The Forgotten Roman General

General Publius Ventidius is probably one of the most overlooked, if not completely forgotten, generals in military history. Maybe it is because Ventidius grew up poor like most Romans… Or perhaps it was due to the reports that he sold mules and wagons before joining the Roman army.

Despite this, Ventidius would go on to have a distinguished military career, accompanying Julius Caesar during his campaign against Gaul and partaking in the Roman Civil War. Then in 45 BCE, Ventidius took up Caesar’s offer and accepted the post of plebeian tribune when the senate was reorganized and expanded.

Finally, on top of everything else, it may have been this forgotten general, with whom we concern ourselves today, that was responsible for reversing the Parthian tide, for changing the course of Roman History.

We will look at the series of battles now, in an effort to amend the marginal position in the history books that has been designated to poor Ventidus.

Mark Antony

It was in 39 BCE that Mark Antony assigned Ventidius Bassus the mission to retake Asia-Minor. Reports had reached Antony while he was in Greece that the Parthians were finished with their campaign in Asia-Minor for the year. These intelligence reports most likely came from the province of Asia, which was, at the time, loyal to Rome. From this news, Antony was able to draw up his plans.

He probably was aware that the majority of the Parthian army would retire for the winter and return home to their respected nobles. This would mean that those who remained were local militias, with questionable loyalty to garrison the cities throughout Asia-Minor. In addition, Antony understood the need to attack now to inhibit any further Parthian progress coming next spring.

Antony saw this as a perfect opportunity to surprise the enemy.

And so, once the coast was clear, Antony took a chance and placed a few legions under the command of our dear Ventidius, who subsequently set sail for the province of Asia. Vantidius’ mission was simple; establish a beachhead at the province of Asia and push inland.

Battle of the Cilician Gates

Ventidius’ landing was unexpected. This only goes to show the lack of intelligence gathering on the part of Labienus, head of the Roman-Parthian army. Once the Roman forces were accounted for, Ventidius quickly began to push eastward in a ‘search and destroy’ mission.

Word spread rapidly that the Romans had arrived. When the message reached Labienus, he was startled and terrified for he “was without his Parthians.” The only troops available to him were the neighborhood militia.

Labienus quickly fled the province of Asia and headed east, seeking military support from his co-ruler, Pacorus, a Parthian prince and son of king Orodes II.

Meanwhile, Mark Antony’s man, Ventidius, took a chance of his own and abandoned his heavy troops. He pursued Labienus with his lightest forces.


Eventually, Ventidius caught up with Labienus and cornered him near the Taurus range. He chose the high ground, so he could look down upon Labienus’ encampment. But there was another, more important, reason why Ventidius took the high ground; he feared the Parthian archers.

It was a standoff as both generals encamped for several days, waiting for the arrival of their main forces. As the bulk of the armies finally arrived, the Romans and the Parthians hunkered down for the night.


At daybreak, the Parthians, over-confident with their numbers and past victories, decided to start the battle before joining forces with Labienus. Unfortunately these were not the famous and deadly Parthian horse archers… but the heavy cavalry, or cataphract. Once they were at the length of the slope, the Romans charged down on top of them and repelled the enemy with ease, for the Romans had the momentum.

While the Romans were able to kill and maim many of the cataphract, the cataphract were, in fact, doing a better job at killing and maiming themselves.

See, the cataphract were at the top of slope, where all the fighting took place, but when they retreated, they ran into their own men coming up the hill. Instead of descending in order to rally around Labienus, they bypassed their general and headed straight for Cilicia. It was absolute chaos.

Ventidius, seeing that the Parthians were scattering all about and fleeing, decided to bring his men down from the hill and march on Labienus’ camp.

Both armies were now face to face… But Ventidius decided to stay put.

Why would Ventidius do this? Well, he was informed from deserters that Labienus was going to flee the camp, come nightfall. Therefore, Ventidius decided that it was better to set up ambushes rather than have an all-out pitch battle, which would result in losing many men and resources during the process.

Once nightfall came, the ambushes set in place worked as planned, killing and capturing many… that is, except for Labienus. Labienus was able to escape by changing clothes… His destination was Cilicia.

However, Labienus was not able to hide for long. Demetrius, a former slave, then “freedman” turned bounty hunter, arrested him. After Demetrius turned Labienus over to the Roman authorities, he was quickly executed.

Battle of Amanus Pass

With Labienus dead, Ventidius was able to secure the province of Cilicia. This did not mean they won; in fact, the mission was far from finished. To complete it, Ventidius devised a plan to trick the Parthians.

Ventidius sent a cavalry, headed by the officer Pompaedius Silo, to scout out the Amanus Pass, a strategic mountain path connecting the province of Cilicia and Syria. Not far behind Silo would be Ventidius, along with a small contingent of troops to aid in the fight.


Meanwhile on the Parthian side, Pacorus understood that if the same Amanus pass were not secured, the Romans would march through and invade Syria. Therefore, he felt, the best method was to station a garrison there to bottle up the small mountain road.

So Pacorus stationed Pharnapates, a Parthian lieutenant considered the most capable general of Orodes, to wait for the Romans to come. Once Silo reached the pass, the two sides engaged in battle immediately.

But don’t forget – this was, in fact, an elaborate trick. Silo’s real mission was to lure the Parthians away from their strongest defensive position. In doing so, Ventidius would either attack at the flank or from the rear.


In a sense, the Romans were giving the Parthians a taste of their own medicine by using the same tactic that worked so well against them at the Battle of Carrhae. With many of Pharnapates’ cataphract lured away, Ventidius fell upon the Parthians unexpectedly. Pharnapates, along with many of his men, perished during the engagement.

With the Amanus Pass now clear, the invasion of Syria was imminent.

With the Amanus Pass secured, Ventidius, head of the Roman forces, pushed south into Syria. Pacorus, the Parthian prince and co-leader of the Roman-Parthian army, was done fighting… at least for now.

He abandoned the province to the Romans in late 39 BCE. With the Parthians out of the way, Ventidius led his forces to the province of Judea.

Ventidius’ mission in Judea was simple and lucrative; it was to rid the province of any remaining Parthians. He was also there to remove the anti-Roman King, Antigonus, and to restore Herod to the throne.

But Ventidius did neither.

King Herod

Instead, he bypassed Herod’s royal family, who were besieged by the troops of Antigonus on the top of Masada, and went straight for Jerusalem. Ventidius was playing psychological warfare with Antigonus, by making him think that he was going to take Jerusalem.

This, however, was just another ruse.

Ventidius promised not to attack Jerusalem… that is, unless he received vast amounts of wealth from the king. Antigonus had, in his mind, no choice but to capitulate to Ventidius’ demands.

Make no mistake, Ventidius was still going to support Herod and place him on the throne. But while Herod was still far away, and his brother besieged, Ventidius thought he might as well make some money while they wait.

After Ventidius’ coffers were filled, he took the bulk of his forces and headed back for Syria, leaving his second, officer Pompaedius Silo, in charge to deal with the ‘Jewish problem’.

The Ruse

However, King Antigonus would come up with a ploy of his own; he bribed Silo multiple times. Antigonus hoped to buy time so that the Parthians could come to his assistance, while he kept the Romans at bay.

Unfortunately for King Antigonus, this would not happen.


When Ventidius returned to Syria, he sent the bulk of his forces beyond the Taurus Mountains to Cappadocia for winter quarters. It was during this time that the Parthian Prince, Pacorus, planned another invasion of Syria and began to mobilize a substantial number of cavalry from the nearby provinces.

Word of Pacorus’ intentions soon spread, reaching the ears of loyal Roman informants, who then relayed the information to Ventidius. Not only was this information crucial for preparation, it also informed Ventidius that a Syrian noble by the name of Channaeus (also called Pharnaeus), who pretended to be a Roman ally, was, in fact, a spy and Parthian loyalist.

Ventidius likely invited Channaeus over for dinner and during their meeting, Ventidius made it clear that he feared the Parthian would abandon their normal route, “where they customarily crossed the Euphrates near the city of Zeugma.”

Ventidius acted concerned over the issue, making it clear that if Pacorus were to invade Syria much further to the south, he would have the advantage over the Romans for it, “was a plain and convenient for the enemy.”

Like the good spy he was, Channaeus returned to his home after the meeting and quickly sent messengers to inform Pacorus of Ventidius’ fears.

Come early spring 38 BCE, Pacorus, unwilling to let go of Syria, led his forces south along the Euphrates River based on Ventidius’ supposed fears of engaging the enemy on a plain.

Once they came to the point of crossing, Pacorus realized that they needed to construct a bridge, due to the banks being widely separated. It took many men and materials, and the bridge was completed only after forty days.

This is exactly what Ventidius wanted. Ventidius’ disinformation bought him much needed time, allowing his legions to assemble.

Once the Parthian forces were in Syrian territory, Pacorus likely expected an immediate attack during the bridge construction or during the crossing, but neither materialized. With no sign of the enemy, Pacorus became overconfident and began to believe that the Romans were weak and cowardly. Eventually however, Pacorus found Ventidius at the acropolis of the city of Gindarus, in the province of Cyrrhestica.

Ventidius had been at Gindarus for three days preparing his defenses when Pacorus showed up.

Repeated Mistakes

One would have thought that perhaps Pacorus carefully prepared a plan of action in such a situation…. but no. Instead, Pacorus and his officers tossed out the combined arms strategy of utilizing both heavy cavalry and horse archers in unison. This had worked many times, so they thought they could take the high ground with little trouble.


Moreover, the arrogant and overconfident Pacorus, and his nobles, did not want the commoners and horse archers to steal the show, as they did at Carrhae. So they decided to sally up the slope, as they did at the battle of the Cilician Gates.

Once the cataphracts were within five hundred paces of the Romans, Ventidius took advantage of their elitism and rushed his soldiers to the brim and over, until both armies met at close quarters on the slope.

Ventidius’ strategy here was simple, by engaging the elite Parthian cavalry, he had cover from the infamous Parthian horse archers.

You would think the Parthians would have learned from previous experiences what not to do. The result of their knee-jerk reaction was devastating. As the Parthian cataphract advanced up the slope, they were quickly repelled back… straight into those still coming up, inflicting great suffering to rider and mount.

This is not to mention those who did make it to the brim were met and repulsed by heavy infantry. And if the heavy infantry did not get them, the slingers would.

These slingers were likely on the left and right side of the Roman infantry, giving them a deadly arc of crossfire. This very well could be the reason as to why we do not hear of the Parthian horse archers partaking in the engagement, since any attempt to rush towards the front would put them in grave danger.


Even though the Parthian cataphracts put up a stiff fight at the foot of the hill, it was not enough.

