After Alexander’s death, his empire was riven by wars of succession, while the city-states of Greece once more struggled for independence. The machinery of war now included heavier and faster warships – like the galleys on which the rising power of Carthage depended.

Ancient Authorities

In addition to his account of Alexander’s exploits, Arrian also wrote a book about events after Alexander’s death. Unfortunately, this work has survived only in fragments; thus our chief ancient authority for the period remains Diodorus Siculus, who flourished in the second half of the first century BC. He wrote what he called a “Library” (Bibliothekè) of history, which aimed at being a complete World History down to the wars of Julius Caesar. Diodorus makes use of various sources, some of which enjoyed a good reputation in antiquity. Others did not. For the epoch of Alexander’s immediate successors, he relied extensively on the Athenian historian Diyllus, who had continued the record of events as far as the year 297 BC. Diodorus also owes much to Hieronymus of Cardia, whose military and official career well qualified him as the historian of the half-century which followed Alexander’s death. By contrast, Duris of Samos was a sensational writer with no very firm commitment to truth. Regrettably, Diodorus is not at pains to distinguish the value of his respective sources. This task is left to his readers.

Diodorus, himself remembered as a Sicilian, is at his best on the subject of Sicilian history. In this area, his authority is often Timaeus (352–256 BC), another Sicilian Greek, who was contemporary with many of the events which he described. A contemporary writer is naturally well placed to observe his material, but to the extent that he is personally involved in it, he is bound to have formed prejudices; Timaeus, although his testimony in general commanded respect among the ancients, was not unbiased.

Fortunately, we are also helped by Plutarch’s Lives. Plutarch himself, at the beginning of his Life of Alexander, takes trouble to stress that he is a biographer rather than an historian and that he does not undertake to supply the comprehensive information expected of an historian. Many of Plutarch’s Lives are those of influential Greek soldiers and statesmen who flourished during or close to the period with which we are now concerned; they contribute in an important way to our knowledge of an epoch which is not on the whole well documented. Moreover, the Greek world had moved into an historical phase in which events centred more than ever on the activities of dominant individuals. The connection between history and biography is to that extent closer.

To the foregoing sources we may add such knowledge as can be gained from Justin (Marcus Junianus Justinus) who wrote probably in the third century AD. In a Latin “epitome”, Justin summarized the universal history of Pompeius Trogus, whose Latin work, composed at the beginning of the Christian era, relied on Greek sources of an earlier date.

For the present work, concerned as it is with military action and methods of warfare, we must be grateful that various ancient text books on military science and technology have survived. These include the work of Aeneas Tacticus (late fourth century BC) and Philon of Byzantium, who probably wrote at the end of the third century BC. Also important is the engineer Athenaeus, whose tract on mechanical devices may be assigned to the first century BC, and, without attempting a bibliography, Biton’s booklet on siege engines should be noticed. It was written perhaps in the third century BC (an exact date is not known).

The Political Situation After Alexanders Death

After Alexander’s death, the disputed succession led to a long series of wars in which his senior officers were the contenders. Of these, Perdiccas, Craterus and Eumenes were soon killed. Antipater and his successors remained in possession of Macedonia and Greece, Lysimachus of Thrace, Antigonus of Phrygia and much of Asia Minor, Ptolemy of Egypt and Seleucus of the eastern territories as far as India. In 319 BC, Antipater died and left power in the hands of one of his officers, disregarding the claims of his son Cassander. Before long, Cassander asserted himself. But Macedon, weakened by internal division, now played a less important role and Antigonus, with his geographically central position in the empire, was the only ruler who dared aspire to the whole of it. His ambition soon led to combinations against him and he and his son Demetrius were finally defeated at Ipsus in 301 BC, Antigonus himself being killed in the battle. Ipsus was the only battle among many in that period which can in any way be considered as decisive, for it established that there could never be any single successor to Alexander’s power and that political partition was the destiny of the vast territory which he had conquered. This did not, of course, put an end to warfare among the rulers of the separated areas. On the contrary, their relationship was depressingly reminiscent of that which had existed among the Greek states during the preceding century and a half. No single power was capable of dominating the others; and yet, without a dominant central authority, nothing could be expected but a pattern of eternally shifting hostilities and alliances, with their inevitable concomitant of bloodshed, destruction and wasted resources.

To some extent, the flagging cause of Greek freedom benefited while Alexander’s successors fought each other in remote eastern theatres of war, although the freedom of the Greek states amounted, as always, mainly to a freedom to quarrel among themselves. As soon as the news of Alexander’s death had reached Greece, Athens revolted and in alliance with the Thessalians and Aetolians succeeded in blockading Antipater in the Thessalian town of Lamia. However, he held out until, facilitated by Athenian reverses at sea, Macedonian reinforcements reached him, and then defeated his Greek enemies at Crannon. Demosthenes, as ever the inspiration of anti-Macedonian sentiment at Athens, was forced to flee to the island of Calauria (now Poros). He was sentenced to death at the instance of his Athenian enemies and Antipater’s men provided the execution squad. They pursued him to Calauria, but Demosthenes killed himself by taking poison before the sentence could be carried out.

