Battle of Magnesia

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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Paralus » Wed Jun 29, 2016 12:06 pm

Thanks Hypaspist.

Pyrrhos, eventually, lost against the Romans - as he eventually did with most anyone he jousted against. The bloke suffered something of an ancient attention deficit syndrome if, of course, we can take Plutarch as gospel. Even should we not, it seems clear that Pyrrhos did not possess the single minded obstinacy of an Alexander - the determined focus on the objective. Ever willing to be distracted from his his mishaps, he 'invaded' in another direction. Again, much of this comes from Plutarch and one has to suspect his constructs - geared to themes - on several grounds. A classic example is Pyrrhos deciding to invade Italy. Plutarch creates a wonderful 'conversation' between Pyrrhos and Kineas (his advisor) wherein Pyrrhos is presented as terribly unhappy with what he has and wants much more. He will take Italy as the precursor to taking Sicily after which he will take Africa and then who, in the Greek world, will withstand him? Also, he is presented as nauseated by inaction. He thus decides to tackle Italy and this decision is presented as contiguous with his loss of Maceonia. Plutarch does not bother to tell us that some three years elapsed between losing Macedonia and sailing to Italy. Historical chronology is sublimated to Plutarch's thematic need to show Pyrrhos as an impatient, impetuous king with a thirst for constant action.

That said, the bloke had a spark for the moment: he could win battles but was always defeated by the wars. He defeated two consular armies in Italy - the first (Hearclaeia) with inferior numbers. The second, likely involving his 'alternate speirai' of Italians and Macedonian style phalanx, was another great set piece and we are much the poorer for our lack of a decent historian to record it (Hieronymus of Cardia certainly did but it is not extant). Polybios' passing reference teases.

Pyrrhos will certainly have differed with Antiochos' dispositions but would he have won? Antiochos should have relied on the cavalry of his left rather than chariots . But that is just my opinion. His attacking strategy was just that of Alexander: a charge of his right and roll up the enemy left with his phalanx driving through the centre. In the end, just like Antigonos Monophthalmos, Lysimachos and Philip V before him, Antiochos rolled the dice and found out he was not that monarch.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by sean_m » Thu Jun 30, 2016 11:22 am

Hypaspist wrote:What a shame he did not adhere to the advice of Hannibal. Does anyone know Hannibal's thoughs on the battle, pre-battle, post-battle?


Atb, Rob
You are welcome Rob.

I have not read any of the sources on Hannibal. The one thing that I can predict is that as soon as Hannibal showed up at court, a number of Antiochus' Friends started to say very loudly "look at this barbarian trying to worm his way into the king's friendship! I have sons in the cavalry who were born after his last victory, and his own polis rejected him. He is just relying on memory of past glories to win riches and honour and use us as a weapon against his enemies." Whether the war went well or poorly for the king, their family would survive- but slip down the pole of prestige as Hannibal climbed up it, and that would be a real disaster for them.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Paralus » Thu Jun 30, 2016 11:44 am

Oddly enough, Hannibal advised sending himself and an army to Italy telling Antiochos that he was, somehow, familiar with the place. From recollection that's in Livy though it's difficult to check on a phone no matter how 'smart'. That was somewhat before Magnesia.

Sean's right. Hannibal ingratiating himself into the king's synhedrion will have disjointed the nose of many of Antiochos' philoi.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Hypaspist » Fri Jul 01, 2016 10:47 am

Paralus: I really recommend Pyrrhus of Epirus by Jeff Champion. I've read it twice now. I couldn't agree with you more when you say he would have differed with Antiochos dispositions. I am pretty sure he would have won, though. Antiochos had a fairly good chance of taking the cake that day, and it is unendingly annoying how he failed to draw up his army so as to better match the romans. Again, those blasted chariots and elephants... I would imagine Pyrrhus would have kept the elephants in reserve, and submitted anyone who even dared mention chariots to a good public licking. More, he would have given the romans a taste of their own medicine by combining the phalanx with maniples...

Uber-interesting what Hannibal could have advised Antiochos on in terms of tactics... I wish Antiochos would have been more susceptible to Hannibal's advice... '


Sean: I can imagine their views on Hannibal... to share the glory and victory is probably more than they could or would put up with..
But we are all familiar with the famous quote of Hannibal's upon being asked by Antiochos if his army were not plenty enough to confront the romans.
Hannibal replied, paraphrasing here, "it should be enough for them, however greedy they may be."


But, guys, a couple of interesting points:

1. Didn't Antiochos flee with the cavalry before bringing his attack to conclusion... ??

2. How do you guys think Hannibal would have tackled the romans had he been bestowed the duty of commanding the army and thus deploying it?


As always, guys, I am really grateful for your time and effort in responding to my little school-boy queries... :)

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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Paralus » Fri Jul 01, 2016 11:30 am

Well Pyrrhos never combined 'maniples' with anything so far as we can tell. He combined speirai - which roughly translates as blocks (16 x16 men) of the phalanx with something similar of Italians (likely 'hoplites' eight deep) according to Polybios. The Megalopolitan is hardly likely to report such if he hadn't information telling him so (such detail possibly coming from Hieronymus). In any case, I do not think Pyrrhos would have won. By this time the Romans were well accustomed to elephants. These were no longer any real tactical advantage (the Roman elephants at Magnesia are likely those acquired after Zama - see Kynoskephalai). Held in reserve or otherwise, the Romans were unlikely to be spooked by them.

