Legio II Parthica

It is unlikely that any part of legio II Parthica (Second, Parthian) remained in Italy in AD 306. No mention of this famous legion occurs in the sources concerning the elevation of Maxentius.


Aurelius Mucianus, lanciarius of legio II Parthica. (c) Bernard Gagnon

The legion was raised by Septimius Severus soon after AD 193 and he built a fortress for it at Albanum (Albano), just to the south of Rome. In the first half of the third century AD, II Parthica was very much the personal legion of the emperors and was to be found at the core of the imperial field armies with the Praetorian Guard, equites singulares and Mauri, but in the second half it was deployed as vexillations and the bond with the Castra Albana was gradually broken (e.g. AE 1934, 193).

Epigraphic evidence for the legion in Italy is abundant until the mid-3rd century AD, after which it peters outs. The legion might have maintained its headquarters at the Castra Albana until the mid-AD 280s. The tombstone at Albano of Aurelius Iulianus, who had served in the legion for 33 years, may preserve the honorific title Aureliana, granted by the emperor Aurelian, who reigned ad 270–75 (AE 1975, 171), and a vexillation of II Parthica appears to have defected from Maximian to Carausius in AD 286 (RIC V² Carausius 60–65). The legion reappears in Mesopotamia. Part of it was destroyed when Shapur II stormed Bezabde in AD 360 (Amm. Marc. 20.7.1), and it is later recorded as being based at Cepha on the Tigris (Not. Dig. Or. 36.30). The transfer of the legion from Italy to Mesopotamia may be connected with Galerius’ Persian War (AD 298).

The Castra Albana was certainly abandoned when, shortly after AD 312, Constantine granted the land on which it stood to the Church (Lib. Pont. 34.30). While still based in Italy, II Parthica sent out detachments of stationarii to the highlands of Samnium (ILS 9087). Under Maxentius, this role was performed by legionaries who had defected from Severus or Galerius. Valerius Dizon, whose name indicates his Thracian descent, was a centurion of the Moesian legio IIII Flavia (Fourth, Flavian, after Flavius, the family name of the emperor Vespasian). He probably deserted from the field army of Galerius in the late summer of AD 307 and died sometime later at Venafrum (Venafro), presumably in charge of a detachment of stationarii (CIL X 4874; W. Seston, Scripta Varia (Rome 1980), 491).

This is an excerpt from Milvian Bridge AD 312: Constantine’s Battle for Empire and Faith

Scars, Spoils and Splendour

In 95 BC, Manius Aquillius, a former consul, was tried in Rome on charges corruption and extortion committed during his recent tenure as governor of Sicily. The evidence of numerous witnesses proved that Aquillius was guilty and his condemnation seemed assured. His defence lawyer, however, was not unduly concerned; his client would walk free. The lawyer was Marcus Antonius, grandfather of Mark Antony and one of the most renowned orators in Rome. While addressing the jury, he suddenly ripped open Aquillius’ clothing to reveal a scarred torso. See how all the scars are at the front of his body, declared Antonius, they are the distinguished marks of combat, the wounds sustained by a man who has never turned his back to the enemy. Antonius then directed the jury to examine a scar on Aquillius’ head, and reminded them that it had been received in a desperate single combat with Athenion, leader of a slave rebellion on Sicily. It was a dangerous wound, yet Aquillius had conquered his opponent and saved Sicily for Rome. Aquillius’ corruption was thus made to seem trivial; he was a hero and was duly acquitted.

The exoneration of Aquillius emphasises the fundamentally militaristic nature of Roman society. The Romans believed they were the children of the war god Mars and the field of battle was the arena in which a man showed his true worth. Virtus (manly courage and excellence) and gloria (fame and renown) were won in war. Scars were a symbol of virtus, proudly displayed and giving some men an authority that went beyond the usual confines of their social status. When campaigning for election to the consulship, Rome’s supreme magistracy, Gaius Marius announced that he was nothing like the usual aristocratic candidates. His was not a member of one of the famous Roman clans; he was a self-made man.

“I cannot, to justify your confidence, display family portraits [the wax effigies of accomplished ancestors displayed by nobles] or the triumphs and consulships of my forefathers; but if occasion requires, I can show spears, a banner, horse trappings and other military prizes, as well as scars on my chest. These are my portraits, my patent of nobility, not left to me by inheritance as theirs were [the nobles], but won by my own innumerable efforts and perils.”

Sallust, The War With Jugurtha, 85.29–30

Like the jurors at Aquillius’ trial, the Roman electorate could not resist such proof of courage: Marius was duly elected consul for 107 BC, and subsequently re-elected for five consecutive terms (104–100 BC). It is probable that Marius had loosened his toga to fully expose the scars on his chest and regaled the crowds with tales of how he had won them. This was a standard practice. In 167 BC, Sulpicius Galba, an ambitious young tribune, attempted to deny a triumphal procession to the victorious general Aemilius Paullus. An ancient senator called Servilius Geminus Pulex was disgusted by the political manoeuvrings and spoke in support of Paullus. To establish his authority and seniority, Servilius bared his upper body to display a mass of scars, and he singled out particular wounds and recounted how they had been received. The old warrior got carried away and his toga slipped down to expose his groin:

He accidentally uncovered what should have been kept concealed, and the swelling in his groin raised a laugh among the nearest spectators but Servilius retorted, “Yes, you laugh at this. I got this as well by sitting on my horse for days and nights on end, and I have no more shame or regret about this than about these wounds, since it never hindered me from successful service to the state either at home or abroad. I am a veteran soldier, and I have displayed before these young troops [i.e. the soldiers supporting Galba] this body of mine which has often been assailed by the sword. Now let Galba lay bare his smooth and unblemished body.”

Livy, 45.39.18–19

In the face of this extraordinary display, and with no scars or deeds of bravery to bolster his position, Galba’s motion was thrown out.

The virtus of men like Aquillius, Marius and Servilius was enhanced because they were the victors of single combats. As a young military tribune Marius fought a successful duel with a Celtiberian warrior at Numantia (134/3 BC). His triumph brought him to the attention of the great general Scipio Aemilianus (another famous Roman duellist), who encouraged him to pursue his ambition to be the leading man in Rome. Servilius was perhaps the most accomplished of all Roman duellists: “On 23 occasions I have challenged and fought an enemy. I brought back the spoils from every man with whom I engaged in single combat and I have a body decorated with honourable scars, all of them received in the front!” Such success linked men with the greatest of Roman heroes and demonstrated continuity with the glories of the past.

Romulus himself, the legendary founder of Rome, was believed to have killed Acron, king of Caenina, in single combat. The tradition maintained that Romulus dedicated the weapons and armour he stripped from Acron to Jupiter, king of the gods, in his guise as Feretrius, the bearer of trophies. The spoils taken from an enemy king killed by a Roman in single combat were known as spolia opima, the greatest spoils. Whatever the true origins of the custom (probably deriving from the folk memory that in the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries BC Roman leaders had fought in ‘battles of champions’ with the leading warriors of other Italic cities and tribes in order to settle disputes), it was a potent incentive for Roman bellatores (warriors) of the fifth to first centuries BC to be associated with a deed performed by Romulus.

The first historic example of the taking of the spolia opima occurred in 437 BC, when Cornelius Cossus, a military tribune, unhorsed Lars Tolumnius, king of Veii, at the battle of Fidenae. As the king struggled to get to his feet, Cossus leapt from his own horse, battered Tolumnius back to the ground with his shield, then repeatedly stabbed him with his lance until he was dead. Cossus proceeded to strip the king of his armour and decapitated him. The head was impaled on the end of Cossus’ lance, and he brandished it at the enemy cavalry, who were horrified and fled. Cossus dedicated the spoils to Jupiter Feretrius and they were still to be seen in the god’s temple on the Capitoline Hill in Rome in 30 BC.

Cossus’ decapitation of Lars Tolumnius was probably a key element in the ritual of single combat. The famous single combat between Manlius Torquatus and a Gallic champion in c. 361 BC, culminated with the Gaul’s decapitation. One account of Claudius Marcellus’ duel with Viridomarus, king of the Gaesati (222 BC), tells of the Roman consul taking both the king’s armour and his head. Marcellus’ defeat of Viridomarus allowed him to dedicate the spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius. This dedication, and that of Cornelius Cossus, may then have included the heads of the defeated kings. Severed heads were certainly used to decorate victory monuments on battlefields. In 45 BC Julius Caesar’s men stacked the corpses and weapons of their enemies to form a tropaeum (trophy) and crowned it with heads impaled on spears and swords.

The spoils from ordinary single combats, and other prizes taken in battle, were customarily displayed on the doorposts of houses and in public rooms. The weapons and armour were inscribed with brief details of where and from whom they had been taken. Once set up the spoils could not be removed, even if the house passed into different ownership. The surviving Roman literary sources indicate that some displays of spolia lasted for centuries.

The symbolism of valour was of course most conspicuous on the field of battle. Roman warriors of all ranks went into combat in their best war gear; it is a common misconception that the most splendid armour was worn only by senior officers or reserved for parades.

When Licinius Lucullus won his famous victory at Tigranocerta in 69 BC, he had 24 cohorts, i.e. two under-strength legions and another four legionary cohorts, totalling 10,000 men. His combined force of cavalry, archers and slingers numbered only 1000. Ranged against Lucullus was the immense army of Tigranes, king of Armenia: 55,000 cavalry, 17,000 of which were heavily armoured cataphract lancers; 10,000 archers and slingers; 150,000 infantry, and 35,000 engineers, smiths and other specialists. No doubt these figures are hugely exaggerated but, nonetheless, Lucullus’ small army was massively outnumbered. Tigranes could not believe that the Romans would dare fight with so few men and quipped to his entourage, “If they come as ambassadors, they are too many; if they come as soldiers, they are too few!”

Lucullus marched on the enemy in line of battle. When a river obstructed his line of advance, the legionary cohorts wheeled into a column to make the crossing. Tigranes saw the Romans begin their manoeuvre and thought they were in the process of turning about. He poured scorn on them for retreating, but the Romans forded the river and came on, and his minister Taxiles, evidently knowledgeable in Roman battle customs, said to the king:

“When these men are merely on the march, they do not put on gleaming armour, nor have their shields polished and helmets uncovered, as they have now taken the leather covers from their armour. No, this splendour means they are going to fight, and are now advancing on their enemies.”

Plutarch, Lucullus, 27.5

And it was in the their splendour that Lucullus’ few warriors routed one wing of Tigranes’ horde and caused the rest of his soldiers to flee in panic.

Other examples make it clear that the splendour of Lucullus’ men was not exceptional. In his account of the battle of the Sabis (57 BC), Julius Caesar remarked that the surprise attack of the Belgae meant his men had no time to put on their usual insignia, meaning helmet crests, plumes which identified the wearer with the war god Mars (especially when worn on either side of the helmet), and military decorations such as torques, armlets, and embossed discs called phalerae. During the Munda campaign (45 BC), one of Caesar’s courageous centurions was killed while covering the retreat of some legionaries. He went to his death in full insignia and was despoiled by the enemy when he fell. During the same campaign, the aristocratic officers Pompeius Niger and Antistius Turpio advanced from their respective armies to fight a single combat ‘with their shields and battle decorations shining’. The hilts and scabbards of the swords and daggers of Caesar’s veteran legionaries were decorated with silver and gold. This was another symbol of their prowess; only victorious warriors who had despoiled their vanquished enemies and taken much plunder could afford such embellishment.

The ancient sources do occasionally reveal instances when commanders criticised the ostentation of their soldiers’ equipment, but the complaints were directed at those whose reputation for valour did not justify such finery, or when decoration came at the expense of practicality. The helmets of Lucullus’ and Caesar’s legionaries may have been highly burnished and crested, but they were always strong defensive pieces of bronze or iron.

Polybius, the Greek solider and historian, was a political prisoner in Rome in the mid-second century BC. He was fascinated by the martial character of his captors and wrote of how the continual retelling of tales about the heroism and great feats of ancestors made young Romans desperate to establish their own reputations. The scars, spoils and splendid war gear of living veterans were another reminder that the young had a duty to seek ‘the glory that waits upon the brave’, not only for themselves, but also for the glory it conferred on the Roman people as a whole. Many were killed or maimed in that pursuit, but it was the way of a warrior people and was a major factor in the process that led them to conquer much of the known world.

Originally published in Ancient Warfare. Click here for a pdf of the illustrated article.

Caesar: Courage and Charisma

Julius Caesar was famous in his own lifetime for his military skill. His celeritas (swiftness) and good fortune in warfare amazed and impressed his contemporaries and later Roman generals wrote admiringly of his battle tactics. But Caesar would have achieved little without an excellent and faithful army. He did so by encouraging a particularly Roman ethos of valour.

The Scarlet Cloak

His coming was known by the colour of his cloak.

Caesar, The Gallic War 7.88

A flash of colour. Scarlet. A scarlet cloak! No ordinary cloak; the scarlet paludamentum of an imperator, the cloak of a general of Rome (Pliny, Natural History 22.3). And no ordinary general: Gaius Julius Caesar had entered the fray. All eyes – Roman and Gallic – were upon him.