The Roman infantry likely swarmed the cataphracts forcing them into hand-to-hand combat. With the famous Parthian horse archers neutralized from the fight due to the slingers, there was nothing that could be done to rescue the situation.

In the ensuing chaos, Pacorus likely tried to make one last push. He, along with some of his men, attempted to take Ventidius’ defenseless camp, only to be met by Roman reserves, in which he inevitably lost his life during the melee.

As news spread that Prince Pacorus lay dead, a scramble to recover his body was attempted. While those trying to retrieve his corpse met his same fate, the vast majority of Pacorus’ army quickly retreated. Some attempted to re-cross the bridge that was constructed over the Euphrates but were caught by the Romans and put to death. Meanwhile, others fled to King Antiochus of Commagene for safety.

Victorious Aftermath

This victory shocked Syria. To make sure the Syrians would never rebel against Rome, Ventidius took Pacorus’ corpse, severed the head and ordered that it be sent throughout all the different cities of Syria.

It was a gruesome sight to behold, but the effect it had on the natives was anything other than negative. Instead, “they felt unusual affection for Pacorus on account of his justice and mildness, an affection as great as they had felt for the best kings that had ever ruled them.”

As for the Parthians who sought refuge in Commagene, Ventidius came after them.

Truth be told, Ventidius could care less about the Parthian refugees. Instead, he was much more concerned with how much money he could confiscate from King Antiochus by besieging Samosata, the capital of Commagene, in the summer of 38 BCE.

Mark Antony

Antiochus offered Ventidius a thousand talents if he would just get up and go, but Ventidius refused the offer and proposed that Antiochus send his offer to Antony.

Once Antony got word of the situation, he quickly made his way to the scene of the action.

Ventidius was just about to make peace and take the lucrative offer when Antony barred him from making such a deal. Instead, Antony removed him from his command and took over the operations from there.

Why? Well, Antony was jealous of Ventidius and wanted in on the glory.

But instead of the desired fame, Antony inherited a protracted siege that went nowhere, and indeed hurt him in the end. When Antiochus offered peace again, Antony had little choice but to accept the now lowered offer of three hundred talents.

After the extortion of Commagene, Antony ventured into Syria to take care of some domestic issues before returning to Athens.

As for Ventidius, he went back to Rome where he received honors and a triumph, for “he was the first of the Romans to celebrate a triumph over the Parthians.”

The Next Generation

As Ventidius celebrated his triumph in Rome, Antony seethed in Athens.

Meanwhile, across the Euphrates in Parthia, King Orodes was in grief over the loss of his son and army. Orodes lost the will to speak and eat, and after several days, began to talk to Pacorus as if he was alive.

It was also during this time that the many wives of Orodes began to make bids as to why Orodes should choose their son for next in line to the throne. Each mother understood that there was this nasty habit in Parthia… once a new king was elected he would go out of his way to murder his brothers to secure the safety of his reign.

King Orodes

Orodes eventually made his choice and settled on his son Phraates to succeed him. Soon after Phraates was chosen heir to the throne, he began plotting against his father Orodes.

Phraates’ first attempt in murdering his father was with a poison called aconite. This failed due to Orodes suffering from a disease called dropsy (edema), which absorbed the poison and had little effect. Therefore, Phraates took a much easier route and strangled his father to death. To make sure his throne was safe, he murdered his thirty brothers and any of the nobility that detested him or questioned his motives for his acts of cruelty. Phraates was here to stay.

But while Phraates went on a vicious campaign to secure his throne, Mark Antony, jealous of the success that Ventidius had against Parthia, was prepping and planning an invasion of his own.

It was now Antony’s turn to avenge Crassus to fulfill Caesar’s dream.

By Cam Rea


Leviathan vs. Behemoth: The Roman-Parthian Wars 66 BC-217 AD

Medusa and the Gorgons: The Origins of the Legendary Tale

In the middle is the Gorgon Medusa, an enormous monster about whom snaky locks twist their hissing mouths; her eyes stare malevolently, and under the base of her chin the tail-ends of serpents have tied knots.—Virgil

Most of you reading this had your first acquaintance with the movie “Clash of the Titans” in 1981 or the remake 2010. While both movies show elements of truth concerning the classical Greek stories, it’s all Hollywood, no need for an explanation. To discover the true story of Medusa and the Gorgons, we shall first look at the classical Greek story first.

The Classical Story of Perseus and Medusa

As the story goes, King Acrisius of Argos had one child, a daughter named Danae. Concerned by this, Acrisius traveled to Delphi to consult the oracle. He asked the priestess if he would have a son, and she said no. The priestess did inform the king that his daughter would bear a son. However, the priestess warned Acrisius that the son of Danae would kill him.

Danaë and a shower of gold, representing god Zeus visiting and impregnating Danaë.

Danaë and a shower of gold, representing god Zeus visiting and impregnating Danaë. (Public Domain)

To prevent this, Acrisius placed his daughter in an underground apartment made of bronze with an open roof. Acrisius, thinking his problem was over, would soon be shocked. As Danae dwells in solitude, Zeus notices the beautiful Danae. Seeing her beauty, Zeus decided to visit Danae in the form of a shower of gold and impregnated her. In due time, a messenger arrived to inform Acrisius that his daughter gave birth to a son. She named the boy Perseus. Acrisius knew that he could not kill the infant for he would feel the wrath of Zeus. Therefore, to get rid of his problem, he placed his daughter and his grandson in a box and set them adrift on the sea.

Danae and son Perseus were set adrift, and landed at Seriphus.

Danae and son Perseus were set adrift, and landed at Seriphus. (Public Domain)

Eventually the chest made its way to the island of Seriphus. An angler by the name of Dictys discovered the chest and opened it to discover the woman and child trapped inside. Dictys decided to take care of the woman and the child, brought them to his home, and accepted them as family, since he and his wife had no children of their own. As time passed, Perseus grew to manhood.

Dictys had a brother, King Polydectes of Seriphus. Polydectes was a cruel king who had eyes for Danae. Danae refused his advances, as she was already the bride of Zeus. Polydectes bullied her, but as time passed, he grew fearful of Perseus, who had grown into a strong and athletic man. To get rid of Perseus, Polydectes talked to him and informed the young man that he was wasting his time on the island. He should leave and see the world and become a hero, since he was the son of Zeus. Perseus, intrigued by this, asked what could he do that would be considered heroic. Polydectes could have named many things, but he wanted to be rid of Perseus and informed the young man that if he wanted to be a hero, that he should kill the Gorgon, Medusa, and bring back her head.

Polydectes explained to Perseus that three sisters known as Gorgons lived in the west. But of the three, Medusa was the most beautiful. He informed Perseus that Medusa had snakes for hair and if you looked upon her, you would surely turn to stone. (That doesn’t sound so beautiful).

1895 depiction of Medusa.

1895 depiction of Medusa. (Public Domain)

Nobody knew the Gorgons’ whereabouts, even though they were said to have lived west of Seriphus. Perseus needed more information and consulted the gods. Athena gave Perseus a polished shield, which acted as a mirror. Hades contributed his helmet, which would make Perseus invisible once he put it on. Last, Hermes tossed Perseus a pair of silver sandals with wings. As for a weapon, a sickle sword was handed to him. While Perseus now had all the essentials to travel and defeat the Gorgon, he still lacked the most crucial information: how to get there.

Athena advised Perseus to seek the Gray Sisters, who would tell him where the Gorgon lived. While this told Perseus little, Hermes would be there to guide him on his first journey. Perseus and Hermes flew to the location of the Gray Sisters.

Terracotta relief of three goddesses. Representational image.

Terracotta relief of three goddesses. Representational image. (Public Domain)

Once Perseus arrived, he encountered the three old women, who were blind, and passed around a single eye with which to see. When Perseus asked them where Medusa lived, the Sisters refused to answer his question. Seeing his dilemma, Perseus took the eye from one of the sisters. The Sisters begged Perseus to give it back, but he refused until they gave him what he wanted. The Gray Sisters finally gave in and told Perseus the Gorgons’ whereabouts. Perseus thanked the women and returned the eye.

Illustration from a collection of myths.

Illustration from a collection of myths. (Public Domain)

Perseus made this next part of the journey alone. When Perseus landed outside the entrance of Medusa’s lair, what stood before him was a grotesque art scene of warriors who failed to slay the beast due to looking directly into Medusa’s eyes. (As the saying goes, “If looks could kill.”)

In legend, warriors had been turned to stone from the gorgon’s stare. Sculpture from Parthenon Marbles, representational.

In legend, warriors had been turned to stone from the gorgon’s stare. Sculpture from Parthenon Marbles, representational. (CC BY 2.5)

Seeing how each man had been facing forward at the time of death, Perseus put his magical helmet on and turned invisible. Instead of walking in forward, he slowly walked backwards into the entrance using the shield Athena gave him as a mirror to guide his steps.

Embossed, metal plaque from 1911 featuring Medusa

Embossed, metal plaque from 1911 featuring Medusa (Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Once inside, Perseus eventually came upon the Gorgon sisters, who were sleeping. Two of the sisters were ugly and immortal, so he could do little to them, but Medusa was mortal and her looks were devastating. Perseus approached Medusa slowly. Once he was over her, Athena guided his hand to cut the Gorgon’s head off with one sweeping blow. Perseus recovered the head and placed it in a leather bag.

Perseus Slays the Gorgon, Medusa

Perseus Slays the Gorgon, Medusa (CC BY 2.0)

Early Greek Sources

The description of Medusa and the Gorgons was a continuous manufacture by writers starting in Classical Greece and lasting well into the Roman period. The earliest source regarding Medusa and the Gorgons is nothing like what one reads today.

The Greek poet Hesiod, who lived between 750 and 650 BCE, is the first to mention the Gorgons and Medusa in his book Theogony:

Ceto bore to Phorcys the fair-cheeked Graiae, sisters grey from their birth: and both deathless gods and men who walk on earth call them Graiae, Pemphredo well-clad, and saffron-robed Enyo, and the Gorgons who dwell beyond glorious Ocean in the frontier land towards Night where are the clear-voiced Hesperides, Sthenno, and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but the two were undying and grew not old. With her lay the Dark-haired One (Poseidon) in a soft meadow amid spring flowers.

Hesiod makes no mention of Medusa being grotesque, nor does he indicate that she and her Gorgon sisters are beautiful. The term Gorgon comes from the Greek gorgos, meaning grim, fierce, terrible, anything that is dreadful. From this perspective, the Gorgons are described as ugly without going into detail regarding their physical description.

“Rondanini Medusa”. Marble, Roman copy after a fifth century BC Greek original by Phidias, which was set on the shield of Athena Parthenos.