Champion likes his subject (he makes a better fist of Antigonos Monpthalmos). There's nothing wrong with that. Pyrrhos is overrated as a king and commander in my view. He did very well with limited resources - men, money and land - and it was those resources he constantly chased. He was much like a TV show: brilliant for the first couple of episodes but couldn't carry a season.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by sean_m » Fri Jul 01, 2016 1:13 pm

It is annoying that we keep reading those old Loeb translations of Polybius which 'helpfully' replace the Greek terms with the Latin 'equivalents' rather than translating or transliterating them. Sometimes he writes a Latin word in Greek letters, but more often he uses familiar Greek terms.
Hypaspist wrote:Paralus: I really recommend Pyrrhus of Epirus by Jeff Champion. I've read it twice now. I couldn't agree with you more when you say he would have differed with Antiochos dispositions. I am pretty sure he would have won, though. Antiochos had a fairly good chance of taking the cake that day, and it is unendingly annoying how he failed to draw up his army so as to better match the romans. Again, those blasted chariots and elephants... I would imagine Pyrrhus would have kept the elephants in reserve, and submitted anyone who even dared mention chariots to a good public licking. More, he would have given the romans a taste of their own medicine by combining the phalanx with maniples...

Uber-interesting what Hannibal could have advised Antiochos on in terms of tactics... I wish Antiochos would have been more susceptible to Hannibal's advice... '


Sean: I can imagine their views on Hannibal... to share the glory and victory is probably more than they could or would put up with..
But we are all familiar with the famous quote of Hannibal's upon being asked by Antiochos if his army were not plenty enough to confront the romans.
Hannibal replied, paraphrasing here, "it should be enough for them, however greedy they may be."
Which sounds good, except that it is a classic stereotype about “oriental” armies. But thanks to archaeological finds, we know that the Roman soldiers of the early empire went into battle dripping with all the shiny bling they could afford ... and they still kicked ass!
Hypaspist wrote:But, guys, a couple of interesting points:

1. Didn't Antiochos flee with the cavalry before bringing his attack to conclusion... ??

2. How do you guys think Hannibal would have tackled the romans had he been bestowed the duty of commanding the army and thus deploying it?

As always, guys, I am really grateful for your time and effort in responding to my little school-boy queries... :)
Well, you can find Appian's version here and Livy's version here. And you will see that in both Antiochus routed the cavalry and Italian legion on the Roman left and sent them running back to camp as fast as they could in total disorder. Livy does not like telling this story, but his Latin is pretty frank: Antiochus and his cataphracts charged and pressed the Roman left donec fugati equites primum, dein proximi peditum effuso cursu ad castra compulsi sunt (Livy 37.42.8 to the crows with these smilies). As Antiochus approached the camp the commander of the camp guard called his forces together and led them out. Then our sources have two different takes. In Appian's version, Antiochus declared that it wasn't worth chasing soldiers who fled so easily any further, turned around to see what was happening to the rest of his army, and swept aside Attalus of Pergamon with a “large body of horse.” In Appian's version Antiochus only fled when he saw the battlefield and realized that his phalanx had been defeated. In Livy's version, he ran away immediately when he saw Attalus with 200 horse and the camp guard approaching ... but Attalus had come from the Roman right after chasing Antiochus' light cavalry away, so a considerable period of time had passed. Each of these versions favours one side, but deciding where the truth lies takes some thinking ...

Livy also leaves out the fight in the center and skips ahead to the aftermath with infantry and cavalry and elephants trampling each other to get away and the Romans breaking into Antiochus' camp, whereas Appian explains that when they saw Domitius' cavalry behind them the phalanx formed square and began a fighting retreat which continued for some time because the Romans were too scared to come to grips with them. Someone who just read Livy might assume that the phalanx fled like the left wing. Ancient writers often handled uncomfortable facts by leaving them out and implying something more palatable.

It was not often that cavalry routed a legion on the first charge, and trying to take a fortified camp with a cavalry charge would have been really ambitious even for the great Antiochus, conquerer of the Parthians, Bactrians, Egyptians, Thracians, etc. When generals let their troops pursue the enemy into their camp and loot it rather than returning to the fight, critics in armchairs blame them too.

Hannibal would have decided what to do based on his assessment of the capabilities of the specific troops on both sides, not just on whether they were "phalangites" or "horse archers" and "manly westerners" or "cowardly easterners." We don't really have a way to know that, so the best we can do is watch both sides for the 10 or 20 years before the battle, and see what the strengths and weaknesses of each individual unit and commander are.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Hypaspist » Fri Jul 01, 2016 2:36 pm

Thank you, both.

Just finished reading Appian and Livy.. He had great success on the left, Antiochos...

Sean you wrote, "which continued for some time because the Romans were too scared to come to grips with them." What do you mean? The romans were scared to come to grips with the phalanx?

It seems to me certain elements of the battle went well and in favour of Antiochos... right? It could very well have turned out differently...


Paralus, I believe Pyrrhus could very well have won the day... thing is, we do not know... Pyrrhus generalship in Asculum was just extraordinary... how he was all over the battlefield neutralizing one threat after another...

