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Wojciech Brillowski, The Principles of 'ars tactica' Roman Military Theory and Practice in Arrian's 'Acies contra Alanos'

Greek Taktika:
Ancient Military Writing
and its Heritage
Greek Taktika:
Ancient Military Writing
and its Heritage
Proceedings of the International Conference
on Greek Taktika held at the
University of Toruń, 7-11 April 2005
Published by the Foundation for the Development of University of Gdańsk
for the Department of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Gdańsk.
Gdańsk 2017
Monograph Series ‘Akanthina’ no. 13.
ISBN 978-83-7531-242-3
Table of contents
Preface and Acknowledgements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Philip Rance
Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Burkhard Meißner
Early Greek Strategic and Tactical Teaching and Literature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65
Hans Michael Schellenberg
Reflections on the Military Views of the ‘Military Writer’ Aeneas Tacticus . . . . . . . . 81
Bogdan Burliga
Tactical Issues in Aeneas ‘Tacticus’. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94
Alexander Nefedkin
The Classification of Greco-Macedonian Cavalry in Ancient Taktika
and in Modern Literature. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107
Nicholas Sekunda
Cavalry Organisation in the Taktika: the Tarantinarchia. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116
Bogdan Burliga
Asclepiodotus’ τοῖς γε σώμασιν ἐπιβρίθοντες (Tactica 5.2) and Polybius’ τῷ τοῦ
σώματος βάρει (18.30.1-4). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123
Hans Michael Schellenberg
A Short Bibliographical Note on the Arabic Translation
of Aelian’s Tactica Theoria. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135
Jacek Rzepka
Polyaenus and the Creation of Hellenistic Monarchy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
Sławomir Sprawski
Alexander at Tempe: Polyaenus, Strategemata 4.3.23. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152
Pierre O. Juhel
The Rank Insignia of the Officers of the Macedonian Phalanx:
the Lessons of Iconography and an Indirect Reference in Vegetius. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 167
Table of contents
Radosław A. Gawroński
The Javelins used by the Roman Cavalry of the Early Principate
in Archaeological Contexts and Written Sources. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 180
Wojciech Brillowski
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice
in Arrian’s Acies contra Alanos. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195
Philip Rance
Maurice’s Strategicon and ‘the Ancients’: the Late Antique Reception
of Aelian and Arrian . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 217
Keith Roberts
The Practical Use of Classical Texts for Modern War in the Sixteenth
and Seventeenth Centuries. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 256
Richard Brzezinski
The Influence of Classical Military Texts in Early Modern Poland: a Survey. . . . . . 282
Wojciech Brillowski
The Principles of ars tactica:
Roman Military Theory and Practice
in Arrian’s Acies contra Alanos
t has long been emphasised that Arrian’s Acies contra Alanos is crucial to an
understanding and reconstruction of the tactics of the Roman imperial army,
as one of the most detailed descriptions of its combat deployment (Gilliver 1999:
114; Wheeler 2007: 262). Scholars have mainly concentrated on questions of terminology, the attitude of Arrian to the tradition of Hellenistic and Roman military
treatises and his chosen infantry deployment, or identification of the weaponry of
his legionaries. Other researchers have tried to use this document to reconstruct
the procedures of the Roman army on the march and in battle, regarding the information provided by Arrian as universal for the whole period of the Principate.
The question of its influence on later military traditions has been dealt with to
a lesser degree. Less attention has been paid to the historical aspects of the events
described by this Greek historian, or the methods used to select and deploy the
units serving in his army. The specifics of the Cappadocian garrison have been
emphasised, but only in a brief analysis of the historical and economic conditions
that could have influenced its form and the course of the campaign against the
In the following paper I propose a more holistic approach, emphasising the
series of developments that underlie the historical reality Arrian describes. Also
important to an understanding of the Acies is its manner of presenting events,
which I should like to discuss briefly, as far as the limitations of space allow. It is
necessary to analyse the text, above all, as a cultural phenomenon, which stands
between the descriptions of battles in narrative sources and theoretical treatises
on tactics. To a large extent this was a result of the personality of the author. By
For discussion of major issues concerning the Acies and its extensive bibliography see Wheeler
(2004) 309-11.