Sparta was one of the few cities in mainland Greece which had not fallen directly under the domination of Philip or Alexander, but Alexander had detached from the Spartans the support of their traditional Peloponnesian allies and reduced them to impotence. When Sparta, subsidized by Persian funds, had attempted to assert its power, Antipater had completely crushed the Spartan army at Megalopolis in 331 BC.

Warfare among the Greeks was now carried on not so much by cities as by leagues. Epaminondas, in the early part of the fourth century BC, had attempted to unite the Arcadian cities at Sparta’s expense, on the model of the ancient Boeotian League. Philip, Alexander and Antipater had exercised authority as leaders of the Greek League, which had been formed at Corinth after Chaeronea. The most powerful league to emerge during the third century BC was the Achaean League, which soon included other than Achaean states and inevitably came into collision with Sparta.

In 244 BC, Agis IV came to the throne in Sparta. Seeking a remedy for Sparta’s decline, he tried to restore the traditional system of government and discipline and to incorporate many non-citizens into the exclusive and dwindling citizen body. Agis was seized and put to death by order of the ephors. A few years later, Cleomenes III abolished the ephorate and made himself absolute ruler, but he was defeated in battle and driven out by a combination of the Achaean League and Macedonian power. Another absolute ruler of Sparta, more ruthless than Cleomenes, arose in the person of the usurper Nabis. Like Cleomenes, he was opposed by the Achaean League, which now invoked Rome as an ally, in place of Macedon. Nabis was finally defeated in 193 BC and assassinated in the following year.

The Naval Power of Rhodes

One Greek constitutional state which continued to prosper and grow strong in a world of warlords was Rhodes. Like the political leagues of the Greek mainland, the Rhodian federal government enjoyed an advantage over more narrowly conceived city states. The Dorian Greek settlers of the island had originally founded three main cities: Ialysus, Lindus and Camirus. Despite its Dorian population, the island had, throughout most of the Peloponnesian War, been a member of the Athenian League. Only in 411 BC, when Athenian power was in decline and Lysander had, with Persian financial support, made Sparta a naval force in the eastern Mediterranean, did Rhodes renounce her Athenian allegiance. About this time, the cities of the island formed a federation, with a newly founded capital city and a central government. Each member city, however, preserved a large measure of local autonomy.

Rhodes had grown rich by carrying corn and other cargoes in its ships; Alexander’s destruction of Phoenician Tyre rid the island state of a dangerous trade competitor. At the same time, the Macedonian mastery of the entire Persian empire and the consequent abolition of political frontiers in the eastern Mediterranean threw open new coasts and harbours to Rhodian vessels. In the time of Alexander’s Successors, Rhodes managed to hold a balance of power and ingeniously preserved its independence. The Rhodians flattered and conciliated the contending dynasts around them, refusing to enter into any alliance with one against another. This in itself would not have been enough to secure the island’s liberty if Rhodes had not possessed a strong navy of its own. Such a navy, however, the Rhodians were wise and bold enough to maintain. In their moderate form of democracy, the rowing crews of the ships were recruited from the poorer classes, while the officers were drawn from wealthier families. They did not need to rely upon mercaneries.

Rhodes was, in fact, the successor of Athens as the leading Greek naval power. As at Athens, such power was dependent largely upon civic patriotism. But as a comparatively small island, Rhodes enjoyed some advantages which the Athenians had not possessed. The Rhodians could rely entirely upon their navy for defence. Immune to land invasion, they were not obliged to organize an army or build Long Walls to secure communications with their docks and shipyards. Indeed, the famous Rhodian slingers served for the most part as mercenaries in foreign armies and may best be considered as a source of “invisible earnings”. Moreover, the island’s rocky coast lent itself admirably to fortification against sea-borne attack, as the Crusaders of a later age were not slow to realize.

Rhodes’ naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean was also a bulwark against piracy. Unfortunately, any power strong enough to subdue pirates in the ancient world usually felt at liberty to behave with piratical lawlessness itself; such protection as it offered became a “protection racket”. Rhodes, however, was an exception in this respect and, deeply committed to constitutional principles, evolved a code of maritime law, which the Romans later imitated and embodied in their own laws. Indeed, modern law, based upon the Roman, may indirectly owe something to Rhodes.

The Rhodian foreign policy, bent on preserving a balance of power, could not at all times be sustained. Forced at last to take sides either with Ptolemy or Antigonus, the Rhodians considered that their best prospects lay in alliance with the former. Rhodes was accordingly blockaded and stormed by Antigonus’ celebrated son, Demetrius the Besieger (Poliorcetes). This ordeal, however, the island triumphantly survived, re-emerging with enhanced power and prestige.