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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Paralus » Sat Jul 02, 2016 4:19 am

sean_m wrote:It is annoying that we keep reading those old Loeb translations of Polybius which 'helpfully' replace the Greek terms with the Latin 'equivalents' rather than translating or transliterating them. Sometimes he writes a Latin word in Greek letters, but more often he uses familiar Greek terms.
When I attended the Diodorus conference in Glasgow back in 2011, I had a very interesting dinner discussion with David Thomas who wrote the introduction to the Landmark Xenophon's Hellenika. Among other matters David mentioned that top of the forthcoming list for Landmark was the Landmark Polybios which he was, if I recall, editing. It cannot come soon enough but there appears, as yet, no sign of it. David did bemoan the difficulties involved in the organising and managing of the many specialists contributing to it. Not least the new translation (well overdue that). Here's hoping...
sean_m wrote:Livy also leaves out the fight in the center and skips ahead to the aftermath with infantry and cavalry and elephants trampling each other to get away and the Romans breaking into Antiochus' camp, whereas Appian explains that when they saw Domitius' cavalry behind them the phalanx formed square and began a fighting retreat which continued for some time because the Romans were too scared to come to grips with them. Someone who just read Livy might assume that the phalanx fled like the left wing. Ancient writers often handled uncomfortable facts by leaving them out and implying something more palatable.

It was not often that cavalry routed a legion on the first charge, and trying to take a fortified camp with a cavalry charge would have been really ambitious even for the great Antiochus, conquerer of the Parthians, Bactrians, Egyptians, Thracians, etc. When generals let their troops pursue the enemy into their camp and loot it rather than returning to the fight, critics in armchairs blame them too.
Much in that. Ancient authors did indeed deal with 'uncomfortable facts' in different ways. The detail of the phalanx forming into a defensive square is near certainly from Polybios' original from which both Appian and Livy are working. It is not unusual, Diodorus noting the Argyraspides doing exactly the same at Gabiene (19.43.5). You're correct that Livy has conveniently not mentioned the stand of the experienced phalanx, its end coming after volleys of missiles disrupted the formation along with the panicked elephants as Appian says (again, near certainly Polybios' description in summary form). Livy proclaims that the troops to their left disordered the phalanx seeking shelter within the phalanx (37.42.3-4). He has either totally misunderstood Polybios (wouldn't be the first time) or deliberately garbled this; I'd say the former. Appian has it right: the phalanx opened to allow the skirmishers to retire and then closed, afterwards forming a defensive square. Livy cannot bring himself to report what Polybios clearly did: that the Romans were not disposed to tackle this unit with infantry and dealt with it via missile fire instead (even though this is logical). Roman virtus cannot be tarnished! And it is worthwhile noting that while Livy is can bring himself to relate Antiochos' uncomfortable routing of the Roman left in a flank attack, he does so for it allows to paint the picture of an incontinent eastern king in the face of Roman virtus. For it is the Latins who flee and a Roman who stiffens them.

I agree wholeheartedly that an all out attack on the fortified and defended (by Macedonians as well) camp was not on. It was also certainly not Antiochos' plan. As you've noted, it's not often that a legion was routed from the first charge. If Livy has this right, it more the Roman horse being drive into and onto the Latins that began the confusion that led to something of a collapse of the left. Once such a panic begins it is awful difficult to stop (as at Raphia on Ptolemy's left). The Roman camp cannot have been too far behind their line. They had moved twice from four miles to two and one half miles and then "closer to the enemy" just before battle (37.39.5). The idea being to provoke Antiochos into battle and so the two cannot have been too far apart and the Roman camp cannot have been far in the rear of their lines.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by sean_m » Sat Jul 02, 2016 3:19 pm

It would have made sense for the camp to be close, but Livy and Appian imply that a significant amount of time had passed and that Antiochus could no longer see the battlefield. So if I wanted to study this battle, I would have to pay close attention to working out space and time. There are also debates about topology, and whether Antiochus' men crossed the river twice as they charged the Roman left (so the "bank" that they were not guarding was the riverbank behind them, not next to them), or just found a gap between the Roman cavalry and the river.
Hypaspist wrote:Thank you, both.

Just finished reading Appian and Livy.. He had great success on the left, Antiochos...

Sean you wrote, "which continued for some time because the Romans were too scared to come to grips with them." What do you mean? The romans were scared to come to grips with the phalanx?

It seems to me certain elements of the battle went well and in favour of Antiochos... right? It could very well have turned out differently...

Paralus, I believe Pyrrhus could very well have won the day... thing is, we do not know... Pyrrhus generalship in Asculum was just extraordinary... how he was all over the battlefield neutralizing one threat after another...
Horace's White's translation of the passage goes that after the phalanx formed a square and stood challenging their enemies "The Romans did not come to close quarters nor approach them because they feared the discipline, the solidity, and the desperation of this veteran corps; but circled around them and assailed them with javelins and arrows, none of which missed their mark in the dense mass, who could neither turn the missiles aside nor dodge them. After suffering severely in this way they yielded to necessity and fell back step by step, but with a bold front, in perfect order and still formidable to the Romans. The latter kept their distance and continued to circle around and wound them, until the elephants inside the Macedonian phalanx became excited and unmanageable. Then the phalanx broke into disorderly flight."

In context, at least some of these "Romans" are troops of Eumenes on horseback who nobody reasonable could ask to fight armoured men at close quarters ... but in Appian's version, the Macedonian phalanx tells their Roman counterparts "do you want a piece of this, bro?" and the Roman infantry refuse to take up the challenge.

