Best military leaders from late antiquity?

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,959
Blachernai
This might be considered folklore if it did not originate from a sober, if laconic source. Moreover there is independent attestation from the Armenian writer P’awstos, who fills out gaps in a surprising and intriguing fashion (P’awstos 3.21). In his narrative, Galerius chose two Armenian nobles (Andovk and Arshavir) who were known to him and, disguising themselves as peasants – marketgardeners selling vegetables – they gained entry to the Persian camp and spied out its weaknesses. In particular, they noted that the royal enclosure was not strongly guarded and therefore particularly vulnerable. One might be tempted to reject this tale as folkloric invention but it occurs in two entirely separate historical traditions with little possibility of interdependence (Synesius tells the more plausible story of an unnamed emperor exploring the Persian camp, while disguised as an ambassador (de regno 17))

P’awstos continues that, on the emperor’s return to his own camp, he roused his army and fell upon the Persians, aiming for the royal enclosure. Ammianus adds the detail of a favourable portent (23.5.11). P’awstos’ account is entirely plausible. The Persians were completely surprised. In a letter to Constantius II half a century later, Shapur II complained (Ammianus 17.5.6):

Ideoque Armeniam recuperare cum Mesopotamia debeo, avo meo composita fraude praereptam.

(And so I am under obligation to recover Armenia, along with Mesopotamia, both of which were torn from my grandfather by a trick.)

The defeat rankled years later, not least because it was achieved by subterfuge rather than a set-piece battle. It was a most effective ploy. According to P’awstos, the Romans raided the Persian camp soon after dawn, taking it totally unawares. A number of Persian grandees were captured but, most significantly, the household of the Great King, including his wives and concubines, fell into Roman hands. The camp was looted and Narseh’s queen, Arsane, captured, as were others of the Great King’s women. The Great King himself escaped and fled to Persia proper (Eutropius 9. 25.1; also Zonaras 12. 31; Amm. Marc. 22.4.8; P’awstos 3.21; see Malalas XII, 307 for the name; Lactantius describes it as an ambush (de mort. pers. 9.7)).'

Whether or not we are persuaded by Leadbetter's argument that Galerius did personally scout the camp, it's interesting to see this argument be made.
If you don't mind me de-railing this excellent and thoughtful post, how is P'awstos regarded as a source amongst late antique historians these days? I know little of the text (and have never actually read it). Yet I feel like for the late sixth and early seventh century, Sebeos has almost moved into position as the best source for political events in the near east. I'm not quite sure where Lewond stands for the history of the eighth century, but now that we have a new critical edition and (French) translation, hopefully that will come to be understood better.
 
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Oct 2018
2,106
Sydney
Any thoughts on Licinius as a military leader?

As I understand it he defeated Maximinus Daia at great disadvantage and managed to outmaneuver Constantine bringing an end to their first conflict. He certainly had alot of battle experience even if he lost almost all of them: Tzirallum, Cibalae, Mardia, Adrinaople, Chrysopolis. Did he have any noteworthy successes against non-Roman foes under Galerius or during his time as emperor?
He was indeed experienced, having served with distinction as a general in Galerius' Persian campaigns. And it is to his credit that in 317 he outmaneuvered Constantine and thus forced him to the negotiating table. That said, I personally find it hard to get past all those defeats. And regarding Tzirallum, while he did defeat Maximinus, it's worth bearing in mind that our chief source is Lactantius' On the Deaths of the Persecutors, the central thesis of which is that God punished the persecutors. For Lactantius, God was on the side of Licinius, and he treats his victory as a miraculous event. One wonders if Maximinus' army truly so badly outnumbered the force of Licinius. Perhaps it did, but by 313 Licinius had absorbed Galerius' field army as well as his own and could draw upon the numerous legions of the Danube, the most heavily garrisoned frontier of the Roman Empire. He was also fighting on his home turf, the Danube frontier had also seen much more combat in the years since 298, and Lactantius states that Maximinus' army was much impaired as a result of the forced march from Syria to the Bosphorus that happened in the winter of 312/3 and which exposed his troops to snow and rain (DMP 45). So it seems to me that Licinius could draw upon a greater number of trained and experienced soldiers than Maximinus could. His campaigning against Maxentius in 309 was also much too cautious and uninspiring. I recall that he captured Aquileia and maybe some surrounding towns, but he didn't press the offensive and Maxentius' generals later took it back.