Any further allusion to the siege of Rhodes is perhaps best prefaced by some general remarks on the evolution of Greek and Macedonian siegecraft in general. Even before the Peloponnesian War, Pericles had used battering rams against the island of Samos, when it revolted from the Athenian League in 441 BC, and we have already referred to the siege of Plataea (429–427 BC), in which the Spartans and their allies used rams in conjunction with an earthen ramp, flaming arrows, fire faggots and elaborate walls of circumvallation. In the fifth century BC, the advantage lay with the besieged and the prospect of taking a town by assault presented enormous difficulties. The Athenian Long Walls were never stormed and the Athenians themselves succeeded in taking Potidaea only after a long blockade. These circumstances are explained largely by the Greek weakness in archers and slingers and their general neglect of missile warfare. In default of covering fire, all siege operations were exposed to counter-attack from the besieged walls, as happened at Plataea, where the heads of the battering rams were broken off by heavy beams dropped from the fortified walls above.

With the introduction of missile warfare, the situation was crucially altered. The greater use of hand missiles was soon followed by the employment of artillery engines, depending for their projectile power on cables of twisted sinew. The introduction of the arrow-firing catapult was attributed to Dionysius I of Syracuse. This machine was a giant crossbow mounted on a heavy wooden frame, launching a correspondingly heavy-headed dart. Philip II of Macedon used such machines when he besieged Perinthus in 340 BC. But the first use of catapults to hurl rocks probably came rather later. Alexander certainly had such catapults at the siege of Tyre.

Artillery of this kind could, of course, be employed by the besieged as well as the besiegers. In fact, its use operated to the advantage of those within the walls, since their fortifications were of a more solid and permanent nature and could be built with narrow ports, embrasures and battlements, behind which the artillerymen could operate under cover. Besieging armies countered this advantage by constructing elaborate towers and penthouses, with ports for artillery which matched those of the defenders. Such structures also sheltered battering rams. The obvious way of operating a battering ram was to suspend it from an overhead beam and swing its head against the target. It could also be mounted on wheels and thrust violently against the wall under attack by a large and muscular crew. More sophisticated types were developed, in which the shaft of the ram slid in a wooden channel; it was then repeatedly winched back, as if in a catapult, and projected against the wall.

Penthouses, often on wheels, could also be used to screen the operations of minors and sappers or those who wished to fill in the fosse before an enemy rampart. Covered by artillery and missile support, assault with scaling ladders became increasingly effective. Ladders were not always of wood; a kind of leather-and-cord network ladder was also in use.

The defenders, for their part, sometimes hung on their battlements wooden placards which would be shifted in such a way as to dislodge any scaling ladders placed against them. These protective placards must, of course, in turn have been exposed to the assailants’ fire darts. As is the way of military technology, the series of devices and counter-devices was capable of endless prolongation, inevitably involving both attackers and defenders in enormous expense. A simpler and cheaper method of capturing a city was by means of treachery, and by treachery cities were often captured. This method, with all the precautions and counter-measures which we class under the heading of “security”, was allotted scientific consideration in the treatise of Aeneas Tacticus (late fourth century BC).

The Siege of Rhodes

Demetrius brought to the siege of Rhodes a vast armament of men and ships. Apart from his own fighting fleet of 200 vessels and his auxiliary fleet of more than 150, he had enlisted the aid of pirate squadrons. One thousand private trading craft also followed him, attracted by the wealth of Rhodes and the prospect of spoil. The whole operation was, in fact, a gigantic piratical enterprise. But Demetrius seems to have felt that it was “a glorious thing to be a pirate king”.

The main harbour at Rhodes, as well as the city, was fortified with towers and walls. Here the Rhodian fleet could safely rest; nor was Demetrius able to prevent ships with supplies from running his blockade. His first concern, therefore, was to capture the harbour. He at once proceeded to build his own harbour alongside, constructing a mole and protecting his seaborne siege operations from counter-attack by means of a floating spiked boom. At the same time, his army ravaged the island and built a huge camp on land adjacent to the city but out of missile range.

In the course of the siege, both sides employed the technical devices we have just described. Mining operations by the besiegers were met by the counter-mines of the besieged. At a fairly early stage. Demetrius’ men secured a footing on the mole of the main harbour, but the Rhodians prevented him from exploiting this bridgehead and he never captured the harbour. Later, as a result of a land attack, he actually penetrated the walls of the city, but the attack was contained by the Rhodians and those who had entered were mostly killed.

The most sensational feature of the siege was Demetrius’ mammoth tower, which was nicknamed the helepolis, “city-taker”, although in the event it failed to take the city. The helepolis tower was based on a huge square grille of timberwork, covering an area of 5,200 square feet (484 sq m). The tower was about 140 feet (90 cubits, 43m) high and the uppermost of its nine storeys was 900 square feet (84 sq m) in area. As a protection against fire, the tower was armoured with iron plates on its three exposed sides; it was mounted on gigantic castors, the wheels of which were themselves plated with iron. The artillery ports of the helepolis were made to open and close by mechanical means and were padded with leather and wool as a protection against the shock of missile attack. Communication with the upper storeys was by means of two staircases, for ascent and descent respectively.