His cloak was like a vexillum, the banner that called the legions of Rome to arms. The sight spurred Caesar’s flagging legionaries to new efforts, and the Gauls, sensing that this was the pivotal moment of the epic battle for Alesia (52 BC), surged forward. Here was their enemy, the focus of their fury. Caesar was their oppressor and would-be conqueror, but he was also the instigator, witness and gauge of their virtus, their valour and masculine excellence. It had been so since 58 BC. Could that famous valour, which had triumphed at Aduatuca (Caesar, Gallic War 5.34) and hurled legionaries from the ramparts of Gergovia (ibid. 7.50), win the day at Alesia?

The Gauls roared their clamor, their war cry, as they came on. The Roman legionaries bellowed back at them, dropped their pila (heavy javelins) and drew their swords. Now was the time for close combat, to fight toe to toe, the time to finish it.

There would be no glory for Gaul. Gallic valour was punctured by sharp Roman blades; and when the Gauls noticed the reinforcements – cavalry and legionary cohorts – brought up by Caesar, the last drops of that valour drained away. The Gauls turned and ran but were pursued and cut down by Caesar’s cavalry. The rout of the huge Gallic army attempting to break Caesar’s siege of Alesia was complete (ibid. 7.85-88).


They had learned from their parents and ancestors to fight their battles with virtus.

Caesar, The Gallic War 1.13

Five years before, on the banks of the River Sabis, Caesar had overseen another famous trial of virtus: the battle between the legions and the Nervii, the most bellicose of the tribes of the Belgae (Caesar, Gallic War 2.16-28). The virtus of Caesar’s legions won in the end, but it was a close contest. Charging downhill, the Tenth and Ninth Legions batted aside the Atrebates, while the Eleventh and Eighth Legions quickly worsted the Viromandui. So far, so easy for the legionaries. But the Artebates and Viromandui were unworthy allies to the Nervii, who now swept forward.

Caesar had never seen anything so glorious as the impetus, the running charge, of the Nervii. Nothing could slow their advance: not the River Sabis nor its steep banks, or even the slope upon which Caesar had formed a makeshift battle line in front of his half-built camp. The Seventh Legion shuddered as the wave of barbarians struck; the Twelfth Legion was almost washed away.

Frightened legionaries peeled away from the rear of the Twelfth while their comrades, assailed in front and on both flanks, huddled together so closely that they could no longer wield their weapons effectively. An easy victory, it seemed, for the Nervii.

As far as Caesar was concerned, the virtus of the Nervii was of the purest sort. They rejected the luxuries and culture of Mediterranean civilisation (the Romans obviously thrived on it, but barbarians were unmanned by degrees depending on the period of exposure), and were so certain of their fighting prowess that they disdained the use of cavalry and always fought on foot (ibid. 1.1; 2.15, 17). Who could resist such fierce warriors?

But not all of the legionaries cringed in the huddle. Centurio Romanus, the Roman centurion, held firm.

It was only a matter of time until the Nervii completely surrounded the Twelfth, but the centurions of the legion slowed their progress. Many of the centurions were killed, and all of them were wounded. The principal defiant was Publius Sextius Baculus, the primus pilus (leading centurion) of the legion, who fought on until he collapsed from his many wounds. The bravery and stubbornness of Baculus and his colleagues was born of loyalty to Caesar, an ingrained discipline and duty to stand fast, and a warrior code that preferred glorious death to cowardly flight or ignominious surrender (ibid. 2.25, cf. 6.40).

If the Nervii were symbolic of a pure barbarian valour, Baculus, ‘that bravest man’, as Caesar immortalises him, was the exemplar of Roman virtus. Virtus had resisted virtus, but Baculus had fallen and the jaws of the Nervii were closing around the legion.

Enter Caesar

The situation was critical and there were no reserves.

Caesar, The Gallic War 2.25

Having harangued the Tenth Legion on the left wing, and loosed it against the Artebates (Caesar’s brief speech reminded the legionaries of their long-established reputation for virtus), he rushed to the right wing where the Twelfth Legion was on the cusp of annihilation.

Unlike at Alesia, where reinforcements followed his flashing cloak, Caesar came alone. He did not even have a shield. He seized a scutum from a novice soldier in the rear ranks and then barged his way to the front of the beleaguered legion. All change! Loudly encouraging the soldiers and calling on the surviving centurions by name (one suspects Caesar knew the names and reputations of all his centurions), he ordered the legionaries to open up their maniples (manipulos laxare) so they could use their swords. As Caesar tells it, the transformation was immediate. With their courageous and charismatic imperator among them, the Nervii seemed a little less terrible. The animus – spirit, morale – that had been extinguished sparked again and caught flame. Fear was replaced by a need to impress Caesar, to overcome the daunting odds. The impetus of the Nervii was stalled.

The swords of the Twelfth finally began to ply their bloody trade. The neighbouring Seventh Legion was similarly reinvigorated by Caesar’s dramatic appearance and ordered by him to link up with the Twelfth. Together, with Caesar directing, the legions pushed the Nervii back. Caesar’s cavalrymen, allied Gauls who had fled before the Nervian onslaught, became ashamed of skulking at the rear and returned to the front; the cavalrymen were keen, if not desperate, to erase their cowardice and they vied with the legionaries in feats of virtus. The Tenth Legion, directed by Labienus, Caesar’s ablest lieutenant, had pursued the Atrebates and then captured the enemy camp. It now came up in support of the Twelfth and Seventh. Two other legions, at the rear of Caesar’s marching column, finally reached the battle field. Even the lixae, the camp followers, joined the fight. With the morale and discipline of his army restored, and with all its elements finally present on the field of battle, the fate of the valiant Nervii was sealed.

Yet Caesar does not dwell on the achievement of the Romans and their allies. He does not describe any of the acts in the competition of virtus between the cavalry and the legionaries. It is enough to know that, despite a very serious wobble, Rome had won in the end. But Caesar is almost overwhelmed by the deeds of the Nervii, by the martial magnificence of their last stand.

Even when their hope of safety was at an end, the enemy displayed prodigious virtus. When their front ranks had fallen, the next stood on the prostrate forms and fought from them. When these were cast down, and the corpses were piled up in heaps, the survivors, standing as it were upon a mound, hurled javelins at our troops, or caught and returned our pila. Not without reason, therefore, it was to be concluded that these were men of a very great virtus, who had dared to cross a broad river, to climb very high banks, and to press up over most unfavourable ground. These were tasks of the utmost difficulty, but animi magnitudo – greatness of spirit – had made them easy.

Caesar, The Gallic War 2.27

Such is the commemoration, the epitaph, of the Nervii.

Worthy of Record

Caesar was an attentive witness to the valour of the Nervii. He was, of course, a beneficiary of it: the greater the enemy he defeated, the greater and more famous his victory. There are frequent eulogies in The Gallic War and The Civil War to the virtus, fortis (bravery) and animus of the enemy. Take, for example, the Helvetii who continued to fight without shields at Bibracte and then refused to turn their backs during the retreat (58 BC), or the army of Camulogenus, that old master of ‘military science’, which gave no thought to surrender even when attacked in the rear by the Seventh Legion (52 BC) (Caesar, Gallic War 1.25-26; 7.62).  The selfless heroics of the defenders of Avaricum (52 BC) made a particular impression on Caesar:

There occurred before our eyes a thing which, as it seemed worthy of record, we have not thought it right to omit. A certain Gaul stood before the gate of the town and was hurling lumps of grease and pitch that were handed to him into a siege tower that was on fire. He was pierced by a dart from a scorpio [‘scorpion’, a bolt-throwing catapult] in the right side and fell dead. One of the party next him stepped over his prostrate body and went on with the same work; and when this second man had been killed in the same fashion by a scorpion-shot, a third succeeded, and to the third a fourth; and that spot was not left bare of defenders until the ramp had been extinguished, the enemy cleared away on every side, and a stop put to the fighting.

Caesar, The Gallic War 7.25

Caesar is occasionally dismissive of Pompeian legionaries, questioning their toughness and capacity for hard work, and suggesting their victory at Dyrrhachium (48 BC) was due more to luck than to military prowess and superior tactics (Caesar, Civil War 3.85; 3.68, 72). But he will never conceal bravery or the loss of soldiers worthy of note. The death at Ilerda of Quintus Fulginius, a Caesarian centurion, whose virtus had resulted in his promotion from the lower ranks to the senior post of hastatus of the first cohort of a legion, is matched by the death Titus Caecilius, a Pompeian primus pilus (49 BC) (ibid. 1.46). Despite his role in the betrayal of a Caesarian force at Curicta, Titus Puleio is described as leading the defence of a Pompeian fort at Dyrrhachium with the ‘utmost bravery’ (ibid. 3.67).

At the battle of Pharsalus (48 BC), the ranks of Pompey’s legions were stiffened by 2,000 evocati, veteran soldiers specially recalled to the service of their old commander. The fighting prowess of evocati was renowned. At Pistoria in 62 BC, Catiline’s evocati refused to give any ground and died where they stood, with all their wounds to the front (Sallust, Catiline 59-61). In Caesar’s opinion, however, Pompey hamstrung his evocati by forming a static, defensive battle line:

He is said to have done this on the advice of Gaius [Valerius] Triarius, in order that the first charge (incursus) and impetus of the troops might be broken and their line spread out, and that so the Pompeians marshalled in their proper ranks might attack a scattered foe. He hoped, too, that the pila would fall with less effect if the men were kept in their place than if they themselves discharged their javelins and advanced; also that by having a double distance to run Caesar’s soldiers would be breathless and overcome with fatigue. Now this seems to us to have been an irrational act on the part of Pompey, because there is a certain keenness of animus and impetuosity implanted by nature in all men which is kindled by the ardour of battle. It is the duty of commanders (imperatores) not to repress this feeling but to foster it, nor was it without good reason that the custom was instituted of old that signals should sound in every direction and the whole body of men raise a shout (clamor), by which means they thought that the enemy were terrified and their own men stimulated.

Caesar, The Civil War 3.92

Despite the animus-sapping tactic forced upon them (Caesar strongly implies the veteran soldiers had to be persuaded to fight this way), Caesar notes with approval that the Pompeians withstood the running charge of his legionaries (who paused and rested half-way when they realised the Pompeians were not counter-charging), and fought back vigorously (ibid. 3.86, 92-93).

In contrast to the torrent at the River Sabis, virtus is conspicuous by its absence from the plain of Old Pharsalus in Thessaly. This is because it was problematical for Caesar to apply the highest term of valour to a conflict between Romans. However, there is one exemplar of it: Crastinus, the former primus pilus of the Tenth Legion and ‘a man of singular virtus.’

Like Baculus at the River Sabis, Crastinus is the only ordinary soldier (as in not of equestrian or senatorial rank) to be named in Caesar’s account of the battle of Pharsalus. As he prepares to charge with 120 picked men (electi) from his old legion, he reminds his comrades (manipulares – soldiers of the same maniple) of their loyalty to Caesar and how they are fighting for his dignitas (‘dignity’, Pompeian and senatorial attacks on which were Caesar’s principal justification for starting this civil war), and their own liberty (ibid. 1.7). Then he turned to Caesar: “Today, imperator, I will do things that you will thank me for, whether I live or die.” With that he charged forward with his forlorn hope of manipulares, opening the fighting and cutting deep into the static Pompeian ranks (ibid. 3.91).

Crastinus’ charge does more than set the battle in motion. It serves to underline the justice of Caesar’s cause, despite the fact he is fighting fellow Romans, and demonstrates the extreme devotion of his men. Civil conflict posed a serious dilemma to men of virtus and honos (honour) like Crastinus. When Sextius Baculus fought the Nervii, he met warrior opponents of great and unsullied virtus, but Crastinus was fighting his own kind, even former manipulares because the Pompeian ranks contained legionaries transferred from Caesar’s army prior to the outbreak of the civil war. And yet Crastinus was prepared to shed Roman blood to maintain the reputation and dignity of Caesar; if he did not, the reputation he had won under the auspices of Caesar would be worthless.

As Caesar’s account of the action at Pharsalus opens with Crastinus’ speech and charge, it closes with a notice of Crastinus’ death:

Crastinus, whom we mentioned above, was killed by a sword thrust to his mouth while fighting with the utmost bravery. Nor did the remark he made while starting out for the fight prove false, for Caesar was of the opinion that virtus of Crastinus in that battle had been most remarkable, and he judged that he had rendered him the greatest service.

Caesar, The Civil War 3.99

What Caesar does is effectively make Crastinus and his virtus the principal reason for victory. Caesar’s generalship and tactical genius (the creation of a fourth battle to negate Pompey’s superiority in cavalry was decisive) won it, but Caesar is too savvy to blow his own trumpet, a prime example of him ‘speciously disclaiming tactical ability of his own’ (Cuff 1957, 32). Crastinus, that man of singular valour, chose to die for Caesar, and that says everything Caesar wants us to know about the justice of his cause and the excellence of his leadership. There was no counterpart to Crastinus in Pompey’s army. And no wonder, for Pompey was not worthy of inspiring virtus. His army is full of brave men, notably the centurions who defend the praetorian gate of his camp from the Caesarians’ assault, but Pompey soon abandons those heroes and flees (Caesar, Civil War 3.94-96).


