Tag Archives: antiquity

Emperor Augustus Passes Away

On this day 2,000 years ago the reign of the first Roman Emperor statue-augustusIMPERATOR CAESAR DIVI F AVGVSTVS born Gaius Octavius ended when he passed away at the age of 75 at Nola after a short illness.  Supposedly his last words were – “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”  His reign had lasted for 41 years and he had brought true stability and peace to Rome for the first time in almost 100 years.

After his death his body was transported to Rome where he was cremated and his ashes were installed in the Mausoleum he had had built on the Campus Martius for the remains of himself and his family.

Mausoleum of Augustus on the Campus Martius in Rome
Mausoleum of Augustus on the Campus Martius in Rome

The Battle of Mantinea

The Battle of Mantinea was part of the Great Peloponnesian War (430-404 B.C.). The war was fought in an effort to defeat and contain the growing power of Sparta in Greek Affairs. The war was ultimately a failure as Sparta won in the end and dictated terms to Athens and her allies in the process guaranteeing that Athens would not dominate the Greek world.
The prelude to the battle itself was a gathering of Argive Alliance troops who attacked Tegea, about 5 miles south of Mantinea. The Spartans rallied to Tegea’s defense and began to divert a stream to flood Mantinean territory.

The main source for the course of the battle is The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.  He covers the battle in Book V: 55-82 of his history.  The actual account of the fighting is 65-74.

Mantinea 1







Proposed location of the Mantinea battlefield
Proposed location of the Mantinea battlefield

The battlefield itself cannot be pinpointed with any great accuracy today.  However, based on the description of the location of various forces during the battle given by Thucydides it must have taken place to the eastern side of the Ancient Acropolis of Mantinea and the hills around ¾ of a mile away.

Respective Orders of Battle
Respective Orders of Battle


The preliminary to the battle was the Spartan army appearing near Mantinea arrayed in battle order. This startled the Athenian commanders who rushed to get their army formed and for defense. Once the armies were arrayed for battle the usual ancient pre-battle speeches were given and then both sides advanced towards each other.

The Athenians and Allies advanced recklessly screaming and shouting at the run while the Spartans displayed their usual discipline in battle by advancing at a measured pace to the music of flutes.

The evidence for tactical maneuver is in section 71 of Thucydides. He first explains the tendency of Phalanxes to move to the right as they advance; he then explains how the Spartan commander ordered the Sciritaeans and Brasidians to extend the line on the march while some of the reserve moved up to fill in the gap created by their movement.

Mantinea 4This allowed the Spartan army to present a united front to the Athenians while the Spartan Right flanked the Athenian Left.
That was the theory however it did not work out in practice as envisaged. Instead the Sciritae and Brasidians milled around without moving and thus created a gap that the Spartans were able to hastily fill.

As the two armies met the Spartans were initially driven back and a part of the Athenian line went on to ravage the baggage train of the Spartan army.

However, the Spartans led by King Agis soon rallied, attacking and driving in the Athenian line starting an instant rout where many Athenian troops fled without even striking a blow.

The Athenian cavalry stopped a slaughter by fighting a rear-guard action allowing the majority of the foot-soldiers to flee the battlefield.  Casualties were also lessened because the Spartans declined to press their pursuit being content with possession of the battlefield itself.


The casualty numbers come from Thucydides Book V: 74. The lopsided nature of the numbers is typical of Greek battles. Most of the Athenian dead were probably not killed in the initial clash but were wounded and then and later killed during the pursuit and mopping up by the Spartans and their allies. The Greeks did not generally practice ransom of prisoners in wartime.
Spartans – 300
Argive Alliance – 1,100

It should be noted that the vast majority of the casualties were probably dead (90%-95%) according to the analysis first proposed by Hanson in The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece in 1989. Greek Hoplite warfare was extremely deadly because of the nature of the weapons used and the methods used to fight it.


1.Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War Chapter 5: available at the Internet Classics Archive


Book Review: The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, is one of the best economic histories I have read.  It seeks to be a global history of money and does a good job of it.  It is somewhat tilted towards Europe and Western countries but only because that is where the majority of financial innovation has come from, especially in the last 300-400 years.last 400 years.

What I found especially interesting were his explanations of the way sophisticated financial instruments actually work.  It often seems as though investment and investing have a language specifically designed to confuse and confound the layman.  Dr. Ferguson’s explanations of derivatives and other financial instruments were understandable and serve to somewhat demystify the world of finance.  Of note also is the way in which he explains that these financial instruments are used to create wealth, with the emphasis on create.  He perfectly explains how people like George Soros become billionaires without actually doing anything productive but rather by predicting which way the market will go and essentially betting they are right with other peoples money.

He also tackles entitlements in both Europe, Japan, and the US and providing an excellent anlaysis of the flaws in the current western model entitlement system.  Perhaps the best line in the book is “Yet welfare reform is coming to North America, whether anyone wants it or not.”  He then goes on to explain in detail why this is so.