The machine was moved, presumably in relays, by 3,400 specially selected strong men. Some pushed from inside the structure, others behind. Diodorus assures us that the whole monstrous contraption could be rolled in any direction very smoothly. The helepolis was in effect a mammoth tank, far larger than any that have ever been driven by petrol engines. Despite every precaution, however, the Rhodians managed to dislodge some of the tower’s iron plates; when there was a real danger of its being set on fire, Demetrius ordered it to be withdrawn from action.

The entire Greek and Macedonian world, constitutionalists and dynasts alike, sympathized with the Rhodians during the siege. The conflict was, after all, one between law and piracy. Influenced perhaps by the unpopularity of his operations and convinced at last that he could not win, Demetrius came to terms with the Rhodians and went away to look for a war somewhere else. The Rhodians, overjoyed, rewarded the sacrifice of citizens, slaves and resident aliens as they had promised.

Demetrius had left his engines strewn around the city and the scrap metal which they yielded provided material for the huge statue which the Rhodians erected at their harbour entrance: the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A prodigy itself, the Colossus was a fitting memorial to a prodigious siege.


Fortifications during the generations which followed Alexander the Great were required to meet the challenge of increasingly sophisticated siegecraft and of armies equipped with larger, more abundant and more powerful machinery. Great importance was attached to counter-attack and to the creation of vantage points from which the besieger could be threatened on his flank by missiles. With this in view, ramparts were sometimes built on a saw-tooth pattern. Either the wall itself followed a saw-tooth contour or a straight wall was given a saw-tooth facing on its outer surface. The advantage of this device was that one saw-tooth projection gave covering fire to the next. Fortifications at Samikon, in the western Peloponnese, exemplify the asymmetrical slanted pattern of saw-tooth fortification and may be contrasted with the equilateral zig-zag which was adopted, for instance at Miletus on the coast of Caria.

As a defence against the approach of siege-towers, deep moats were often dug in front of the walls of a fortified position. Such moats had been dug in front of the Athenian city walls after the battle of Chaeronea and they were improved during the course of the succeeding century. On archaelogical evidence, these moats appear to have reached a depth of 13 feet (4m) and a width of 33 feet (10m). In some instances, moats were filled with water; when they surrounded cities, further protection was often given by a wall or palisade on the inner edge.

The construction of towers on the ramparts had long been a feature of Greek cities. These frequently projected in the manner of bastions and permitted a flanking attack on the besiegers. At the same time, the missile men who garrisoned them had the advantage of superior height and were in a position to oppose any siege-towers. Such defensive towers tended to become increasingly numerous. They were also increasingly independent of the curtain walls which linked them. At Myndos, near Halicarnassus, Alexander’s besieging force managed to destroy one defence tower, but its collapse did not affect the solidity of the wall. Conversely, during the siege of Rhodes, Demetrius’ forces were able to destroy the curtain wall on each side of a tower without destroying the tower itself. Towers were square, polygonal, semicircular or horseshoe in plan. The number of artillery loopholes and embrasures introduced by the builders tended to increase. Curtains between towers must have been built higher to the extent that the towers themselves were. Archaeological evidence suggests that walls of about 29.5 feet (9m) in height were normal during the fourth century BC; if attacks by ahelepolis were expected, they were probably built higher. The height of a city’s walls was sometimes increased by the defenders during the course of a siege. The summit of a wall normally provided a communicating alley between towers and also a fighting platform fronted by a crenellated parapet. Such parapets, like the towers, might support tiled roofs; in which case they featured windows.

Both at Tyre and Rhodes, the besieged walls were difficult to attack on account of the rocks which lay in front of them. Considerable use was made of sites fortified by nature, even where the most defensible points did not closely correspond with the area needing to be defended. For this reason, city walls frequently embraced an area considerably greater than the city itself. It followed that some of the most imposing fortifications were constructed in areas where nature gave little help, and much effort was needed to strengthen the position.

Mercenary Armies, Pay and Booty

The siege of Rhodes, if one disregards its political futility, offers an interesting case study, since it presents a mercenary army at war with a citizen garrison. A citizen army was at its best fighting in its own homeland, in defence of its own womenfolk, children and property. A mercenary army, on the other hand, had the greatest inducement when it was an invading army, free to plunder and live off enemy country. This situation is illustrated by a late-third-century Cretan inscription, which, in recording the terms of a treaty, specifies that a soldier’s daily ration shall be one choinix1 of corn, except when he is quartered in enemy territory from which corn can be obtained. In the fifth century BC, citizen armies and navies serving away from home, whether provided with their rations in kind or in cash, expected no more than a subsistence allowance. Persian subsidies raised the daily ration allowance for trireme rowers from a half to a whole drachma, but there was difficulty in obtaining what had been promised. The drachma may be taken as containing 66.5 grains (4.3g) of silver; readers who are accustomed to inflation accounting may calculate what this means in terms of today’s commodity values.