If Antiochus could have reasonably expected his left wing to collapse, one use for the elephants would have been to form a second line behind the phalanx. Horses did not like elephants, and they could probably have kept Eumenes' horse and psiloi away while the phalanx came to grips or retreated. (Edit: One of the things which annoys me about Peter Jackson's RotK is that he has the riders of Rohan dodging around and under the oliphaunts, whereas Tolkein knew his classics and has their horses refuse to approach. Directors of horror films and drama are used to portraying mortal terror on the screen, but Jackson fell back on big things moving fast).
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by sean_m » Sat Jul 02, 2016 7:54 pm

Looking at that anecdote from Gabiene again, its actually very similar to what the phalanx tried to do at Magnesia. The phalanx at Gabiene managed to get off the field while being harassed by cavalry ... but Alexander's veterans were one of the best armies which had ever existed, and not every Macedonian phalanx was as capable.

Aside from stories about the Persians, I suspect that Livy is drawing on stories of battles with Macedonianized armies closer to his own day, which (at least to hear the Romans tell it) were much less formidable opponents. I can recall some very similar language about enemies as "flesh on the hoof" in Curtius Rufus' version of issos or Gaugamela, and I suspect that if we had say Sulla's memoirs or some of Pompey's speeches about his eastern campaigns some other set phrases would leap out. Appian's version makes me think of Carrhae, which was not a set of memories which Livy would want to invoke ...

Skipping past the messy details of the fighting and to the aftermath with the enemy running away and being killed or captured and despoiled of their treasures is also very common in Mesopotamian stories about war ... as is insistence that the enemy were overwhelmed by fear as soon as the side which is telling the story approached them. Livy's version of the skirmishes before the battle reminds me a bit of Arrian on the skirmishes before Gaugamela. I won't say that those fights did not happen like that, but I won't say I believe him either without a lot of looking at the sources for the war and thinking about what they are trying to sell us on and what they are trying to leave out.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Paralus » Thu Jul 07, 2016 9:49 am

Yes, many a familiar topos in Livy's description. The usual troops who did not even await the first onset of the enemy, etc. Appian certainly has the phalanx's stand near to rights. This is something the original - Polybios - would have noted given his dissection of phalanx versus legion. It is a great pity that Polybios' original has not survived. One can see in his rendition of Raphia, Sellasia and Kynoskephalai the detail into which he might have gone regarding the two forces and the clash itself. In fact, the Roman army moving camp to provoke the showdown is reminiscent of Antiochos doing the same at Raphia. I note there that Antiochos is presented in Livy as being afraid to engage and so the Romans had never despised an enemy as they did the Seleukids here. Appian also suggests such but explains that Antiochos wants to fight in the shadows of his own 'ramparts' (near to his camp). He also notes that Antiochos wanted to delay until the arival of the Scipios (and that makes one wonder about Livy's skirmishes a la Gaugamela). Livy will have none of this: the eastern despot is thoroughly incontinent. Dio/Zonoras include that the Seleukid force would fight with cavalry, chariots and the like only - almost echoing Dareios III at Gaugamela.

As noted above, it is a great shame that Poybios has not survived in this regard. Antiochos was clearly no incontinent coward as presented here. Polybios clearly dealt with him in some detail for, as he notes early in his work, the Seleukid king was one of the major stars (Philip V, Ptolemy Philopater and Rome being the others) of the new world order that would frame Polybios' narrative. The great clash of the Greek eastern monarchies and Rome would explain how the world of Polybios latter days came about. Thus we miss Antiochos' great anabasis and a proper picture of the Seleukid monarch.

I can't help the feeling that Antiochos did not want war with Rome (nor did the senate with him though particular Romans saw advantage - Flamininus). He'd no interest in the west despite Hannibal's urgings. A 'war' of words and political/diplomatic to and fro unfortunately, for him, went too far. What comes out of the sources is a king who wished to cool things off and settle matters without going down to a climactic clash; a diplomatic settlement brokered with the Scipios. Like Philip before him, Antiochos did not really understand the Roman animal.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by sean_m » Wed Jul 27, 2016 2:17 pm

Paralus wrote:I can't help the feeling that Antiochos did not want war with Rome (nor did the senate with him though particular Romans saw advantage - Flamininus). He'd no interest in the west despite Hannibal's urgings. A 'war' of words and political/diplomatic to and fro unfortunately, for him, went too far. What comes out of the sources is a king who wished to cool things off and settle matters without going down to a climactic clash; a diplomatic settlement brokered with the Scipios. Like Philip before him, Antiochos did not really understand the Roman animal.
If Hannibal really wanted Antiochus to invade Italy, I wonder if he really understood how big Antiochus' empire was. I don't think he was ever east of Sidon was he? The story in Herodotus which ends with "to ask the Spartans to march two months' journey from the sea is not in their interest" comes to mind.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Paralus » Thu Jul 28, 2016 6:15 am