“Rondanini Medusa”. Marble, Roman copy after a fifth century BC Greek original by Phidias, which was set on the shield of Athena Parthenos. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Furthermore, Hesiod makes no mention of Medusa being seduced by Poseidon in the shrine of Athena or that she was raped as told by Ovid in his bookMetamorphoses, which states:

A chief, one of their number, asked why she alone among her sisters wore that snake-twined hair, and Perseus answered: ‘What you ask is worth the telling; listen and I’ll tell the tale. Her beauty was far-famed, the jealous hope of many a suitor, and of all her charms her hair was loveliest; so I was told by one who claimed to have seen her. She, it’s said, was violated in Minerva’s [Athena’s] shrine by the Lord of the Sea (Rector Pelagi) [Poseidon]. Jove’s (Zeus’) daughter turned away and covered with her shield her virgin’s eyes. And then for fitting punishment transformed the Gorgon’s lovely hair to loathsome snakes. Minerva (Athena) still, to strike her foes with dread, upon her breastplate wears the snakes she made.’”

After Hesiod, Stasinus of Cyprus, or Hegesias of Aegina, Cypria, in Fragment 21, written sometime between the seventh or sixth century BCE, mentions some of what Hesiod states concerning their whereabouts, but adds that the Gorgons were “fearful monsters who lived in Sarpedon, a rocky island in deep-eddying Oceanus.” There is no mention of Medusa. While Hesiod is the oldest source mentioning Medusa, it appears that the eighth century BCE Greek author Homer, in his famed books, The Iliad and The Odyssey, is a much older source when it comes to the Gorgons. Homer states in The Iliad 5. 738 ff:

About her (Athena’s) shoulders she flung the tasselled aegis (shield), fraught with terror, all about which Rout is set as a crown, and therein is Strife, therein Valour, and therein Onset, that maketh the blood run cold, and therein is the head of the dread monster, the Gorgon, dread and awful, a portent of Zeus that beareth the aegis.

Furthermore, Homer states in The Iliad 11. 36 ff:

And he (Agamemnon) took up the man-enclosing elaborate stark shield, a thing of splendour. There were ten circles of bronze upon it, and set about it were twenty knobs of tin, pale-shining, and in the very centre another knob of dark cobalt. And circled in the midst of all was the blank-eyed face of the Gorgo with her stare of horror, and Deimos was inscribed upon it, and Phobos.

Homer’s account demonstrates the absolute psychological terror one can impose by displaying the face of the Gorgon painted upon a shield.

Medusa by Carvaggio, circa 1595.

Medusa by Carvaggio, circa 1595. (Public Domain)

However, one must ask if the face of the Gorgon really brought fear to men’s hearts. Perhaps what is overlooked in Homer’s Iliad is that Deimos, along with his twin brother Phobos, sons of Ares the god of war and Aphrodite the goddess of love, caused men to succumb to the terror brought before them. In other words, the Gorgons face can do little alone, but when combined with Phobos and Deimos, one would recoil in horror.

Fourth century AD mosaic with mask of Phobos (Fear)

Fourth century AD mosaic with mask of Phobos (Fear)  (CC BY 2.0)

While some Greeks and the goddess Athena were believed to display the Gorgon upon their shields, some Trojans also may have used the image as well. Hector, a prince of Troy, demonstrated this. According to Homer in The Iliad 8, “Hektor, wearing the stark eyes of a Gorgo, or murderous Ares, wheeled about at the edge his bright-maned horses.” While The Iliad demonstrates the power of imagery upon the field of battle, Homer’s Odyssey 11. 633, says that Odysseus “feared that august Persephone night send against me from Aides’ house the Gorgon head of some grisly monster.”

Odysseus realized that conjuring apparitions was a bad idea and quickly fled before being confronted by Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, and wife of the god Hades. However, Odysseus was not so fearful of Persephone, but what she might bring—the head of a Gorgon. Therefore, the Homeric passages demonstrate that Medusa is nonexistent, at least in name, but the Gorgons are alive and well in the Greek psyche. While Hesiod briefly explains their origins and Homer their terror, questions remain: where did they come from, and how did they become the fearsome threesome described by the Greeks?

Possible Origins

As mentioned, Hesiod, Homer, and others give the reader just a brief origin, possible place of location, and characteristics. It is evident that the early Greek writers rarely went into detail concerning their stories, unlike the Classical Greeks and later the Romans who exponentially ran with the tales and rewrote much of them, which turned Medusa into a monster. Because of this, one has to look to the early Greek narratives to find a possible origin.

Hesiod mentions that Medusa and Gorgons lived “beyond the famous stream of Oceanus.” Oceanus to the Greeks and Romans was an enormous river encircling the world, as described by Homer in the Iliad. This would indicate that the Gorgons perhaps lived beyond the Pillars of Hercules. The Greek historian Herodotus, who came much later, mentions that Perseus brought the head of Medusa from Libya. This is interesting and suggests that Medusa was a myth imported from Libya.

In Libya, Medusa was worshiped as a serpent-goddess that represented “female wisdom.” In Egypt, Medusa is closely represented by Ma’at, and is associated with the destructive aspect of the triple goddess known as Neith.

Aegis of Neith, Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt.

Aegis of Neith, Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt. (Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr)

Medusa was Athena’s shadow side, and Athena is Neith in Egypt. Neith and Medusa are very similar, for Neith wore a veil, and to lift the veil was certain death, for Neith’s face signified the distance between man and deity. Athena is connected to Neith, for in Libya she was known as Ath-enna or Athene. At Sais, Egypt, an inscription states that she is believed the “mother of all the gods, whom she bore before childbirth existed.” In other words, she is the past, present, and future. “No mortal has yet been able to lift the veil that covers me,” for she was death; like Medusa, whoever looks upon her face is turned to stone. This is interesting, for not only can Medusa take life away, she can also create life from her own blood, like Neith, who carried a scepter in one hand, which represents rulership and power, giving her the ability to enforce her will even at the cost of death. The ankh in her other hand represented life.

Neith, an ancient Egyptian goddess.

Neith, an ancient Egyptian goddess. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, there is another possible alternative as to what Medusa/Gorgons may have been.

Alternative Origin

As mentioned earlier, a Gorgon indicates anything that is dreadful. The term gorgon may have been a hypocoristic of gorgyra, which means “underground chamber” along those lines. A sixth century Samian inscription lists a gorgyra chryse. The term chryse means “golden.” Therefore, a gorgyra chryse indicates an underground chamber of gold. If correct, the gorgon’s head refers to money or coin. If one uses gargara it means “heaps, lots, plenty.” This interpretation suggests not a living creature, but a treasury.

If one takes this interpretation, Perseus comes off as a mere international commercial venture adventurer who undertook a risk involving dangerous uncertainty based on speculation in hope of profit. Thus, the head Perseus seeks is not literal, but money or coin engraved with the image of the gorgoneion. In order to procure this great wealth, Perseus headed to the market to acquire certain tools and more importantly, to make contracts in order to conduct his business in Libya.

Statue of Perseus

Statue of Perseus (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the story of Medusa and the Gorgons is intriguing from the classical Greek point of view. Looking farther back in Greek literature, the story becomes mysterious, and when looking at the story from a linguistic point of view, it becomes fascinating.

In the end, no matter how one takes the story, realize that behind every myth is a general truth. For the vast majority of us who have read the story, we realize on closer examination that Medusa had one heck of an art collection; It was a testimony of death, men frozen in stone, crying out for life. The dark humorous side is that, even though Perseus avoided Medusa’s gaze, he would also suffer the same fate, as the romantics of Greek thought during the renaissance decided to turn the hero into a statue for all eternity as a reminder of the story.

Perseus with head of Medusa. The stone hero stands frozen in time.

Perseus with head of Medusa. The stone hero stands frozen in time. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top Image: The Head of Medusa (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


Atsma, Aaron J. “MEDUSA & GORGONES.” n.d.

Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, the Age of Chivalry, Legends of Charlemagne. New York: Crowell, 1970.

Caputi, Jane. Gossips, Gorgons & Crones: The Fates of the Earth. Santa Fe, N.M.: Bear & Co. Pub, 1993.

Corretti, Christine. Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa and the Loggia Dei Lanzi: Configurations of the Body of State. 2015.

Fontenrose, Joseph Eddy. Python; A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.

Silver, Morris. Taking Ancient Mythology Economically. Leiden: Brill, 1992.

Virgil. Eclogues. Georgics. Aeneid I-VI. n.d.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

Roman-Parthian Wars: Battle of Carrhae (53 BCE)

The Roman army was considered to be an unstoppable juggernaut in the ancient world, but the tables were turned by a formidable Parthian Empire general and devastating tactics. This clash led to one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.

Leading the Romans was Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was a member of the First Triumvirate and the wealthiest man in Rome. He, like many before him, had been enticed by the prospect of riches and military glory and so decided to invade Parthia.

Leading the Parthians was Surena. Very little is known of his background. What is known is that was a Parthian general from the House of Suren. The House of Suren was located in Sistan. Sistan, or Sakastan, “land of the Sakas,” located in what is today southeast Iran.

In 56 BC, Julius Caesar invited Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to Luca in Cisalpine Gaul (Luca is the modern day city of Lucca in Italy). Caesar requested that they meet to repair their strained relationship, which had been established around 60 BC and was kept secret from the Senate for some time. During this event, a crowd of 100 or more senators showed up to petition for their sovereign patronage. The men cast lots and chose which areas to govern. Caesar got what he wanted, Gaul; Pompey obtained Spain; and Crassus received Syria. All of this became official when Pompey and Crassus were elected as consuls in 55 BC.

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus. (Public Domain)

Crassus was delighted that his lot fell on Syria. His grand strategy and desire was to make the campaigns of Lucullus against Tigranes and Pompey’s against Mithridates appear mediocre. Crassus’ grand strategy and desire of conquest and confiscation went beyond Parthia, beyond Bactria and India, reaching the Outer Ocean—easier envisioned than orchestrated.

Roman, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires in 200 BC. Roman Republic is shown in Purple. The Blue area represents the Seleucid Empire. The Parthian Empire is shown in Yellow.

Roman, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires in 200 BC. Roman Republic is shown in Purple. The Blue area represents the Seleucid Empire. The Parthian Empire is shown in Yellow. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Psychological Warfare: Masters of Disguise

Crassus, the Roman general, arrived in Syria with seven legions (roughly 35,000 heavy infantry) along with 4,000 lightly armed troops and 4,000 cavalry. Caesar had given Crassus an additional 1,000 Gallic cavalry under the command of Crassus’ son Publius. As Crassus pushed on, the enemy slowly came into sight. Crassus gave the order to halt, and to their eyes the enemy were “neither so numerous nor so splendidly armed as they had expected.” However, looks can be deceiving.