Wojciech Brillowski
the 130s AD, Arrian had gained military experience in the field (Arr. Cyn. 1.4; see
Bosworth 1988: 17-19) and had written a significant collection of literary works
on various subjects (Bosworth 1972: 163-85). One should therefore be aware that
Arrian’s work presents elements of Roman military theory and practice in accordance with ancient literary conventions, where language and composition often
had primacy over content (Sabin 2000: 3).
The text of the Greek historian was composed with the contemporary reader
in mind (Stadter 1978: 125), with the application of classical terminology and one
of the basic topoi of ancient literature, presenting the characteristics of a good
commander. In his emulation of Xenophon, Arrian consciously moved away from
the tendency to enumerate and describe the virtues of a good commander, preferring to demonstrate them through his own actions (Acies 10, 22). He did this in
a similar way to Julius Caesar, although in a different literary form and without
any aspect of propaganda. In Acies contra Alanos he declines to give his name, just
as he did in the introduction to his Anabasis. The lessons of Epictetus can be seen
in both cases – concentrating on the same deeds and achievements, but without
blind aspirations to fame. As stated in the Anabasis (1.12.4-5), his first aim was to
achieve literary excellence in the glorification of Alexander, in accordance with
Homeric ideals (Stadter 1980: 61-6, Bosworth 1988: 32-5). In Acies contra Alanos
he aimed to fulfil the ideals of commander and writer alike, according to specifications set out by Xenophon. The latter’s recommendations for a good commander,
with small modifications, were widely repeated by Greek and Roman historical writers whom Arrian must have known, like Polybius (14.1-5), or authors of
textbooks on the art of war, which Arrian might have known, like Onasander (B.
Campbell 1987: 13-14).
The range of requirements defining a good general, as shown by B. Campbell
(1987: 22), was not a purely literary or theoretical topos. It found a practical application in the strict interdependence between the political system and military
practice of the Romans. The Roman commander during the Principate was usually a politician, with only a brief apprenticeship in the army, served in his youth
as part of the cursus honorum. His shortfalls were, however, made good by the
comparatively simple organisational system of the professional army, the experience of junior officers and a set of basic rules, presented in narrative sources
and treatises. As Goldsworthy (1996: 167-70) rightly observes, the majority of demands pertaining to a general related to ways of organising people and qualities of
leadership, rather than sophisticated tactics (see also B. Campbell 2002: 53; Rance
2000: 228 n.12; Thorne 2007: 223-5). Since a Roman commander was at the same
time a political authority, conscious of the political aims of the war, he could find
there also a recipe for leading a war. In this sense, his duties were dominated by
politics, both in realising strategic goals and in interpersonal relations, which to
a large extent mirrored the mechanisms of governing the Roman state.
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice…
In taking action against the Alans, Arrian, as an aspiring ideal general, was
faced with solving a real and current problem, in a specific geographical and historical context. Having served as governor of Cappadocia for several years and
not being a “behind-the-desk” leader, he knew the region well, as his Periplus
confirms (Austin/Rankov 1995: 3-4, 30, 117). The same text states that, in order
to augment knowledge gained from personal experience, Arrian read widely in
earlier sources, such as Xenophon. There he could find, apart from patterns and
idioms suitable for writing a military text, several items of geographical and cultural information, despite the fact that most of them had been obsolete for several
centuries (Bosworth 1988: 23). Besides this, in accordance with tradition, Arrian
made use of scouts, exploratores or kataskopoi (Austin/Rankov 1995: 52-3), during the march and in searching for a suitable location for the anticipated battle,
which would reinforce the adopted deployment (B. Campbell 1987: 13-14, Le Bohec 2001: 130). In this he followed an ancient tradition of generalship, being aware
that in a confrontation with the enemy’s heavy cavalry, the terrain and weather
conditions could be primary factors in deciding the outcome of the battle (Southern 2006: 195-7). This had been the case in the battle between Roman forces in
Moesia and the Roxolani (Tac. Hist. 1.79) and when Marcus Aurelius’ troops had
fought the Iazyges on the frozen Danube (Dio Cass. 71.7.2). B. Campbell (2002:
59) supplies other instances of the skilful use of atmospheric conditions, as related
in Roman narrative sources. We should be aware, however, that especially in Dio’s
testimony, we are dealing with another topos of ancient historical thought: the
forces of Nature involved in a clash between humans.