sean_m wrote:If Hannibal really wanted Antiochus to invade Italy, I wonder if he really understood how big Antiochus' empire was. I don't think he was ever east of Sidon was he? The story in Herodotus which ends with "to ask the Spartans to march two months' journey from the sea is not in their interest" comes to mind.
No, I don't think he was. Antiochos is described (Appian) as keeping Hannibal with him and so one infers he traveled with Antiochos' court unless he is described as being detached (as with his naval command). He certainly travels with the king to Greece. Interesting point on that: for Appian, Hannibal is to Antiochos what Parmenio was to Alexander. Hannibal is often described as offering sage advice which the arrogant Seleukid monarch chooses to dismiss. This is part of Appian's portrait of Antiochos as an over-confidant eastern despot whose hubris sees him only listen to himself as he is jealous and untrusting of the Carthaginian. Antiochos' decisions and actions are driven by vanity and folly (Syr. 13) - something mentioned more than once. He also paints Antiochos as intent on war with Rome (see Syr.5 & 7 for example) while the Romans are more circumspect or more concerned at taking on such a king and his empire (Syr. 15). The Romans are then depicted as very pleasantly surprised at their victory in Greece and feel they can defeat the eastern monarch. Antiochos' dismissal of Hannibal will bite him as, far too late, he realises the error of his ways when going down to deserved defeat at Magnesia. At Magnesia Appian even relates the notion that somehow Antiochos was not putting his "trust" in his Macedonian phalanx and so, messing up yet again, suffers catastrophic defeat due to this basic error.

It's a fascinating portrait that differs from Livy and it contains several errors. Many of these come from compression of his source material and so chronology becomes a mess as winters and near years are subsumed by contraction. But some of this is deliberate and the re-working of Polybios in Appian is crafted to the theme of of the overreaching king who, ignoring proper advice, rushes to his defeat at the hands of the virtuous Romans. We see this in Appian's description of Antiochos' "invasion" of Greece (Syr. 12):
They would not allow him to wait for the army that was coming from upper Asia, but by exaggerating the strength of the Ætolians and promising the alliance of the Lacedæmonians and of Philip of Macedon in addition, who was angry with the Romans, they urged his crossing. He assembled his forces very hastily, nor did even the news of his son's death in Syria delay him at all. He sailed to Eubœa with 10,000 men, who were all that he had in hand at the time.


Antiochos can have been under no illusions of what he could expect from Philip (little to nothing). He is also depicted as being an incredible dupe willing to accept whatever Thaos (the Aetolian envoy) tells him. Unsaid here is that this is one of two such embassies from Aetolia and Antiochos was certainly informing himself of what might be available to him in Greece. It is difficult to see how Antiochos could take the Aetolians at their word concerning Philip since they'd made such a song and dance about their defeat of him and subsequent calls for his death or removal by the Romans a few years earlier. Had Antiochos really been invading Greece with the intention of defeating the Romans in Greece as well, he most certainly will not have flown off on a whim with only those few troops he presently had to hand.

It would be lovely to have Polybios' original work here outside its paraphrasing in Livy and scraps of Diodorus.
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Ἐπὶ τοὺς πατέρας, ὦ κακαὶ κεφαλαί, τοὺς μετὰ Φιλίππου καὶ Ἀλεξάνδρου τὰ ὅλα κατειργασμένους;
Wicked men, you sin against your fathers, who conquered the whole world under Philip and Alexander.

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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Xenophon » Sun Aug 07, 2016 12:42 am

Some interesting comments have been made in this thread, particularly by Paralus and Sean, and unfortunately, because of a serious medical condition I have not hitherto been in a position to join in. Unfortunately, some misunderstandings have crept in, and certain “myths”, particularly about Pyrrhus, have been uncritically repeated.

Hypaspist wrote:
Pyrrhus had some great success against the romans. Of all the hellenistic kings he was the smartest who understood the necessity of intermingling italic style with macedonian...a very good hybrid indeed..
Pyrrhus did not deliberately ‘choose’ to ‘intermingle’ Italic and Macedonian style units as a tactical measure. This is a long-standing "myth" going back to the misunderstanding of 19th C German scholars.
Pyrrhus had been invited into Italy by Taras/Tarentum to assist against the seemingly unstoppable advance of Rome down into southern Italy. Tarentum promised Pyrrhus some 350,000 (!) troops from all over southern Italy, who needless to say did not eventuate. ( Tarentum could not field more than 30,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry at most.) With the aid of 5,000 Macedonian phalangites and a few hundred horsemen loaned by the King of Macedon, Ptolemy Keraunos, Pyrrhus set off for Italy with around 23,000 phalangites, 3,000 cavalry 2,000 archers 500 slingers and 20 elephants. Unfortunately, many of these were lost at sea en route. With Rome typically able to field armies of up to 40-50,000 men ( and even larger manpower in reserve), clearly only an “allied” army would be able to match them. So firstly,any army led by Pyrrhus was going to be a mixture of Epirot Macedonian style ‘phalanx’ troops who fought in ‘close’ order, and allied Italians who fought in a more ‘open’ style with throwing weapons, before closing up for a final phase with sword and large shield.

Secondly, we only hear of this ‘hybrid’ formation in a generalisation by Polybius though perhaps a likely one given the unreliability of the Italian allies. “...Placing ‘speira’/contingents and detachments composed of men from the phalanx in alternate order in his battles with the Romans. But still, even by this means he could not gain a victory, but the result of all their battles was always more or less doubtful.” Pol.XVIII.28.10

Thirdly, as Paralus has pointed out, like much of Graeco/Roman military terminology ‘Speira’/cohort had a rather loose meaning and moreover this changed over time. Basically it meant the smallest unit capable of operating independently, thus in Macedonian usage it consisted of 256 men (16x16 ) of the pike phalanx. Polybius also uses it to translate Latin ‘cohort’, which was used to describe the individual contingents of Roman allies/socii and could vary from hundreds to over a thousand men depending on the size of the allied city-state supplying the ‘cohort’/contingent. Later, in the second Punic war it also described part of a Roman Legion consisting of 120 velites,120 Hastati, 120 Principes and 60 Triarii (420 men) amounting to one tenth of the Legion. Cohorts of varying size also existed in the later Imperial Roman Army.
Pyrrhus’ Italian allies/socii also consisted of contingents of varying size. Thus we should not envisage tactical alternating ‘blocks’ of similar size making up a ‘checkerboard’ phalanx.