It was my desire for glory that led you into danger.

Caesar, The Gallic War 7.50

Caesar’s recording of such beneficial deeds of valour was not cynical. As a Roman, Caesar’s appreciation is genuine and, as a general, he is deeply interested in the workings, and fluctuations, of courage and spirit/morale on the outcome of campaigns and battles. The first chapter of The Gallic War is a catalogue of the comparative virtus of the peoples of Gaul; the scale of the task in conquering and consolidating Gaul is made very clear to Caesar’s Roman audience.

Virtus and animi magnitudo, greatness of spirit, were to be greatly admired, especially in barbarians, and even in civilised non-Romans like the Massiliote Greeks. But as we have seen, greatness of spirit did not win the battle of the Sabis for the Nervii. In the case of Massilia, excessive animus created over-confidence and resulted in defeat in battle at sea and the reduction of the city by siege (Caesar, Civil War 2.1-16).

The same qualities had to be managed in Roman soldiers. Disaster was courted when excessive virtus, animus and lust for gloria (glory) overwhelmed discipline at Gergovia in 52 BC. Caesar recognised the need for careful management:

Greatly as he admired the high courage of men whom no camp fortifications, no mountain top, no town wall had been able to check, he blamed as greatly their indiscipline and presumption in supposing that they had a truer instinct than the imperator for victory and the final result. He required from his soldiers, he said, discipline and self-restraint no less than virtus and greatness of animus.

Caesar, The Gallic War 7.52.

In his biography of Caesar, Plutarch emphasises that the general ‘inspired and cultivated this spirit, this passion for distinction’ (Caesar 17.1). No wonder, then, that things sometimes got out of hand. At Gergovia, Lucius Fabius, a centurion of the Eighth Legion, said ‘he was spurred on by the rewards at Avaricum [captured and sacked earlier in 52 BC], and would allow no one to mount the wall before him. He got three of his manipulares to hoist him up and climbed the wall. He then in turn took hold of them one by one and pulled them up the wall.’ Caesar looks upon this act of daring with some negativity because it is stimulated by desire for plunder rather than a lust for distinction. Contrast the portrayal of Marcus Petronius, another centurion of the Eighth. Like Fabius, he had led his men into danger, but he did so for gloria, for glory, and he selflessly covers the retreat of his men: ‘he burst into the midst of the enemy… he fell fighting and saved his men’ (Caesar, Gallic War 7.47, 50).

In early winter 54 BC, the camp of Quintus Cicero, one of Caesar’s legates, was besieged by the Nervii. The senior centurion Titus Pullo left the defences of the Roman camp and dared his rival Lucius Vorenus to follow and so prove his virtus. Pullo charged into a band of the enemy, killing a warrior with his pilum, but the Nervii hurled their javelins back, pinning Pullo down. His shield was punctured by one javelin and another missile dented his scabbard temporarily jamming his sword. Pullo was surrounded but Vorenus came to the rescue of his old rival, using his sword to force the Nervii back:

The enemy all turned on him at once, and left Pullo, supposing him to be slain by the javelin. Vorenus plied his sword at close quarters, and by slaying one man drove off the rest a little, but he pursued them too eagerly and he fell headlong into a dip in the ground. He was surrounded in turn, but Pullo came to his aid. They killed several men and returned safely to the ramparts to great acclaim. In the eagerness of their rivalry fortune so handled the two that, for all their mutual hostility, the one helped and saved the other, and it was impossible to decide which should be considered the better man in virtus.

Caesar, The Gallic War 5.44

It may seem strange to us that the centurions were not punished for this act, for having abandoned their centuries to pursue a private vendetta in the most dangerous fashion. But comradeship and virtus had triumphed and that was inspirational.

Things had changed greatly since the mid-second century BC when Polybius, the Greek soldier and historian, noted ‘the Romans do not desire their centurions to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle.’ But what had not changed was the essential self-sacrifice of the centurion. The centurions of Polybius’ era would ‘stand their ground when worsted and hard-pressed and be ready to die at their posts’ (6.24.9). As Marcus Petronius had sacrificed himself at Gergovia, a number of proud centurions stood their ground to enable the escape of a foraging party when attacked by the Germanic Sugambri at Aduatuca in 53 BC:

Some of their centurions had been transferred, on account of their virtus, from the lower ranks (ordines) of the other legions to the higher ranks of this one. And these, that they might not lose the renown for military prowess won in the past, fell fighting most gallantly. Some of the soldiers [in the foraging party], when the enemy had been thrust aside by the virtus of the centurions, arrived, though they did not expect it, safe in camp.

Caesar, Gallic War 6.40

The desire for distinction promoted by Caesar could lead to defeat (e.g. Gergovia, where 700 legionaries and 46 centurions died – note the hugely disproportionate casualty rate of the latter) and encourage acts of reckless bravado (e.g. Pullo and Vorenus), but more often than not it won, or at least saved, the day.

Caesar the Man

Caesar longed for great power, an army, a new war, to allow his virtus to shine.

Sallust, The War With Catiline 54.4

Baculus’ bravery at the River Sabis buys time for Caesar, but it is Caesar who single-handedly swings the balance. The effects of his personal intervention are immediate. His presence is electrifying. He quells panic and turns fear into courage. He coolly takes control and wins a total victory against the worthiest of opponents. Caesar’s charisma, the force of his personality, and the stimulus of his competence on subordinates cannot be exaggerated. Caesar exemplifies auctoritas – authority.

Later, in the Civil War, hero worship of Caesar stimulates men like Crastinus to die in defence of his honour. The loyalty of the centurions at the very outset of the war was such that they gladly loaned him cash from their own savings to pay a gratuity to the rank and file (Caesar, Civil War 1.39). During the defeat at Dyrrhachium, a mortally wounded aquilifer (eagle-bearer) beseeched his comrades to help save the eagle so that he might die knowing that his honour and loyalty (fides) to Caesar remained intact (ibid. 3.64). Compare the speech of the heroic aquilifer of the Tenth Legion, when his fellows refused to leave their ship and assault a British beach in 55 BC: “It shall be told that I did my duty to the Republic and my imperator”, cried the aquilifer and he leapt into the surf, shaming the rest into following (Caesar, Gallic War 4.25). In 55 BC loyalty to Caesar is as important as service to the state; by 48 BC, as exemplified by the nameless aquilifer and Crastinus, loyalty to Caesar had superseded loyalty to the state.

At the Sabis and at Alesia, the dramatic appearance of Caesar causes a surge in morale. Considering his patrician birth and education, it is not surprising that Caesar was endowed with self-assurance. What marked him out from his aristocratic peers were great eloquence, a swift and brilliant mind, the power of persuasion, amiability, loyalty to his friends, courage, exceptional endurance, ruthlessness, and deep strength of character.

While still in his late teens, Caesar successfully evaded Sulla’s death squads and was granted a pardon when the warlord despaired of ever capturing him. Sulla was not convinced of the wisdom of this. He sensed the latent greatness in the youth. “Caesar has many Mariuses in him,” he remarked. Gaius Marius, the famous general and Sulla’s bitterest enemy, was Caesar’s uncle by marriage (Suetonius, Deified Julius 1.3).

Caesar was considered handsome but he was pale skinned and slightly built (Plutarch, Caesar 71.2). He was not an obvious Roman bellator (warrior) in appearance, but in his first campaign, at the siege of Mytilene (80 BC), he showed his mettle and was awarded the corona civica. This ‘civic crown’, presented to a man who had saved the life of a fellow-citizen in battle, was considered the highest of honours (Suetonius, Deified Julius 2).

Caesar was the product of an expansionist and competitive warrior culture that valued courage above all. His was a world in which the houses of old soldiers were decorated with spolia, the spoils and trophies, they had taken from the enemy; a world in which great men, like his uncle Marius, would appeal to voters by boosting of the scars they had earned in battle. It should come as no surprise that Caesar so admired virtus and should aspire to be an exemplar of it.

Mytilene demonstrated Caesar’s virtus. Four years later, while travelling to Rhodes, he was kidnapped by pirates (Plutarch, Caesar 2). No daring escape for Caesar from the island of Pharmacussa. There was no need. For 38 days this likeable and entertaining Roman bantered with his captors, exercised and played games with them. He wrote speeches and poetry and made the pirates listen. He berated them when their boisterous antics disturbed his rest. He was more like their leader than their prisoner, wrote Plutarch. When his ransom was paid, Caesar told the pirates, he would come back and execute them all. He said it often and always with a smile. They took it as a joke. The ransom was paid and Caesar was released. He returned as promised:

He immediately manned vessels and put to sea from the harbour of Miletus against the robbers. He caught them, too, still lying at anchor off the island, and got most of them into his power. Their money he made his booty, but the men themselves he lodged in the prison at Pergamum, and then went in person to Iunius [Iuncus], the governor of Asia, on the ground that it belonged to him, as propraetor of the province, to punish the captives. But since the propraetor cast longing eyes on their money, which was no small sum, and kept saying that he would consider the case of the captives at his leisure, Caesar left him to his own devices, went to Pergamum, took the robbers out of prison, and crucified them all, just as he had often warned them on the island that he would do, when they thought he was joking.

Plutarch, Life of Caesar 2.5-7

The episode on Pharmacussa may whiff of exaggeration, but as an early example of Caesar’s ruthlessness and, more importantly, his charisma and skill in the handling of tough and dangerous men, it is most striking. If he could so easily bend hostile pirates to his will, Caesar must have wondered what he could achieve with a following of loyal Romans.

Caesar would experience his first tests of command in 74 BC when he raised a militia force to counter a Pontic incursion into the province of Asia, but it was not until 61 BC as governor of Further Spain that he acquired an army of legionaries and a worthy enemy to conquer. It is to be regretted that we know little of Caesar’s Spanish campaign, but the speed with which he enrolled ten new cohorts (i.e. a legion) to reinforce the existing garrison of 20 and then proceeded to defeat the ‘Callaici and Lusitani … and marched on as far as the outer sea, subduing tribes which before were not obedient to Rome’, foreshadow the dynamic, swift-moving and far-reaching campaigns of the Gallic and Civil Wars. (Plutarch, Caesar 12.1).

Considering the speed with which Caesar won over his pirate captors, it is no surprise to find legionaries immediately in awe of him, devoted even, in the first year of his Gallic command (58 BC). Victories over the Helvetii and their allies, especially the great battle of Bibracte, where Caesar sent away his horse to stand with the infantry and his masterful handling of the triplex acies (triple battle line) formation of the legions to meet a flank attack by the Boii and Tulingi, confirmed his willingness to share the hardships of the common soldiers and established his reputation for invincibility (Caesar, Gallic War 1.24-26).

The virtus of the Helvetii was great, surpassing that of other Gauls; Roman virtus was therefore even greater. Yet later that year, on learning the immense reputation of Ariovistus’ Germans for virtus and skill at arms, Caesar’s army became infected with fear. It started with the inexperienced hangers-on in Caesar’s entourage, but it spread even to the veteran legionaries, centurions and cavalry prefects. There were cowardly mutterings that the soldiers would refuse to follow the standards when Caesar moved his camp from Vesontio to face Ariovistus. He summoned a consilium (council) of all ranks of centurion and demanded of them, “Why do you despair of your virtus or of my competence?” If necessary, he would march on the Germans with only the Tenth Legion (Caesar’s favourite). Order was restored (ibid. 1.1, 13, 39-41). Shame was always a great motivator for Romans: how could they have even countenanced abandoning their imperator? And competitiveness, too. Why should the Tenth have all the glory?

In the subsequent battle against Ariovistus, Caesar selected legates to command the legions (tribunes and centurions remained the constant in the legionary command hierarchy; legate was still an ad hoc appointment) and, more importantly, to act as witnesses to the virtus of the legionaries.  The vaunted virtus of Artiovistus’ warriors was no match for the berserk fury of the legionaries. When the Germans formed a testudo (‘tortoise’ – a defensive formation with walls and roof of shields), legionaries, who had recently cowered in the camp at Vesontio, ‘leapt on to the masses of the enemy, tore the shields from their hands and wounded them from above’ (ibid. 1.52).

Not any general could face down and shame a crowd of twitchy centurions. Many years later, the Ninth and Tenth Legions mutinied in quick succession. The veterans had grown weary of battle and demanded the rewards of retirement. Caesar faced them down. Alone. And they returned to discipline (Suetonius, Deified Julius 69-70). He could even divert legionaries Ffrom a camp full of rich plunder to continue the pursuit of a defeated enemy (Caesar, Civil War 3.96-97).

The force of Caesar’s personality was extraordinary. It made him Rome’s greatest general and enabled him to mould Rome’s greatest army, a force of legions that would storm the very heavens ([Caesar], Spanish War 42).