The main reward for mercenary service during the fourth and third centuries BC was booty, not pay. Ready cash was often inadequate to provide payment. Cleomenes III of Sparta was hurried into a disastrous engagement at Sellasia in 222 BC because he lacked cash for the retention of his mercenaries. It should be noticed that Cleomenes was conducting a defensive campaign on his own territory. In an offensive war such as he had waged earlier in Arcadia, booty had been available and mercenary remuneration could be based on results.

Prisoners might often change hands for cash ransoms. Before the siege of Rhodes, the Rhodians came to an agreement with Demetrius, according to which a freeman captured by either side should be exchanged for 1,000 drachmas and a slave for 500 drachmas. But most booty was in kind and captives were commonly sold as slaves. An invading army, as at Rhodes, was followed by a horde of expectant traders. Among these were large numbers of slave-dealers; after a victory, captives could be sold on the spot.

Apart from the inevitable fickleness of a mercenary army, its appetite for booty significantly conditioned the course of such wars as it was employed to fight. Even with citizen armies, it was hard for any commander to retain control over his men once they had fallen to plundering; for this reason a battle won in one sector of the field was often lost in another. It was an outstanding tribute to Alexander’s discipline at Gaugamela that he was able to withdraw his victorious Companions at the moment when the enemy was in flight and a rich spoil invited them, in order to help his hard-pressed left wing in that phase of the battle.

Except for a small nucleus of Macedonians who perhaps felt themselves to be united with their leaders by a tie of common nationality, the armies of Alexander’s Successors depended mainly on mercenaries; this fact goes far to explaining why the wars which they fought were usually so inconclusive. A mercenary force possessed of the baggage train of a defeated army – let alone a town or territory which had sheltered the enemy – in its preoccupation with plunder would have little incentive to follow up a victory or pursue fugitives. Indeed, it was hardly in the mercenary’s interest to eliminate the opposing forces completely. By so doing, he would have deprived himself of employment and so a living.

War Elephants

The kings and generals who commanded armies in the Graeco-Macedonian world seem to have had a taste for massive equipment; their wide use of war elephants was perhaps consistent with this taste. We have already noticed that elephants could be defeated easily enough by flexible tactics, but at the same time they must have had some substantial advantages to justify their continued use. The elephant could inflict casualties by trampling enemies underfoot or seizing them with its trunk. And – not least important – it offered a higher platform from which missiles could be launched. The turret mounted on an elephant’s back might accommodate a crew of four. A consideration of siege, mountain and naval tactics should remind us that the ancients attached great importance to a point of vantage based on superior height. The archer who threatened his enemy from above gained a wider view and a greater range.

As compared with cavalry, elephants were less manoeuvrable, although at the same time they might easily frighten horses and make them unmanageable. On the whole, the elephant was best employed against a stationary enemy; in this connection we should remark that the Macedonian phalanx, against which elephants were used, had itself become less mobile. This may be another example of the general military tendency to make everything bigger and heavier. Demetrius’ armourer produced for him a cuirass which completely withstood a catapult dart at 26 paces and was considered light, at a weight of 40 pounds (18.1kg). A similar cuirass was supplied to one of Demetrius’ lieutenants, although this officer had been accustomed to a panoply weighing two talents. A more normal weight was one talent. The talent in Attic weight has been estimated at 57 pounds (25.86kg), by the Aeginetan standard at 83 pounds (37.80kg). In any case, such armour must be regarded as heavy. It would be no wonder if ponderously equipped phalangists found it difficult to perform the essential evasive manoeuvre of opening ranks with all the alacrity that an elephant charge demanded.

Special anti-elephant devices were adopted. The most effective seems to have been that of planting the ground with spikes. The poor beasts, maddened by pain, soon became incapable of control. But perhaps the best answer to the elephant threat was an opposing force of elephants. In this case, the larger elephants could have been expected to enjoy an advantage, not only on account of their weight but because of the superior position occupied by the archers on their backs. The Seleucid rulers, with their ready access to India, at first had the monopoly of elephants and of the Indian mahouts who could control them. The Ptolemies soon equalized by training African elephants captured in Ethiopia. The African elephant which they enlisted was not a larger species than the Indian; on the contrary, ancient authorities who describe it as smaller were familiar with a North African sub-species, found in the regions of the Red Sea and of the Atlas Mountains – where it was used by the Carthaginians. When Ptolemaic African elephants clashed with Seleucid Indian elephants at the battle of Raphia, near Gaza, in 217 BC, the Seleucids had the better of it. But in any case, numbers on this occasion told in their favour.

Elephants could also be used to force the entrance to a city. However, when the Macedonian commander attempted this at Megalopolis in 318 BC, the defenders laid large gates studded with spikes on the ground over which the elephant attack was expected and the operation ended in disaster.

