jpg(Artwork by Graham Turner, “Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets” by Christopher Gravett, © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)

Wales was a traditional Lancastrian stronghold; and this combined with Henry Tudor’s half-Welsh ancestry allowed him to gather to his standard a sizable force of Welsh troops and remnants of the Lancastrian cause. Welshmen comprised the largest part of his forces; with few, in fact, being English.

Though inexperienced at war, Henry had for advisor and commander the veteran warrior, John de Vere, Earl of Oxford; who had commanded the Lancastrian rightwing at the Battle of Barnet. While he could expect to be outnumbered by the Royal forces Richard would bring to bear, Henry had an “ace up his sleeve”: His mother’s husband, Thomas Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby and Lord of (the Island of) Man.

Stanley was a veteran courtier and intriguer. He was married to Henry Tudor’s formidable mother, Margaret Beaufort; a descendant herself of Edward III on her father’s side. She was a confirmed and dedicated Lancastrian, and for years had been preparing the way for her son to raise again the standard of the Lancastrian cause.

1370659.jpg Portrait of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (the future Henry VII) as a younger man.

As Henry Tudor marched through Wales, he was in communication with his stepfather; who through the agency of his brother, Lord Sir William Stanley, Chamberlain of Chester and north Wales, opened the way through the countryside to Tudor’s Army. Richard, of course, was not ignorant of Lord Stanley’s connection to his enemy; and of the Stanley’s complicity in Tudor’s invasion. His relations with Lord Stanley were strained and had been for over a decade; the enmity between the two erupting into violence in 1470. Wary of Stanley, Richard took Stanley’s son, Lord Strange, as hostage to discourage Stanley from openly joining Tudor’s army.

Meanwhile, Richard called the lords of the realm to assemble under his banner at Leicester on the 16th of August. Many of Richard’s vassals failed to answer the royal summons. The chief lords who did join their king were John Howard Duke of Norfolk, and his son-and-heir Thomas, Earl of Surrey; and Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland. While the Howards were loyal to Richard and the Yorkist cause, Percy is thought to have harbored deep jealousy of Richard dating from his time as Warden of the Northern Marches (a title usually held by a Percy) and the renown Richard had gained in his Scottish campaign. Both Percy and Howard held chief commands during the coming battle: Norfolk commanding the Yorkist Vanguard, and Northumberland the Rearguard/Reserve. On August 20, the royal army, with the arms of England flying overhead alongside Richard’s personal standard, displaying a White Boar; marched from Leicester to intercept Henry’s army, on route to London from Shrewsbury.

(Above) The March from Leicester by the estimable Graham Turner. (Below) Richard’s battle standard, bearing his white boar alongside the white rose of York

1370661Three armies converged on a field south of Bosworth Market, 13 miles west of Leicester: Richard’s, numbering 10,000; Henry Tudor’s army, numbering 5,000; and that of the Stanley brothers, some 6,000 strong. The Stanleys had been in close communication with Tudor, and were ostensibly his ally. However, on the day of battle, they refused to declare themselves one-way-or-another; making the Battle of Bosworth Field a three-sided affair.

Richards took up a position on Ambion Hill, a strong position dominating the battlefield. Elevation aside, it was protected (or constricted, as events would show) by a marsh in the low ground to the left. Richard’s deployment is disputed: Norfolk’s van may have been in the front or on the right of the Yorkist forces, with Richard, commanding the main behind this (or in the center) at the crest of the hill. Northumberland deployed his 4,000 man rear behind or to the left of Richard’s main.

1370663.jpgIn the plain below, the Lancastrian forces deployed; with Oxford commanding Henry’s forces. Oxford drew his men up in one large “Battle”. The accounts do not make it clear if his forces were primarily dismounted, or if some part of his line (presumably the flanks) were cavalry. Considering that most of his forces were Welsh spearmen and French mercenaries (some of which may have been members of the French king’s “Scots Guards”) it is likely that most of the Lancastrian force was infantry. Only Henry’s bodyguards were certainly mounted.

John de Vere, Earl of Oxford and commander of Henry Tudor’s army 

On the flank of the battle, the Stanleys deployed their forces on rising ground. All attempts by Richard or Henry to command them to declare themselves were met with silence or prevarication.

The battle unfolded Oxford advancing the Lancastrian forces towards Ambion Hill in one body; his right-wing protected by the marsh. An exchange of arrows and even cannon fire followed. (Richard had an unknown number of guns, ranging in caliber from 30mm up to 94mm. Based upon the number of projectiles excavated at the battle site, at least 10 such guns were present. It is unknown if Henry Tudor had any guns at his disposal.

1370665Though in action during the battle, early field guns had no noticeable effect on the progress or outcome. (Artwork by Graham Turner, “Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets” by Christopher Gravett, @ Osprey Publishing) 

Norfolk’s vanguard then descending Ambion Hill and engaged Oxford’s force. In the fierce melee that followed, men hacked at each other with a variety of weapons, the most popular being pole-axe or pole-hammer, battle axe, mace, and long sword. Norfolk’s force was getting the worst of the melee, and Norfolk, who was slain in or after the battle, may have fallen at this stage. Richard ordered Northumberland to bring up his reserve and join Norfolk’s hard-pressed men.