We can however see what Polybius meant by his generalisation, because we have a detailed description of Pyrrhus’ dispositions at the battle of Asculum in Dionysius.
Now it should be appreciated that a ‘conventional’ deployment had the commander place his strongest troops on the right wing, the next best on the left wing, the next best in the centre and the weakest units in between these. In fact, this is more or less exactly what Pyrrhus did at Asculum. I shall describe pike armed units as “M” and Italian style troops fighting initially in open order, in Italian style, as “I”.
From right to left:-
Having agreed through heralds upon the time when they would join in battle, they descended from their camps and took up their positions as follows: King Pyrrhus gave the Macedonian phalanx the first place on the right wing [probably some 4,000 or so strong] [M]and placed next to it the Italiot mercenaries from Tarentum, ; then the troops from Ambracia[M] and after them the phalanx of Tarentines equipped with white shields, (perhaps 5-6,000 strong)[M; trained by Pyrrhus], reinforced by the allied force of Bruttians and Lucanians; in the middle of the battle-line he stationed the Thesprotians and Chaonians ( and Molossians – these three made up the native Epirot troops) [M]; next to them the mercenaries of the Aetolians, Acarnanians and Athamanians,[Peltasts] and finally the Samnites, who constituted the left wing. Of the horse, he stationed the Samnite, Thessalian and Bruttian squadrons and the Tarentine mercenary force upon the right wing, and the Ambraciot, Lucanian and Tarentine squadrons and the Greek mercenaries, consisting of Acarnanians, Aetolians, Macedonians and Athamanians, on the left. The light-armed troops and the elephants he divided into two groups and placed them behind both wings, at a reasonable distance, in a position slightly elevated above the plain( i.e. in reserve). He himself, surrounded by the royal agema, as it was called, of picked horsemen, about two thousand in number, was outside the battle-line, so as to aid promptly any of his troops in turn that might be hard pressed.( i.e. also in reserve)” (Dionysius fragment XX.1).
Thus we see the Macedonian and Ambraciot pikemen on the right, the Samnites ( probably the most numerous contingent) on the left and the Epirot phalanx in the centre, with the various weaker contingents placed in between, bolstered by stronger flanking contingents, just as convention dictated. Pyrrhus had just had time to train the Tarentines as a Macedonian phalanx, and no doubt would have been happier if his entire phalanx could have all been so trained, for no solid pike phalanx could be broken frontally, but he had to make do with what he had. We can see also how Polybius’ generalisation came about, for the final phalanx formation is roughly alternating, whilst sticking to convention. No doubt the phalanx was similarly conventionally formed at Heraclea and Beneventum also.There was thus no new 'hybrid' tactical formation.

Hypaspist wrote:
I am reading up on Pyrrhus bio and find it a treat to study how he handled the romans... he really gave them hell there for a while. Just take a look at how he deployed and composed his army and tactics against the romans. He was the first and only one, apparently, to understand how to check them and offer a great match!


Hardly !! In all three battles Pyrrhus took on the Romans frontally head-to-head, with no clever manoeuvres or flanking attacks. His only innovation was his use of elephants, from which he evidently expected great things – which the Romans only saw for the first time at Heraclea. Thereafter they tried, fairly unsuccessfully, various anti-elephant ploys.
All three battles were, like the great majority in history, “indecisive” draws, and Pyrhus gained nothing from his ‘Pyrrhic victories’. Given Roman manpower, Pyrrhus could not hope to win a war of attrition. The outcome of his war with Rome was that he was driven out of Italy ( after his sojourn in Sicily, fighting Carthage), and though he hoped to return later, he never did. In the end, Pyrrhus achieved nothing against Rome, except perhaps demonstrating they were not “invincible”, through his bloody draws.

Hypaspist wrote:
Paralus, I believe Pyrrhus could very well have won the day... thing is, we do not know... Pyrrhus generalship in Asculum was just extraordinary... how he was all over the battlefield neutralizing one threat after another...

Had Pyrrhus commanded the army at Magnesia, I am pretty sure he would have refashioned the army and reconsidered the tactics.


...And I am certain that had Pyrrhus commanded at Magnesia, he would have had no more luck than Antiochus. The Romans who fought against each commander can be regarded as different as chalk and cheese. Those who fought Pyrrhus were the usual part-time citizen soldiers, and as related, they had never seen, let alone fought elephants before. On the other hand the Romans at Magnesia were experienced full-time professionals, hardened by over 20 years of warfare against Carthage, victors over Hannibal at Zama, and quite used to fighting and defeating elephants. The army of the Scipios in this era was one of the best Rome ever fielded, and far better than the Legions Pyrrhus faced.

