Battles of the Ancient Near East

The Battle of Carrhae, 53 B.C.

Scarcely had Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire than it began to rise from the ashes. While most former Persian territory was under the control of the Seleucid Empire, in 247 BC, Shah Arsaces I founded the Arsacid Dynasty in Parthia. Parthia had been a minor outlying province in what is now northeastern Iran, but after much hard fighting they seized Iran from the Seleucids, and finally allied with the Roman general Pompey the Great to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, leaving Parthia and Rome as the major powers in the Near East. Between them lay minor buffer states and client kingdoms.

At this point, the two sides were at peace. The Parthian king Mithridates III wanted no further territorial expansion, and Rome had its hands full consolidating its newly acquired territory in the East and did not want trouble with another great power.

Yet by the 50′s B.C., Rome’s internal political machinations spilled over into Parthia. In 59 BC, Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus formed a powerful but informal political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Crassus and Pompey were both elected consuls in 55 BC after instigating mob violence against their opponents on election day. Their first acts were to extend Caesar’s term as governor of Gaul (which he was still in the process of conquering), and make themselves the governors of Spain and Syria once their term in office expired. They cast lots to see who would govern which territory. Pompey won Spain, and Crassus won Syria.[1]

Bust of Marcus Crassus.

Crassus was fabulously wealthy, with a net worth in 54 B.C. of an estimated 7,100 talents or about $142 million. He made much of his fortune through seizing the property of those murdered in Sulla’s purges of 88 BC. Other sources of income included his ownership of silver mines as well as a profitable business in real estate development.[2] Crassus was fond of saying that no man was truly wealthy unless he could buy his own army.[3]

Crassus was also brazenly ambitious. Plutarch would later condemn this as “foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything.” After he was assigned the governorship of Syria, he immediately began laying plans for the conquest not only of Parthia, but of Bactria and India as well until Rome’s borders stretched all the way to the “Outer Sea.” Crassus was exceeding his authority here, as the law making him governor of Syria carried with it no authorization for war with Parthia. What’s more, his plans were highly unpopular with the Roman public. Many people viewed Crassus’ plan to launch an unprovoked surprise attack on a Roman ally who presented no immediate threat to Rome’s interests as both dishonorable and unwise. The anti-war faction was led by the tribune Ateius Capito, who tried to have Crassus arrested to prevent him from leaving Rome for Syria. He was dissuaded by the other nine tribunes, and had to content himself with placing a ritual curse on Crassus as he passed through the city gates.[4]

Coin of Shah Orodes II.

In Parthia, on the other hand, in 54 BC Mithridates III was overthrown in a coup d’etat and fled from the capital of Ctesiphon across the river to Seleucia. His brother Orodes seized the throne and besieged Mithridates III in Seleucia with the aid of his brilliant general Surena, finally forcing the city’s surrender and seizing full control of the throne of Parthia. He was still in a shaky position, which led Crassus to think that victory would be easy and that many Parthian cities needed only a little prodding to revolt and side with Rome.[5]

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The Battle of the Nile Delta, 1178 B.C.

This is the first in a monthly series which will examine battles in the history of the ancient Near East.

Egypt in the early 12th century BC was still one of the most powerful countries in the world. But Egypt’s power was falling from its height 50 years earlier under Rameses II. After Rameses II died in 1212 BC, his son Merneptah had to contend with a Libyan invasion in 1207. Civil war came to Egypt in 1204 as Amenmesse and Seti II fought over who would succeed Merneptah. Seti II emerged the victor two years later, but within the next decade the kingdom was plunged into war again between Sethnakhte and Queen Tewosret. This conflict ended with Sethnakhte’s victory, and ended Egypt’s 19th dynasty and ushered in the 20th.[1]

When Sethnakhte’s son Rameses III took the throne in 1186, Egypt was clearly weakened by the internal and foreign wars. Yet, Egypt’s condition was enviable compared to the rest of the eastern Mediterranean world. In a series of events which marked the end of the Bronze Age in ancient history and ushered in the Iron Age, most of the other powerful empires of the time were going up in flames. The Hittite capital of Hattushas had been sacked and burned. Troy was destroyed, Ugarit sacked, most of the Mycenean cities in Greece were obliterated. Dozens of cities all along the Anatolian coast were wiped out.

The culprits were a disparate group of maritime-inclined cultures known as the Sea Peoples. Who the Sea Peoples were and where they came from has been much discussed. Each ancient writer who listed the names of their peoples listed different but overlapping names. Generally, they seem to have come from the Aegean, the southern coast of Anatolia, Crete and possibly Greece. Like the Viking raiders of early medieval Europe, they first took to the sea to engage in piratical raiding, possibly due to harsh economic times at home and the abundance of readily available loot abroad. Again like the Vikings, their focus soon changed from raiding to finding new places to settle their populations.

The Sea Peoples first attacked Egypt in 1181 BC, during the reign of Rameses III. A few tribes of the Sea Peoples aided a large force of Libyans in attacking Egypt from the western desert. The result was a disaster for the Libyans, as their force was defeated, scattered and many of its members sold into slavery in Egypt. Despite the disaster, a different and much larger coalition of Sea Peoples planned another invasion.[2]

Countdown to Invasion

Rameses III’s inscription at the temple at Medinet Habu describe the beginnings of the war:

The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered into the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up at one place in Amor. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward to Egypt while the flame was being prepared before them. Their confederation was the Philistines, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”[3]

The Sea Peoples had already, according to Rameses, destroyed Hatti (the Hittite empire), Kode (Cilicia), Arzawa (in southwestern Anatolia), and Alashiya (Cyprus). They gathered in Amor in Syria to plan the combined attack on Egypt.

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