1370706.jpg The Knightly-class of the late Middle Ages were superbly armored in a mixture of plate and mail. Since the 100 Years War, Men-at-Arms had often chosen to fight on foot, since quality infantry were scarce and to spare their expensive mounts from the lethal firepower of the longbow. During the War of the Roses, the Men-at-Arms fought either mounted or on foot as circumstances dictated. To defeat the high-quality armor of their opponents they often used pole-weapons (as carried by the figure here), war-hammers (5), maces (6) and battle axes. The latter was Richard III’s chosen weapon at Bosworth. The sword (7-12) was still the signature weapon of the knightly-class.

For reasons unknown Percy failed to move. Historians argue to this day whether this was treachery or simply an inability of Norfolk to maneuver his force through Richard’s own “Main” or around the marsh to the left. In either case, Richard was forced to commit his own main-body into the melee to bolster Norfolk’s flagging forces.

1370666.jpgRichard prepared to make his fateful final charge. (Artwork by Graham Turner, “Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets” by Christopher Gravett, © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)

Still Tudor’s Welshman held firm. Richard, growing frustrated, decided to finish the issue with a charge of his household knights, directly at Henry himself, visible beneath his banner behind Oxford’s battling forces. It is likely that a gap had opened in the mass of struggling men on the plain, and Richard saw this gap as an opportunity to strike directly at his rival.

Charging at the head of his knights, Richard reached Henry’s banner. His lance struck Henry’s standard-bearer, Sir William Brandon, throwing him from his horse and killing him outright. Riding on, Richard unhorsed Henry’s giant bodyguard, Sir John (later Baron) Cheyne , a renown jousting champion, allegedly with the broken stub of his lance. (Cheyne was a massive man of renown strength, called in his day “The Vigorous Knight”. Based upon a 21″ thighbone found in his tomb at Salisbury Cathedral, his height is estimated to be 6 feet 8 inches; a true-life version of George R.R. Martin’s fictional character Ser Gregor Clegane, known as the Mountain“.) The felling of two such redoubtable warriors was a magnificent feat of knightly prowess, and had he won the battle would no doubt have burnished Richard’s legacy with chivalric glory. But even in Medieval battles, the place of the king and general of an army is not to be tilting with lance against enemy paladins. It is a sign desperation that Richard now found himself having to play his own Lancelot.

1370668.jpgRichard threw down his broken lance and drew a battle axe, his intention now to hack Henry Tudor down. At that very moment, however, the Stanley’s made their move.

Their previously uncommitted force now charged into the flank of Richard’s household knights. In the sudden press, Richard was separated from Henry; and along with his knights was driven back into the marshy ground on the flank.

Outnumbered, Richard’s group fought valiantly but were cut down. Richard hacked left and right with his battle axe, shouting “Treason!” with each blow.

1571660.jpgHis horse mired in the soft ground, Richard was forced to continue the fight on foot. Here Shakespeare had him shouting, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” However, accounts indicate that Richard’s followers offered him their own mounts so he could escape. But Richard refused to quit the field. All chroniclers agree that Richard fought bravely to the end. Eventually overwhelmed, the last Plantagenet King of England died fighting.

Richard has the distinction of being the last English king to die in battle (and only the second to ever do so, Harold Godwinson being the only other).

(On September 12, 2012 skeletal remains were identified as Richard III. The remains showed some 10 wounds, evidence of Richard’s fearsome last fight. An arrowhead was found embedded in the spine. Perhaps this wound, inflicted by an enemy archer at close range, brought the battling King to his knees. The killing blow seems to have been a blow to the back of Richard’s head by a halberd or bill. Almost certainly Richard’s helmet had been knocked off first; as the blow cleaved very deeply into his skull and through the lower brain. Several postmortem wounds were also inflicted upon the dead king’s body.)

1370675.jpgOn news of their king’s death, the Yorkist forces still fighting broke, leaving the Lancastrians victorious.

Henry was crowned as Henry VII, on the battlefield.

Northumberland and Norfolk’s son, Surry were both subsequently arrested, but eventually pardoned by Henry and restored to their estates and offices. The Howards served both Henry VII and Henry VIII loyally. Henry Percy was lynched by a northern mob 8 years later; supposedly in revenge for his betrayal of his king at Bosworth.

Richard’s body was taken to Leicester, where it was displayed naked for several days. It was eventually buried in the church at Greyfriers Abbey. In 1536, the Abbey was one of many destroyed by Henry VIII. The location of Richard’s body was lost till recovered in 2012 at the site of Greyfriers.

Along with the signs of trauma noted above, the skeleton refutes the description of Richard given to posterity by Shakespeare. He had no withered arm, and was not a hunchback. He did, however, have scoliosis of the spine; which would have led one shoulder being higher than the other, and a lifetime of discomfort.

The victor, Henry Tudor, cemented his claim to the throne with a marriage to Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and Richard’s niece. By this marriage the Houses York and Lancaster were united in his heir, Henry VIII; bringing to England a much needed century of peace under the Tudor Dynasty.

1571662.jpg Statue of Richard in the Gardens of Leicester Cathedral, just yards from his final resting place within.

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

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