Antiochus saw the weakness of the Roman left – few cavalry because they incorrectly thought the river sufficient flank protection - and executed a successful ‘right hook’ with his most powerful troops, the Cataphract/fully armoured cavalry. Pyrrhus never attempted grand tactical manoeuvres of this sort ( unless one counts his failed night attack at Beneventum), and his three battles against the Romans were basically head-on clashes. Despite this early mistake on their left at Magnesia, the Romans recovered and were ultimately savvy enough to defeat a combined force of phalanx and elephants without the necessity of close-quarter fighting, which would probably have produced heavy casualties ( like Pyrrhus’ clashes) Their victory was in fact decisive, with spectacular results.
Antiochus’ army also suffered one further disadvantage in its multitude of poor quality troops. One might well ask why Eastern armies always seemed to take along vast numbers of such low-quality “useless mouths”, creating a logistical nightmare. It was not just a literary ‘topos’. The answer lies in the nature of the Great King’s domains. It was not a monolithic Empire, but rather a conglomeration of different states, peoples etc with differing languages and cultures, and all resenting paying taxes/tribute to the “Great King”. Thus regardless of whether you were Darius, Xerxes, Alexander or Antiochus, you were mindful of the potential for rebellion if you took the ‘Royal Army’ away on campaign. Thus you took contingents from likely rebels, or those with potential armies, along as effectively hostages for the good behaviour of their relatives at home......an unfortunate necessity.


Paralus wrote:
Pyrrhos is overrated as a king and commander in my view. He did very well with limited resources - men, money and land - and it was those resources he constantly chased.

....and that is my view as well. It is also a good illustration of the part fortune plays in war. Starting with similar resources ( even if Epirus was smaller than Macedon), Pyrrhus, despite being every bit as courageous and bold as his cousin Alexander, never achieved similar results. Some in ancient times put this down to the fact that Pyrrhus had to fight “men” in the West, while Alexander had only “women” to contend with in the East......

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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Xenophon » Tue Aug 09, 2016 5:44 am

Paralus wrote:
As noted above, it is a great shame that Poybios has not survived in this regard. Antiochos was clearly no incontinent coward as presented here. Polybios clearly dealt with him in some detail for, as he notes early in his work, the Seleukid king was one of the major stars (Philip V, Ptolemy Philopater and Rome being the others) of the new world order that would frame Polybios' narrative. The great clash of the Greek eastern monarchies and Rome would explain how the world of Polybios latter days came about. Thus we miss Antiochos' great anabasis and a proper picture of the Seleukid monarch.
I would certainly agree with this! Polybius is certainly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of our ancient sources, regardless of era. Unfortunately, as Paralus says( and like many of our sources) we have very little of his work intact. In fact, only the first five (incomplete) out of 40 volumes, plus isolated fragments from the rest survive!!
Polybius' Histories begin in the year 264 BC and end in 146 BC (Polybius was born around 200 and died around 117 BC). He was mainly concerned with the 50 odd years in which Rome became the dominant Mediterranean power, and how this happened, explained for the benefit of his fellow Greeks.

Paralus wrote:
I can't help the feeling that Antiochos did not want war with Rome (nor did the senate with him though particular Romans saw advantage - Flamininus). He'd no interest in the west despite Hannibal's urgings. A 'war' of words and political/diplomatic to and fro unfortunately, for him, went too far. What comes out of the sources is a king who wished to cool things off and settle matters without going down to a climactic clash; a diplomatic settlement brokered with the Scipios. Like Philip before him, Antiochos did not really understand the Roman animal.
If Antiochus’ had no ambitions in the West, he was quite prepared to indulge in brinkmanship to get his way in Greece, threatening the Romans that he ‘would take up arms’ to defend Aetolia – hardly the actions of a ‘Great King’ looking to ‘cool things off’. Being the biggest bully with the largest stick, he probably did expect to get his way without a major war against the western Barbarians, and he was certainly playing on Roman fears to the full. He erred in thinking that they would yield to this fear – in fact the Roman way of dealing with threats and fear, real or perceived, was to destroy the source, which as Paralus remarked, he evidently did not understand.

As to Roman fears, they were genuine enough. They had watched Antiochus encroach steadily westward for years, until he stood just a short 220km or so sea journey from the boot of Italy. They went to a lot of trouble to raise armies and fleets to defend southern Italy, with the rumours of invasion being encouraged by Pergamum. With Hannibal’s invasion and terrible long war fresh in recent memory, and Hannibal himself with Antiochus, it was easy to believe Antiochus would unleash the power of the East on Italy.

It is impossible to explain the rather labyrinthine politics of the Eastern Mediterranean, and how Rome came to be drawn into them in a few lines in a forum post – one would need a book, but I feel Paralus’ few lines should be elaborated on to give a better view. In addition to the ‘stars’ of Polybius’ narrative referred to above by Paralus, there were many minor players as well, all striving for their own advantage in a bewildering Byzantine world of shifting alliances and diplomatic ‘warfare’ – Aetolia, Achaea, Pergamum Rhodes - these and others would all play a part that led to the clash at Magnesia and the demise of Antiochus.

Let us begin by going back to the Punic War. After the debacle of Cannae in 216 BC, with Rome at its lowest ebb, Philip V sought to take advantage by allying himself with Carthage and Hannibal, with the intention of seizing Rome’s Balkan territories. In some desperation Rome allied itself with Aetolia, now a rival to Macedon, and Pergamum. The war dragged on in desultory fashion until it petered out with the ‘Peace of Phoinike’ in 205 BC, with neither side having gained much.
Around this time, the infant Ptolemy V Epiphanes succeeded to the throne of Egypt, and Antiochus ‘Basileus Megas’/The Great King – he had adopted the Persian title - is said ( by Polybios) to have concluded a secret alliance with Philip V of Macedon for the partition of the Ptolemaic possessions. Under the terms of this pact, Macedon was to receive the Ptolemaic possessions around the Aegean Sea and Cyrene, while Antiochus would annex Cyprus and Egypt.
Antiochus then moved to Asia Minor, by land and by sea, to secure the coast towns which belonged to the remnants of Ptolemaic overseas dominions and also took the opportunity to seize the independent Greek cities.

