Spying and Intelligence

The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 2: The General


It is especially good also to have an understanding of warfare. For I have also often wondered why outcomes in armed conflicts vary, and that whereas the Greeks have as a result been defeated by the Romans and the Persians by the Greeks, even so the Persians have never been defeated by the Romans; instead the nations of inner Asia are boasting of freedom and persist in asserting equality with us. So in allowing myself to consider this question, I found that the cause is neither superior generalship nor overall military power (for in war, no account is taken of numbers by the valiant), but rather the armament and the form of the military equipment.[1]

Thus Africanus began the section of the Kestoi concerning military matters. By the time he wrote the Kestoi between 227 and 231 Rome had been fighting the Parthians in the east on and off for 280 years with little success.[2] During Africanus’ own lifetime Septimius  Severus sacked the the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon but just as quickly withdrew. His successors Caracalla and Macrinus had diminishing success in their attempts to keep the Parthians at bay. The situation became even worse in 224 when Ardashir I overthrew the Parthians, established the new Sassanid dynasty, and announced his intention to restore the borders of the ancient Achaemenid Empire.[3]

War was clearly imminent, and when Africanus dedicated the Kestoi to the young emperor Alexander Severus it seems he intended the sections on military matters to serve as advice for the emperor or any other Roman military officer for the coming war.

His views were simply stated: War is decided by training, technology, and tactics. Superiority in all three will ensure victory. While this may seem obvious in the age of high-tech war, this was not always the case, and in the ancient world it was much more common to see fighting spirit and morale as the keys to victory rather than weapons technology. But Africanus seems to have been there, and done that, either on Sepitimius Severus’ campaign in 198, or Caracalla’s invasion in 216, or both. The gritty, down to earth viewpoint of the foot soldier seems to have been quite familiar to him, and we can surmise that he was possibly a junior officer.

Classical Greek depiction of a hoplite in armor.

Classical Greek depiction of a hoplite in armor.

Roman legionnaire showing tight-fitting helmet, chain mail armor and oblong shield.

Roman legionnaire showing tight-fitting helmet, chain mail armor and oblong shield.

In his chapter titled “armaments,” he noted that the Greeks fought with heavy armor and long spears. Their soldiers wore strong helmets with a leather liner on the inside that provided extra padding, greaves, breastplates and carried large round shields which attached to the forearm with two straps. With so much armor, they could only run short distances, but that was enough to run under the arrows of Persian armies and fight at close range.

The Romans, on the other hand, wore tighter-fitting helmets without the leather liner, and tying the cheek protectors made it difficult to turn the head. They wore chain mail instead of heavier scale armor, and their shields were tall and oblong and held by one hand, which made covering the shoulder difficult. But the Romans defeated the Greek phalanxes, because their lighter armor made them more agile and gave them more endurance, while Greek armor left their necks exposed to a quick slice or thrust by the longer Roman swords.

Yet as Africanus noted, “[those who have] been constantly victorious over the Greeks seldom defeated those who had been continually defeated by the Greeks.” In his estimation, Roman soldiers were too quick to lock their shields into a testudo formation and attempt to ride out the Parthian arrow attacks. “Truly such a habit is impractical,” argued Africanus, for while “one stands untouched, distressed by sun and toil, the barbarians in relay [are] attacking and withdrawing again, while by means of attacking successively, the nations are taking rest.” Furthermore,

Roman infantry locking shields in a testudo formation for protection against archers. Africanus argued this was a poor tactic which gave the enemy the initiative.

Roman infantry re-enactors locking shields in a testudo formation for protection against archers. Africanus argued this was a poor tactic which gave the enemy the initiative.

Roman helmets were too tight-fitting and made it difficult for soldiers to duck to avoid an arrow or slingstone. They were also prone to throw their javelins in one mass shower, “expending ten of them on once chance kill.” Their spears were far too short for holding off a charge from heavily armored Persian cataphracts who carried twenty-foot lances.

To solve this, he recommended that Roman troops be given Greek style helmets and breastplates, and longer spears, and trained to fight with individual initiative as well as in units. They should also be trained to charge the Persians immediately to get underneath the trajectory of their arrows rather than hiding under their shields trying to wait them out.[4]

Persian armies relied on cavalry, and Roman armies fighting the Persians would also need a lot of cavalry. Africanus spent much of his chapter on military affairs discussing the proper care and training of horses. The Parthians trained their horses to remain silent in battle so as not to give away an ambush, and Africanus suggested the Romans should do the same. He also gave recipes for number of noxious potions whose smell startled horses and made them dump their riders.[5]

Relief of a heavily armored Sassanid cataphract at Taq-e-Bostan, Iran.