Arrian could have learned about the fighting-techniques and armament of his
enemies from his previous experiences, even though, as Bosworth (1983: 274)
points out, he never took part in the Parthian War. He almost certainly performed
his military service on the Danube, as it is difficult to find an alternative explanation for Arrian’s knowledge of this military area, which did not really emerge
as a tourist destination during the Roman era. This was a territory infiltrated by
western Sarmatians both in a military and civilian context. Arrian’s knowledge
of their military methods can be seen in his other work, the Ars tactica, which
should be viewed in light of reforms introduced by Hadrian (Stadter 1978: 127).
In preparing for battle, Arrian could also rely on experienced officers in his army,
as military treatises advised (de Blois 2007: 164-9). Members of his consilium,
drawn from legions, auxilia and local allies, constituted a valuable source of information for the commander. The consilium knew the local theatre of conflict very
well, while legionary officers, to judge by their typically long service, might have
gained experience of fighting the Sarmatians and Parthians in previous decades.
These men could have supplied detailed information about the enemy’s tactics, the
weak points of their armament and differences in their personal equipment more
precisely than historical narratives or tactical treatises. This sort of information
Wojciech Brillowski
would have been crucial to soldiers taking part in the battle, but also for the officer
in command, as the final section of Acies contra Alanos (31) seems to imply. That
Arrian might have regarded the experience of his subordinates as a valuable asset
can be assumed from the emphasis he places on the choice of the men in charge of
the units of his army, some of whom he mentions by name, such as the Demetrius
(of Balkan origin?) who leads the mounted elements of cohortes equitatae into
planned battle (Southern 2006: 202).
Arrian could also have taken useful information from geographers and historians such as Strabo and Tacitus, though we know that he was highly critical in
his use of earlier sources. In the 130s AD, when he was governor of Cappadocia,
the Romans were in contact with nomadic peoples coming from the steppes of
Eurasia in several regions of strategic importance to the Empire. In the central and
lower Danube the Romans shared a border with the Iazyges and Roxolani, while
in the Black Sea region the Alans were neighbours of Roman allies, the Bosporan
Kingdom and the Caucasian states. In the eastern provinces the Parthian Empire
had been the main rival of Rome for nearly two hundred years. Rome had political
and trading relations with all of these peoples, though violent conflicts occurred
nevertheless. Both peaceful proximity and armed confrontation resulted in wide
knowledge of their customs, social structure and, most importantly, their methods of conducting war, especially from the Flavians onwards (Syme 1929: 133-4).
It is in accordance with a tradition stretching back at least to the age of Herodotus
that the military conduct of a given people was considered to be one of its constitutive characteristics.
In the case of pastoral nomads of the steppes, the Romans saw in principle
a uniform military tradition that had its roots in the era of the Scythians and
continued until much later in the fighting-techniques of the Huns and Avars.2 To
some extent, this was the cause of certain anachronistic beliefs held by Greek and
Roman authors, including Arrian (Acies 26, 31), who named the Eurasian steppes
‘Scythia’ and their inhabitants ‘Scythians’ (Syme 1929: 131). In a manner typical
of ancient thought, knowledge of these peoples was blended with myths arising
from misunderstandings or partial ignorance. These myths can be found in the
representation of the Roxolani on Trajan’s Column, Cichorius’ scenes xxxi, xxxvii
(see figs. 1 and 2), which shows horses covered in armour down to their hooves
(Webster 1985: 153-4), or in Tacitus’ writings, according to which they allegedly
fought on horseback using two-handed swords (Tac. Hist. 1.79).
In their accounts of the peoples of the Eurasian steppes Greek and Roman writers tend to emphasise their nomadic lifestyle and use of horses in battle, especially
in raids (e.g. Amm. Marc. 16.10.20). Greek and Roman authors usually describe
On the continuity of military and hunting traditions in horse-based cultures, see Rance (2000)
257-8; Wheeler (2001) 179-80.
