Battles in the ancient world (part 3)

This is the third part in a series of eight blog posts on the different types of battles fought in the ancient world. In the first post, I discussed pitched battles. In the second, I turned my attention to meeting engagements or battles of encounter. In this post, I will write about surprise attacks; ambushes will be the subject of the next post.

The surprise attack

In a surprise attack, one party attacks without making their presence known beforehand with the express goal of taking the enemy unawares. It is different from an ambush in that the attacker does not lie in wait for an enemy to pass by, but rather actively attacks the enemy, usually while the latter are a stationary target. As a result, surprise attacks are usually launched against places such as towns or military camps. In order to maintain the element of surprise, these kinds of attacks are often conducted under cover of night. Even more famous, of course, was the ruse of the Trojan Horse, through which the Greeks managed to conquer and raze Troy.

Ancient generals were always mindful of being attacked without notice or under the cover of night. Already in the Iliad, Homer describes how Trojans set up watch fires on the plain and posted sentries to keep an out for Greek attackers, and the Greeks themselves did much the same. In the tenth book of the Iliad, the Greeks mount a nocturnal scouting expedition, with Odysseus and Diomedes going from the camp to listen in on the Trojans. They eventually run into a Trojan spy, Dolon, who is interrogated and then killed. They then enter the camp of the Thracian allies of the Trojans and steal their king’s horses.

Herodotus tells us about a conflict between the Phocians and the Thessalians. The latter had invaded the land of the Phocians, forcing the inhabitants to flee up the sloped of Mount Parnassus. A prophet by the name of Telias told them to smear their bodies and armour with white chalk and then attack the Thessalians at night, killing anyone who was not covered in chalk. As Herodotus tells is, the Thessalian sentries were confused and terrified when they saw the ghostly white Phocians descend upon them. Thanks to this ruse, the Phocians were able to slaughter four thousand of their enemy.

Another story related by Herodotus about Cleomenes, the colourful Spartan king. The Oracle at Delphi had told the king that he would capture Argos. In 494 BC, the Spartan army duly marched out to meet the Argives in battle. The two forces made their camp in close proximity to each other near Tiryns, in a place called Sepia. The Argives decided to listen to the Spartan herald and react accordingly, because this way they thought to avoid being taken by surprise. When Cleomenes realized what the Argives were doing, he ordered his herald to signal for dinner, while at the same time preparing his army to march out and engage the Argives. This ruse succeeded: by the time that the Spartans reached the enemy camp, the Argives were, in fact, having dinner. Many of them were killed and the remainder fled into a nearby grove.

The Spartans surrounded the grove to make sure no Argives escaped. Cleomenes had some deserters with him and managed to learn the names of individual Argive warriors. He had them call out one by and kill each Argive that emerged from the grove. He managed to kill about fifty of them before the Argives realized what was going on. Cleomenes then ordered his helots – Messenian serfs – to pile wood around the grove. When this was done, he set fire to the wood. He then asked one of the deserters to whom the grove belonged, at which point they answered that it belonged to Argus. Cleomenes groaned, “O prophectic Apollo! You have indeed greatly deceived me in saying that I should take Argos. I believe your prophecy is accomplished” (Hdt. 6.76–80).

The historian Diodorus claims that Herodotus was not correct in describing the death of Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC). When the Spartans realized their end was nigh, some six hundred men rushed into the Persian camp at night with the object of taking the Persians by surprise and assassinating King Xerxes. However, they were unable to find the king. They then fought with the ferocity of men who knew they were doomed and slaughtered a vast number of the enemy troops before themselves being overcome and slain (11.10.3). The story is repeated by Justin and Plutarch, but Herodotus has the advantage of being closer in time to the actual event, and his reconstruction of the battle is therefore generally preferred.

Sometimes, it was even possible to surprise – or try to surprise – the enemy before a pitched battle by the swift redeployment of troops. At Plataea (479 BC), the Spartans – whose fame for military prowess on the battlefield was unmatched – and Athenians switched places at first light. But the traitorous Boeotians had seen the troops redeploy and reported it to the Persians, who also had their troops change positions to match. The Greeks under the command of Pausanias then shifted their troops back in their original positions, and the Persians did the same, so that the troops were deployed again as they were at the outset (Hdt. 9.47).

The Persian general Mardonius was not enamoured by this attempted trickery on the part of the Spartans, as told by Herodotus (9.48):

O Lacedaemonians, you are said to be the bravest by the people in these parts, who admire you exceedingly, because you neither flee from the field of battle nor quit your ranks, but – continuing firm – either kill your adversaries or are killed yourselves. “But none of this is true: for even before we engaged, and came to the decision of blows, we have seen you fleeing and quitting your ranks, leaving the first risk to the Athenians, and ranging yourselves against out slaves! This is not the conduct of brave men: we, then, have been much deceived in you. We would have expected you to have sent a herald to challenge us, and that you would be desirous of fighting the Persians alone, though we were ready to accept these terms, we have found you proposing nothing of the kind, but rather shrinking from us. Now, therefore, since you have not begun this proposal, we will begin.

The ancient Greeks and Romans usually had few qualms about taking the enemy by surprise. On the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC), one of his generals, Parmenion, suggested that they attack the Persians at night. Alexander turned this idea down, saying he had no desire to disgrace himself by stealing his victory. Arrian adds that he believes Alexander made the right decision here, as “the night posed many dangers”, and a victory obtained during the night would likely only prolong Persian resistance to the Macedonian conqueror (3.10).

The element of surprise was integral to Hannibal Barca’s campaign against Rome in the Second Punic War (218–201 BC). Trekking across the Alps with his entire army and a contingent of elephants was vital to taking the Romans by surprise. Even during individual battles, Hannibal tried to keep the Romans on their toes by using feints and surprise attacks, for which his cavalry was of great importance. The Romans were so impressed by Hannibal’s skill that Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, dictator of the Roman Republic, introduced a military strategy (“Fabian strategy”) in which frontal assaults were avoided; the object, instead, was to wear down the Carthaginians through attrition.

This series of eight blog posts will continue on Monday, when we have a look at ambushes, a specific form of surprise attack. In the meantime, feel free to post your comments below or on our Facebook page; you can also contact me by email.

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