Further Reading

The literature on Caesar is vast, but for the topics highlighted here, virtus and animus, the most important works are J.E. Lendon’s ‘The Rhetoric of Combat: Greek Military Theory and Roman Culture in Julius Caesar’s Battle Descriptions’, Classical Antiquity 18 (1999), 273-329 andits sequel, ‘Julius Caesar, Thinking About Battle and Foreign Relations’, Histos 9 (2015), 1-28; and R.D. Brown’s ‘Two Caesarian Battle Descriptions: A Study in Contrast’, Classical Journal 94 (1999), 329-357. M. McDonnell’s Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic (Cambridge 2006), considers virtus throughout the Republican era. See also Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antquity (New Haven and London 2005), 212-232, for the dynamics of virtus in the legions of Caesar, and his Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (Oxford 1997), 237-266, for a wider exploration of the motivations of Roman fighting men in the Imperial era. The Pullo and Vorenus incident is considered in depth by R.D. Brown in ‘“Virtus consili expers”: An Interpretation of the Centurions’ Contest in Caesar, De bello Gallico 5, 44’, Hermes 132 (2004), 292-308. P.J. Cuff’s ‘Caesar the Soldier, Greece & Rome 4 (1957), 29-35 is a concise and elegant introduction to Caesar’s style of personal command. J. Harmand’s L’armée et le soldat á Rome de 107 á 50 avant notre ére (Paris 1967) remains the essential reference to the Roman army in the age of Caesar.

On contemporary recognition of Caesar’s celeritas (swiftness) and fortune in war, see Cicero, Letters to Atticus 7.22.1 and [Caesar], Alexandrian War 43. For appreciation of his tactics by later Roman commanders, note, for example, Frontinus, Stratagems 2.3.22.

For the galvanising effect Caesar had on his legionaries, even when not directly involved in fighting, see Caesar, Gallic War 3.14 (watching a sea battle from land) or 7.62 (for Labienus encouraging to his men fight as if Caesar himself were present). For more on Caesar’s character and qualities, see Sallust, War With Catiline 54 (Sallust served under Caesar in 49-46 BC); Velleius Paterculus 2.41; Suetonius, Deified Julius 72-75; and Plutarch, Caesar 17.

This is a draft of a chapter to be published in Generals, a forthcoming Ancient Warfare special.

Champions and Tradition: Single Combat in the Age of Belisarius


Roman cavalry, 6th cent. AD. From Ancient Warfare magazine

The sixth century AD witnessed a revival of the practice of single combat by Roman champions, usually officers of considerable rank and prestige, but these men were often of non-Roman origin or descent. To what extent did their native warrior traditions influence the revival of single combat?


The Roman Tradition

The Romans traced a tradition of single combat back to the very foundation of their city. Romulus was the first Roman duellist. He killed king Acron of Caenina in single combat and then captured the little Latin town. Another legendary duel, or rather battle of champions, between the three Roman Horatii brothers and the three Alban Curiatii brothers, resulted in the absorption of Alba Longa by Regal Rome.

Historic single combats in the Republican period were rarely decisive but still important because they demonstrated Roman virtus (valour and excellence) and the favour of the gods. The defeat of Gallic, German and Spanish warriors of chiefly rank, served to encourage the Romans and to dismay the enemy. However, the incident at Nola in 89 BC is particularly notable as an example of a decisive single combat. The defeat of a Gallic champion by Moorish cavalryman in Roman service, caused the Gallic mercenies employed by Samnite rebels to panic and flee. This exposed the Samnites, who in turn fled, and were cut down in their thousands as they attempted to enter Nola through a single gate.

The Roman sources typically distort the reality of these duels by nearly always having a tall and mighty enemy champion stride (or ride) into the no-man’s land between the rival armies to abuse the Romans and challenge any who are brave enough to fight him. No one will. Eventually a young Roman officer, usually the scion of an aristocratic gens (clan), apparently small in stature and inexperienced in hand-to-hand combat, can take no more of the enemy’s taunts and accepts the challenge. However, in keeping with the Roman tradition (or cherished fantasy) of discipline, he does not rashly rush out at the enemy, but first seeks the permission of his general to fight. Then, in typical David and Goliath style, and sometimes aided by the intervention of the gods, he vanquishes the arrogant barbarian.

Despite the clichéd elements in the accounts of single combats won by the tribunes Titus Manlius Torquatus on the Anio (361 BC) and Marcus Valerius Corvus in the Pomptine Marshes (349 BC), there can be no doubt that they helped inspire the Romans to important victories over the Gauls. Moreover, their feats in combat ensured their reputations for virtus and hastened their rise to the highest military and political offices.

Of course, not all Roman duellists were relatively junior military tribunes. For example, Marcus Claudius Marcellus was consul, the chief magistrate of Rome, when he slew Viridomarus, king of the Gaesati at Clastdium in 222 BC. Marcellus claimed the spolia opima, that is the greatest spoils (arms and armour and sometimes the head) taken by a Roman leader from an enemy king or general in single combat.

Sometimes we do hear of a Roman leaving the battle line to insult the enemy and deliver a challenge to single combat, for example Antistius Turpio at Munda in 45 BC. This is probably indicative that the Romans were far more active in issuing challenges than the sources admit. If the Romans really were so disciplined, commanders, from the Elder Torquatus in 340 BC to the Caesar Titus in AD 70, would not have had to issue orders against unsanctioned duels and acts of bravado in combat.

Single combat was generally practiced by nobles but there are some examples of duels fought by ordinary Roman soldiers. Interestingly, the cavalryman Priscus, who accepted the challenge of the Jew Jonathon at Jerusalem in AD 70, is the only Roman recorded to have lost a single combat in the Regal, Republican or Early Imperial eras. What is more, this duel reverses the usual David and Goliath scenario: Priscus is the experienced and formidable Goliath figure but as he charges towards his apparent victim, he slips and the small Jonathon seizes the opportunity to kill his momentarily defenseless opponent.

The brief fight between Jonathon and Priscus seems to terminate the Roman tradition of single combat. While there is no doubt that there were countless one-on-one combats involving Romans and their opponents, it is not until AD 422 that another certain example of a formal single combat presents itself. In that year Areobindus, a Roman general of Gothic extraction, fought a battle of champions against a Persian ‘immortal’ somewhere in Mesopotamia.  The duel seems to have been proposed by the Sasanid Persian king Bahram V, who wished to avoid a full-scale pitched battle. When Areobindus won the single combat (thanks to his lasso), Bahram concluded a peace treaty with the Romans. Areobindus’ feat became famous but seems not to have spurred a wider revival of the old tradition of single combat (see Cowan 2017). That came a century later.

The Revival of Single Combat

Single combat of the classic Roman type, that is an apparently junior and inexperienced Roman accepting the challenge of a boastful enemy champion, reappears in the skirmishing leading up to the battle of Dara in July AD 530. The cavalry on the left wing of Belisarius’ army won a skirmish against cavalry from the right wing of the Persian army:

Seven of the Persians fell and the Romans gained possession of their bodies. Then both armies remained quietly in position, but one Persian, a young man, riding up very close to the Roman army, began to challenge all of them, calling for whoever wished to do battle with him. And no one of the whole army dared face the danger, except a certain Andreas, one of the personal attendants of Bouzes. (Procopius, Wars 1.13.28-30)

The Thracian general Bouzes commanded the cavalry on the left wing of the Roman army. Procopius asserts that Andreas was simply a servant, “not a soldier or one who had ever practised at all in the business of war, but a trainer of youths in charge of a certain wrestling school in Byzantium [i.e. Constantinople],” and who had the honour of being Bouzes’ bath attendant (Wars 1.13.30-31). Considering his background in unarmed combat, skill as a horseman, and because he was fully armed and armoured, it seems unlikely that Andreas was a simple servant. It is probable that he was a senior member of Bouzes’ bucellarii. So-called because of their biscuit ration (bucellatum), the bucellarii were military retainers employed by wealthy officials and generals. They are sometimes described as private bodyguards, but the bucellarii also swore an oath of loyalty to the emperor and were placed at his disposal.

This man alone had the courage, without being ordered by Bouzes or anyone else, to go out of his own accord to meet the man in single combat. Andreas caught the barbarian while still considering how he should deliver his attack, and hit him with his spear on the right breast. And the Persian did not bear the blow delivered by a man of such exceptional strength, and fell from his horse to the earth. Then Andreas slew him with a small knife like a sacrificial animal as he lay on his back, and a mighty cry was raised from both the city wall [of Dara] and from the Roman army. (Procopius, Wars 1.13.31-32)

Unlike most of the famous Roman duellists of old, Andreas did not seek the permission of his commander to fight. (Quintus Occius Achilles is a notable example of a Republican Roman officer who did not seek permission to accept a challenge, but the duel was not fought in a battle situation.) When Andreas returned to the Roman battle line, Hermogenes, the deputy of Belisarius, forbade him to accept any more challenges, but Andreas was not able to resist when a second Persian champion rode out. He was a bigger man than Andreas – the David and Goliath theme again – and we can assume he was of senior rank.

The Persians were deeply vexed at the outcome and sent forth another horseman for the same purpose, a manly fellow and well favoured as to bodily size, but not a youth, for some of the hair on his head already showed grey. This horseman came up along the hostile army, and, brandishing vehemently the whip with which he was accustomed to strike his horse, he summoned to battle whoever among the Romans was willing. And when no one went out against him, Andreas, without attracting the notice of anyone, once more came forth, although he had been forbidden to do so by Hermogenes. So both rushed madly upon each other with their spears, and the weapons, driven against their corselets, were turned aside with mighty force, and the horses, striking together their heads, fell themselves and threw off their riders. And the two men, falling very close to each other, made great haste to rise to their feet, but the Persian was not able to do this easily because his size was against him, while Andreas, anticipating him (for his practice in the wrestling school gave him this advantage), smote him as he was rising on his knee, and as he fell again to the ground dispatched him. Then a roar went up from the wall and from the Roman army as great, if not greater, than before; and the Persians broke their phalanx and withdrew to Ammodios, while the Romans, raising the paean, went inside the fortifications. (Procopius, Wars 1.13.33-39)

One wonders how exactly Andreas managed to sneak out again to confront the second Persian warrior. We hear no more of Andreas after this feat. Procopius – who, as a member of Belisarius’ staff, may have witnessed the duels – does not tell us if Andreas was punished for disobeying Hermogenes’ order.

Andreas’ two victories certainly boosted the morale of the Roman army, but it is probably coincidental that the Persians withdrew after the death of their second champion. The duels were fought late in the day (cf. Wars 1.13.25) and because a general engagement had not developed (contrast, for example, the battle that erupted after Valerius Corvus’ duel in the Pomptine Marshes), the Persians would have intended returning to their fortifications before nightfall. They came back to Dara the next morning, and were defeated in a pitched battle.

The Vagaries of Single Combat

In AD 535, a Roman victory in single combat did persuade an enemy army to quit the field. When the Moorish chief Iaudas plundered Numidia, Althias, the comes foederatum (commander of allied troops) based at Centuriae, realised he could not confront Iaudas in open battle: he had only 70 Huns under his command. Althias reckoned that if he occupied the easily defended spring at nearby Tigisis, the only major source of water in the region and where Iaudas and his thirsty army would have to halt, he could force the Iaudas into a battle of champions. If Iaudas won his army would drink; if Althias won, the Moors would hand over their booty and captives.

Iaudas, a powerful man and experienced fighter, was emboldened to accept the terms because of Althias’ lack of stature and slim build. Spurring his horse forward, burly Iaudas hurled his spear at the Roman commander, but with lightning speed the much slighter Althias caught the missile with his right hand! “This filled Iaudas and the enemy with consternation. With his left hand Althias instantly drew his bow, for he was ambidextrous and [presumably having ditched the spear] hit and killed Iaudas’ horse. As he fell, the Moors brought up another horse for their commander, upon which Iaudas leaped and straightaway fled. The Moorish army followed him in complete disorder.” The Moors abandoned all of their booty and captives as they raced to catch up with their chief, and “Althias won a great name in consequence of his deed” (Procopius, Wars 4.13.11-17).

Excepting Iaudas’ unfortunate steed, Althias’ victory was bloodless. As in the earlier age of Roman single combat, Roman champions of the sixth century AD did not lose duels, but they did not always survive them.