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice…
Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Wojciech Brillowski
the panoply of Parthian and Sarmatian heavy cavalry in similar terms, focusing
on chain-mail or lamellar armour made of iron (Rattenbury 1942: ­113-16).3 The
majority of Parthian cataphracti, having their economic and technological milieu in the Greek cities, would indeed have been furnished with iron armour. We
should not assume, however, that the contingent of Alans that was supposed to
confront the Cappadocian army was uniformly armed in a similar manner. Surely
the armour of the wealthiest soldiers could have been of iron, but the rest probably
had leather or bone protection, whereas the poorest might have had no armour
at all (Syme 1929: 131). Tacitus (Hist. 1.79) refers to differences in the armour of
Roxolani warriors depending on social and economic status (Mielczarek 1999:
53-59). Strabo (7.3.17) says that the Roxolani use helmets and corselets made of
raw ox-hides, and Pausanias (1.21.6) gives a detailed description of this kind of
armour and its method of manufacture. Furthermore, to a large extent the armament of horsemen determined their tactics. While light cavalry would shoot at the
enemy from a distance, heavily-armed horsemen were employed for breaking the
enemy’s formations with a shock charge. The Romans were conscious of the different tactical preferences of nomadic peoples, and of the fact that the Sarmatians
preferred the latter form of attack and the Parthians the former (Tac. Ann. 6.35;
Arr. Tact. 4.3). They were not overly concerned about the social or economic factors underlying this distinction, but concentrated instead on practical application
of this information in battle (Arr. Tact. 11.1-2).
The army stationed in Cappadocia when Arrian took command was a relatively new creation, organised by Vespasian and consolidated by Trajan and Hadrian
(Mitford 1974: 160; Isaac 1990: 34-42, 50-51), but it was long-lasting, as a large
part of the troops stayed at their posts until the end of the fourth century (Pelham
1911: 229-30). A number of modern studies have underlined its non-standard
composition and training methods in comparison to garrisons in other frontier
provinces (Bosworth 1993: 270; Goldsworthy 1996: 108). The main part of the
infantry was made up of legions, and amongst the auxiliary units the cavalry
predominated, rather than infantry. What is significant is the preponderance of
archers in both types of unit (Pelham 1911: 229). It is important to emphasise,
however, that the characterisation of the Cappadocian garrison as a non-typical
or unique formation mainly stems from a tacit conviction in the uniformity of
the Roman army in the second century (Henderson 1923: 173). The composition
of every provincial garrison was individual and consciously adapted to the area
of operation and the characteristics of the enemy, probably owing to reforms introduced by Hadrian (Birley 2000: 137). The continuity of their organisation, as
documented in the Notitia dignitatum (Wheeler 2007: 247), proves above all the
Sallust. Hist. fr. 4.66; Plut. Luc. 28; Curt. 4.35; Tac. Hist. 1.79; Heliodorus, Aethiopica 9.15; Amm.
Marc. 16.10.8.
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice…
strong foundations of the reform and the knowledge of tactics and strategy employed by this emperor, on the basis of his own acquaintance with the provinces.
To a certain extent the make-up of Arrian’s expeditionary force mirrored the
profile of the Cappadocian garrison. It is known, however, that a number of auxiliary units stationed in the province did not take part in the expedition and that
from other contingents only the mounted component participated (Bosworth
1993: 268 n. 216; also Speidel 1983: 30). The question arises as to whether this
was a hurried gathering of all forces available, caused by the urgent threat posed
by the Alans. Taking into account the specifics of Rome’s relations with neighbouring peoples, one can assume that Arrian was appropriately informed beforehand of the fact that the Alans had been allowed into Media Atropatene by the
Iberian authorities. From his conscientious approach to the obligations of a governor and strategic thinking, as manifest in the Periplus, we can assume that he
reacted quickly and had enough time to organise his army. The criteria of choice
seems to be linked both to Arrian’s tactical conception and the strategic defence
of the province, including the need to secure its assets (Bosworth 1993: 268). If
we agree that the composition of the expeditionary force was the choice of the
commander and not the necessity of the moment, we need to think about what
dictated his criteria (B. Campbell 2002: 50). Was it the specific design of the commander or rather a traditional method of combating a mobile enemy who relied
on cavalry charges? To what extent was it the general’s tactical skills or a set of
simple and low-risk doctrines that decided the method of fighting? These questions have been posed on numerous occasions, especially in analysing the Acies
in a narrower perspective, and particularly the formation and armament of the
legionary infantry in the centre. It is disputed whether their closed formation was
a typical solution or rather a unique expedient invented by the commander on the
basis of his knowledge of Hellenistic military theory and practice (Wheeler 1979:
303; Rance 2004: 299 n. 64, Wheeler 2007: 263). It is most commonly noted that
Arrian’s deployment of heavy infantry was the most effective barrier against cavalry attack available to the Romans (Bosworth 1977: 236-8). The key to this battle
plan, however, was the offensive use of missile forces, gathered behind the screen
of close-order infantry (Acies 25-6), delivering a heavy barrage (Wheeler 2001:
181; 2004: 325). Knowledge of this kind of deployment and the use of bowmen,
javelineers and slingers against cavalry is confirmed elsewhere in Arrian’s writings
(Tact. 15). Taking this into account, the basic question becomes: where and when
did the idea for such an arrangement of available forces originate? Did it in fact
occur, as B. Campbell (1987: 25-6) believes, in the East, during the activities of the
Roman army against the Parthians from the time of Mark Antony onwards?