What Crassus and his army saw was the front rank of just 1,000 cavalry who were covered in skins and coats. Surena’s main force was hidden behind the front ranks. While the Romans watched in curiosity, Surena gave the order and a thundering sound proceeded forth from the Parthian cavalry. Many unseen drums covered in stretched animal hide and brass bells roared across the field, vibrating Roman armor as well as their hearts. The use of sound as a psychological weapon manipulated human behavior in both the Roman and Parthian armies. In other words, the home team was pumped up while the away team lost confidence quickly.

Parthian bronze statue, attributed to Surena, Parthian spahbed ("General" or "Commander").

Parthian bronze statue, attributed to Surena, Parthian spahbed (“General” or “Commander”).  (Public Domain)

Plutarch mentioned that, “before the Romans had recovered from their consternation at this din, the enemy suddenly dropped the coverings of their armor.” Once the drums were silent, the Roman army, discombobulated by the intense sound of the drums, besides being physically weak, was in for another surprise.

The Parthian heavy cavalry, otherwise known as the cataphract, was charged towards them, with Surena leading the way. As the cataphract thundered across the plain, their coverings dropped from their armor revealing “helmets and breastplates blazing like fire, their Margianian steel glittering keen and bright, their horses armored with plates of bronze and steel.”

The Parthian cataphract was the main and most important military force. These mailed cavalrymen were the aristocracy, who could afford the expensive armor. In return for their service, they demanded a greater degree of autonomy from the Parthian king at the local level, thus ensuring a king (sub-king) of their own to govern their territory.

The Romans, who never had seen well-armored cavalrymen, were in awe, but the veterans who served under Lucullus or Pompey had encountered this type of cavalry during the Mithridatic Wars. As the cataphract closed in, the legionaries locked shields to create a continuous wall. Surena quickly noticed that the Roman line was steady and firm and they were not going to budge. He quickly broke off the charge giving the impression that they lacked confidence in engaging the Romans in a full frontal assault. However, this was just a ruse.

Parthian Horse Archers: Sight, Speed, and Agility

What the Romans saw was Surena retreating, giving the false notion that the cataphract was unable to make a difference and therefore lacked confidence. Unseen were 10,000 Parthian horse archers, who quickly surrounded the Romans, firing on them from all sides. Crassus was stunned. He quickly assessed the situation, seeing that his forces were bogged down by unarmored petty horse archers, who were vulnerable to missile attack, and ordered his light infantry to engage them. As the light infantry left the safety of the hollow square formation to engage the enemy, they were quickly showered with arrows as the Parthian horse archers galloped away, forcing the light infantry to quickly pull back, crashing through the Roman lines seeking safety. The sight, speed, and agility of the Parthian horse archers spooked the Romans. But what really terrified them was the Parthians’ primary weapon, the composite bow.

Relief of Parthian horseman, a highly skilled warrior, performing a Parthian shot.

Relief of Parthian horseman, a highly skilled warrior, performing a Parthian shot. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Historian Dr. Kaveh Farrokh suggests that the average Parthian horse archer, with a quiver of 30 arrows, loosed between eight to ten arrows a minute at Carrhae. It would take two to three minutes to exhaust his arsenal before needing to be resupplied. The amount of Parthian horse archers at the battle is estimated at 10,000. If all 10,000 fired away for 20 minutes, the amount of arrows fired by an individual horse archer would have been between 160-200 arrows. This meant the amount of arrows fired upon the Roman soldiers are estimated to have been an astounding 1.6 million to two million arrows in a 20-minute timeframe.

The Romans soon realized that they could do nothing to alleviate the situation. If they stayed in their rank and file they would be wounded or killed. But if they made an attempt to counter the horse archers they would suffer the same fate. Any attempt to chase after them resulted in the horse archers retreating at a full gallop, while turning their bodies back to shoot at the pursuing enemy. This is where the term “Parthian Shot” comes from. The Parthians were literally shooting fish in a barrel.

Moreover, the Parthians were exploiting the Roman ways of warfare. For the Romans, to see the enemy retreat was a sign of defeat. Therefore, the Romans felt that they now had the advantage over their nemeses and pursued them. However, they soon realized the truth, and learned from this mistake that the enemy fought by an entirely different method. The Romans could do nothing as death from above rained down on them.

Crassus’ only hope was that as long as they stood still in their shielded square, the Parthians would soon run out of arrows. Once that happened, Crassus felt that the Parthians would have no choice but to engage the Romans at close quarters.

Roman Army reenactors in shielded formation, spears at the ready.

Roman Army reenactors in shielded formation, spears at the ready. (yeowatzup/CC BY 2.)

However, that was not the case. To the astonishment of the Romans, a Parthian camel train was standing by with fresh arrows. Surena proved adept at organization and logistics by using trains of camels to keep his horse archers constantly supplied, keeping continual pressure upon the Romans. This is contrary to Cassius Dio’s claim that the Parthians “do not lay in supplies of food or pay.” Cassius Dio may have felt that since the Parthians were not good at sieges, it must have been due to issues of supply.

A Call for Help

Crassus’ confidence was deteriorating quickly. He sent a message to his son Publius to join the battle by taking 1,300 cavalry, 500 archers, and eight cohorts from the infantry. Crassus’ hope was to draw some of the Parthians away from the square, as they were attempting to encircle the Romans. However, two reasons were given for the Parthians to attempt this. The first was to envelop the Romans completely, that in due time the legions would crowd closer as their numbers dwindled. However, Plutarch mentions that the Parthians had trouble enveloping the Roman rear due to marshy terrain, making it difficult for the horses to maneuver. The second reason Plutarch gave seems more plausible, and that was to leave a window open just big enough to make the Romans think that they had found an advantage. Deceiving the Romans into thinking that the Parthians could not surround them, Crassus’ son Publius took the bait and charged ahead. However, it was an old steppe trick. Thinking they were retreating, Publius shouted excitedly, “’They are on the run,’ and charged after them.” The faked retreat worked, Publius was on the move; and the Parthians, stationed farther ahead and well hidden, were awaiting his arrival.

Depiction of a battle scene of Trajan's Column: On the left, Parthian horsemen in armor, fleeing before Roman riders.

Depiction of a battle scene of Trajan’s Column: On the left, Parthian horsemen in armor, fleeing before Roman riders. (Public Domain)

Publius and the men were full of joy, thinking that they now had the advantage and victory was surely imminent. But moving farther away from the main body, they soon realized the pursuit was nothing more than a trick when the horse archers wheeled around and were joined by fresh troops. Publius ordered the men to halt where the Parthian cataphract was stationed in front of him. He hoped that they would engage in close combat. Instead, the horse archers in loose order rode around the Romans, kicking up so much sand that a mini-sandstorm fell on top of the Romans and it became nearly impossible to see the enemy.

By using nature as a weapon to disguise their movements, the horse archers were able to engage the Romans safely. Using nature as a force multiplier gave them the advantage of fighting uninhibitedly. Publius and his men could not see or breathe very well, inciting fear, which soon led to panic. The Romans in their disarray tripped, stumbled, and fell in each other’s way. The Parthian horse archers quickly took advantage and the shower of arrows began. Publius did what any commander in the field would do — reestablish order among the men. However, it was too late.

In the convulsion and agony of their pain they writhed as the arrows struck them; the men broke them off in their wounds and then lacerated and disfigured their own bodies by trying to tear out by main force the barbed arrow heads that had pierced through their veins and muscles.

Many of the men died a slow, agonizing death in this fashion. Publius needed to act quickly. The Romans could not engage the horse archers in close combat while the Parthian chain of command, the cataphract, remained nearby. If the Romans could make a break for the cataphract and engage them in close combat, they might have a chance to turn the tide of battle, especially if they could reach the Parthian commander, Surena, and kill him.

Tangling with the Dangerous Cataphract

Publius gave the order to attack the cataphract, but reality set in. The Roman infantrymen who heard Publius showed him that they were unable to go on any further, for their “hands pinioned to their shields, feet nailed through into the ground, so that they were incapable of either running away or defending themselves.”

Roman Army reenactors holding shields in a protective formation.

Roman Army reenactors holding shields in a protective formation. (yeowatzup/CC BY 2.0)

Publius was so in touch with the battle that he was out of touch with his men. He soon realized the carnage that had been inflicted upon his forces. Once Publius assessed the situation, he gathered what remained of his Gallic cavalry and charged toward the cataphract.

Publius’ Gallic cavalry was light, wore little armor, and carried small light spears. One would think Publius would have known better than to charge toward cavalrymen who were better armored than his. They would soon realize this as their light spears broke against the cataphract breastplates. The Gallic cavalry was no match for the armored cataphract, who thrusted their long pikes into the horses or riders. In order to overcome, or at least have a fighting chance, the Gallic cavalryman, if the opportunity presented itself, would grab the pike of the cataphract and hope to use his own weight against him by pulling him off his horse. Many of the cataphract were smart enough to know that being weighed down by their armor made movement cumbersome. Once unseated from his mount, it was best to be on foot or in this case, on his back or knees, as he could get underneath the Gallic cavalryman’s horse and thrust his sword into the animal’s belly. This would cause the horse to rear up, throwing the rider off, and trampling whoever was underneath or nearby before collapsing.

A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan's Column in Rome (Public Domain). One man has fallen from his horse, the greatest danger for a cataphract.

A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan’s Column in Rome (Public Domain). One man has fallen from his horse, the greatest danger for a cataphract.

Perhaps some cataphract died in this fashion. With so many Gallic cavalry now dead, the only option for the Romans was to retreat. What was left of the Gallic cavalry pulled back, taking a badly wounded Publius and what remained of the infantry to higher ground. This would also prove to be a mistake.

Publius and his men retreated to a nearby sandy hill. However, the sandy hill provided little protection. With the Roman infantry placed in the front, those behind the infantry stuck out like a sore thumb due to the elevation. The horse archers once again pelted the Romans relentlessly with arrows. The Romans could do little more than watch their troops fall.

As the situation quickly deteriorated, two Greeks from the nearby town of Carrhae, Hieronymus and Nicomachus, offered to help Publius escape to a neighboring town, Ichnae, friendly to Rome. Publius refused the offer since so many men were either dead or dying on his account. Like a Roman commander, he attempted to take his own life, but was unable since an arrow had pierced his hand. Thus, he ordered his shield bearer to run him through with his gladius.

