Battles in the ancient world (part 4)

This fourth blog post – in a series of eight – is about ambushes, a particular type of armed conflict. It builds on the previous blog post about surprise attacks. In earlier instalments of this series, I provided a brief rundown of pitched battles and meeting engagements.

The ambush

A particular type of surprise attack is the ambush. During an ambush, one party hides and bides their time, waiting for the enemy to pass by and then take them by surprise. Ambushes were common in ancient times, despite some of the protestations of certain ancient sources and modern writers alike.

In the Homeric epics, for example, ambushes were considered to require a special kind of courage. One episode of the Trojan War – though not recounted in detail by Homer – proved exceedingly popular in ancient Greek art, namely the ambush of the young Trojan prince Troilus by Achilles. Prophecy foretold that Troy would never fall as long as Troilus was alive. Now, the young prince was known to frequently go riding, so Achilles hid near a well at Thymbra, close to a temple of Apollo, to await his arrival. According to some versions of the story, Achilles was overcome by lust upon seeing the beautiful youth. When the boy rebuffed him, Achilles chased after him and beheaded him at the altar where Troilus had sought to take refuge. However, some ancient pottery show Achilles drag Troilus from his horse, while brandishing a weapon.

During the Battle of Kadesh (ca. 1274 BC), the Hittite army tried to ambush the Egyptian army as it marched towards Kadesh. The battle came about briefly as follows. Under vigorous leadership in the New Kingdom (ca. 1549–1069 BC), Egypt had expanded its influence northward over much over the Levant. Meanwhile, the Hittite Empire had been expanding southward. A conflict was inevitable. The Egyptian king, Ramesses the Great, marched into the Levant, while Muwatalli, King of the Hittites, assembled an army to march out assert his own dominance in the region.

Muwatalli had held back his army outside of the city of Kadesh. He also sent scouts out to feed false information to Ramesses: they let themselves be captured and then told the Egyptians that the Hittite army was still further away than it really was. The Egyptian King made camp just outside of the city and waited for the other divisions of his army to catch up. As the division of Re drew closer, Muwatalli sent in his chariots, which flanked Re and caused it to rout. The Hittites try to assault the Egyptian camp, but help arrived just in time: the N’earin and Ptah divisions, as well as the division of Amon, commanded by Ramesses himself, managed to repulse the Hittite chariots. While the Battle of Kadesh was probably not the great Egyptian victory that Ramesses claimed, it did serve to restore the balance of power in the region. The Hittites and Egyptians brokered a peace some time later (for further details, see Ancient Warfare VII.1).

Ambushes did not always go according to plan. When the Athenians landed in Sicily around 426 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. The Athenian general Chaeoeades had been killed in battle by the Syracusans. Laches had control of the fleet and led the allies against Mylae (modern Milazzo), a city in Sicily that Thucydides says belonged to Messenians (3.90). The Messenians had prepared an ambush for the Athenians, but the latter succeeded in routing the enemy. After another attack against the city’s garrison, the people of Mylae decided to surrender and join the Athenians.

The Romans have famously been ambushed a large number of times. One example is from the First Samnite War in 343 BC (Varronian chronology), as also recounted by Matthew Beazley in Ancient Warfare VII.3, pp. 26–33. The Romans, under the command of consul Aulus Cornelius Cossus, were marching from Saticula. They failed to scout ahead and were ambushed by Samnites in a mountain pass. While some Romans were killed, the consul and much of the rest of the army were able to escape. According to Livy, the Roman army managed to reform next day and then managed to attack the Samnites, forcing them to rout. However, this counter-attack is perhaps a fabrication and it seems more likely that the Romans simply retreated into Campania.

One of the largest ambushes in history is the Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC), fought during the Second Punic War between Hannibal’s Carthaginians and a Roman army under the command of consul Gaius Flaminius. After some back-and-forth, during which Hannibal tried to goad Flaminius into a frontal attack, the Carthaginians marched southward. Flaminius mounted a pursuit.

When Hannibal arrived at Lake Trasimene, he found an excellent sport for an ambush. He made camp and concealed part of his army in the densely wooded hills on the edge of the lake. That night, he also ordered his men to light fires on a hill in the distance, so that the Romans would think that the Carthaginians were further away than they really were. Next morning, Hannibal sent a small Carthaginian force to harass the Romans, causing them to become disordered as they entered the area of the ambush. Before long, the Carthaginians attacked the Romans, who had no time to deploy in formation. Most of the Roman army was destroyed, including Flaminius, with men either cut down by the Carthaginians or drowned in the lake while trying to escape. Several thousand Romans did manage to escape from the battle, but were captured by Hannibal’s lieutenant Maharbal the next day.

The later Battle of Carrhae (53 BC) is an ambush that would have a powerful effect on the course of Roman history. It was the first military encounter between the Parthians and Romans. The Romans, under the command of Marcus Licinius Crassus – part of the First Triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey – were lured into an ambush by the traitorous Ariamnes, an Arab chieftain. Marching out into the desert, the Romans were suddenly confronted by a Parthian army near the town of Carrhae (modern Harran near the Syrian border in Turkey). The Romans adopted a defensive formation, but were quickly surrounded by Parthian cavalry. When some Parthians pretended to flee, a detachment of Roman cavalry gave chase, only to be cut down later. The Roman army suffered heavily from attacks by Parthian cataphracts, but finally managed to escape during the night. The defeat was made worse as the Parthians managed to capture a number of Legionary Eagles. Next day, truce negotiations between the Parthians and Romans turned violent, with Crassus ending up dead, ultimately sparking the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.

Another famous ambush was the defeat of the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Three Roman legions and their auxiliaries, under the command of Publius Quinctillius Varus, marched into the Teutoburg Forest, where they were ambushed by a large force of Germanic warriors lead by Arminius of the Cherusci. Arminius had spent much of his life in Rome and had become a trusted advisor to Varus. However, in secret he had forged a plan to deal the Romans a heavy blow. Arminius fabricated news of a revolt and lured Varus and his troops into the ambush, which all but completely annihilated the Roman force (see also Ancient Warfare special of 2009). When the Roman Emperor Augustus heard news of the defeat, he is said by Suetonius to have banged his head against the walls of his palace, shouting, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

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