In the spring of AD 542, near Faventia (see Procopius, Wars 7.3.22 for the location), the army of the Gothic king Totila was vulnerable to attack as it made a difficult river crossing. The senior officer Artabazes urged his fellow-commanders to attack the Goths, but they refused. The Goths completed their crossing unopposed and advanced to confront the Roman army. A Goth named Valaris then spurred forward and challenged any Roman who would dare to single combat. Artabazes was still simmering with rage and immediately accepted the challenge:

So they rode their horses towards each other, and when they came close, both thrust their spears, but Artabazes, anticipating his opponent, delivered the first blow and pierced the right side of Valaris. The barbarian, mortally wounded, was about to fall backward to the earth but his spear, resting on the ground behind him and being braced against a rock, did not permit him to fall. (Procopius, Wars 7.4.23-26)

Artabazes, still being carried forward by his horse, slammed into Valaris’ spear. It went through his cuirass and drove up through his body up to his neck, where it severed an artery. He died three days later (Wars 7.4.26-29). The victories of Roman champions in the single combats of the Republican era prefaced victories in battle, but this was not always the case in the sixth century AD. Despite his victory, the accidental mortal wounding of Artabazes thoroughly dispirited the Roman army (its morale would have been low following the recent retreat from Verona), and it succumbed to panic when surprised in the rear by a detachment of 300 Gothic cavalry.

At the battle of Thacia (autumn AD 545), the Roman general Ioannes (John), son of Sisiniolus, defeated the renegade guardsman Stotzas in a single combat in the no-man’s land between their armies:

As soon as the fighting was about to come to close quarters, both rode out from their armies and came against each other. John drew his bow and, as Stotzas was still advancing, made a successful shot and hit him in the right groin. Stotzas, mortally wounded, fell there, not yet dead, but destined to survive this wound only a little time. (Procopius, Wars 4.24.10-11)

One would have expected this to have inspired and heartened the Roman army; that was certainly the usual result of a successful single combat in the Republican period. And perhaps it did, but it also enraged Stotzas’ Moorish allies to such an extent that their furious charge put Ioannes’ smaller army to flight and the general was captured when he was thrown from his horse. Stotzas lived long enough to learn of his execution.

A Roman Tradition Revived?

Althias was probably a Hun. Artabanes, a Persarmenian deserter, won fame for challenging one thousand chosen Persians at the battle of the River Hippis in AD 549 (Procopius, Wars 8.8.23-25). The origin of Ioannes is unknown, but Artabazes and Anzalas were Armenians. The latter defeated Coccas, one of Totila’s officers, at Busta Gallorum (AD 552):

Coccas had a great reputation as an active fighter, rode his horse out and came close to the Roman army and uttered a challenge, if anyone was willing to come forth against him in single combat… Immediately one of the guardsmen of Narses stood forth against him, a man of Armenian birth named Anzalas, who was likewise mounted on a horse. Coccas then made the first attack and charged his foe in order to smite him with his spear, aiming the weapon at his belly. But Anzalas, by suddenly turning his horse aside, caused the charge of his enemy to be futile. By this manoeuvre he was placed on his enemy’s flank and he now thrust his spear into his left side. Coccas fell from his horse and lay there a dead man. Whereupon a tremendous shout rose from the Roman army. (Procopius, Wars 8.31.11-16)

Anzalas, Artabazes and Althias came from the edge of the empire or from beyond its frontiers. Were they the inheritors of the old Roman tradition of single combat or were they inspired by native warrior traditions?

Coccas, killed by the Armenian Anzalas, was not a Goth. He was a Roman deserter and his name is Thracian; he was from the interior of the Roman empire. Was his challenge inspired by Gothic practice or because he knew of the old Roman tradition from his service in the Roman army? Andreas of the double victory at Dara was a native of Constantinople, the New Rome, as was Martinianus, another noted duellist (Wars 7.23.2; unfortunately, Procopius does not describe any of his duels). These two men are likely to have been familiar with the Greek and Roman heroic traditions. Despite the paucity of evidence for single combat from the later first to early fifth centuries AD, the Romans always remained aware of the tradition. For example, in c. AD 260 the emperor Gallienus challenged the Gallic usurper Postumus to single combat; Postumus declined. At the battle of Mursa in AD 351, the rival Roman commanders Romulus and Menelaus (aptly heroic names) met in what may have been a single combat rather than a chance one-on-one encounter.

In his excellent book Soldier and Ghosts, Professor J. E. Lendon considers the traditions of heroic leadership and single combat in the Greek and Roman worlds. He notes the similarities of the heroic leadership of Caesarian centurions, such as Baculus and Pullo and Vorenus, and the tribunes of the Roman army in the fourth century AD:

The tribunes of Julian’s army, like the centurions of Caesar, had a much higher chance of being killed than the men they led…This habit of heroic command was to last into the sixth century, where it flowered again into a tradition of challenge between the lines before battle. (p. 302)

Even if men like Althias and Artabazes drew on non-Roman warrior traditions, these were entirely compatible with, and complimentary to, Roman practices. Despite their ethnicity, Althias and Artabazes were exemplars of Roman virtus.

Further Reading

J. E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (Yale University Press, New Haven & London 2005)

R. Cowan, For the Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare (updated paperback ed. Frontline, Barnsley 2017)


Originally published in Ancient Warfare 4.3 (2010). Click here for a pdf of the illustrated article.


The popular image of the Highlander is dominated by the Jacobite clansman: the kilted warrior, brandishing basket-hilted sword and brass-studded targe. However, this tartan-clad romantic icon has had a longer life on shortbread tins than he did in reality.Until the late seventeenth century, Highland chiefs and their gentlemen retainers charged into battle fully armoured. They loosed arrows from bows and cut their enemies down with axes and two-handed swords.

1. Mungo Murray

Tartan icon: Mungo Murray c. 1683. Copyright Ross Cowan

It was not poverty, nor a rejection of modern technology, that made them retain their medieval arsenal. The traditional weapons were brutally effective in close combat, and their use was central to the hierarchical structure and heroic ethos of the Gaelic world. Thus aristocratic warriors put aside their guns and duelled with bows and two-handed swords and their bards sang of the most dreadful and glorious deeds. As the rest of Britain entered the modern era,  Highland Scotland was still in a heroic age.

This His Enemies Confess

This Homeric world was fostered in the halls of lairds and chiefs, where bards, harpists, pipers and other musicians provided entertainment and education. Men like the MacMhuirichs, hereditary bards and historians to the Clanranald, and Iain Lom, bard to MacDonald of Keppoch, were at the top of the bardic tree.

Red Book of Clanranald

The Red Book of Clanranald, a MacMhuirich clan history. Copyright Ross Cowan

MacDonald poets never tired of boasting of their clan’s descent from Conn of the Hundred Battles, while the Campbells claimed not only Diarmid of the Fenian cycles as their ancestor, but also King Arthur.

Lacking illustrious forebears from Irish and British myth, the MacLeans invoked heroes from the historic past. ‘Fierce Red Hector of the hard-fought battles’, killed fighting for the Lord of the Isles at Harlaw (1411), was one such exemplar. When Lachlan Mor MacLean of Duart hewed the enemy with a battle-axe at Glen Livet (1594), his choice of weapon was probably influenced by the knowledge that Gilleain, the thirteenth century progenitor of the MacLeans, habitually carried an axe.

12a Jack

16th cent. jack. Copyright Ross Cowan

On account of his plotting and violent expansionism, Lachlan Mor was a divisive character in his own lifetime, but his courage was never in doubt and he figured as a paradigm of valour in later Gaelic and Scots literature. He was one of the few chiefs in Argyll’s army to emerge with distinction from the debacle at Glen Livet (1594), and his deeds were prominent in reports compiled by Robert Bowes, the agent of Elizabeth I in Scotland.

While the rest of the Highland army fled in disarray, Lachlan Mor’s contingent held firm, and he even captured the standard of the Earl of Huntly. According to Calderwood’s history, ‘MacLaine has played one of the most valiant men that ever Highland man played… Having a jack upon him [a fabric coat reinforced with metal plates] and two habergeons [mail shirts], with a morion [helmet] and a Danish axe, he perceived Huntly’s standard, played so valiantly with the axe, that he slew four or five until the time he came to Huntly’s standard, and sticked the horse whereupon the bearer rode, and next cut him in two at the waist and bore the standard away. This his enemies confess.’

4. Glen Livet

The battlefield at Glen Livet. Copyright Ivy Cowan

Bards on the Battlefield

Bards accompanied raiding parties and armies and harangued clan warriors before battle. Martin Martin, a Skye man who toured the Western Isles in the 1690s, explains how a bard would find ‘an eminence from whence he addressed himself to all of then standing about him, putting them in mind of what great things were performed by the valour of their ancestors, raised their hopes with the noble rewards of honour and victory, and dispelled their fears by all the topics that natural courage could suggest.’

It was also the duty of the bard to find a good vantage point from which to observe a battle, and to witness and record the glorious deeds of his clansmen. Iain Lom did so at Inverlochy (1645). His song about the battle elevated Alasdair MacColla (a MacDonald) to the status of a Gaelic demi-god. ‘Alasdair of the sharp cleaving blades’ ensured the slaughter of a despised enemy: ‘well was the ground manured… by the blood of Campbells.’

MacColla’s skill in arms at the subsequent battle of Auldearn resulted in another panegyric, but in 1647 he was killed in Ireland and the hero worship was replaced by lament. Iain Lom was devastated when confirmation of the rumour of Alasdair’s death came from a harpist returning from a tour of the bardic circuit in Ireland.

Iain Lom was not merely an observer of combat. He fought in the skirmish at Sron a Clachain (1640), where he saw  Angus MacDonald, the Keppoch chief, mortally wounded. Lom’s grief was intense, but he never lost his appreciation for the glory of victorious combat. His poems and songs revel in the graphic details of sword fighting. Limbs are severed and sinews are cut, skulls are cleaved and crushed. Blood flows copiously and marrow leaks from broken bones.

5. Sron a Clachain

Sron a Clachain, Killin. Copyright Ross Cowan

Poetry was not the preserve of professional bards. Donald MacIain (another MacDonald) was a noted warrior-poet. Victor of the skirmish at Carinish and participant in the resulting full-scale battle between the MacDonalds and MacLeods at Coire na Creiche (1601), MacIain commemorated the latter engagement in verse: ‘Ill-luck befell the men of long locks… Clan Donald was responsible for their overwhelming.’ In another composition he regrets having gifted ‘three heroes’ to his unworthy son-in-law – a MacLeod! The three heroes were a coat of mail, helmet and sword. The sword was probably of the two-handed variety. Gaelic tradition recalls that MacIain’s own blade was called The Brindled Peregrine.

Warriors and Clowns

This was a warrior’s world, but only the well-born could be warriors. The glory of combat and profits of plunder were for chiefs, fine and daoin-uaisle (clan gentry), and their retainers.

The Highland straths and glens sustained considerable populations, but the majority of manpower was tied to the land. The militarism of some clans was underpinned by a servile class known as bodaich (serfs or, pejoratively, clowns). The contempt of the daoin-uaisle class for the bodaich was expressed in Gaelic poetry, which is virtually the only source for their existence. Iain Lom noted that the noble line of Angus Og of Glengarry was not tainted by bodaich ancestry. As late as 1746, the fugitive Jacobite officer Iain Roy Stewart was appalled that Strathspey bodaich were involved in the hunt for him. They were ‘evil serfs without honour or worth’. Hector MacLeod, another Jacobite, depicted bodaich as fit only to cleanse the battlefield and bury the dead.

The contempt of the clan gentry extended to their Lowland Scottish opponents. Angus MacAlasdair Roy, the bard of Glen Coe, was dispirited that well-born Highland warriors were ‘felled by bullets fired by cowherds’ at the battle of Dunkeld (1689). The lowly ‘cowherds’ were soldiers of the Earl of Angus’ regiment, later known as the Cameronians.

Warbands and Armies

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Grey Colin Campbell from The Black Book of Taymouth

‘Grey’ Colin Campbell of Glenorchy, was a powerful chieftain. With lands extending from Lorn on the West Coast to the east end of Loch Tay at the very heart of Scotland, he could have raised a large army from his tenants and dependents, but when conducting a war against rebellious MacGregor vassals in 1570, he preferred to reinforce his daoin-uaisle and retainers (a corps greatly diminished by the revolt of the highly militarised Clan Gregor) with Cameron mercenaries.

The Camerons proved impossible to control, spending more time plundering the estates of Grey Colin’s neighbours than in hunting MacGregors. The command of proud and arrogant gentlemen from disparate clans was always difficult; they tended to obey only the captain nominated by their chief and were quick to take offence from outsiders. However, ‘broken men’, that is outlaws and those exiled or runaway from clans (perhaps including the normally despised bodaich), were easier to cajole. In 1669, MacLeod of Assynt recruited 400 broken men and formed them into a regiment.

Difficulties of command and the desire to have forces composed of the ‘right sort’ of men, meant that most clan battles were small-scale affairs involving scores or hundreds of warriors. The battle of Glen Fruin (1603), where 400 MacGregors and allies outmanoeuvred and defeated 800 or 900 Colquhouns, Buchanans and Dumbarton burgesses, was a notably large engagement. In 1604, Robert Campbell of Glen Falloch (a grandson of Grey Colin) cornered a band of MacGregors on the slopes of Ben Toig. The forces involved in this skirmish were more typical: 60 MacGregors against Robert’s 200 ‘chosen men’, drawn from the gentlemen of the Campbells, MacNabs, Camerons and Clanranald. Sometimes, however, a great chief could raise a large army from his clan, feudal vassals and those obliged to serve him by bonds of manrent.