Quinqueremes and Heavier War Galleys

The word trireme (Greek trieres) is usually taken to mean a war galley with three banks of oars, superimposed one above another. Representations of galleys with two and three banks of oars have survived; in the fifth century BC, Athenian rowers were divided intothranitai, zygitai, and thalamitai, according to the tier in which they rowed. The thranitai, who pulled at the longest oars, sometimes received extra pay, as happened at the outset of the Athenian expedition against Syracuse in 415 BC. However, the word trierescontains no allusion to banks of oars; its original meaning may simply have been “triple-furnished”. After the end of the Peloponnesian War, quadriremes and quinqueremes came into general use. Both are mentioned by Arrian in his description of Alexander’s operations at Tyre. In later history, we hear of “ten-furnished”, “twenty-furnished” and even “forty-furnished” galleys. Unless one contemplates a floating sky-scraper, it is impossible that these numbers denoted superimposed banks of oars.

The allusions to “forty-furnished” ships are particularly unconvincing; we may perhaps discount them altogether, but a problem still remains. In a trireme, the rowing benches furnished for any one triplet of rowers were probably staggered in the fore-and-aft dimension as well as in cross-section, so that opposite numbers in the upper tiers did not sit directly over the heads of those below. However, even granted such an arrangement, we cannot attribute five banks of oars to a quinquereme without arriving at a top-heavy hull. The deployment of the oars themselves would in any case have been complicated and would have presented other problems. Modern scholars, therefore, usually draw the conclusion that a quinquereme was a galley which seated five rowers at one oar, or which shared two or three oars among five rowers. Perhaps the larger denominations take into account rowers on each side of the ship or rowers seated facing each other over a single oar. Those who make conjectures rely on the analogy of Venetian galleys in medieval and Renaissance times, where practice is known to have varied considerably. One thing seems clear: the ancient classification of war galleys cannot have been consistently by reference to banks of oars.

There is a further implication. If Greek galleys were classified by reference to rowers and not to oars, a single-banked galley furnished with benches for three rowers at each oar should still have qualified for description as a trireme, or triple-furnished ship. The slant of the oars would have meant that the rowers still sat in tiers; those on the inside would still have had the heaviest work, so that the tiers might still have been differentiated as thranitai, zygitai and thalamitai. There is no evidence that this was or was not so. It simply follows logically from what seem necessary assumptions. On the other hand, it is possible that the ancients were not consistent in their use of terms. By the word for a trireme, they may always have meant a galley with three oar banks, even though a quinquereme was not a galley with five oar banks.

Whatever we decide about the quadriremes and quinqueremes that figured so prominently in the navies of Alexander’s Successors, they were bigger and heavier boats, rowed by more men and larger oars. The trireme had been used in battle for ramming or attacking enemy oars and steering gear. It had also served as a platform from which missiles or boarding parties could be launched. The vessels of the late fourth century could in addition carry heavy siege engines on their fore-decks and were capable of towing horse-transport craft.

Demetrius’ navy even featured “fifteen-furnished” and “sixteen-furnished” galleys. They were highly spectacular and no doubt had great propaganda value, but do not seem to have been in general use. For many purposes, Demetrius, like any other admiral, was obliged to rely on light, undecked ships, including a “one-and-a-half” type of vessel (more literally translated, “a three-halver”). Whether this was supplied with one and a half banks of oars or one and half tiers of rowers remains open to conjecture.

Sicilian Warfare

One cannot adequately discuss the war resources of Alexander’s Successors without referring to warfare as it was waged in the western Mediterranean, both contemporaneously and during the earlier part of the fourth century BC. Sooner or later, the dynasts of the Greek mainland and eastern Greek world were bound to become involved with the west, and to a considerable extent, the Macedonian war machine as developed by Philip and Alexander was the result of western inspiration. The siege of the Carthaginians at Motya on the west coast of Sicily by the Greeks under Dionysius I of Syracuse, in 398 BC, strikingly anticipates the great eastern siege operations such as those mounted against Tyre and the island of Rhodes.

Motya was valuable to the Carthaginians both as a mercantile and naval base. The city itself was built on an island about 1.5 miles (2.4km) in diameter, in an encircling bay approximately 2 miles (3.2km) wide, and it was linked to the mainland by a causeway. As the Greek army and its supporting fleet approached the island, the defenders destroyed the causeway. But Dionysius soon began to build a new causeway, by means of which the city was eventually attacked and taken. The besiegers’ rams, catapults and six-storey siege-towers triumphed at last, despite some enemy success in firing the wooden towers. Another technical feat of the siege appears in Dionysius’ use of rollers to drag his ships across the encircling arm of the bay. This permitted his more numerous fleet to be deployed to advantage, not compressed within the narrow harbour entrance, where the Carthaginian admiral had hoped to challenge it. As a result the relief fleet from Carthage was obliged to sail away, leaving Motya to its fate.

Later in the fourth century, Timoleon, the widely esteemed champion of the Sicilian Greeks, again liberated them from the threat of Carthage. He had originally been invited from Corinth to assist the Syracusans in a struggle against their own tyrant, Dionysius II, and other designing despots. In 341 BC, Timoleon emerged as a leader against the Carthaginians and defeated them at the Crimisus river, though his Greek enemies frustrated him by siding with the Carthaginians. The example of Timoleon as a constitutionally invoked liberator and national champion can hardly have been lost on his contemporary, Philip of Macedon, whose policy and strategy were founded on pious intervention.