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, is not a work of political science though.  Ferguson lets his own opinion shine through at times but by and large what he is presenting here is exactly as described:  A history of the development and use of money and in the end an explanation of why we cannot get away from it even though there are many groups on the left and right that would love to see that.  Ferguson is right when he claims that no one has yet come up with a more efficient way of moving capital to where it can be used than money.  This work explains all of that and also how unscrupulous people have learned to manipulate the system that makes the modern world move.

This is another outstanding book by Niall Ferguson and nothing less than what I expected from someone who I have come to believe is perhaps one of the most balanced and perceptive historians writing today. I have not yet read a book by Dr. Ferguson that was not a joy to read and even if I do not agree with everything he says, his works are always thought provoking, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World is no exception. I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle by Michael Stephenson

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Michael Stephenson’s work The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle follows somewhat in the tradition of classics such a Keegan’s The Face of Battle and Victor David Hanson’s The Western Way of War. Where it differs from these two works as that while Keegan and Hanson focus on specific battles or time periods this book aims to be a more general description of the experience of combat throughout recorded history.  In that, the book is amazingly successful.  The author has produced a volume that does the job of bringing home te reality of warfare to those who have never experienced it.  What I finds even more refreshing is that he does without weighing the book down with moral judgements on the rightness or wrongness of war itself, instead he accepts the objective reality that war happens and goes about the business of explaining what it is like.

It is written in an easy free-flowing style that is almost a pleasure to read and the text is organized in such a way that it is also compelling to read.  I found myself making excuses to my wife to keep reading to the end of the chapter before I did something else.  The descriptions of combat and death, ultimately this book is about violent death, ring true.  I was struck in particular by the realism of the combat descriptions in the section on the Iraq war.  On page 361 he talks about the US Marines “Pine Box Rule” in which if someone has to go home in a pine box, it is not going to be Marines. In my own experience in Iraq in 2004 my unit had a similar rule except we called it doing the “Death Blossom” when we came under enemy fire.  If his descriptions of combat and death hold as true to reality throughout the rest of the book as they do for modern war, and I have no reason, to think they don’t, then Mr. Stephenson has produced what should be an instant classic.  It should also make its way to the official reading lists of all the services, especially the US Army and Marines.

At 406 pages of text the book is not too long for the interested layman and includes an index, extensive notes, and a truly impressive bibliography that together amount to 54 pages alone.  The book is organized into eight thematic, chronological chapters that cover warfare from the Ancient World to the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an appendix discussing the state of military medicine through time.  The only very minor criticism I could have for this book is that it is Western Centric in focus, that is true of much western scholarship though  and this book makes no claim to universal history.

As a combat veteran myself, I have said for years in private conversation and on some public forums that no one who has not been in combat can possibly grasp what it is like, this work goes a long way to roving me wrong.  Michael Stephenson comes as close to describing the reality of combat as I have ever read from a non-combat vet.  This objective and fair description of death in battle should be on the shelf of every military historian, whether they are a veteran or not.  Anyone who wants to know what combat is like without putting their own skin on the line should read this book.  If nothing else, they will gain a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who don the uniform of their country and go forth to do battle.  This is a good description of what George Orwell’s “rough men” go through to allow their countrymen to sleep safe at home.An outstanding book that is sure to remain the standard in its niche for years to come.


The Marian Legion

I haven’t touched on anything about antiquity for a while so I thought I would put this up as I have been thinking about this for the last week or two. This is the Marian Legion or the Reforms of Marius, whichever you choose to call it.

These reforms are important because they set the stage for the Legion of the period of the Civil War and early Imperium, especially the time of the Pax Romana.  These reforms are probably not a direct result of the genius of Gaius Marius, he just gets credit for implementing them.  That being said, he is the one who implemented them and turned the Roman Army into a professional force that essentially defeated all comers for the next 300-400 years.  They are therefore worth discussing.

The Marian Reforms can essentially be broken down into two types: 1. Administrative and 2. Operational.  They are synergistic reforms in that administrative changes affected operations and in fact at some level were driven by them. The most important administrative changes were the elimination of the land requirement and substitution of a citizenship requirement for service and most importantly in my opinion, the state was now responsible for providing uniform equipment.  The operational changes were the introduction of the Legionary Eagle, the redesigned pilum, and the elimination of the baggage train.

First let’s discuss administrative changes.  The elimination of a land requirement and substitution of a citizenship requirement meant that the army could be substantially enlarged because there was a large number citizens who lived in the city of Rome but owned no land.  This was a huge departure from former practice.  This actually achieved two things; one, as previously stated it allowed for a huge expansion in the size of the army, secondly it gave the poor in Rome a stake in the success of the Republic.  This last part was no small accomplishment The second administrative change was that the state took on the responsibility for providing the Legionnaire’s equipment.  his also accomplished two things.  The first thing this accomplished was that along with the citizenship requirement for service meant that the huge number of potential recruit could be equipped.  Before this change the individual was responsible for providing their own equipment and this was not a minor expense.  I heave read some estimates that a Legionnaires equipment could cost the equivalent of a year’s wages.  This seems fairly reasonable to me if you consider that a modern American soldier’s equipment runs in the neighborhood of $40-50,000.  Eliminating this burden allowed more soldiers to be recruited.  The second and more important change was that it allowed for the standardization of equipment.  This not only brought down costs it also meant that units were more uniform and thus their capabilities became more of a known factor.