The Parthians eventually made it up the hill after the horse archers had softened the Romans a bit more. Once on the hill, the Parthian cataphract charged through the Romans, breaking their bodies and spirits. The remaining Romans surrendered; about five hundred were taken prisoner. As for the body of Publius, the Parthians took the body and severed his head.

When Publius had gone charging off after the Parthian horse archers in an attempt to give the Roman army both breathing room and time to assess the situation, the Parthian attack on the main body slackened. The reason, of course, was that Publius was a high profile target with little protection. Surena understood that if he could get Publius as far away as possible from the main Roman body, he could fix, engage, and defeat the target, which would send shockwaves throughout the Roman army. The Parthian Commander was correct in his judgment.

The Fall of Crassus

As Crassus waited for his son Publius to return from the pursuit, he began to gain confidence that his son was doing all right. Crassus placed his men in regular order and moved them to sloping ground.

During Publius’ engagement, he attempted to send messages to Crassus. The first never made it through, as the messenger was killed, but other messages indicating that Publius needed his help immediately made it through to Crassus. Crassus’ hopes that his son was doing well all came crashing down when it was evident his son needed him. It was at this point that Crassus was unable to make a clear judgment on what to do; either assist his son or stay put. On top of that, he began to lose confidence and feared the worst possible outcome for his army. Crassus waged a tug of war in his head, and finally made the decision to move the Roman army in an attempt to help Publius; Crassus did not know that his son, Publius, was already dead.

Just as Crassus’ army moved forward, the Parthians swooped in again, beating their drums and shouting aloud, but with even greater ferocity than before. As the Roman army prepared for the second wave of attack, some of the Parthian cavalry approached the Roman line. One of the cataphract had a nasty surprise for Crassus; it was the head of Publius on the tip of a spear. But before the battle was to commence again, the cataphract had a message for Crassus saying, “it was impossible, they said, that such a brave and gallant soldier could be the son of such a miserable coward as Crassus.” If the Roman army had any confidence left in them, that very moment sucked the life’s blood out of them.

Crassus, who suffered the most from this tragedy, rode up and down the ranks, shouting, “this grief is a private thing of my own. But in you, who are safe and sound, abide the great fortune and the glory of Rome. And now, if you feel any pity for me, who have lost the best son that any father has ever had, show it in the fury with which you face the enemy.” Crassus’ encouraging speech to fight on and think of their ancestors who fought hard battles did little to lift up the men’s spirits, for Plutarch mentions that “while he was speaking these words of encouragement, Crassus could see how few there were who were listening to him with enthusiasm.” When Crassus wanted to hear the war cry of his men, it was a “weak, feeble, and unsteady shout.” The battle was lost.

After Crassus had finished preparing the men for the second wave of battle, the Parthians quickly got to work by surrounding the Romans and showering them with arrows. As the horse archers began to pelt the enemy to death, Surena decided to up the carnage by unleashing the cataphract. The strategy was simple. With Roman confidence withering away, the cataphract would have a much greater chance of driving the Roman infantry closer together and into each other’s way. The strategy paid off! With each charge, the cataphract was successful in penetrating the Roman lines and quickly breaking from engagement, which allowed the horse archers to concentrate their arrows on a compacted target.

The Romans lost men quickly during this second wave of attack as the arrows continually rained down and the cataphract kept crushing and driving back the troops. Crassus had no choice but to retreat; but to do so in the daylight was more risky, and the night could not come soon enough.

In the end, Crassus made his way down the hill to meet with Surena. The Romans were on foot and the Parthians were on horseback. Surena was so shocked that Crassus, the imperator of Rome was on foot that he quickly offered him a horse, but Crassus declined the offer, saying he was merely following the custom of his own country. Surena quickly went straight to the point and informed Crassus that peace existed between King Orodes and the Romans. In order to make this deal final, an agreement must be signed near the Euphrates River. Surena than spoke to Crassus and said, “We find that you Romans have not got very good memories about the terms of treaties.” Afterwards, Crassus called for a horse and suddenly Surena offered him a horse with a golden bridle as a present. The grooms lifted Crassus up onto the saddle and ran alongside the horse, whipping the horse to make the animal go faster. Octavius quickly charged after Crassus and got hold of the bridle. Petronius, along with the men, hurriedly surrounded the horse to slow the animal. It was during this struggle with the horse that a brawl broke out. It seems that the grooms of the horse did little to slow the beast down, so Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the grooms; this in turn caused himself to be killed. Petronius also was struck, but his breastplate saved him.

It was during this struggle that Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.

The Death of Crassus

“The Death of Crassus” (Public Domain)

However, Cassius Dio expresses that Crassus did not die by the hands of a Parthian, rather a fellow Roman killed him to prevent him from being captured alive.  What is most important and overlooked is that Parthia had a body but no treaty.

Featured image: Deriv; Roman cavalryman (CC BY 3.0) and Cataphracts dueling with lances (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


Click on the red book titles below.

Boak, Arthur. A History of Rome to 565 A.D. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Brosius, Maria. The Persians: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2006.

Cary, Max and Howard Hayes Scullard. A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine. London: Macmillan, 1995.

Dio Cocceianus, Cassius. Dio’s Roman History, trans. E Cary, Loeb Classical Library, 9 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Farrokh, Kaveh. Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007.

Rea, Cam. Leviathan Vs. Behemoth: The Roman-Parthian Wars 66 BC – 217 AD. Charlestone, SC: CreateSpace, 2014.

Plutarch. Moralia. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Scythian Tactics and Strategy: Scorched Earth Victories – Part II

Detail, decorative comb depicting weapons and dress of Scythian Warriors 5th Century


Scythian tactics included feinting or withdrawing from either the battlefield or even the region. An example of feinting comes from a battle mentioned in Part I (Scythian Tactics and Strategy – Part I ), the battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE.

The Roman historian Plutarch mentions that the Parthian horse archers would not engage the Roman forces during battle, but would retreat, luring the Roman forces to follow. The trap was set and the Romans thought victory was in hand. However, the fleeing horse archers turned and loosed arrows upon the pursuing Romans. The Romans in the pursuit soon realized they had made a terrible mistake, but it was too late. Nothing could be done but to make a defensive stand. Withdrawal allowed the feinting tactic to be used with proficiency due to Roman ignorance of their enemy. The Romans would try to advance, but with every attempt, the Parthian horse archers’ constant pelting with what seemed to be an endless supply of arrows would keep them in place.

Parthian horseman

Parthian horseman. ( Creative Commons )

Parthian camel units resupplied the horse archers by exchanging empty quivers for full ones, then and returning to their position. During this monotonous, never-ending event, the Romans would try to break the horse archer formations, only to be countered by heavy Parthian cavalry known as cataphract, which acted as the anvil to the Parthian hammer (arrows). The Battle of Carrhae was death by pieces for the Romans.

A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan's Column in Rome

A depiction of Sarmatian cataphracts fleeing from Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD, at Trajan’s Column in Rome ( Wikimedia Commons ).

Therefore, when it comes to the feinting tactic, do not watch for the visible hand, but rather the invisible one. The Parthians and Scythians were notoriously successful in the feinting technique before the battle of Carrhae. Afterward, the countering measure to this tactic went largely ignored until Alexander the Great demonstrated a reversal.

One could make the argument that the Romans had faulty intelligence before Carrhae, but this would be unfair, although true to a certain extent. The truth of the matter is that the Romans invaded a land they did not know, looking to conquer a people they did not understand. In the end, both Rome and Parthia would continue to bash each other as the years turned into centuries, but neither side truly dominated the other.

Defense in Depth

Defense in Depth is most successful if your nation is rather large and unproductive, as in the case of the Scythians, who valued land and the ability to roam, rather than the luxuries of the cities, like Athens or Nineveh. The Scythians did seem to have cities but mobile villages may be a more accurate description. As for the lazy luxuries of life, some settled, but the majority roamed about.

According to Herodotus: “We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight with you.” But Herodotus also stated: “Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback; and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess.” The Scythians did have slaves, according to Herodotus, who were blind and whose primary task was being a shepherd. Additionally, Herodotus also mentioned Scythians who grew corn and onions, which indicates that agriculture was common among some of the tribes. Therefore, the notion that the Scythians did not have cities or villages is partially untrue, depending on the Scythic tribe, of course.

The Scythians that Darius the Great attacked did not have cultivated lands or towns that could be beneficial to Darius’ forces. The Scythians conducted a scorched earth policy as Darius’s army marched further inland, following after them. The Scythians understood that an army marches on its belly and so do the animals accompanying them. What Darius could not use would be a weapon against his forces. The strategy would be defense in depth, scorched earth policy the tactic, and the outcome would be starvation. Starvation through burning was the preferred method used to rid of the Persians. The Scythians understood that they could defeat the enemy by allowing the land to swallow them both physically and mentally.

Darius was ignorant of the people he wished to conquer; he showed no knowledge of the people or terrain he was about to invade. Because of this attitude by Darius, his brother, Artabanus, warned that the proposed campaign to conquer the European Scythians was far too risky, and even if it was successful, the economic benefits were limited. Nevertheless, Darius had to learn the hard way. For the Scythians, it was a good way to prevent a possible second invasion.

As mentioned, the Scythians used the land to their advantage, knowing that Darius would follow as long as the bait was present. The Scythians burnt all that grew, causing Darius to follow his enemy across burnt terrain in hopes of finding food for both his men and animals. The Scythians conducted hit and run attacks during mealtime and even at night, preventing the men from eating or even sleeping, irritating them even more. The Scythians knew that as long as Darius followed in pursuit, he would gain nothing, not even an engagement. Psychological and physical attrition would set in by attacking the enemy’s stomach and his need for rest, causing irrationality among the troops and further deteriorating the chain of command.

Scorched earth tactics, or burning anything useful to the enemy while withdrawing, was an effective military strategy.

Scorched earth tactics, or burning anything useful to the enemy while withdrawing, was an effective military strategy. Public Domain

In the end, the Scythians won a great victory by not engaging the enemy in conventional warfare, but beat the Persians through starvation and sleep deprivation, since an army can move only for so long before it needs to fuel up again in both rest and food. By denying both, the Scythians utilized a form of defense in depth that saved them from Persian conquest.

Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an electrum cup from the Kul'Oba kurgan burial near Kerch. The warrior on the right is stringing his bow, bracing it behind his knee. Hair seems normally to have been worn long and loose, and beards were apparently worn by all adult men. The other two warriors on the left are conversing, both holding spears or javelins. The man on the left is wearing a diadem and therefore is likely to be the Scythian king.

Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an electrum cup from the Kul’Oba kurgan burial near Kerch. The warrior on the right is stringing his bow, bracing it behind his knee. Hair seems normally to have been worn long and loose, and beards were apparently worn by all adult men. The other two warriors on the left are conversing, both holding spears or javelins. The man on the left is wearing a diadem and therefore is likely to be the Scythian king. Public Domain

Featured image: Detail, decorative comb depicting weapons and dress of Scythian Warriors 5th Century BC. Public Domain

By Cam Rea


Ian Morris, Why the West rules–for Now: the Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 277-279.

Herodotus, The Histories, 4. 127.

Sean J.A. Edwards, Swarming on the Battlefield: Past, Present, and Future, (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2000), xii.

U.S. Department of Defense, Counterguerrilla Operations, (Washington DC: Department of the Army, FM 90-8, August 1986), Chapter 4, Section III. 4-10.

Polybius. 18.30.6

Plutarch, Crassus, 25.5


John Frederick Charles Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great, (New York and Washington D.C.: Da Capo Press, 2004), 118-120.


Scythian Tactics and Strategy: Devastating Guerrilla Archers – Part I

Battle between the Scythians and the Slavs

Featured image: Battle between the Scythians and the Slavs ( Wikimedia Commons ).

The Scythians may not be the original inventors of asymmetrical warfare, but one could argue that they perfected it. Before and during the Scythian arrival, many nations fought by conventional methods. In other words, the established civilizations of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, used taxes to feed, equip, and maintain their large armies. Overall, one can see the massive expense it is to arm and defend a nation when war comes a-knocking. Lives and money are lost, doubly so if you go on the offensive at the expense of your nation’s pocket.

The Scythians, on the other hand, needed none of these, for they were tribal based and seemed to come together only in a time of war. Thus, most issues did not hinder them, such as the laws of supply and demand in the military-economic sense, which would affect an established kingdom or empire. The land was their supplier and demand was when they were in need of resources. For Scythians to sustain life, they had to move to new regions in search of ample pastures suited for their horses to graze and abundant with game, while the land they moved from was left to rest. But one has to be cautious as well, for even though the Scythians moved around, many stayed within their tribal territory. In some cases, they ventured into another tribal territory due to the need to sustain life for both tribe and livestock.

Scythian Horseman depicted on felt artifact, circa 300 BC.

Scythian Horseman depicted on felt artifact, circa 300 BC. Public Domain

When one examines the Scythian lifestyle, one can easily gain an understanding of the type of warfare necessarily carried on against more sedentary (non-migratory) people, like those in Mesopotamia. The Scythian took a guerilla approach to warfare as their method, not to be confused with terrorism. The term guerrilla warfare means irregular warfare and its doctrine advocates for the use of small bands to conduct military operations. Herodotus mentions their method of warfare when King Darius of Persia campaigned against them:

“It is thus with me, Persian: I have never fled for fear of any man, nor do I now flee from you; this that I have done is no new thing or other than my practice in peace. But as to the reason why I do not straightway fight with you, this too I will tell you. For we Scythians have no towns or planted lands, that we might meet you the sooner in battle, fearing lest the one be taken or the other wasted. But if nothing will serve you but fighting straightway, we have the graves of our fathers; come, find these and essay to destroy them; then shall you know whether we will fight you for those graves or no. Till then we will not join battle unless we think it good.”

The description indicates that the Scythians against whom Darius is warring have no center of gravity; more on this later.


The Scythians are best known for swarming the enemy, like at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE, where they demonstrated this tactic during the initial stages of the attack. The swarming tactic is the first stage before any other mechanism is executed, like feinting or defense in depth.

To summarize, the definition of swarming would be a battle involving several or more units pouncing on an intended target simultaneously.  The whole premise of swarming in guerrilla warfare, as indicated in the U.S. Army Field Manual (FM) 90-8 on the topic of counterguerrilla operations, is to locate, fix, and engage the enemy, but to avoid larger forces unless you possess units capable of countering the other. This would allow other units to take advantage of the enemy, which is rare in most battles involving the Scythians. The key principle of swarming is that it does not matter if you win the battle so long as you do not lose the war. It is designed to disorient the enemy troops.

The swarming tactic comprises many units converging on the intended target; however, the swarm moves with the target in order to fracture it. Thus, the method of swarming is to dislodge the enemy piecemeal, causing rank and file to implode. This is due to longstanding, snail-like movement during battle, meantime being continuously pelted from afar by projectiles; fear takes over, demoralizing an army. Roman soldiers were to have a taste of this, for they had a space of three feet all around them to allow for movement and maneuvering in battle. The Scythians took advantage of their three feet, as Plutarch mentions, at the battle of Carrhae: “Huddled together in a narrow space and getting into each other’s way, they were shot down by arrows.”

The heavy barrage of arrows would cause some to wander off, bit-by-bit, thus allowing horse archers to concentrate fully on the wandering enemy. In this scenario, one can argue that the initial battle tactic is to pelt the enemy with a volley of arrows, keeping the target tight in order to fracture it, which allows the horse archers to go from random pelting to accurately killing the enemy. In other words, they switch from firing up into the air to firing forward at the enemy, as demonstrated at Carrhae in 53 BCE.

Scythians shooting with the Scythian bow, Kerch (ancient Panticapeum), Crimea, 4th century BC.

Scythians shooting with the Scythian bow, Kerch (ancient Panticapeum), Crimea, 4th century BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Now, before we go any further, let me briefly make the case that swarming has many different methods or tactics, but the Scythian swarm is not like that of others. However, a swarm is a swarm, but the method varies. Case in point, “mass swarming” is the most sought- after method in both the ancient and medieval world, demonstrated by massive conventional armies that would eventually separate or disassemble and perform convergent attacks over a region or province from its initial phase. The “dispersed swarm” is the preferred tactic in guerrilla warfare, where the body separates and converges on the battlefield without forming a single body.

The whole premise of swarming in guerilla warfare is to engage quickly but to avoid larger forces. Pharnuches, one of Alexander’s generals, made the fatal mistake by falling for the Scythian feinting tactic, in which he chased after the Scythians, only to find himself ambushed and swarmed. Pharnuches should have never been given command, because he was a diplomat, not an experienced officer.

Mosaic detailing the famous military leader and conqueror Alexander the Great/Alexander III of Macedon.

Mosaic detailing the famous military leader and conqueror Alexander the Great/Alexander III of Macedon. Public Domain

The Battle of Jaxartes is a fine example of the swarming tactic, but rather small in scale. The Scythians harassing the forces of Alexander did not appear to be a large force. Rather, the Scythians at the battle intended to demoralize the enemy, and if that did not work, they could always lead the enemy farther inland and begin the strategy of defense in depth. Alexander knew better after he defeated the Scythians at Jaxartes in 329 BCE. Alexander understood quite well that if he were to pursue the Scythians further inland, his forces would be open to hit and run attacks, famine, and psychological attrition, none of which is desirable. Even Alexander understood the limits of empire, especially when his worldview did not incorporate the lands to the north.

The Battle of Jaxartes was a loss for the Scythians and a victory for the Macedonians. However, two important demonstrations of the tactics are visible at the battle. The first tactic is swarming, the second is what I like to call the swarm-anti-swarm tactic developed by Alexander, commonly referred to as “anti-swarming.” In fact, Alexander had to swarm in order to achieve victory. The swarm-anti-swarm counters the enemy with a bait-unit. Once the enemy converged from several sides, the remainder of the forces would converge on the area and swarm the enemy. Alexander learned quickly to adopt this tactic of closing in on the enemy and attacking from all directions for future use.

By Cam Rea


Ian Morris, Why the West rules–for Now: the Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 277-279.

Herodotus, The Histories, 4. 127.

Sean J.A. Edwards, Swarming on the Battlefield: Past, Present, and Future, (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2000), xii.

U.S. Department of Defense, Counterguerrilla Operations, (Washington DC: Department of the Army, FM 90-8, August 1986), Chapter 4, Section III. 4-10.

Polybius. 18.30.6

Plutarch, Crassus, 25.5

Kaveh Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War (Oxford: Osprey, 2007), 133.

John Frederick Charles Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great, (New York and Washington D.C.: Da Capo Press, 2004), 118-120.

Abraham’s Special Military Operation

Image result for Abraham rescue of Lot

It all started over grazing lands. Both Lot and Abraham had flocks and herds and when they came to a piece of land that could not sustain both their flocks and herds, arguments broke out among the herdsmen working for them. Lot decided to leave and head east into the fertile plain of Siddim and established his tent before Sodom, while Abraham stayed in Canaan and moved to the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron. After some years had passed, a group of refugees brought news to Abraham that the armies of Mesopotamia had marched on Sodom, a great battle took place, and Lot had been captured afterwards.

This brings us to a few questions to ask. What caused the armies of Mesopotamia to occupy the cities of the Jordan River plain? Who were these rulers, and what was their objective?

The Bible is silent concerning the Mesopotamian invasion of the Jordanian land. However, this should not stop us from trying to figure it out. Why would a vast army from a collection of nations invade the region? The answer is instability. With the absence of a foe strong enough to challenge them, the armies of Mesopotamia marched in, almost unopposed, confiscated untapped resources, and expanded their political influence throughout the region.

The leaders involved were Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of nations (Umman Manda). These four made war on the five kings of the plain. These five kings were Bera king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, and Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar. What can be gathered given the timing of the event is that the power in charge of this operation is none other than the Mesopotamian Empire of Ur III. The king responsible for the mobilizing and executing the operation may have been none other than Amraphel of Shinar (Sumer) otherwise known as King Amar-Sin of Ur. Amar-Sin ruled Ur for 9 years from 1834-1826 BCE.

During his reign, Ur achieved the highest economic production, which allowed for the continued construction of public buildings. When it came to controlling his empire, instead of stationing military troops throughout the imperial state, Amar-Sin decided it would be best to use peaceful and constructive socio-economic incentives to extend the revamped Sumerian city-states on the outer edges. Amar-Sin established ensi or governors, who enjoyed almost complete independence, such as in the cities of Alalak, Mari, and Assur. Ensi’s for the most part were natives of the area they controlled. Amar-Sin’s policy not only encouraged local cultural development but also cemented the imperial structure by doing so. With such freedom came economic and social creativity.

Amar-Sin’s treasury was bursting at the seams, so he decided to go on another tour to expand his state. During his nine years, he conducted war in the northeasterly districts, but when it comes to how far he, like his father Shulgi, expanded the state, the extent remains hazy. What can be identified is that Mari and Elam were within the sphere of Ur’s influence by a policy of matrimonial alliances introduced by his grandfather Ur-Nammu at Mari. Such alliances, allowed Amar-Sin to utilize their armies for political and economic expansion by force.