Relief of a heavily armored Sassanid cataphract at Taq-e-Bostan, Iran.

But by far the greatest threat to Roman cavalry and infantry came from the Sassanid war elephants, and Africanus discussed in detail how to fight them. “An elephant in combat makes the impression of a mountain,” he wrote. “It overturns, it hurls down, it smashes, it annihilates, and it does not disdain at all anyone lying in its way…it overthrows the one who makes a stand, the one who flees it seizes, the one who falls it tramples, the horseman it terrifies, and the charioteers it hits from its tower.” Since horses are terrified of elephants, cavalry should be kept far away from them. Instead, Africanus recommended the use of archers firing burning arrows. Once the wooden tower on the elephant’s back was set on fire, the terrified beast would throw it off.

However, a terrified elephant was even more of an indiscriminate killing machine than a battle-trained one. “I personally am of the opinion, however, that it is better to neither stand up to the elephant at the outset nor to come in close with this manifold danger, but rather to anticipate its threats, its charges, its battles, and its falls,” wrote Africanus. Even better than the flaming arrows were iron caltrops. The army could feign a retreat and bury the sharp iron spikes in the sand behind them. Walking into this early minefield, the elephants would step on the spikes, and in the end “either in its suffering, it destroys those who are trying to relieve its incurable pain, or unable to stand it, collapses in a heap.”[6]

Sassanid war elephants fight Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr in this medieval Armenian depiction.

Sassanid war elephants fight Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr (AD 450) in this medieval Armenian depiction.

Africanus may have learned about caltrops at the Battle of Nisibis in 217. There, Macrinus’ Roman forces  made a tactical retreat and buried the sharp iron spikes in the sand behind them. Parthian cavalry mounted on horses and camels trod on the spikes and threw their riders. The Roman infantry then turned back and finished off the dismounted, lightly armored riders in hand-to-hand combat.[7]

His interest in elephants is all the more intriguing because the Parthians do not seem to have used them. It was the Sassanids who reintroduced war elephants, but when Africanus was writing the Romans had not yet encountered a Sassanid army. In fact, it is not at all clear that the Sassanids used elephants in battle against the Romans until the mid fourth century. But Africanus seems most concerned with practical advice, and it seems strange that he would describe a threat that had not been seen for hundreds of years. But elephants were linked to the Sassanid kings from the very beginning; stories about the rise of Ardashir mentioned a vision his grandfather saw a vision of a man riding on a white elephant, symbolizing power and kingship. It seems more likely that Africanus had some sort of intelligence about Sassanid affinity for elephants and that they were possibly training them for use in war. Anticipating that Roman troops would have to fight them, he consulted the history books to find out how to do it.[8]

Africanus had some other suggestions for training and tactics. Trenches made effective barriers against cavalry charges. Mathematical formulas were given for calculating the heights of walls and the width of rivers. Recipes were given for combustible chemicals that could be applied to enemy siege weapons in the middle of the night and would then burst into flame in daylight. Somewhat more strange were his designs for “intercepting sound” by digging a hole and covering it with a cloth. He claimed that a man standing in the hole could hear distant sounds not normally audible to the human ear. Other seemingly batty ideas probably worked just fine if people thought they would work. If you think that wearing a dead bat around your neck will keep you awake when on late night guard duty, it will. If you think eating a fighting rooster the night before a battle, in Africanus’ words “makes the one eating it heir to its own invincibility, and migrates along with its military prowess to the man,” it will.[8]

But battlefield tactics were only part of the equation. Africanus advocated a war strategy to take advantage of all the weaknesses of the Persian armies. “With them,” he wrote, “the marshaling of an army is makeshift, and means are limited, depending instead on booty from a surprise attack. They bring with them rations measured in days, and a fixed number of missiles also; when they are used up, flight is foreordained.” Persian armies were not professional but were made up of noblemen and ordinary civilians called up for military service. The lack of a rigorous logistics element in Persian armies made them vulnerable to certain strategies, he argued. “What then, is the point in confronting an enemy onslaught, when, if I wait them out, I will see them chased down by the time they have appointed for themselves? Starvation descends upon them the day after time runs out, their meager provisions having been used up to no end.”[9]

To defeat a citizen army Africanus advocated total war. His recommendations are sometimes shocking. In his section titled “On the Destruction of Enemies,” he advocated avoiding battle whenever possible and instead targeting the means for keeping an army in the field:

