Facing up to the Challenge

The theme for Ancient Warfare 17.1 is “the challenges of campaigning.” What do we mean by this? 


Campaigning comprises so much more than just defeating the enemy. First, you need to find them. If the enemy is invading your own territory, you might think that such a task is relatively easy. Yet we know of several campaigns in Italy, Greece, and elsewhere that armies could miss one another (deliberately or accidentally) when marching in the same territory. And, of course, finding the enemy was  complicated by the imperative to do so on ground that would be favourable to your troops.


When invading enemy territory, especially unfamiliar lands, these problems would be made all the more difficult, more challenging if you will! Relying on guides (and any possible trust issues) might lead to disaster – just ask Varus about his campaign in AD 9. Likewise, relying on enemy deserters or turncoats was fraught with risk – pharaoh Rameses II almost learned that to his cost at the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC. He believed two Hittite deserters who assured him the enemy army was far away – it was not. 


Terrain too could pose problems – several places provided natural choke points where you could wait for your enemy – good if you were the defender, perhaps, but places like Thermopylae showed that this was not always the case. When the Persians invaded Greece in 480 BC they were able to learn of the alternative path over the mountains to negate the natural defences of the pass. Many other invaders of Greece also learned of the pass. The only exception seems to have been the Huns in the fifth century AD – they were turned away – clearly they hadn’t read their (Greek) history. Obviously, knowing your history is another challenge. Other natural passes like Tapae were utilised again and again in invasions of Dacia and yet a pass like the Cilician Gates was not defended against Alexander the Great’s advance. Again, Varus was led into unfavourable terrain and defeated. So too did Crassus pay the price at Carrhae for fighting in conditions unfavourable to his own troops. 


Crassus also ran out of water and that is a whole other challenge – we hear of the Persian army on its way to invade Greece drinking whole rivers dry. Finding water, not to mention food and fodder, for your troops and their animals on campaign, foreign and domestic, was undoubtedly a huge challenge – we gain little insight into such planning which must have gone into each campaign, the march from place to place to some degree predicated on watering stations. If you were marching through areas with plentiful rivers this might (potentially) be straight forward but Marcus Aurelius was cut off in the territory of the Quadi in AD 174 and needed “the miracle of the rain” to rescue him and his forces. Only Caesar’s writings and Xenophon’s Anabasis really give us insights into the obsession of campaigning armies with food and water. 


All manner of other challenges needed to be prepared for – recruitment, arming men, finding adequate horses and pack animals, the home front while you were away, propitiating the gods, and many more. 


Ancient history is full of generals either looking to such things (or not) and either succeeding for meeting the challenge or paying the price for failing to do so. Belisarius’ invasion of Vandal North Africa was provided all the horses he would need from the emperor Justinian’s stables but not every commander could rely of such patronage or generosity. 


And, of course, the unknowable could also play a part. How do you prepare for such challenges? What could you do about the weather for instance – it is clear that when the Danube froze over, various barbarian tribes were just itching for the chance to invade. 


We haven’t even thought about the challenges of facing a particular general or a particular army – yet it is clear that Scipio Africanus (for instance) had thought about how to defeat Hannibal at the battle of Zama in 202 BC or that the magister militum Arnegisculus had thought about how to defeat the Huns before the battle of the Utus in AD 447 (in his case, catching the Huns midway through crossing a river). In the case of Scipio his preparation paid off, in the case of Arnegisculus it did not. 


There are innumerable more examples of challenges being met (or not being met), prepared for or not being prepared for. Ancient history as we know it might be very different if these challenges were met in a different way (or met at all). 


Surely there are more challenges I haven’t been able to think of – let us know some in the comments or, better still, propose an article for the issue! “Easy!” I hear you type. Aha, but, as a further challenge to you prospective authors out there, you’ll also need to think about topics which can be effectively and easily illustrated – what kinds of objects can be included in your piece, what locations, pieces of pottery or sculpture – challenges, challenges everywhere!

1 comment

90 years ago, reading in the USA, in Public Schools of Caesar’s commentaries and Xenophon’s Anabasis were ’’’required reading’’’(not anymore since at least the 1950s while Prep schools in Europe, Caesar and Xenophon are STILL required reading), what tipped me off was you mentioning Atilla, probably Illiterate anyway, that you mentioned in the FINE article above. I want to note that more than once, a ’’’boy’’’, who needed not to fear Alexander, approached the camp with an old man who then explained to ATG that there was a ’’’goat path’’’ around the ’’’Pass’’’ being blocked and sure enough, this happened at least once and the boy turned out to be right. Aornis(near the Punjab of India) discovered by Sir Arel Stein who found it in the late 19th century and wrote a book on Aornis; ATG took that by siege by using men in his Army who were from the Mountains of Macedon and they used ropes and pegs to go up behind the Army on Aornis and the next day, ATG pointed at the Enemy saying """I also have Eagles’’’ and then proceeded to take Aornis.//// A special request, could you if you have not done an article on it already that I missed, how Hannibal used branding irons on oxen to so as to execute one of the most famous ruses in all of History so as to escape the Romans who had Hannibal pinned down with the Romans chasing the Oxen and Hannibal exiting the situation by going the opposite direction in the middle of the night. I love AW, Thank you, Tuck Pittman, Lawton, Oklahoma USA

George Tuck Pittman

Leave a comment

Related Posts