We should be aware that some of the questions posed above are to a large extent a discussion of terminology; at its heart lies a belief in strict, canonical use
of military terms in ancient times. This leads to numerous misunderstandings
Wojciech Brillowski
or even methodological errors, as in the case of Wheeler (1979: 311 n. 40).4 The
questions of classification and terminology concerning Roman imperial shafted
weapons are too complicated to allow strict definition of the spears used by the
front four ranks of infantry in Arrian’s deployment (Bishop/Coulston 1993: 69).
However, we could apply Ockham’s razor here: the simplest solution to Arrian’s
requirement for long spears (or pikes) was the employment of available standard
equipment, which was the contus, rather than re-creating the traditional Roman
hasta, as Wheeler (2001: 177 n. 40) postulates, which was long obsolete, as was the
Macedonian sarissa, proposed by other scholars (Bosworth 1993: 270-71). Both
were not suitable for the purpose – the former was simply too short and light to
be effective against heavy cavalry equipped with long spears, and the proper use of
the latter required strength and skill that Arrian’s footmen surely did not posses. It
is curious that Wheeler (2004: 312) cites Julius Africanus’ remark (Cest. 1.1.81-2)
that the Roman infantry’s kontoi were too short and ineffective against a cavalry
charge and at the same time sees in the hands of Arrian’s legionaries hastae, which
were clearly shorter and less solid than the former.
Our knowledge of Roman military terms is, however, extremely limited. Examples of their use point to the fact that variation in meaning depends on the
context and experience of the author (Southern 1989: 115). For example, the word
cuneus can mean either a military unit (Tac. Hist. 4.16; 5.16) or a ‘wedge-shaped’
formation (Tac. Hist. 1.51), even in the same text (see Wheeler 2004: 342-3). The
term phalanx can function equally ambiguously in Arrian’s works as a non-standard Greek word for ‘legion’ (Arr. Tact. 10; Acies 5-6, 15), while elsewhere it is used
to denote a close-order battle formation (Arr. Tact. 26; see Wheeler 2004: 311,
326). The question of vocabulary in Arrian is all the more complicated in that the
text of the Acies is preserved in a single poor copy and controversy often relates
to emendations and not the original text (Pavkovic 1988: 21). Additionally, it is
necessary to take into consideration the fact that Arrian’s orders were directed to
Greek and Armenian officers, which could have influenced the idiom used.5 I am
therefore convinced that the majority of these terminological issues is not solvable, and we should rather be looking for the historical origins of Arrian’s battle
formation and his deployment of particular units.
Wheeler rejects the use of conti by Arrian’s legionaries, in spite of Arrian’s first-hand experience,
on the grounds that other sources, mainly narratives by “armchair” specialists, mention this kind of
weapon only used by cavalry. In methodologically similar circumstances, however, in his review of
Goldsworthy’s The Roman Army at War, Wheeler (1998) 648 charges this author with questionable
methodology, when Goldsworthy dismisses Polybius, a possible eyewitness, on the grounds that
his testimony is not confirmed by other authors. Moreover, Wheeler contradicts himself elsewhere,
citing Tacitus (Hist. 3.27.3) on Vitellians fighting a Flavian testudo with conti during the defence of
Cremona, see Wheeler (2004) 319.