After twelve years had passed, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar said no more. They grew tired of paying tribute to Amar-Sin and knew that war was inevitable. King Amar-Sin, angered over the news, mobilized the forces. Leading this army to punish the people in eastern Canaan (western part of Jordan) was the king’s extortionist, King Chedorlaomer of Elam, according to the Bible, but also identified as King Kutir-Lagamar, loyal vassal of Amar-Sin.

In the spring of the fourteenth year, the armies of Ur marched out. The number of troops partaking in this military operation may have been around 10,000, perhaps a bit less. As Chedorlaomer’s armies moved from north to south, they would have taken the King’s Highway along the east side of the Jordan River in the hill country to reach their targets that dotted the plateau.

The first phase of Chedorlaomer’s campaign focused not on attacking the kings of the valley, because that was too risky. Rather, he focused his attack on those who were their vassals or allies to the east. Chedorlaomer chose this strategy to knock out the eastern allies of the kings, securing his eastern flank with the desert. He could then focus on neutralizing all potential threats to the south.

Chedorlaomer first struck the city of Ashteroth Karnaim in Rephaim, laying waste to the city of Ham in Zuzims and to the city of Shaveh Kiriathaim in Emim. Chedorlaomer continued to push into Mount Seir of the Horites and continued until he reached Elparan at the edge of the desert. There are two possibilities as why Chedorlaomer stopped there. The first reason from a military perspective is obvious; it’s the desert. To proceed any farther spelt disaster. If not the desert, then it has to be political. It could be that Chedorlaomer encountered the important trade route that leads to Egypt, and to cause any upheaval along that commercial route would cause Egypt to take issue. Egypt had commercial interests throughout the Levant.

News of the disasters traveled quickly to each city, causing many citizens and rulers to panic and fear the worst. This was exactly what the invaders wanted, psychological warfare to bend the knees of their enemies. While many of the inhabitants were taken prisoner, many others fled before Chedorlaomer’s arrival and sought refuge behind the walls of Sodom, or behind any walls large enough for that matter, hoping that the armies of Mesopotamia would eventually turn back and head home. However, they were going to be disappointed. Chedorlaomer turned north and sacked the Enmishpat, which is Kadesh, smote the Amalekites and the Amorites that dwelt in Hazezontamar.

The five kings of the plain knew that they would be picked off individually if they stayed behind their walls. However if they united, it would give them a fighting chance. Both armies would meet for battle on the southern end of the Dead Sea just south of Sodom in the Valley of Siddim. The battle, even though not recorded in any detail, was no doubt prolonged, bloody, and downright messy. The kings of the Plain were defeated. There is no way of knowing for sure if any of the kings died in battle as the Bible is silent on the matter. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls do mention that King Birsha of Gomorrah fell into the slime pits. The remaining kings, Shinab, Bera, Shemeber, and Bela fled into the hills. But not only did the surviving kings flee, many others seeking safety from the marauding armies of Mesopotamia also fled.

There is no doubt that Abraham and the inhabitants living to the west of the Dead Sea knew of the events taking place east of the Jordan. They received news from refugees, trade caravans, and possibly their own spies sent out to investigate, keeping a close eye on a potential threat, carefully preparing for the worst, but taking no action until war arrives at their doorstep. Abraham was concerned, but he knew that Lot was a capable adult able to make his own decisions. Unfortunately, Lot, for whatever reason, did not pack up and move out of harm’s way. No reason is given as to why Lot stayed. Perhaps he thought that the power vacuum sweeping throughout the Jordan River plain would bypass him. Whatever the case was, Lot’s clan and belongings were captured. While Abraham was going about his business, a refugee, perhaps one of Lot’s kinfolk, told Abraham what had happened, that Lot had been taken captive, and if he didn’t do something soon, Lot would be sold into slavery.

Abraham did not hesitate and sent messengers to his confederate Amorite allies, Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner informing them of the situation and asking for assistance. While the messengers were on their way, Abraham informed his household of what just happened. Abraham quickly mustered his forces of three hundred and eighteen men.

Abraham and his forces travelled north for five days, possibly taking the King’s Highway for a time, gathering intelligence and keeping an eye on the enemy’s movements. Eventually the enemy encamped near the town of Laish (Dan). While the armies of Mesopotamia continued their victorious celebration, Abraham kept a watchful eye on the festivities, keeping track of the guards, their movements, and perhaps collecting information on the exact location of where the prisoners and loot were held from people not aligned with the army who were able to come in and out of the encampment. Abraham waited for many hours, allowing the alcohol drunk by the enemy to take full effect before storming in. Once the army began to succumb to intoxication, Abraham divided his men, into two groups of 159. While the enemy slept and their fires flickered, casting shadows, Abraham and his men infiltrated the camp in silence and smote many of the sleeping enemy. Once Lot and the loot were found, they quickly packed up and moved out before any alarm could be made. The Bible does mention that they pursued them as far as “unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus,” which could suggest that Abraham was still making hit and run raids. One can assume that Abraham and his men were the only ones making these raids or perhaps they were now receiving help from their Amorite allies. Whatever the case, Abraham was successful in his special operations mission.

Abraham along with his men camped at the Valley of Shaveh. The new king of Sodom, who was in hiding, along with the other kings, came out after he received word that Abraham defeated the Mesopotamian kings and retrieved the property of the people and that of the five kings. Before the Kings of the Plain arrived, Melchizedek, priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem) visited Abraham. Melchizedek, who had no part in the war, recognized kindness when he saw it and came out to Abraham and his men, bringing food and drink. Melchizedek thanked Abraham and blessed him for his good deed. Abraham, seeing the sincerity of Melchizedek, responded to the priest-king by giving him a tithe.

While Melchizedek responded with hospitality, wanting nothing but to say thank you, the king of Sodom was rather political in his approach. He didn’t say thank you or offer food and drink. Instead, the king of Sodom wanted to strike a deal. He offered all the loot to Abraham, as long as he returns the people to the king. The problem with this is that the Mesopotamian kings captured the people and looted the cities of the plains. Abraham had not taken anything from them, thus technically he owed the king’s of the Plain nothing legally or morally. It was legally Abraham’s by the fair fortunes of war. But Abraham was not like that. Instead of making a deal with the king and his royal entourage, Abraham’s response surprised the king by refusing to keep loot or people, for Abraham was clearly entitled,

I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.

In other words, Abraham’s riches will come from God, not from some politician seeking to strike a deal. Besides, saving the lives and their property and not taking a single item is far more rewarding. Abraham’s rescue of Lot is technically the first recorded special operations mission.

By Cam Rea



Garcia, Juan Carlos Moreno. Ancient Egyptian Administration. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013.

Rohl, David. From Eden to Exile: The Epic History of the People of the Bible . London: Arrow, 2003.

Rohl, David. From Eden to Exile: The Epic History of the People of the Bible . London: Arrow, 2003.

Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. 3rd ed., New ed. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Thomson, Gary Arthur. First Market: The Genesis of Wall Street in Ancient Iraq. New York: IUniverse, 2010.

Schwartz, Matthew B. Politics in the Hebrew Bible: God, Man, and Government. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, Inc, 2013.

Vermès,Géza. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. London: Penguin, 2004.

The Mysterious Shamgar


Image result for Shamgar

When it comes to guerrilla warfare, the first person mentioned in the Bible who fits the narrative was a man by the name of Shamgar. But who was Shamgar? The Bible mentions little about him. What is known is that he was the son of Anath. However, the name Shamgar is not exactly Hebrew. Anath is possibly his mother’s name; another possibility is that he worshipped the Canaanite war goddess known as Anath. This would explain his being a professional soldier. Another clue that provides further support is his weapon of choice, an ox goad. Historian Raphael Patai mentions that the “ox-goad Shamgar used as a weapon reminds us of the two bludgeons, Ayamur (“Driver”) and Yagrush (“Chaser”), which Baal, Anath’s brother and lover, used to defeat his arch-enemy Yamm.” With his weapon measuring roughly eight feet in length with a metal tip, he took the Philistines head on and slew “six hundred men.” But a question remains. Why did Shamgar attack the Philistines?

There are many possible explanations to this Biblical figure. When reading the passage in Judges 3:31, one could say Shamgar was nothing more than a disgruntled Canaanite farmer who took on the Philistines alone. While this is possible, the likelihood is that Shamgar was a Canaanite mercenary hired by an Israelite tribe to take care of the Philistine problem. Military Historian Richard Gabriel points this out as “the inability of the Israelite tribes during the period of the Judges to manage their own military affairs effectively.” However, the other possibility is that he was a mercenary leader hired by the Egyptians to lead his band of warriors to combat the Philistine invasion. Another theory is that he was not a mercenary, but a Canaanite captain leading his band of troops in an attempt to take advantage of the aftermath the Sea Peoples left behind in southern Canaan and retake former possessions from the Egyptians.

While it is doubtful that Shamgar fought the Philistines alone, the other theories mentioned make sense from a military perspective. What is important to the story is that he did engage an adversary of Israel, which the Israelites obviously could not engage. Because of his limited success against the Philistines, which physically did little to deter them, the effect it had on the Israelites, at least the author of the book of Judges, saw to it that Shamgar, a non-Israelite, would be listed as a judge of Israel.


By Cam Rea


Judges 3:31.

Bromiley, Geoffrey W. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Volume 4 – Q-Z . Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1988.

Clendenen, E. Ray and Jeremy Royal Howard. The Holman Illustrated Bible Commentary. Nashville: TN: Holman Reference, 2015.

Gabriel, Richard A. The Military History of Ancient Israel. Westport: Praeger, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament . Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess . Detroit, MI: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1998.

Sasson, Jack M. Judges 1-12: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

Smith, William. Smith’s Bible Dictionary. Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1967.

Palms Over Baghdad: Hulagu’s Expedition to Oust the Abbasid Caliph – Part 2

By Cam Rea

[Read Part 1]

The Fall of Bagdad

Hulegu sent messages to his commanders informing them to muster their forces and move on Baghdad.

Baiju moved his forces from Rum via Mosul to cover the western side. Ked-Buka advanced from Luristan, a province of western Iran in the Zagros Mountains. Contingents from the Golden Horde under the command of Batu’s three nephews approached from Kurdistan from the north.

Tode Mongke Khan of the Golden Horde.