Nevertheless, Licinius did fight successful campaigns against foreign enemies. Unfortunately, we receive no details about these campaigns, but imperial titulature indicates campaigns against the Sarmatians in 310 (when Galerius was ill), against Persians in Cappadocia, Armenia and Atropatene in 314, against Arabs in 314, and against the Goths in 315. Hostilities between Rome and the Persians between Galerius' victory in 298 and the renewed outbreak of war just before Constantine's death in 337 are nearly without attestation in the sources. Titulature indicates the above-mentioned campaign of Licinius in 314 (Persicus Maximus, Cappadocius Maximus, Armenicus Maximus, Medicus Maximus) and a campaign by Maximinus in 310 (Persicus Maximus). In the latter case, Eusebius does state that Maximinus went to war with the Armenians and was defeated (Historia Ecclesiastica 8.8.2, 4), which presumably relates to his Persian campaign. But the sources are otherwise silent on both campaigns. Were these minor interventions into Armenian affairs at the expense of Persian interests, interventions that, in this period of heightened tensions between rival emperors, Maximinus and Licinius claimed to be victories over the Persians? Both emperors claimed to be the successors of Galerius, and claiming a Persian victory was an obvious way of strengthening that claim. Then again, in Licinius' case, the references to Arabs, Cappadocia and Media (Atropatene) indicate something considerably larger than a minor intervention. Was it an opportunistic invasion against a distracted Persian Empire (like the invasion of Carus), thus why it received no attention among the surviving sources? Or were the pro-Christian and pro-Constantinian historical traditions sufficiently pervasive that the achievements of Maximinus and Licinius on the eastern frontier were brushed under the carpet? Maybe, but Galerius was an enemy of Constantine and the Christians, and the sources, even hostile ones, make no attempt to hide his achievements. Unfortunately we just don't know what happened.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2018
2,106
Sydney
If you don't mind me de-railing this excellent and thoughtful post, how is P'awstos regarded as a source amongst late antique historians these days? I know little of the text (and have never actually read it). Yet I feel like for the late sixth and early seventh century, Sebeos has almost moved into position as the best source for political events in the near east. I'm not quite sure where Lewond stands for the history of the eighth century, but now that we have a new critical edition and (French) translation, hopefully that will come to be understood better.
Unfortunately I don't know. I don't see references to P'awstos very often. I've only read the bits that are relevant to the Tetrarchic period (which isn't much of the text).
 
Apr 2018
339
Italy
Chobin seems like a very good commander but one of the best of the entire era? Could you explain your choices of Sharbaraz and Bahram Chobin, I know but little on Sassanian history and would be interested to know what they did, I have some knowledge on Chobin but Sharbaraz I know only by name.
Sharbaraz conquered the Levant and the Aegypt from Byzantines, Bahram for his campaigns against Gokturks
 
Oct 2018
2,106
Sydney
He was indeed experienced, having served with distinction as a general in Galerius' Persian campaigns. And it is to his credit that in 317 he outmaneuvered Constantine and thus forced him to the negotiating table. That said, I personally find it hard to get past all those defeats. And regarding Tzirallum, while he did defeat Maximinus, it's worth bearing in mind that our chief source is Lactantius' On the Deaths of the Persecutors, the central thesis of which is that God punished the persecutors. For Lactantius, God was on the side of Licinius, and he treats his victory as a miraculous event. One wonders if Maximinus' army truly so badly outnumbered the force of Licinius. Perhaps it did, but by 313 Licinius had absorbed Galerius' field army as well as his own and could draw upon the numerous legions of the Danube, the most heavily garrisoned frontier of the Roman Empire. He was also fighting on his home turf, the Danube frontier had also seen much more combat in the years since 298, and Lactantius states that Maximinus' army was much impaired as a result of the forced march from Syria to the Bosphorus that happened in the winter of 312/3 and which exposed his troops to snow and rain (DMP 45). So it seems to me that Licinius could draw upon a greater number of trained and experienced soldiers than Maximinus could. His campaigning against Maxentius in 309 was also much too cautious and uninspiring. I recall that he captured Aquileia and maybe some surrounding towns, but he didn't press the offensive and Maxentius' generals later took it back.

Nevertheless, Licinius did fight successful campaigns against foreign enemies. Unfortunately, we receive no details about these campaigns, but imperial titulature indicates campaigns against the Sarmatians in 310 (when Galerius was ill), against Persians in Cappadocia, Armenia and Atropatene in 314, against Arabs in 314, and against the Goths in 315. Hostilities between Rome and the Persians between Galerius' victory in 298 and the renewed outbreak of war just before Constantine's death in 337 are nearly without attestation in the sources. Titulature indicates the above-mentioned campaign of Licinius in 314 (Persicus Maximus, Cappadocius Maximus, Armenicus Maximus, Medicus Maximus) and a campaign by Maximinus in 310 (Persicus Maximus). In the latter case, Eusebius does state that Maximinus went to war with the Armenians and was defeated (Historia Ecclesiastica 8.8.2, 4), which presumably relates to his Persian campaign. But the sources are otherwise silent on both campaigns. Were these minor interventions into Armenian affairs at the expense of Persian interests, interventions that, in this period of heightened tensions between rival emperors, Maximinus and Licinius claimed to be victories over the Persians? Both emperors claimed to be the successors of Galerius, and claiming a Persian victory was an obvious way of strengthening that claim. Then again, in Licinius' case, the references to Arabs, Cappadocia and Media (Atropatene) indicate something considerably larger than a minor intervention. Was it an opportunistic invasion against a distracted Persian Empire (like the invasion of Carus), thus why it received no attention among the surviving sources? Or were the pro-Christian and pro-Constantinian historical traditions sufficiently pervasive that the achievements of Maximinus and Licinius on the eastern frontier were brushed under the carpet? Maybe, but Galerius was an enemy of Constantine and the Christians, and the sources, even hostile ones, make no attempt to hide his achievements. Unfortunately we just don't know what happened.
Actually, another possibility is that the Persians or pro-Persian Armenians sent a raiding party into Cappadocia, exploiting the unrest and uncertainty that existed as a result of the civil war between Licinius and Maximinus.
 