Operational changes were at least as important as the administrative changes the Legions underwent.  The introduction of the Eagle, the pilum, and elimination of the legionary baggage train made huge changes.

Examples of Legionary Eagles

First, the introduction of the Legionary Eagle.  The Eagle was the standard of the Legion and with its introduction the Legions became permananetn formations and not transitory ones that were raised and disbanded with every campaigning season as had previously been the practice. This gave individual legions a history and traditions.  The Eagle was the personification of this history and tradition.  It helped improve that tenuous concept known as Esprit d’Corps.  It helped soldiers identify with their unit and made them want to fight hard to uphold the units traditions.  It also served as a rallying point for the Legion in Battle.  The loss of an eagle was considered one of the most shameful things that could happen to a unit.  Great deeds of heroism were done to protect the Eagle.  In many ways the Eagle became the unit, it was the manifestation that the unit itself had a life and would continue.  The greatest disgrace that could occur was for a Legion to lose it’s Eagle, this was even worse than defeat.  A unit could be defeated in honorable battle but it was the height of shame when a unit lost it’s Eagle.

Roman Pilums

The introduction of the Pilum was another of the Marian reforms.  It is difficult for a modern reader to understand the significance of this change.  The Pilum was a spear with some special design elements.  Most importantly, it incorporated a semi-mobile shaft.  It had an articulated head constructed such that when it impacted an enemy shield part sheared off precluding the enemy from throwing it back at the Romans.  There were two pegs connecting the head of the spear to the shaft.  One was iron while the other was wooden.  When the Pilum impacted an enemy shield the wooden peg would break allowing the spear to pivot on the fulcrum of the iron peg.  this meant the the shield was not only useless to be thrown back at the Romans but further it meant that the enemy shield itself became too heavy and unwieldy for use thus forcing them to discard their shield because of the added unbalanced weight added to it. The loss of their shield meant that enemy troops were that much less protected once the Legionnaire got into melee range.  Additionally, the fact that the Pilum beacme the standard Legion stand-off weapon meant that drill in its use could be added to the standard training regimen of the legion.  This not only simplified legion training it meant that if a legionnaire was transferred from one Legion to another he did not have to relearn how to employ  a new weapon that was not used in the Legion from which he came.

The last, and one of the most important changes was the elimination of the Legions baggage train.  To really understand the significance of this change it is necessary to understand the effect of a baggage train on ancient armies.  Typically, armies of the ancient world had a baggage train.  This was not just baggage and equipment for the troops, often, even most of the time, the baggage train was full of what are known as camp followers.  This was a large group of people from families of the soldiers to suttlers, merchants, widows and orphans, and prostitutes.  This group could not move as fast as an army unencumbered because it included wagons as well.  Ancient wagons were generally drawn by Oxen and not horses, and oxen are slow.  The Roman elimination of the baggage train increased he strategic and operational speed of the Roman Legions.

Legionary Backpack of the time of Marius

To put it bluntly, with a baggage train an army could march on the order of 5-8 miles per day; without a baggage train they could make 20-25 miles per day or almost 4 times as fast.  To accomplish this Marius made each Legionnaire carry a backpack with the essentials he would need while on the march.  This backpack weighed up to 90 pounds and the legionary was expected to march 20 miles per day carrying it.  This pack led to the nickname for the troops of Marius’ Mules.

The Legionaries carried not just food but also equipment to fortify their camp at the end of each day’s march.  The fact that they could make 20 miles per day meant that the Roman army had an operational mobility that few of their enemies could match.  This let them surprise their enemies by getting to places much faster than any of them thought possible and surprise is one of the most decisive things in warfare.

The various reforms of the Roman army implemented by Marius turned the Roman army from a formidable, seasonal force to a year round, professional force that proved to be virtually unbeatable by it’s enemies.  These reforms wrought changes in the Roman ay f war comparable to those brought about by the introduction of the internal combustion engine in the early 20th cnetury.  The reforms were standardized and modified very little until relatively late in the Imperial period.  They let the Romans outfight and outmarch their opponents an just about every battlefield for almost 500 years.  It is virtually impossible to understand Roman military success without understanding the definitive changes in military practice brought about by the Marian Reforms of the Roman Army.

Further Reading: Marian Reforms,  Clio Article, From Republic to Empire: How Revolutionary were the Reforms of Gaius Marius.

Battles and Book Reviews.