Tode Mongke Khan of the Golden Horde. (Public Domain)

Hulegu led the main force from Hulwan, located in Kermanshah Province in western Iran. In other words, the Mongol army was approaching the city in an arc from the north, which allowed them to converge from the east and west. The Mongols, due to the use of pontoon boats, overcame the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which once served as natural barriers against invading armies. As the Mongols advanced down both banks of the Tigris, the Caliph sent out 20,000 cavalries in an attempt to disperse and slow down the Mongol advance. Mongol scouts ahead of the main force found the Caliph’s cavalry and reported. Not long after, the Mongol engineers took advantage of the situation by breaking the dikes of the dams along the Tigris, which flooded the terrain behind the cavalry, downing many of them as they attempted to flee back to the city. With the only threat between Baghdad and the Mongol advance eliminated, Baiju’s forces marched down the west bank of the Tigris and took control of the commercial quarter, while Hulegu entered the Shiite suburbs to a rejoicing crowd beyond the eastern walls. Within twenty-four hours, the Mongols surrounded the city of Baghdad.

Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258.

Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258. (Public Domain)

On 30 January 1258, the Hulegu gave the order to commence the bombardment of the city walls. However, there was a problem. The Mongol siege crews had no rocks. The siege train carrying the needed stones was three days’ journey away. While the Mongols looked for suitable projectiles to throw at the city walls, Hulegu ordered his Mongol archers to fire arrows over the walls with messages attached, which informed the citizens that they would be treated with kindness if they surrendered. While Hulegu sought to end this siege peacefully, Mongol engineers, likely accompanied by a detachment of troops, came up empty handed when it came to finding quality rocks. However, not all was lost. Mongol engineers stripped foundation stones from the buildings in the suburbs and uprooted palm trees to batter the walls of Baghdad.

The Caliph quickly sent ambassadors to negotiate peace but Hulegu would not hear the pleas and detained them. Hulegu’s message was clear, surrender was not enough; it must be unconditional surrender. While the Caliph continued to send envoys to Hulegu, the Mongols bombarded the walls, particularly focusing on the Ajami tower, which was reduced to rubble by 1 February.

Persian painting (14th century) of Hulegu’s army besieging a city. Note use of the siege engine.

Persian painting (14th century) of Hulegu’s army besieging a city. Note use of the siege engine. (Public Domain)

The Mongols finally broke into the city the next day and seized a portion of the eastern wall. However, the battle was far from over and the negotiations continued for another four days. On the 6 February, the bombardment ended but the Mongols remained on the wall until the Caliph surrendered.

Hulegu sent another message, this one to the armies of Baghdad. The message told them to lay down their arms and leave their posts. Seeing the situation was unwinnable by use of arms, Izz al-Din and Mujahid al-Din advised the Caliph to flee the city. But one man by the name of Ibn Alqami proposed that the best way to end this was for the Caliph to go before Hulegu. Hulegu’s terms to the Caliph were simple. Hulegu desired that the Caliph turn over his daughter so that he could marry her and that the Caliph recognized Hulegu as the supreme authority. If these terms were accepted, Hulegu would end the siege. The Caliph agreed and his forces marched out thinking they were going to retire to Syria.

Medieval depiction of Hulegu (left) and Caliph Al-Musta'sim.

Medieval depiction of Hulegu (left) and Caliph Al-Musta’sim. (Public Domain)

According to the 13th century Aramean historian Kirakos of Gandzak, the “countless multitudes came through the city gates, climbing over each other to see who would reach him first (Hulegu) divided up among the soldiers those who came out and ordered (the soldiers) to take them far from the city and to kill them secretly so that the others would not known. They killed all of them.”

The Many Versions of the Caliph’s Death

Four days later, Al-Musta’sim, soon to be the last Caliph of Baghdad, surrendered. There are various accounts of his surrender.

Kirakos of Gandzak account:

Al-Musta’sim emerged with his two sons, with all the grandees and much gold, silver, and precious stones as fitting gifts to Hulegu and his nobles. At first (Hulegu) honored him, reproaching him for dallying and not coming to him quickly. But then he asked the caliph: “What are you, God or man?” And the caliph responded: “I am a man, and the servant of God.” Hulegu asked: “Well, did God tell you to insult me and to call me a dog and not to give me food and drink to God’s dog? Now in hunger the dog of God shall devour you.” And he killed him with his own hands. “That, “he said, “is an honor for you, because I killed you.”

The account of 13th century polymath and prolific writer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi:

“When they took the walls, the King commanded the people of the town to join in demolishing them. Envoys passed to and fro…. After this, the Caliph, seeing that all was over, sought leave to come out. He came out…and saw the king, being accompanied by his son and courtiers…. Then (Hulegu) ordered the town to be pillaged.”

He went to examine the Caliph’s residence and walked in every direction. The Caliph was fetched and ordered presents to be offered. Whatever he brought, the king at once distributed amongst his suite and emirs, military leaders and (all) those present. He set a golden try before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat.” “It is not edible,” said the Caliph. “The why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrowheads and come to the bank of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?” “Such,” replied the Caliph, “was God’s will.” “What will befall thee,” said the King, “is also God’s will.”…

Then he ordered the Caliph to bring out the women who were attached to himself and his sons. They went to the Caliph’s palace: there were 700 women and 1500 eunuchs, and they shared out the rest…. On the 14th Safar (20 February), the king set out from the gates of the town and sent for the Caliph….On that day he met his end in that village (Waqaf) together with his middle son. The next day his eldest son and those accompanied him met their end at the Kalwadh Gate.

The account by 13th century historian Rashid al-Din:

Hulegu Khan… the next morning … ordered Su’unchaq to go into the city, confiscate the caliph’s possessions, and sent them out. The items that had been accumulated over six hundred years were all stacked in mountainous piles…. The caliph was summoned… At the end of the day on Wednesday the 14th of Safar 656 (20 February 1258, the caliph, his eldest son, and five of his attendants were executed in the village of Waqaf … and the reign of the House of Abbas came to an end.

The account of Mustawfi Qazvini based much of his work on the histories of Rashid al-Din:

At Hulegu’s order, the executioner prepared for the killing, and maliciously brought a sack. He bound the Caliph, head, hand and foot and put him in a sack, which became his habitation. He said, “See this descendent from stock that is unequal led, and how the world has placed him in this sack.”

“Then they broke his head as though it were a stone and he died quickly. Fate dealt him a grievous blow, and brought destruction on that beautiful king. When the renowned Musta’sim was killed, a great name tumbled to the dust.”

Besides the Caliph and his sons being put to death, the three thousand courtiers who accompanied the Caliph were also said to be put to the sword.

The Destruction of Baghdad

Kirakos of Gandzak account:

Hulegu then ordered the troops guarding the walls to descend and kill the inhabitants of the city, great and small. (The Mongols) organized as though harvesting a field and cut down countless, numberless multitudes of men, women, and children. For forty days they did not stop. Then they grew weary and stopped killing. Their hands grew tired; they took others for sale. They destroyed mercilessly.

However, Hulegu’s wife, the senior Khantun (lady), named Doquz Khatun was a Christian. She spared the Christians of Baghdad, Nestorians and other denominations and beseeched her husband not to kill them. And he spared them with their goods and property.

Hulegu ordered all his soldiers to take the goods and property of the city. They all loaded up with gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, and costly garments, for it was an extremely rich city, unequalled on earth.

Hulegu himself took his share the caliph’s treasures—three thousand camel loads; and there was no counting the horses, mules and asses.

Grigor of Akanc’s account:

After this they convened a great assembly of old and young horsemen, including the Georgian and Armenian cavalry, and with countless multitudes they moved on the city of Baghdad. When they arrived on the spot they took at once the great and famous city of Baghdad, filled with many people and rare treasures, and countless gold and silver. When they took it they slaughtered mercilessly and made many prisoners.

While various Christian communities were spared the sword, the Muslim population suffered greatly. After the massacre ended, the Mongols and their allies torched the palaces and mosques. The wagon loads of treasure plundered from the city were sent to Mangku Khan in Karakorum or to Hulegu’s fort on the island of Shalia in Lake Urmiya.

Mongol siege.

Mongol siege. (Public Domain)

The number of dead is unknown. Martin Sicker in his book The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna estimates that 90,000 died. Ian Frazier in his article ‘Annals of history: Invaders: Destroying Baghdad’ published by The New Yorker, estimates (depending on the source) that “two hundred thousand, or eight hundred thousand, or more than a million” may have died. According to Andre Wink in his book Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, Vol.2, that perhaps 50,000 troops along with 200,000 to 800,000 civilians. A. Y. Al-Hassan in his book, The different aspects of Islamic culture: Science and technology in Islam, Vol.4, Ed. suggest that perhaps 2,000,000 may have perished.

The Destruction of Intellectual Wealth

The destruction of Baghdad was one of greatest disasters in human history. While one can elaborate on the great amount of wealth lost, one must not overlook the great amount of intellectual wealth lost, such as art, philosophy and science, all put to torch, along with the library, the learning centers, the hospitals and so forth. But even more precious was the amount of life lost that had no part in the conflict. Some may ask how a group of people could do such a thing. The answer is not simple.

But given what is known about the Mongols, they strongly despised farmers and cities. To them farming was a waste, which is understandable. Mongols had no use for growing crops. They needed lands for their horses and herds to graze. Cities were seen as centers of laziness. This also is understandable, for the Mongols were always on the move and had not time for leisure for their horses and herds needed constant attention. Life on the steppe had not the division of labor found in a city in order for it to function. Lastly, the Mongol record of sacking cities in China, Iran, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, always came with a tremendous loss of life and shows their disregard for human life. They treated people as if they were nothing more than animals, herding them before their great army and preparing them for the slaughter as the army slowly encircles them for the grand kill. While despicable, it is understandable in how the Mongols, such as Genghis Khan, Hulegu, or Tamerlane, treated civilians, like that of Baghdad, for such men saw outsiders as nothing more than vermin, unless that person or group of people had something to offer that could provide the Mongol administration or military machine an advantage.

The Battle of Blue Waters between the armies of Lithuania and the Golden Horde in 1362.

The Battle of Blue Waters between the armies of Lithuania and the Golden Horde in 1362. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When looking at the Mongols from afar, a quote from the French historian René Grousset comes to mind when considering uncivilized and civilized:

“It has been noted that the Jenghiz-Khanite Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century was less cruel, for the Mongols were mere barbarians who killed simply because for centuries this had been the instinctive behavior of nomad herdsmen toward sedentary farmers. To this ferocity Tamerlane added a taste for religious murder. He killed from piety. He represents a synthesis, probably unprecedented in history, of Mongol barbarity and Muslim fanaticism, and symbolizes that advanced form of primitive slaughter which is murder committed for the sake of an abstract ideology, as a duty and a sacred mission.”

The outcome of Hulegu’s sacking of Bagdad was expected, especially coming from a man who grew up on the uncivilized steppe, while Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane’s later sacking of Bagdad in 1401 was not expected, especially coming from a man who grew up surrounded by civilization.

Top Image: Mural of siege warfare, Genghis Khan Exhibit in San Jose, California, US (CC BY 2.0)


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