In the time of Demetrius the Besieger, another formidable Greek war leader arose in Sicily. This was Agathocles, who had served with military distinction in Timoleon’s epoch. Subsequently, he had espoused popular politics and after some vicissitudes made himself absolute master of Syracuse. This brought him into conflict with other Greek cities and with the Carthaginians and being hard-pressed decided to retaliate with a counter-offensive in Africa. He watched for his opportunity and, eluding the Carthaginian fleet, conducted his own flotilla to the African coast. Here he persuaded his men to burn their boats (literally), in order that they might be committed to the occupation of Carthaginian territory; with help from the North African Greek city of Cyrene, he launched a successful military campaign, almost capturing Carthage itself. Meanwhile, the Carthaginians in Sicily had failed to take Syracuse and Agathocles was able to return to the city. A later African expedition did not succeed, but Agathocles’ domination of Sicily remained secure.

Agathocles’ strategy of counter-offensive suggests that which Memnon of Rhodes, but for his untimely death, might have employed against Alexander. It also demonstrated what Alexander’s own campaigns had done much to make apparent, that an army did not need a base as long as it was in a position to threaten enemy bases. One guesses that the later fourth-century war leaders of both the eastern and western Mediterranean studied and learned from each other’s strategic methods.

As for Agathocles, his incorrigible delight in warfare led him to exploits in Italy and Corcyra, and before he died he came into contact – and conflict – with the Successors of Alexander. But his own succession was in dispute and to spite his family he renounced all dynastic pretensions in favour of the people – although this did little to render Syracusan politics any more stable. He might have been regarded as a benevolent despot in some quarters, but Timaeus the historian was one of his political victims and so Agathocles’ posthumous reputation suffered.

Carthage and its Sea Power

For the western Greeks, and for the Greek Sicilian cities in particular, Carthage had long been the most formidable national enemy, playing in this respect much the same role as Persia had done in the east. In other ways, however, Carthage offered a very sharp contrast to Persia, and its power was based on very different resources. Persia was a territory; Carthage was a city. Persia became a great land empire, for the most part employing other nations to carry on its sea warfare. Carthage was a great commercial and naval power and for preference hired foreign mercenaries to fight its land wars.

The city of Carthage had been founded by Phoenician settlers from Tyre on the North African coast, in what is now Tunisia, during the ninth or eighth century BC. The Carthaginians were a Semetic-speaking people, racially distinct from the Greeks. The Persians, by contrast, were racially akin to the peoples who had entered the Greek and Italian peninsulas and they spoke an Indo-European tongue which belonged to the same linguistic group as both Greek and Latin. The social and economic institutions of Carthage, however, resembled those of the Greeks far more closely than did the Persian. Carthage was never a despotism. Aristotle, in his treatise the Politics, praised the Carthaginian constitution and compared it to the Spartan. The Carthaginian pattern of colonization also resembled the Greek. Itself an offshoot of Tyre, Carthage founded colonial trading cities throughout the western Mediterranean, including southern Sardinia and Spain. The object, however, was to establish trading contacts rather than relieve population pressures, and the consequent tie between colonial settlement and mother city was on the whole closer than that which existed in the Greek world. Certainly, the Carthaginian cities of Sicily were strenuously supported from north Africa in their wars against the Greeks.

To protect their merchant fleet, the Carthaginians maintained a substantial navy of war galleys. At Carthage, there were two harbours, an inner and an outer, both landlocked, artificially excavated basins. The galleys were normally manned by citizen rowers, but the number of crews available, as well as the size of the harbours and the competing claims of a large merchant fleet, may have been a factor which limited the size of the navy.

The Carthaginians and Phoenicians in general were the boldest seafarers of the ancient world. Yet their success in naval warfare against the Greeks – and subsequently against the Romans – was surprisingly slight. Like the Phoenicians of the eastern Mediterranean, the Carthaginians seem often to have enjoyed a numerical advantage in ships, but vessel for vessel in a sea-fight, they do not seem to have been by any means superior – rather the contrary. Certainly, they carried smaller complements of armed men, and this placed them at a disadvantage, not only in boarding tactics but in missile warfare at sea. In the fifth century BC, on Xerxes’ Phoenician vessels, the military force of marines had been supplied by the Persians themselves. The Carthaginians remained deficient in this respect. Agathocles’ invasion flotilla, nearing the African coast, was all but overtaken by a superior Carthaginian naval force. The Greeks, however, were able to hold off the pursuers when they were within missile rage, for Agathocles had a larger complement of archers and slingers on his galleys.