For the question of tailoring military idiom to the intended audience, in different a chronological
context but generally applicable here also, see Rance (2000) 232-3.
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice…
In order to do so, it is worth looking briefly at the history of the legions, auxilia
and units of territorial forces assembled by Arrian against Alans. All of them possessed battle experience in the eastern part of the Empire, which could have been
key to the way in which they were used. The majority of the regular forces had
been engaged in fighting the Parthians during Trajan’s expedition twenty years before: both legions, XII Fulminata and XV Apollinaris, took part in this campaign
(pro Bosworth 1993: 258; contra Wheeler 2001: 181 n. 52; 2004: 321). They had
also gained experience in earlier conflicts with the Parthians, the XII under Mark
Antony and Corbulo, and the XV during the latter campaign. Undoubtedly, as in
modern professional armies, these units could have possessed useful information
about the enemy in archives or via an oral tradition. The auxilia recruited in the
East and local contingents of symmacharii, for obvious reasons, were most aware
of the organisation of the enemy, its armament and also terrain conditions. Arrian
was well aware of the importance of these factors in the organisation of marching
columns and battle formations.6
When fighting the Parthians the Romans often deployed their troops in a hollow square (Goldsworthy 1996: 229), particularly in the first century B.C and the
first century A.D (Plut. Crass. 24.3; Ant. 45.2; Dio 40.22.2; 49.29.2-30.4; Tac. Ann.
12.40). This formation was defensive by definition, its principle aims being to reduce the dangers of encirclement. The main line of defence was a close-order infantry formation with a wall of shields, a testudo, resembling the Hellenistic phalanx (Wheeler 2004: 352). This arrangement provided effective protection against
missiles and shock charges and was particularly useful against the Parthians, who
combined both forms of attack (B. Campbell 1987: 25; Goldsworthy 1996: 229;
Wheeler 2007: 263). These tactics were applied with varying success – for Crassus
near Carrhae they brought total defeat; the fact that Mark Antony and his commanders attained comparative success in confrontations was due to better knowledge and use of the terrain, and the greater discipline of officers and soldiers. They
made effective use of units from eastern client states, mainly composed of archers and auxiliary missile troops, especially slingers (Wheeler 2004: 318; Southern
2006: 197). The latter could shoot at a greater range than Parthian archers and
their missiles were effective against even heavily-armoured opponents, killing
them or causing concussion (Wheeler 2001: 176). In the 150-year period between
the expeditions of Mark Antony and Trajan, only once, during Nero’s reign, was
there a large-scale confrontation with the Parthians. On this occasion Corbulo
used the experience of his predecessors, achieving success thanks to a precisely planned strategy and efficient logistics (Isaac 1990: 40-41). The attacks of the
See Isaac (1990) 25 on Corbulo’s Armenian campaign and the disadvantages of employing army
units accustomed to a different climate and terrain.
Wojciech Brillowski
Parthians were directed mainly against his supply lines and direct confrontation
decided the result of the war to a lesser extent than in the triumvir’s campaign.
Some units of Arrian’s auxilia were recruited from provinces on the Danube
or had previously been stationed in this part of the limes, taking part in fighting
against Dacians and Sarmatians. Also his main infantry unit, Legio XV Apollinaris, had for a long time been garrisoned in Carnuntum (Rossi 1971: 93). It has
been argued, however, that the Danubian origin of Arrian’s phalangical legion is
mere conjecture, as this kind of formation was familiar to the Romans through
centuries of tradition (Wheeler 2004: 320-23). This may very well be true, in
terms of a deep closely-ordered mass of infantry. However, the division of a legion
into kontophoroi and lonchophoroi, as well as Arrian’s general battle plan, based
on a barrage delivered from behind a probolē of massed infantrymen, probably
originated in central Europe. In the first two centuries AD the Danube provinces, particularly Lower Moesia and Pannonia, and later Dacia, forming the most
important military zone of the empire, were persistently overrun by the Iazyges
and Roxolani (Eadie 1967: 165-6; Mócsy 1974: 99-100; Visy 1995: 90). The Sarmatians conducted raids alone or in co-operation with neighbouring Dacian and
Germanic tribes, mainly during the reigns of Tiberius and Domitian (Suet. Tib.