7. Glen Fruin

Glen Fruin. Copyright Ross Cowan

In 1594, acting on behalf of James VI, the young Earl of Argyll mustered an exceptional army of 8,000 footmen. Many were heavily armed and armoured in the classic Highland style, but the host proved unwieldy and was put to flight by a much smaller force of cavalry led by the rebellious Catholic Earls of Huntly and Errol.

Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, chief of a smaller clan but an influential man on account of his personal charisma and all-important feats of valour (such as using his teeth to tear out the throat of a Cromwellian officer in 1654), was able to gather 1,200 men to oppose the MacIntoshes at the Fords of Arkaig in 1665. Even at this late date, one quarter of Cameron’s force was armed with bows.

The weapon still had the edge over muskets in ‘rate of fire’. Donald MacIain’s famous destruction of a larger force of MacLeod raiders at Carinish (1601), and the successful withdrawal of the MacDonalds from the slopes of Sron a Clachain (1640), was accomplished by superior archery, and Cromwellian soldiers were greatly troubled by Royalist Highland archers directed by Ewen Cameron at the battle of Tullich (1652). The use of the bow in this late period was also influenced by its manly and heroic associations. It was a key weapon in what scholars now call the Gaelic panegyric code. It seems that Archibald Campbell of Craignish, was well-aware of that code.

Heroic Weapons

‘Expert at breaking castles asunder’ was one of the many epithets bestowed on Alasdair MacColla by Iain Lom. However, MacColla’s success in capturing Covenanter and Campbell strongholds was mixed and when unable to take Craignish Castle by storm, he abandoned the siege (1646). Throughout the three week siege, Archibald Campbell, tutor (acting laird) of Craignish, conducted a spirited defence. He led numerous sorties against the besiegers and challenged MacColla to single combat.

MacColla declined. He perhaps recalled how the morale of a Highland force collapsed when its commander, Alasdair MacDonald (son of the famous Sorley Boy), was seriously wounded in single combat against Captian Merriman, the renowned English officer (Dunluce, 1585).

2. Longbow carrier

Highland archer, late 17th cent. Copyright Ross Cowan

Unable to tempt Alasdair MacColla into a battle of champions, Archibald Campbell determined to kill him from a distance. While MacColla was directing an assault against the castle, Archibald appeared on the battlements and loosed an arrow from a bow. It struck Alasdair in the lower body and, according to a Gaelic tale about the siege, ‘caused greater laceration coming out than going in’. Alasdair then decided to abandon the siege, memorably declaring, ‘That is the sharp castle of whelks, the wind itself is the only thing that will keep up a constant fight with it.’

After three weeks of siege, Archibald may have exhausted his supply of powder and shot, but it seems likely that his use of the bow was influenced by the heroic ethos of the Gaelic world. Similarly, when Hector MacLean of Lochbuie hurled a javelin at dragoons at Knockbrecht (1689), it was probably a symbolic gesture intended to attract bardic attention. His men fired muskets prior to following their chief in running charge with drawn swords.

Highlanders adapted quickly to firearms and Lowland Scottish gunsmiths developed distinctive weapons to appeal to Gaelic gentlemen. Some sixteenth chiefs even deployed light artillery in battle, but the gun was never considered a truly heroic weapon. Mastery of the musket did not require the same levels of skill and strength demanded by the bow, and unlike swordsmen, musketeers did not fight ‘breast to breast’ (Iain Lom). This explains why in the famous Highland charges at Killiecrankie (1689) and Prestonpans (1745), the clan gentry dropped their expensive firearms after firing a single volley and then set-to the more glorious form of combat with their swords. One suspects, however, that the armour-bearers who customarily attended clan gentry immediately gathered up the discarded guns.

The seemingly irresistible Highland charge was finally halted at Culloden (1746) by a combination of rough terrain, artillery, musket volleys and disciplined bayonet drill. ‘The Lowlanders’ fire / Showered shot around our faces / That spoiled the swordplay, more’s the pity.’ Such was the lament of Iain Roy Stewart, Jacobite, poet, despiser of the bodaich, and last of the lairds of battle.

Appendix: Arming for War in the Age of Forays

From the collapse of the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles in 1493, to the skirmish between Athollmen and Frasers at Aultnagoire in 1698, some part of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was embroiled in clan warfare. James IV could have been the man to fully integrate the Gaelic-speaking regions into the Kingdom of Scotland, but he and his principal Highland allies were slaughtered at Flodden in 1513. The power-vacuum left by the dissolution of the Lordship, James’ death and succession by a minor, propelled the Highlands into the Age of Forays.

With no effective central authority, Campbells, MacLeans, MacKenzies, the feuding branches of the once mighty Clan Donald, and a host of lesser clans sought to expand their lands and influence. Political and religious discord in the rest of Scotland (acute since the Reformation of 1559-60) allowed the Highlanders to conduct their affairs with little interference. James VI’s attempts to disarm and demilitarise the clans had limited effect. High casualties in the British Civil Wars of 1637-50, and the Cromwellian occupation of Scotland (1650-60), did hinder military activity within the Highlands, but a generation of recovery allowed the clans to reassert their strength.

Highland hunters

Highlanders, c. 1660. Copyright Ross Cowan

The battle of Mulroy (1688) and the first Jacobite Rebellion (1689-90) were the last hurrahs of the medieval-modes of Highland warfare. MacDonald gentlemen brought their yew bows to Mulroy and MacLeod bowmen mustered at Dalcomera (1689). Many of the notable chiefs and lairds at Killiecrankie, including Cameron of Lochiel, fought in armour. Some still used two-handed swords and battle axes. The efficacy of ‘archaic’ arms and armour is demonstrated by the subsequent battle at Dunkeld: Lowland soldiers found that halberds were more effective than muskets against the armour and targes of Highland gentlemen.

The distinctive two-handed sword popularly, but erroneously, known as the claymore, appeared in the 1490s and remained the principal weapon of the Highland gentleman until the early seventeenth century. Combat with the two-handed sword was fast and fluid. Relatively light and well-balanced (weights of surviving examples range from 1.8 to 2.6 kg), it was sometimes used in conjunction with a small round shield (targe or buckler).

13. Two-handed sword

Two-handed Highland sword, early 16th cent. Copyright Ross Cowan

The English, who had much experience of fighting Highland and Hebridean mercenaries in Ireland, knew the two-hander as the ‘slaughter sword’. Clan historians took great pleasure in recording – and no doubt exaggerating – the number of kills achieved with the weapon. The Manuscript History of Craignish recounts how Ronald Campbell of Barrichbeyan avenged his brother’s by slaying 16 Shaws with his two-handed sword (1602). Another Campbell tradition accorded no less than 23 kills to the two-handed sword (albeit of Continental rather than Highland pattern) of Patrick Campbell of Inverneill in a skirmish against the MacGregors at Killin (1623).

The slaughter sword was superseded in the 1630s by the basket-hilted broad- or backsword (the latter being the favourite of Alasdair MacColla), but Rory MacLennan, the Bannerman of Kintail, bravely defended his standard at Auldearn with a two-handed sword in 1645. Some of MacLeod of Assynt’s broken men carried bows and two-handed swords in 1669. Along with bascinet helmets and full plate armour, the two-handed sword was noted among the unusual equipment of Charles II’s ‘Highland Host’ militia in 1678, and the weapon reappears in the hands of some chiefs in the Killiecrankie campaign of 1689.

Some two-handed swords were converted into basket-hilted swords. For example, a MacGregor two-hander used in the rout of the Colquhouns at Glen Fruin (1603), was cut-down and re-hilted in 1745 for a MacGregor who joined Bonnie Prince Charlie. Other two-handed swords were retained as heirlooms. When Richard Pococke visited the Isle of Tiree in 1760, he discovered that the inhabitants still handed down ‘from father to son the large two handed sword and the helmet of the family.’

Originally published in Military History Monthly. Click here for a pdf.

Milvian Bridge AD 312: Supplement

Supplementary material to accompany Milvian Bridge AD 312: Constantine’s Battle for Empire and Faith (Osprey: Oxford 2016).

The Battlefield Today

Amazon reviewer Glock22C, who works in the area of the proposed battlefield, points out that apart from the cycle path mentioned on page 90, “the only place open to public is the aforementioned medieval Tor di Quinto now a well-known restaurant with a panoramic view of the battlefield.” The reviewer also notes the error in the caption to the aerial photograph on page 64, which should be amended to ‘The Milvian Bridge region in 2011, illustrating modern development at Farnesina/Foro Italico’. Finally, the reviewer suggests that Tor di Quinto is located in the wrong place on the bird’s-eye-view maps (BEVs). However, in the BEVs, Tor di Quinto does not refer to the medieval tower (distinguished elsewhere in the book as Torre di Quinto, e.g. the map on page 67) but serves as a general area indicator, following my base map, the IGM Città di Roma 1:20,000 survey of 1950:


Perhaps a different font should have been used to make this distinction clearer. My thanks to Glock22C.

Extra Maps of the Battlefield Area


Costa’s sketch map of the battlefield at Tor di Quinto, to accompany R. Cowan, Milvian Bridge AD 312 (2016), 46-65. After G. Costa, ‘La battaglia di Costantino a Ponte Milvio’, Bilychnis 2 (1913), figs 2-3


The undeveloped Tor di Quinto area in 1839, to accompany R. Cowan, Milvian Bridge AD 312 (2016), 66-69.


Detail from Toebelmann’s map showing his preferred battle site at Saxa Rubra, to accompany R. Cowan, Milvian Bridge AD 312 (2016), 61-62. After F. Toebelmann, Der Bogen von Malborghetto (Heidelberg 1915), taf. 1

A pdf of this supplement can be downloaded here.


MORE LIKE LIONS THAN MEN: The Battle of Loch Lochy, 1544

Published in Medieval Warfare 6.3. Click here for a pdf of the uncorrected proof.

On 15 July 1544, Hugh Fraser, the third Lord Lovat, marched northwards along the bank of Loch Lochy. The chief of the Frasers was accompanied by his son and heir, Simon, the Master of Lovat, and his nephew, Ranald Gallda, claimant to the title of Captain of Clanranald. They were followed by 400 warriors, drawn from the leading gentlemen and able men of Clan Fraser. This host was about to fight one of the most celebrated battles in Highland history.


Deatail of Hermann Moll’s map of Inverness-shire (1745), showing Loch Lochy, Letterfinlay and Laggan Achildrom, where John Moidartach routed the Frasers. NLS

Highland Host

Lord Lovat would have been attended by a troop of guardsmen known in Gaelic as luchd-taighe (household men) or more poetically, léine-chneis or –chrios, the chief’s protective ‘shirt next to the skin’. The guardsmen, who traditionally numbered 10, 12 or 16, were sometimes called buannachan (billet men), reflecting the practice of billeting troops on unfortunate tenants. The exactions of some buannachan became infamous. Later MacDonald and MacLeod traditions featured tales of heroic peasants (lowly men who were despised for toiling in the soil and excluded from military service) employing cunning ruses to trap and kill the greedy and bullying buannachan.

According to Martin Martin, a native of Skye who toured the Western Isles of Scotland in the 1690s and recorded the traditional practices of the clans, the ‘young gentlemen called Luchktach (i.e. luchd-taighe), or Guard de Corps, always attended the Chieftain at home and abroad; they were well trained in managing the sword and target, in wrestling, swimming, jumping, dancing, shooting with bows and arrows, and were stout seamen.’ Martin adds that ‘every Chieftain had a bold Armour-Bearer, whose business was always to attend the person of his master night and day to prevent any surprise, and this man was called the galloglass; he had likewise a double portion of meat assigned him at every meal.’

In 1544, the Master of Lovat was accompanied by his own guard of ten men, described as ‘half a score of pretty men… each of his ten men was worth ten men.’ It is likely that Ranald Gallda, styling himself as a chief, had a guard, and that he and his cousin were attended by armour-bearers.

The remainder of the Fraser force was organised into companies of variable size under captains. The captains usually led their own immediate kin and dependents rather than men from other branches of the clan or from allied clans and septs. As the Earl of Argyll (chief of Clan Campbell) explained to a correspondent in 1565, gentlemen captains ‘cannot trust to unknown men so well as their own men.’

Head-Strong Men

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Alexander MacLeod of Dunvegan in bascinet, mail coat and armed with a two-handed sword and Dence axe (1528). Copyright Ross Cowan

When Lord Lovat reached Letterfinlay, he was met by a delegation led by the chiefs of the Grants and MacIntoshes. They warned that John Moidartach, the Captain of Clanranald, was shadowing Lovat’s march on the far side of Lochy Lochy, and that he would attempt to ambush the Frasers at its head. The chiefs offered their own retinues to bolster Lovat’s force and to escort him to his territory by Loch Ness, but Lovat declined. He was confident in the fighting skills of his men: it was well known that Hugh Fraser insisted on an exacting training regime with sword and bow; a later Fraser chronicler remarks that Lovat’s men were ‘a terror to his bad ravaging neighbours.’ Lovat was also swayed by the protest of his kinsman, James Fraser of Foynes. This head-strong man, as he was remembered in Fraser tradition, asserted that Lord Lovat would be considered cowardly if he marched in convoy with the Grants and MacIntoshes. The 400 Frasers, insisted Foynes, were a “party strong enough for all that could contradict them in the road.”