As seamen, supporting the war of their compatriots in Sicily, the Carthaginians faced a challenge which the invasion forces of Xerxes had been able to avoid. Their army had to be transported across a wide expanse of open sea and could not hug the coast. Admittedly, this meant that the ships were in less danger of being driven on to a lee-shore, but it was rather a question of “Hobson’s choice”, for the large Carthaginian invasion fleet, which set out for Sicily in 311 BC, met with a storm in which it lost 60 out of 130 triremes, as well as 200 transport vessels.

It should be noticed that the galleys in this ill-fated expedition were all triremes. The Carthaginians also developed the use of the quinquereme. In fact, it is thought that the invention of the quinquereme, ascribed to Dionysius I of Syracuse, was originally a Phoenician innovation. The quinquereme was certainly found to have some advantages in naval warfare – even if it did not possess every advantage over lighter vessels. One cannot exclude the possibility that it was originally introduced with mainly navigational considerations in view: a heavier and more substantial ship to resist heavier seas. Among the Carthaginians, as with the Greeks, the tendency was always towards heavier craft. The Carthaginian ships that had been engaged against the Phocaean Greeks off Alalia in Corsica in 535 BC were probably pentekonters like those of their enemies.

A feature of Carthaginian war galleys which Greeks and Romans seem sometimes to have imitated was a small auxiliary sail which could be hoisted on the prow of the vessel – (it was known as the akation in Greek) – perhaps from a yard on a large bowsprit. This may have assisted the ship in sailing at an angle to the wind. It could also be useful in a combat emergency. The mainmast in a galley could not be mounted at short notice, but Diodorus relates how a Carthaginian warship, in danger of being overtaken by Agathocles’ rowers, raised its auxiliary foresail to take advantage of a favourable breeze and so escaped.

The Carthaginian Land Forces

Although the Carthaginians depended for their land forces mainly upon mercenary troops, it should be noticed their citizen army was not to be despised. It was, admittedly, small: in the Carthaginian armada against Agathocles, citizens numbered only 2,000 as compared with 10,000 Libyan troops. But Carthage possessed a picked citizen corps d’élite, which the Greeks described as a “Sacred Band”, and when the Carthaginians were called upon to fight against a combination of their own mercenaries and the rebellious population of their subject cities in North Africa, at a time when Carthage was already threatened by Rome, they ultimately triumphed – after a war marked by many atrocities.

Carthaginian troops had fought in Sicily against Timoleon. Plutarch in this connection speaks of 10,000 foot-soldiers armed with white shields, whom the Greeks guessed to be all Carthaginians on account of their splendid arms and the slow pace and good order of their advance. Of course, one has to distinguish between the citizens of Carthage itself and the Carthaginian citizens of the overseas settlements. But in any case, it would be wrong to describe the Carthaginians as an unmilitary nation.

They used elephants with considerable effect, both in their first wars against Rome and against their mercenary rebels. The Carthaginian use of elephants differed from that which the Macedonian dynasts had learned from India. There was no turret-like howdah, manned by archers, on the animal’s back. The Carthaginian war elephant was controlled by a single driver with a goad, and it was relied upon to trample the enemy underfoot.

Elephants seem to have superseded chariots in the Carthaginian armies, but the Carthaginians also employed chariots in historic times, including four-horse chariots, such as the Greeks used only for racing. For chariot fighting suitable terrain was essential. The Persians made considerable use of chariots in their Asian armies, but the latest instance of chariot warfare in Greece occurred in the Lelantine plain of Euboea, in the seventh-century struggle between the cities of Chalcis and Eretria. Four-horse chariots were mobilized against Timoleon in Sicily and exercised a disruptive effect on the Greek cavalry at the battle of the Crimisus. On that occasion, a thunderstorm and torrential downpour supervened to the Greek advantage; the Carthaginian foot-soldiers, with their heavy iron mail, were seriously handicapped and the mud must have done much to immobilize the chariots. Plutarch’s comments on this battle are interesting. Although the armour of the Carthaginians made them impervious to Greek spears, they could not compete with the Greeks in sword fighting, which called for special skill. Tactics had changed since the epoch of the Persian Wars. Plutarch also remarks that an unprecedented number of Carthaginian citizen troops perished in the battle. Usually, a greater number of Africans, Spaniards and Numidians – whose loss was lightly felt – were engaged in the Carthaginian armies.

Carthaginian mercenary forces were drawn both from North Africa and from the many countries with which the Carthaginians had established trading relations. Different mercenary and allied national contingents seem often to have specialized in different arms. The Numidians, a nomadic people who lived to the west and south of Carthage, bred horses and contributed cavalry. They were renowned as horsemen and are referred to as riding without bridles. The Libyans were charioteers; Agathocles, campaigning in Libya against Carthage, was able to enlist Libyan chariots in his own army. The Balearic islanders provided the Carthaginians (and later the Romans) with slingers. This speciality of the Balearic troops is comparable with that of the Rhodians in the eastern Mediterranean, as has been noted in earlier chapters.


1 This measure varied locally. Its range was between approximately 1.5 pings (850cc) and about a quart (rather more than a litre).

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