Oct 2018
2,106
Sydney
Now I would interested to know what your opinion on Constantius II is. What’s your opinion on some of the other commanders mentioned as well, like Sharbaraz?
I can't say I know enough about the sixth and seventh centuries to have much of an opinion on the likes of Sharbaraz. I'm not sure how I feel about Constantius II. You make good points in his favour. He won his civil war with Magnentius, but Zosimus and Zonaras emphasize that the war was disastrous for legionary manpower, with both sides suffering massive casualties. In campaigning against Persia he largely contented himself with defensive, localized warfare, possibly necessitated by him having little access to manpower in the west. He thus preserved a status quo that Julian dashed away with his disastrous invasion, but it doesn't inspire excitement in the same way that fighting a major battle and taking enemy cities do.
 
Dec 2019
81
Fryslân, Netherlands
While Constantius II did sometimes sabotage his own country’s war effort that is more of a political thing so I dont hold it against him as a military leader. He used a defensive strategy against the Parthians instead of wasting resources on a decisive and risky campaign against them. While his defensive approach was very unroman he had a too little resources to deal with them decisively, his good strategy prevented the Parthians from making significant gains and led to them being eventually pushed back. When the Parthians were weakened he won the decisive Battle of Narasara against them. He reorganized the armies under his control so he could fight on two fronts at once. At the Battle of Mursa [Major] He concentrated a strong force against one of Magnentius flanks (the right one I think it was) and routed it. Instead of pursuing the fleeing Magnentius he trapped and destroyed the rebel army. The rebel troops were of much higher quality than his own but he was able to break up their formation using a combination of horse archery and cavalry charges. Through his aggressive outflanking tactics he was able to dominate the flow of battle and the enemy was not allowed a chance to win (they very well might have due to the quality of the rebel troops). In the west he tried to use an ambitious encirclement but like Napoleon trying to set strategy for the Peninsular War Constantius was too far away. His organizational and strategical decisions were inventive (considered unroman and widely misunderstood in his time). His use of cavalry in the Battle of Mursa equally so. Due to his tactical abilities Magnentius was allowed no chance of victory while the Parthians learned their lesson at Narasara. He used the resources at his disposal very efficiently. (I must admit I’ve not read as much on this era as I would like, if I mistook something a subordinate did for an action by the emperor please point it out)
Belisarius was not there not because he wasn’t a great commander but for the mere reason that I consider the others I mentioned to be a step above him. At Ad Decimum his plan was to take his entire cavalry force, the main strength of his army, into a defile for reconnaissance in force, where Gelimer had set an ambush for exactly such an occasion. He did sent 300 men ahead to scout but these could very well have been trapped or just not been able to reach him before he joined them in the Vandal ambush. At the Battle of Rome (a breakout attempt during the siege of that place) he let his horse archers get dangerously close to the Goths resulting in them being charged and routed. He made some mistakes so large, especially when he was on the offensive, that I don’t consider him to be at the level of Narses etc. He was great at dispositions and positioning on both offense and defense, at Callinicum he prevented the enemy from outflanking him and positioned his army in a relatively strong position. When he needed to act rapidly he remained clam and was able to see threats and opertunites and their magnitude clearly, for which he is often praised, but he did made mistakes, like failing to create a reserve at Callinicum. A message for anyone who has not read recent publications on Belisarius‘ campaigns: the Vandals, Goths and even the Persians (when concerning the Lazic war) were not nearly that numerous. The Vandals were probably outnumbered by the Byzantines while the Goths numbered at most 40.000 at Rome, probably less.
I included Diocletian largely for his reforms. He came up with the defensive strategy later used by Constantine etc. and reformed unit structure, composition, didn’t he? (that‘s not just a rhetorical question) You probably know better than I most I know comes from background chapters from books on the era after him, have also read some general histories of the Roman and Byzantine Empire(s) which mentioned them but I’ve heard he never lost a battle so I thought he was worthy. Considering your name you probably know a lot more about Diocletian though.
In “The Nisibis War” (the books that I am currently reading) whoever wrote that book argues (in my opinion convincingly) that Constantius did not outnumber Magnentius at the Battle of Mursa. P. Heather shows in his book on Justinian’s rule that the regard in which an figure was held would influence campaign narratives and that rulers, even when not involved, were personally responsible for battlefield outcomes. As such the casualty rates are probably influenced by the writer‘s feelings towards Constantius. Most were hostile to him and seem to have played him for all kinds of stuff which he could do nothing about.