41; Tac. Hist.1.79; Dio 50.30) but also of Trajan and Hadrian (Dio 69.15.2; HA
Hadr. 3.9; Eutr. 8.3.1). Several clashes with these tribes, fighting in a similar way
to the Parthians, could have led to the crystallising of Roman tactics against heavy
cavalry charges (Bosworth 1993: 258), as well as increasing knowledge of them
among contemporary Roman intellectuals (Syme 1929: 133-4).
For this reason Trajan, in planning his expedition against Decebalus – the first
large-scale Roman war of conquest since the time of Augustus – tried to form
a universal army that would be capable of opposing organised Dacian infantry, as
well as the different tactics and weaponry of their German and Sarmatian allies
(Speidel 2004: 9, also Richmond 1967). In carrying out modifications to his forces,
Trajan, as in other areas of government, probably made use of experiences obtained during Domitian’s reign (Holder 1980: 143). During several wars fought by
the latter on the Rhine and Danube, in different topographical conditions, against
diverse opponents, with the supposed involvement of Trajan himself (Bennett
1997: 25-6), the uniform and unbalanced organisational scheme of the Roman
army, originating in late Republic, finally became obsolete (Luttwak 1976: 40-46).
Trajan’s expeditionary force was organised around experienced legions stationed in the area, including Legio XV Apollinaris mentioned above. However,
it is commonly believed that it was mainly units of auxilia which participated
directly in battles during Domitian’s and Trajan’s Dacian wars, while legions were
occupied in building projects (Wheeler 2004: 321). Even though this is partially
true in the case of Trajan’s ambitious construction program, it would be hard to
explain massive concentrations of legions on and across the Danube in the 80s
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice…
and 100s only by the need for a specialised work force. Surely this point of view
is influenced by the visual rhetoric of Trajan’s Column, while the narrative and
epigraphic sources show a different picture of legions directly involved in fighting.
There are several examples: in 87 all of the V Alaudae were massacred in Dacia
(Suet. Dom. 6; Eutrop. 7.15); Hadrian himself is praised for his military deeds as
a commander of the I Minerva in 105-106 (HA Had. 3.6), while probably in 106
T. Cominius Severus, centurion of the II Adiutrix, was given military honours
for service in bellum Dacicum (CIL III 10224, see Eadie 1977: 211)¸ which were
hardly awarded for cobbling roads.
During the age of the Flavians several permanent allied formations began to
come into existence on the Danube frontier, made up of horsemen and archers,
and above all mixed units of sagittaria equitata (Eadie 1967: 166; Petculescu 2002:
769), a tendency that intensified during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. In addition, specialized workshops were established in the military camps where these
units were stationed, which produced and repaired composite bows. At least four
existed in recently conquered Dacia: at Micia, where cohors II Flavia Commogenorum equitata saggitaria was stationed from 106-7, at Porolissum, where there were
several eastern-style archery units, including cohors I Ituraeorum sagittariorum
milliaria equitata, from at least 106 onwards, at Tibiscum for cohors I sagittaria,
106-65 (Tentea 2010: 45-7, 55-9, 60-63; Vass 2014: 99-105), and a fourth in the
auxiliary fort at Buciumi (Vass 2012: 59). Larger units capable of independent
operation were created, both alae and cohortes miliariae. At the same time greater
emphasis was placed on the training of units, with the extensive use of veteran formations. In this period the methods of organising auxiliary troops were also modified. The auxilia were recruited from their area of activity as well as transferred
from other frontier regions, and likewise numeri (or nationes), which acquired
a more regular form in the same period (Southern 1989: 131-2). Recruitment and
transfer were carried out more systematically than in previous periods, employing a pattern which Knight (1991: 199, 208) calls ‘knock on effect’, in which two
main factors were taken into consideration: familiarity with the enemy’s fightingtechniques and the unit’s own offensive potential and flexibility.7
For an illustration of the first factor, we can use the example of the first units of
Roman heavy cavalry documented in literary sources, formed during the reigns of
Trajan (Ala I Ulpia contariorum) and Hadrian (Ala I Gallorum and Pannoniorum
cataphracta), and stationed in the Danubian provinces as a direct response to the
Sarmatian threat (Eadie 1967: 165-8; Wheeler 2004: 317-18). The best example
of the second factor is the famous Moorish light cavalry under the leadership of
As Lóránt (2010) 58 states in his paper on bone bow stiffeners found in military workshops in
Dacia: ‘These objects reflect rather a special kind of fighting strategy that the units brought with
them. This seems to be plausible since these units were stationed on the western limes, a defensive
line facing the land inhabited by the dreaded Sarmatian population famous for their archery skills’.