Meanwhile, Rome defeated Carthage at Zama, ending the second Punic War. She had not forgotten Philip’s treacherous ‘stab in the back’ ( in Roman eyes), and egged on By Pergamum and Rhodes fought the second Macedonian war which ended with Flamininus’ victory at Kynoskephalae. Rome had sent an embassy to Philip’s ‘ally’ Antiochus to determine his atitude, but the wily King kept the Romans guessing as to whether he would come to Philip’s aid or not, but in fact he could not help but take advantage of Philip’s downfall and seized Macedonian territories in Asia minor and Thrace. Needless to say this earned him the enmity of a furious Philip ( who had done the same thing to Rome, so there was poetic justice). The tension grew after Antiochus had in 196 BC established a footing in Thrace proper - to reclaim his ‘hereditary’ lands ( by virtue of his ancestor Seleucus having defeated and killed Lysimachus).

Flamininus had declared the ‘freedom of the Greeks’ ( from Macedon), foregoing all future tribute and taxation, and departed. However Greek ‘freedom’ was granted at a high price – Flamininus’ ships returned home stuffed to the gills with the treasures and art of Greece. The cynical Greeks were amazed that the Romans had left, but in truth this was partly because they weren’t really interested in Greece and partly because Flamininus wanted to mark his place in History as ‘the Liberator’ of the Greeks. The evacuation of Greece by the Romans gave Antiochus his opportunity. Naturally Flamininus did not want to see his place in history as 'Liberator of the Greeks' undone by Antiochus hence his stance on confronting him when the Senate as a whole was lukewarm on the idea.

The Aetolians had annoyed Flamininus by keeping the loot from Philip’s camp at Kynoskephalae, and claiming the credit for the victory to bolster their prestige and influence in Greece. He retaliated by not awarding them the Macedonian territories they had expected in return for their alliance. The Aetolians now urged Antiochus to fill the ‘vacuum’left by Rome
In 192 BC Antiochus invaded Greece with a 10,000 man army, and was elected the commander in chief of the Aetolian League. This army had been earmarked as an expeditionary force for the exiled Hannibal, supposedly to invade Italy, but that rumour was most likely a ‘smokescreen’ – such a force could not possibly have succeeded against Rome, as Hannibal of all people knew only too well. The real objective of the proposed expedition was more likely the restoration of Hannibal in Carthage.

Antiochus diverted it instead to Greece as an ‘advance force’, but caught off-guard by the pace of events, Antiochus’ main force back in Asia was too slow to mobilise. In 191 BC, the Romans under Manius Acilius Glabrio routed his ‘Advance force’ at Thermopylae, forcing him to withdraw to Asia Minor. The Romans then followed up their success by invading Asia minor, which invasion was greatly facilitated by Philip as a Roman ally, who thus took his revenge against Antiochus. Subsequently, the decisive victory of the Scipio brothers at Magnesia (190 BC), delivered Asia Minor into their hands.
Phew! This is but an epitome of the much more complicated tale, and much has been compressed or left out – rather as in some of our sources!


Paralus wrote:
They would not allow him to wait for the army that was coming from upper Asia, but by exaggerating the strength of the Ætolians and promising the alliance of the Lacedæmonians and of Philip of Macedon in addition, who was angry with the Romans, they urged his crossing. He assembled his forces very hastily, nor did even the news of his son's death in Syria delay him at all. He sailed to Eubœa with 10,000 men, who were all that he had in hand at the time.
Antiochos can have been under no illusions of what he could expect from Philip (little to nothing). He is also depicted as being an incredible dupe willing to accept whatever Thaos (the Aetolian envoy) tells him. Unsaid here is that this is one of two such embassies from Aetolia and Antiochos was certainly informing himself of what might be available to him in Greece. It is difficult to see how Antiochos could take the Aetolians at their word concerning Philip since they'd made such a song and dance about their defeat of him and subsequent calls for his death or removal by the Romans a few years earlier. Had Antiochos really been invading Greece with the intention of defeating the Romans in Greece as well, he most certainly will not have flown off on a whim with only those few troops he presently had to hand.

It would be lovely to have Polybios' original work here outside its paraphrasing in Livy and scraps of Diodorus.
Regular Readers of this forum will be aware of the military importance of having an advance force laying the groundwork for an expedition, or as the dictum has it “gettin’ thar fastest with the mostest.” The Aetolians too will have been nervous about the prospects of facing Rome alone before Antiochus was committed, and Antiochus himself would have been concerned that the ‘vacuum’ might be filled by a Roman expeditionary force, and the opportunity lost, if he did not act quickly, with speed obviously in everyone’s interest. Nevertheless he was careful to sound out what his reception by the Greeks was likely to be before acceding to frantic Aetolian demands for help. Moreover, Hannibal’s expeditionary force had already been prepared and was available. How Hannibal felt about having his expedition, small as it was, being diverted to Greece from its (probable) original objective of restoring Hannibal in Carthage is, alas, not recorded in our extant sources........

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