Grant and MacIntosh departed and Lovat continued his march, but the chief now thought it prudent to detach a force of a hundred men to act as a rear guard. If John Moidartach and his allies did attack at the head of the loch, this force would either march to the aid of the chief or keep his line of retreat open. Bean Clerach, a trusted vassal, was assigned the captaincy of the detachment and instructed to keep within sight of the main Fraser force, but he managed to march his men ‘out of sight beyond Drumglach [Druim Glaoidh, the hill overlooking Letterfinlay] most inadvertently, so that he was of no use to the host.’

As the Frasers neared the head of the loch, John Moidartach’s force was sighted marching from the north side of the loch towards Laggan Achadrom. The army consisted of Moidartach’s own MacDonalds of Clanranald, and contingents from the MacDonalds of Keppoch, and the Camerons. The force marched under seven banners, suggesting it was organised into seven companies, and its estimated strength was ‘not under five or six hundred men’.

Despite being outnumbered by perhaps two-to-one, Lord Lovat determined to fight. When the MacDonalds and Camerons were first sighted, the Frasers still had time to retreat by the way they had come, but Lovat instead halted his force in a field at the head of Loch Lochy, held a counsel of war, took mass with his personal chaplain and then refreshed himself before haranguing his clansmen. Lovat reminded the gentlemen of their heroic forbears and emphasised the justice of their cause (the restoration of Ranald Gallda and exacting revenge for Moidartach’s invasion of Fraser lands). The chief stressed how he was related to the gentlemen, that he would fight with them and for them, and he would rather die than endure the shame of retreat.

John of Moidart


Donald MacGillespie in bascinet and actoun (after 1528). Copyright Ross Cowan

John Moidartach doubtless delivered a similar speech to his men, reminding them how in 1540, he had been unjustly imprisoned by the king, stripped of the charters to his lands, and usurped by the despised Ranald Gallda.

Ranald was a MacDonald, being the youngest son of Allan MacRuari of Moidart, the Captain of Clanranald, and his second wife, the daughter of Thomas Fraser, the second Lord Lovat. Ranald was brought up in Lovat’s household and his MacDonald kinsmen bestowed on him the nickname of Gallda, the Stranger.

Allan MacRuari was executed in 1509 and succeeded as chief by his eldest son, Ranald Bane. However, in 1513 he too was executed for some unspecified treason and succeeded in turn by his son, Dougal, but his reign as chief was tyrannical and he was assassinated. Dougal’s young sons were overlooked in the succession and Alexander, the second son of Allan MacRuari, assumed the title of Captain of Clanranald. He then ensured that John Moidartach, his talented, but illegitimate, son, succeeded him before 1530. John consolidated his position as clan chief by establishing himself as a feudal lord. He spent the 1530s acquiring charters for the Clanranald estates, but in 1540 this ambitious chief was imprisoned by King James V.

Lord Lovat seized the opportunity to press the claim of his nephew: John’s charters were revoked and Ranald Gallda, as the surviving son of Allan MacRuari, was granted the estates and installed as Captain of Clanranald. However, the Stranger did not prove a popular leader and, following the death of James V in 1542 and John’s release from prison, he had to retreat back to Fraser country. Reinstalled as Captain by popular consent, John Moidartach proceeded to form a coalition with the MacDonalds of Keppoch and the Camerons. Together they invaded Fraser and Grant lands around Loch Ness. John was interested in more than plunder and intended to occupy the lands, but in summer 1544 the Earl of Huntly, in his role as the Crown’s lieutenant in the north, raised a large army to restore the lands to the Frasers and Grants. The Captain of Clanranald decided on a tactical retreat and withdrew.

The royal army, including the 400-strong Fraser contingent, met with no resistance, reclaimed the evacuated territory and advanced down the Great Glen to Inverlochy. Achieving his objective with such ease, Huntly hastened to return home. Despite the warnings of Grant and MacIntosh about the likelihood of a Clanranald ambush, Lovat wished to proceed directly to his reclaimed lands via the Great Glen, passing by Loch Lochy, rather than take the roundabout route with the royal army via Glen Spean. Lovat marched directly into John Moidartach’s trap.

The Battle of the Shirts

The battle began when the opposing sides came into bowshot. Every Highland warrior was an accomplished archer, his skills honed by continual practice and hunting. According to John Leslie, the Bishop of Ross, whose History of Scotland was completed in 1570, the ‘skirmishing’ started ‘with bows and arrows, which lasted a long time, until their whole shafts was expended on both sides.’ With their supply of missiles exhausted, the clansmen charged to close quarters and ‘fought so cruelly’ with swords.

Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, writing in the 1620s, echoes the Bishop: ‘They first discharged their bows… and their arrows being spent, they fly to their swords.’ A more detailed picture of the fighting is offered by Reverend James Fraser. A keen student of history and traditions of his clan, he started writing his True Genealogy of the Frasers in 1666. In his description of the battle, the reverend skips over the archery duel and moves directly to the ‘hot engagement’ in which Fraser, MacDonald and Cameron warriors ‘fought more like lions than men’.

Reverend Fraser records that the combatants were armed with two-handed swords and Dence (Danish) axes, and some had protective gear of head pieces and coats of mail. The fighting was brutal. The Frasers fought heroically, especially Lord Lovat, the Hard Slayer as the Clanranald warriors called him, and he was the focus of their attack. The Frasers, waiting in vain for Bean Clerach to reinforce them, were pushed back towards the loch, and finally into it, where the combatants grappled and the fighting was so close that axes and swords were dropped and dirks were drawn. The day was so hot that many warriors fought in their shirts, hence the popular name of the battle, Blar na Leine, the Field of the Shirts. However, this description may actually stem from a mistranslation of the Gaelic Blar na Leana, the field of the swampy meadow, which would well describe the location at the head of Loch Lochy.

Lovat’s men were eventually overwhelmed. Lord Lovat and Ranald Gallda were slain. The Master of Lovat was severely wounded. The victors carried him from the battlefield and he was nursed in the house of Cameron of Lochiel, but died three days later.

Later traditions assert that all, or all but four or five, of the 300 Frasers were killed. However, in 1545, correspondence between the representatives of Donald Dubh (in rebellion against the Scottish Crown as claimant to the Lordship of the Isles) and Henry VIII of England, noted that Donald’s ally, ‘the Captain of Clanranald, in his defence, slew the Lord Lovat… with thirteen score of men’.

We have, so far, focused on the Fraser warriors, but gentlemen required servants and baggage carriers. It was typical of the aristocratic annals of the clans to ignore these lowly clansmen, but Bishop Leslie reports that, as well as the 300 Frasers, ‘a great number of commons’ were killed. The number of servants attached to a Highland company is rarely recorded, but in 1664, the Earl of Sutherland sent 120 ‘chosen and able men…with sixty servants to take care of the baggage’ to aid the MacIntoshes in a campaign against the Camerons.

John Moidartach’s force suffered heavy casualties but no MacDonald or Cameron notables were slain. His allies would be hunted down and executed by the Crown, but wily John was untouchable in remote Moidart and he was eventually pardoned. In 1572 he even entered into a bond of friendship with Hugh Fraser, the fifth Lord Lovat and grandson of the Hard Slayer.

John held the Clanranald estates until his eventual death in 1584. He did so not by charter, but by the sword.

Info panel to accompany original artwork


Warriors at Loch Lochy, 1544 by Marek Szyszko

Reverend James Fraser describes Fraser and MacDonald combatants armoured with coats of mail. The habergeon was certainly popular with Highland fighting men, as were jacks and plate armour, but the illustration by Marek Szyszko shows two fighters at Loch Lochy equipped with actouns (the Scots variant of aketon), a padded fabric armour much favoured by Highlanders because it doubled as a weatherproof coat. The actoun could be proofed with wax or pitch and a facing of deer skin might be added for extra protection against cuts. Robert the Bruce’s legislation of 1318 required yeomen to be equipped with bascinets and actouns. Highlanders continued to use this gear for hundreds of years. A 17th century effigy of a MacLean chief on Inch Kenneth shows the deceased in his fighting gear of morion, actoun, sword and targe (the shield covers most of the hilt, but the pommel suggests a Highland-type two-handed sword), and dirk. He even holds a cannon ball in his right hand.

The heads of the warriors in Marek’s illustration are protected by bascinets. This type of helmet, long out of fashion in Lowland Scotland, remained popular in the Highlands into the mid-sixteenth century. The grave slab of Donald MacGillespie, who died after 1541, depicts the Islay gentleman with the usual panoply of bascinet, actoun and long sword. The bascinet was superseded by the morion, but as late as 1678 some Highland fighting men were noted for their use of the bascinet and other archaic armour like mail pisanes and plate limb defences. One observer remarked that such pieces were only known in ‘our old laws’ and had not been used in the Lowlands ‘for several hundreds of years’.

Marek’s illustration vividly demonstrates combat with the two-handed Highland-type sword. This distinctive sword, with its sloping quillons and quatrefoil terminals, appeared in the 1490s and remained the principal weapon of the Highland gentleman until the early seventeenth century. Combat with the two-handed sword was fast and fluid. Relatively light and well-balanced (weights of surviving examples range from 1.8 to 2.6 kg), it was sometimes used in conjunction with a small round shield (targe or buckler), as at the battle of Glen Livet in 1594.

Further Reading

The sources relating to the battle of Loch Lochy are conveniently collected in an Inventory of Historic Battlefields document, available for download here.

D. Gregory’s The History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland (2nd ed., Glasgow 1881), remains the best starting point for untangling the complex history of the Highlands. On Highland militarism, see M. MacGregor, ‘Warfare in Gaelic Scotland in the Later Middle Ages’ in J.A. Crang, et al. (eds), A Military History of Scotland (Edinburgh 2012), 209-231. For arms and armour, see D.H. Caldwell, ‘Having the Right Kit: West Highlanders Fighting in Ireland’ in S. Duffy (ed.), The World of the Galloglass (Dublin 2007), 144-168. On two-handed Highland-type swords, see ‘Halflang and Tua-Handit’.

Roman Warriors: The Myth of the Military Machine

Published in Military History Monthly 27 (Dec. 2012). For a scan of the illustrated article, click here.

The Roman army is often described as a ‘military machine’, but the Romans were not automatons and it took little for them to morph from disciplined soldiers into wild warriors. The Romans’ penchant for single combat, their habit of taking heads and scalps in battle, and their not infrequent bouts of indiscipline and berserk behaviour amply demonstrate their warrior credentials.


Praetorian guardsmen brandish heads taken in battle. Detail from the Great Trajanic Frieze. Copyright Mike Bishop

A Military Machine?

The complex organisation of the Roman army, its multiplicity of specialist ranks and functions, rigorous training and, above all, its success in war, has resulted in it often being described as a ‘military machine’ in modern media. It is viewed as the precursor of modern standing armies, and its men, especially the legionaries, as the first professional soldiers.

The Romans knew their army as the exercitus. The literal meaning of this Latin word is ‘exercise’ and it emphasises the importance the Romans placed on training and discipline. They worshipped the goddess Disciplina and the Campestres, the divinities of the parade ground, but Roman legionaries were not blindly obedient.

Discipline was of course hugely important. However, during the long history of the Roman army, soldiers – actual Romans, Italians, provincials or men from beyond the frontiers – were encouraged to develop reputations for virtus, a quality that encompassed manliness, excellence and, above all, valour. Virtus was the quality of the individual warrior, and it was maintained and enhanced by competition with other warriors.

Corporate soldierly discipline allowed the legions to march to the battlefield in good order, build camps and fieldworks and to assume their initial battle formations, but when loosed into combat, and beyond the effective control of their general and officers, the warrior quality of virtus took over, and the acts of individual legionaries decided the outcome of battle.

Soldiers and Warriors

Legionaries were organised into tactical subunits called maniples (‘handfuls’) or centuries. Sometimes the legionaries fought shoulder to shoulder, making a block of united strength and power, driving forward like a wedge into the enemy battle line. Sometimes the legionaries assumed a loose formation, each man occupying six feet of space, free to fight as an individual but with support close at hand. Sometimes the legionary was expected to fight entirely alone, to turn and meet enemies from all directions. The legionary’s basic equipment of heavy javelin or spear, cut-and-thrust sword and a shield that covered him from shoulder to shin, was adaptable to the needs of group or individual fighting.

The Roman fighting man was therefore a formidable combination of soldier and warrior. Roman military organisation created disciplined groups of soldiers who would fight together for a common goal, but, when opportunity allowed, it permitted the individual warrior to emerge and to sate his desire for personal glory.