Time first of all, and attrition, starvation and deadly pestilence must especially be deployed against the barbarians…Let us see if we might even keep them from fleeing in starvation; let annihilation overcome them without the use of the sword, and death without battle. Let us defeat them with the air as an ally and water as our support, with the elements let us arm ourselves against them. I am commander of a secret battle array. The battle I am waging is in the shadows. Let every adversary fall down, when he breathes, thirsts for a drink, or eats. I make everything his peril.[10]

He advocated avoiding battle whenever possible and harassing the enemy with night raids to prevent sleep and weaken an opponent. The enemy’s fields were to be plowed with salt or seeded with poisonous hellebore. Fruit trees in enemy country should be cut down. “For me, more to be commended is one who orders the destruction of everything that grows in abundance,” he argued. The goal was “total annihilation.”[11] (more…)

The Persian Royal Mail

In 500 BC, the Persian Empire was the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Its territory stretched from the Indus River to the Black Sea and the coast of North Africa. Within its borders, the empire ruled over as much as 20% of the world’s population.

The empire contained dozens of formerly independent states and dozens of languages. Administering this massive realm required new systems of control than anything that had been used before. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and Egyptians had each controlled a small fraction of the territory now ruled by the Persians. To administer the empire, Cyrus the Great created and Darius I refined the division of the empire into 23 satrapies. Each satrap was a viceroy of the Shahanshah (“king of kings”) who ruled in the capital. The satraps exercised the authority of the king in governing and managing the provinces.

The satraps were not kings or vassal rulers, rather, they served at the pleasure of the Persian monarch. Administering the provinces, therefore, required the ability to send rapid communications between satraps and the capital. The king needed to be kept abreast of the situation in all parts of the empire in order to make well-informed decisions in a timely manner. Conversely, the king needed to be able to rapidly send orders back to different parts of the empire. If the satraps were given too much autonomy to take independent action without waiting for a word from the king, they could develop separatist tendencies and become rebellious. [1]

A typical letter from the late Assyrian Empire with its clay envelope, found at Ziyarat Tepe in Anatolia. This letter dates to around 611 BC.

Previous empires in the ancient Near East had operated messenger systems for official business. The Assyrian mail system dated back to 1800 BC as evidenced by numerous letters found at Karum Kanesh in southeastern Anatolia. The Hittites and Egyptians also operated relay systems of messengers to transmit official business.[2]

The more immediate antecedent, however, was the mail service of the neo-Assyrian empire. The Assyrians had built an empire larger than any that had come before, and therefore faced some of the same communications problems on a smaller scale which the Persians would later face. The Assyrians created a system of stations along major roads, situated about a day’s journey apart from each other where messengers could stop, rest and change horses. This relay system allowed messages to be rapidly carried throughout the empire. It took a courier from Nineveh only a few days to reach the Levant with a message.[3]

First, the Persian Empire needed roads to enable communications. Previous civilizations had built plenty of roads to varying degrees of complexity, but no road network ran the distance of the Persian empire. Cyrus the Great’s solution to this problem was to connect segments of pre-existing roads into a massive highway which ran from Sardis on the Aegean coast of Anatolia to Susa, one of the four capital cities of the Persian Empire. Constructed in much the same way that smaller highways are expanded and connected to form interstates in the modern United States, the Persian highway was dubbed the Royal Road.[4]

Darius I, who likely completed Cyrus' work on the Royal Road and mail system.

The Royal Road’s route can be traced based on the descriptions of it left by Herodotus as well as remains of ancient roads and bridges. Beginning in Sardis, the first sections were based on an earlier Phrygian road which ran across the central plains of Anatolia. From Phrygia, the road crossed the Halys River into Cappadocia. A “huge guardhouse” and gates were built at the river to control access to the road. The other end of the Cappadocian leg was guarded by two more guardhouses and accompanying gates. From there, the road crossed the great Euphrates and Tigris rivers and ran on to the Persian capital of Susa.[5]

There was also a southern route which has been traced but was not mentioned by Herodotus and may have been added at a later date, which ran from Sardis through southern Anatolia, into Cilicia. This route passed through the Cilician Gates, a narrow mountain pass guarded by two massive fortresses. According to Xenophon, who traveled the southern route in 401 BC, “A river, called the Carsus, a hundred feet in breadth, runs between the two fortresses. The whole space between the fortifications was six hundred yards, and it was out of the question to force a way through, since the pass was narrow, and the walls extended to the sea, and above them were sheer cliffs.”[6]



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