Friday, March 05, 2010

Today In History: Please Mr. Custer...

Despite the fact that the land beyond the Euphrates had been swallowing up Roman armies at least since Crassus and 30,000 of his closest army buddies went walkabout and never came back, Roman emperors couldn't resist meddling in Persian politics.

On this day in 363AD, the Roman emperor Julian, his military reputation still surfing on the spankings he'd handed the Alamanni along the Rhine, marched his troops out of Antioch and into Sassanid Persia. It didn't really appear to be a "plan" kind of operation, as the army wandered around and dished out some random punitive damage to the Sassanid army and infrastructure before winding up camped outside of the capital at Ctesiphon.

Deciding against a lengthy siege, Julian decided to get all Xenophonic and march north, rather than back the way they'd come. He wound up taking a javelin through the liver during one of the innumerable skirmishes along the way, and the army was left in the hands of Jovian, a Serbian general who was no Alexander, if you know what I mean, and who some sources say was acclaimed emperor by accident. Shapur II soon brought the inept and harried Jovian to bay, and he signed away five provinces, three border forts, and a client kingdom to be named at a later date in order to be allowed to return to Roman territory and not take up a new career as Shapur's furniture.

The moral of the story? If you get a job working as a Roman emperor, stay on this side of the Euphrates.


Borepatch said...

Compare and contrast: Romans east of the Euphrates, Army of Northern Virgina north of the Potomac.

Ed Foster said...

Or Persians as infantry in mountainous Greek passes.

The steppes dwellers always had an advantage in cavalry warfare on large open plains where the could maneuver in depth and use horse mounted archers to support their shock troops.

The center of the Hunnish army was Germanic heavy cavalry, mostly Gepids, who had been conquered and switched sides, becoming about half of the founding stock of modern day Hungary. It seems Huns had little resistance to European diseases, but Hun/German hybrids did quite well indeed.

The Byzantine Cataphracti were essentially identical to Parthian heavies, with the same huge horses, soon to become the standard European warhorse, the same Gaulish/Galatian/Tocharian chainmail, and an identical recurved composite horn bow.

Not as practical as a Welsh longbow in rainy climates (the glue was water soluable) and not as accurate due to the savage kick, but about the same 200 meter practical range, allbeit with a much lighter arrow.

For reference, every time Turkish horse archers ran up against Welsh or first rate English archers during the Crusades, their saddles were emptied and they were driven off the field. Check out Richard's shore march during the Acre campaign.

A 40 inch arrow drawn to the ear, from a bow with a 120 to 180 pound draw, tipped with a hardened cold chisel called a bodkin, could punch through any armor, and the Turks soon learned to avoid those husky boys in the leather armor carying the long sticks.

The Europe hating revisionists on TV keep portraying the horn bow as some kind of super weapon, quoting a 500 meter shot done in Hungary in the 1500's as an example of innate superiority over crude European attempts to match it.

Nobody ever mentions that it was done with a special flight arrow, fired by the best trick shot in the Ottoman empire, entirely as a propaganda effort, and long after the invention of firearms had made any archer obsolescent.

But Belisarius's Cataphract still had Roman discipline, and when served with good generalship, could win any fight on dry, open ground against any army that came against him. A pity there were never enough of him.

Bram said...

I thought they were picked up by a starship to fight on primitive worlds for their alien overlords.

Michael said...

Romans shouldn't go Australian in Persia.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, denigration of european knights and medieval infantry vs. Muslim inthe near east, theorheticals vs. Japanese samurai, etc... are dumb and a historic.

Everyone had their ups and downs, but the medieval european armies , when on their game, were awesomely effective forces, showing full comprehension of combined arms and great tactical and technological sophistication. ( for their time)

That being said, a lot of bad things in Roman history would have been mitigated had Roman emperors not been such a collection of self important lunatics, surrounded by sycophantic psycopaths.

Tam said...

"That being said, a lot of bad things in Roman history would have been mitigated had Roman emperors not been such a collection of self important lunatics, surrounded by sycophantic psycopaths."

That's a little overly-generalized there, too, no?

Lewis said...


As a few people know, I'm just crazy mad nuts about the whole steppe thing, although my primary interest is more, you know, 13th century.

The real advantage I saw between the longbow and the horn bow wasn't so much in the bows themselves, but in the "weapons systems", if you will---basically the horse AND the bow. The horse part, that's good, and the bow part, that's good too, but it's the synergistic combination that always made the impression on me. Mobile artillery, as it were.

Bram said...


The horse archer made the eastern raider types dangerous to us western heavy/shock warfare types. No way could the Persians meet a legion or phalanx head-on. Wrong equipment, training, and mind-set. With horse archers, they could break the battle down into a series of raids - which fit their culture and mentality far better.

British long-bowmen were the difference in many battles, but, they didn’t operate alone. They were usually followed by heavy cavalry or men-at-arms, sometimes joining in the melee with their own close-combat weapons. More like a prepping the enemy with artillery before an infantry assault in modern terms.

Ed Foster said...

In all fairness, the Persian pasdaran had a serious shock element also, with big horses and heavy armor.

Which makes sense, as Persia was a big place, and heavy cavalry made more sense in rough, and particularly cultivated or partially forested ground.

Given cover, light infantry could savage archers, which probably accounted for Turkish defeats in Poland, Hungary (at least under Hunyadi), and pretty much anywhere west of the Danube.

Horse archers needed to be able to get out of Dodge when infantry was around. Either that or they needed dragoons to get them out of trouble.

Dragoons, or their lack, were a desperate shortfall of all the steppe cultures.

The idea of getting off a perfectly good horse to fight was never popular with them, and their generally small stature meant there were few of them to fulfill the role of a grenadier sized lunatic on a draft horse, carving his clumsy but powerful way through the press of battle, then dismounting to fight as shock infantry at the point of greatest need.

Bayonetted muskets were much less vulnerable to archery than pikes, cannons with grapeshot had more range than arrows, and with dragoons to break up any rallys, the light horseman was doomed, even in the open.

One bit of new technology replaced by a newer one.

Anonymous said...

Incompetence will trounce the highest technology.

Ulises from CA