The Greek cavalry officer and historian Polybius, who was a political captive in Rome in the mid-second century BC, believed this potent mix of soldier and warrior made the Romans almost invincible. Sallust, a lieutenant of Julius Caesar, wrote of Romans being ruled by virtus, and how it made them completely fearless and wildly competitive. It could also make them uncontrollable.


At the battle of Thapsus (46 BC), Julius Caesar’s legionaries became impatient when he failed to give the order to advance. The legionaries took it upon themselves to intimidate a trumpeter at the far end of the battle line into sounding the charge. The centurions appear to have been complicit in this, for their attempts to hold back the legionaries were half-hearted. Caesar himself was hardly surprised at the disobedience; he had his trumpeter sound “good fortune” and boldly charged forward with his cavalry. The enemy was routed, but the battle-crazed Caesarians ignored their general’s orders to halt the pursuit and killed those who tried to surrender.

A similar episode occurred in AD 68. At Vesontio, during a parley between the Roman general Verginius Rufus and the Gallic rebel Vindex, the disapproving legionaries of the Rhine army broke the truce and fell upon the rebel force. It was annihilated. Two years later, during the siege of Jerusalem, legionaries ignored the vocal and visual orders of their commander, the future emperor Titus, and deliberately set fire to the Temple. Josephus, the Jewish rebel commander and historian, describes the Romans as being beyond control: “neither persuasion nor threats could restrain their violence.”

In the fourth century AD, little had changed. In AD 359, legionaries transferred from Gaul to defend the Mesopotamian fortress city of Amida preferred not to guard the ramparts, but to make sallies and fight the besieging Sassanid Persians on open ground. The gates of the city were eventually barred to prevent their risky sorties, but the legionaries threatened to kill senior officers and were permitted to make one final sortie at night.

Armed with swords and axes, they killed the Persian guards, entered the enemy camp and advanced on the tent of the king, Shapur II. They never reached it. An eye-witness account, written by the staff officer Ammianus Marcellinus, describes how the legionaries cut down countless Persians, including noble commanders, but they were eventually forced to retreat by the volume of the arrows loosed by the Persian archers. Virtus carried the legionaries only so far, and cohesive discipline was re-asserted during the retreat. Ammianus describes with admiration how the legionaries made their orderly fighting retreat “as if to music.”

Four hundred legionaries were killed in the night-long battle, perhaps a third, or even a half of their total number; by this date, the legions were a fraction of the size of the classic regiments led into battle by Julius Caesar. Yet the Persians had suffered such heavy casualties that they sought a truce of three days. The campidoctores who led the attack and were killed in the camp, or covering the retreat, were subsequently commemorated with statues.

In these campidoctores (field instructors of senior centurion rank) we see how unbalanced the mix of soldier of warrior could become. These men were responsible for training the Roman exercitus and instilling discipline, but when tasked with defending a wall instead of fighting gloriously in open battle, their virtus was affronted. They threatened mutiny and murder and lost their lives in a heroic but futile mission.

Pullo and Vorenus

Centurions were in charge of maintaining discipline, and a few seem to have taken a perverse pleasure in doling out floggings, but centurions were also held up as exemplars of virtus. They were keenly aware of their reputations and went to extreme lengths to uphold or enhance their virtus.

Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus are now well-known from the television series Rome. In the series, Pullo is a mere legionary under the command of Vorenus, but in reality he too was a senior centurion.

In the winter of 54/3 BC, the legion of Pullo and Vorenus was besieged in its camp by the Nervii, the foremost of Gaul’s warrior tribes. The Nervii were the kind of opponents the Romans respected; greater glory was attained fighting brave men. For Titus Pullo, however, it was not enough to simply defend the ramparts. He had to take the fight to the enemy, and he dared Vorenus, his great rival, to follow him.

Julius Caesar, who led a relief force to lift the siege, wrote an account the incident. He introduces Pullo and Vorenus as always quarrelling and fiercely competing for the senior centurial posts in the legions. During one of the Nervian assaults, Pullo called to Vorenus: ‘Why hesitate, Vorenus? What chance of proving your bravery are you waiting for? This day will decide our contest.’ Pullo then leaped from the rampart and charged the Gauls! Vorenus could not allow Pullo to get away with such a feat of bravado. Following meant certain death, but honour and reputation were more important. Verenus left the defences and rushed at the bemused Nervian warriors.

Caesar tells us that “at close range, Pullo threw his pilum [heavy javelin] at the enemy, skewering one Gaul who had run forward from the multitude.” Wild Pullo was soon “knocked senseless and the enemy sought to cover him with their shields [i.e. box him in] and they all threw their missiles at him, giving him no chance of retreat. Pullo’s shield was pierced and a javelin was lodged in his belt. Vorenus, his rival, ran to him and helped him out of trouble. Vorenus fought with his gladius at close-quarters, killing one and drove the others back a little. But he pressed on too eagerly and fell into a hollow. He was surrounded in turn, but Pullo came to his aid. They killed several men and retired to the ramparts with the utmost glory.”

Despite their bravery, surely censure and punishment followed? Had not these men abandoned their posts and left their centuries without commanders to indulge in reckless bravado? Yes, but legionary centuries were organised to look after themselves; when the centurion was killed or went glory-hunting, his deputy (optio) and other under-officers assumed command. To the Roman mind, what Pullo and Vorenus did was virtus-enhancing. It was the best kind of heroic competition, glorious and inspirational. Despite their fierce rivalry, the centurions had demonstrated the triumph of comradeship, each saving the other. Caesar concludes that “it was impossible to decide which should be considered the braver man.”

Berserk Head-Hunters

Jacques Harmand, the great modern scholar of the Roman army in the age of Caesar, opined that Pullo and Vorenus, and many of their colleagues, were berserks. Other notable examples are Scaeva, whose terrifying antics awed the enemy at Dyrrhachium, and Crastinus, the ‘rabid’ (as a later Roman writer described him) centurion who led the suicidal opening charge at Pharsalus (48 BC).

Berserk behaviour was not limited to Caesar’s centurions. In the battle against Ariovistus’ Germans (58 BC), Caesar witnessed some of his ordinary legionaries hurling themselves onto the roof of the Germans’ dense testudo (‘tortoise’, a defensive shield formation) and tearing away the shields to hack at the enemy from above.

Such furor (‘fury’) was characteristic of Roman warriors from the earliest times. In 437 BC, in a cavalry skirmish outside the Latin town of Fidenae, the military tribune Cornelius Cossus encountered Lars Tolumnius, the king of Etruscan Veii. According to the later Roman historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (presumably drawing on the ballad tradition of the aristocratic Cornelii clan), Cossus unsaddled Tolumnius with his lance, then leapt from his horse and battered the king with the boss of his shield as he struggled to rise. Cossus speared the king through the torso and pinned him to the ground. With typical Roman overkill, he tore out the lance and stabbed the king repeatedly. Cossus quickly stripped the king of his armour, hacked off his head and fixed it to the point of his lance and remounted his horse. The Etruscan cavalry panicked and fled when the bloody warrior charged towards them with the severed head of their king.

The taking of heads is usually associated with the ‘barbarian’ enemies of Rome, especially the Gauls. According to Diodorus, who wrote in the first century BC,  “when their enemies fall they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses. They carry them off as booty, singing a paean over them and striking up a song of victory. These first-fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses, just as men do, in certain kinds of hunting, with the heads of wild beasts.”

Some scholars have suggested that the Romans became head hunters during their protracted struggles with the Gauls, but Cossus decapitated Tolumnius almost 50 years before the Romans and Gauls first met in battle. Roman head-taking probably goes back to pre-history. The Romans maintained a tradition that Romulus, son of Mars and legendary founder of Rome, had defeated a rival Latin king in single combat and then beheaded him. Nor were the Romans the only Italian people that took heads. After the disastrous (for the Romans) battle of the Cremera, the Etruscans of Veii cut off and retained as trophies the heads of most notable of the Roman casualties (477 BC), while the Aequi, were known to taunt the Romans with the severed heads of legionary commanders.

Decapitation was often the final act in single combat, and duelling with an enemy champion was the ultimate way in which a Roman proclaimed his status as a warrior.

A fragment of the lost history of Claudius Quadrigarius tells how Titus Manlius, a legionary tribune, was challenged to single combat by a Gallic champion in 361 BC. The Gaul, a member of a mercenary war band probably in the employ of Rome’s Latin rivals, met Manlius on neutral ground, a bridge crossing the River Anio. In classic Roman fashion, Manlius did not bother with fancy swordplay, but battered the Gaul with his shield and threw him off-balance. As the Gaul stumbled back and dropped his guard, Manlius stabbed him in the chest and then in the shoulder, and finally decapitated him. This allowed easy access to the Gaul’s gold neck torque: “Manlius tore off his torque and put it, covered as it was with blood, around his own neck. Because of this act he himself and his descendants had the surname Torquatus.”

In 222 BC, Claudius Marcellus slew Viridomarus, king of the Gaesati, at the battle of Clastidium. According to one account of the battle, the Gaesati were superior in cavalry and Marcellus had to extend line to prevent his army being enveloped. He was contemplating how best to retreat when proud Viridomarus rode up and challenged him to single combat. Marcellus was a noted duellist and his renown had probably reached the ears of the North Italian Gauls. He immediately accepted the challenge and spurred his horse forward. Plutarch, the biographer of Marcellus, relates “he charged at the king, and by a thrust of his lance which pierced his adversary’s cuirass, and by the impact of his horse at the gallop, threw him, still living, upon the ground, where, with a second and a third blow, he promptly killed him.” Propertius, the famous Roman poet, adds that Marcellus cut off Viridomarus’ head.

What happened to heads taken in combat? It is possible that, along with their arms and armour, the heads of kings like Lars Tolumnius and Viridomarus were dedicated to the god Jupiter as part of the spolia opima, the ‘greatest spoils’. Sometimes heads were presented to a commander to confirm an ordinary legionary’s number of kills (as occurred at the battle of the River Calor in 214 BC). Heads were occasionally used to adorn battlefield trophies (e.g. Munda, 45 BC). Like the Gauls, the Romans decorated their homes with trophies taken in battle, but there is no suggestion that impaled heads were to be found alongside the nailed-up shields, swords and helmets. However, the scalps of enemies might be used to decorate helmets. The Romans are known to have taken scalps and used them to decorate their helmets. At the battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC), the Roman consul Gaius Flaminius rode to his death wearing a helmet adorned with a long-haired scalp: he had taken it from the head of a Gallic chief he killed in single combat some years before. Like the heads taken by Gallic warriors and slung from their horses’ necks, or nailed to the doors of their homes, the scalp worn by Flaminius was a trophy that declared his prowess as an individual warrior. At the battle of Vercellae (101 BC), legionaries used scalping as a method to terrorise the bellicose womenfolk of the Cimbri into submission. It is not known if the scalps of these unfortunates were retained as trophies. The gruesome practice of taking scalps as trophies was still carried out in the second century AD. Recent research by Dr Guy Stiebel suggests that during the Bar Kokhba revolt (AD 132-135), legionaries covered their helmets with scalps taken from slaughtered Jewish rebels.

Head-taking continued into the Imperial period. In 2005, a spectacular Roman military tombstone was discovered in Lancaster. Dating to c. AD 100, it is decorated with a portrait of the cavalryman Insus. His stallion tramples a headless Briton; Insus brandishes the man’s severed head. It has been suggested that Insus, an auxiliary cavalryman of Gallic descent, followed the Gallic tradition of head-hunting, but a panel of the near-contemporary Great Trajanic Frieze, a triumphal monument in Rome celebrating the Dacian Wars of the Emperor Trajan (AD 101-2 and 105-6), shows praetorian guardsmen displaying trophy heads. The Column of Marcus Aurelius, which commemorates the Marcomannic Wars of AD 167-180, also depicts a praetorian holding up a head he has taken in battle. Praetorians were predominantly Italian and this suggests the old Roman practice of head-taking remained strong. The provincial legionaries (of Gallic and Germanic origin) who fought at Amida in AD 359 were motivated by a concept of virtus drummed into them by long service in the Roman army, and it is likely that Insus’ act of head-taking was strongly influenced by the traditions of the Roman army.

Warriors of the First Rank

Describing the Roman army as a military machine is attractive but imposes an inappropriate modernity. The Roman army developed out of the war bands of the earliest Roman clans, and despite growing massively in size and sophistication over the centuries, it always retained a warrior ethos.

In 221 BC, the eulogy delivered at the funeral of Lucius Caecilius Metellus proclaimed he had achieved the “ten greatest and highest objects” that marked out great men. These included having been a brave general and winning victories under his own auspices, but the most important object Metellus attained was having been a warrior (bellator) of the first rank.

The Roman army certainly punished acts of insubordination and indiscipline. Indeed some unfortunate soldiers were executed in order to bring others to heel. The classic example is the younger Manlius, who was executed by his own father, the famed Torquatus, for breaking an order not to engage in single combat. However, the general preoccupation with proving one’s worth as a warrior (something that Romans of all ranks and classes could aspire to) explains why the antics of men like Titus Pullo or the campidoctores at Amida were not just tolerated, but praised and commemorated.