Wojciech Brillowski
Lucius Quietus. Acclaimed for excellent horsemanship, speed and stamina and
for their military prowess (Arr. Cyn. 24.3),8 they were used extensively for raids
deep into the enemy’s territory and also for breaking charges during pitched battles (Speidel 1975: 208-20; Southern 1989: 92-4). The career of their commander,
a prince in his native country, shows the growing importance of provincial officials in the Roman Empire, as well as profound changes in the organisation of the
Roman army. He is attested for the first time in Roman service in Domitian’s reign
(Dio Cass. 68.32), and was subsequently involved as a leading general in Trajan’s
campaigns, being finally executed by Hadrian as a rival for imperial power (SHA
Hadr. 5.8).
Both Trajan and Hadrian, like Domitian, could use their interest in wars of the
past, extensive experience in current military affairs, and knowledge of the area
of conflict and the enemy, as a basis for carrying out lasting reforms. Such significant modifications to the Roman army could only take place through a linkage
of the roles of political authority and commander, thanks to the direct involvement of emperors in the military activities of the army. They were not limited by
institutions created by Augustus, who tied the hands of Roman generals wishing
to carry out modifications in the structure of the army (B. Campbell 1987: 27).
No doubt any such attempt would arouse suspicions of possible preparations for
a coup d’état, resulting in severe punishment of the legate, as in the case of Sallustius Lucullus and his Lucullea lancea (Suet. Dom. 10.3), rather than lasting acceptance of his reforms.
Trajan’s reformed army showed its value during the Dacian expeditions and in
the similarly well-planned and -executed war with the Parthians. During the latter, using his predecessors’ experience and his own knowledge of this area, where
he served as a junior officer in 70s (Syme 1981: 273; Bennett 1997: 18, 23-4), the
emperor laid great emphasis on logistics, creating permanent supply lines and for
the first time building a bridge over the Tigris. He applied the strategic experience
of Corbulo to counterbalance the mobility of the Parthian army, and new tactical
solutions, developed on Danube, for the weakening of their mounted strike force.
The basic concept of battle remained the same – creating a defensive line that was
hard to break by cavalry charges – hence the interest of Trajan in the close-order
phalanx formation (Wheeler 1979: 318). More numerous and better horsemen,
formed into units that were either auxilia or numeri, and armed in the style of
the Sarmatians, allowed for greater flexibility in the choice of formations, through
improved security on the wings (B. Campbell 1987: 26). Massed formations of
archers, predominately of eastern origin (Tentea 2012), could be placed behind
the “screen” of heavily-armed infantry. As they used composite bows with a long
For discussion of Arrian’s knowledge of Moorish horsemanship see Syme (1982) 197; Bosworth
(1988) 22.
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice…
effective range and penetrative power (Medinger 1933: 227-34; Ureche 2013: 184),
they did not lose much in terms of effectiveness and maintained their offensive
potential (Goldsworthy 1996: 229). The modernisation and balancing of the Roman army in this campaign proved its supremacy, even if its supply lines, partially
broken by the Jewish rebellion, caused its retreat. This was probably the main
reason why the newly formed provinces were abandoned by Hadrian, who concentrated on securing the borders of the Empire (Galimberti 2007: 76-7).
Trajan’s Column provides testimony to the Danubian development of a universal battle formation, with the use of massed missile troops deciding the outcome
of a battle. I refer here to Cichorius’ scenes lxx and lxxi (see figs. 3 and 4), which
probably show the successive stages of a Roman attack on a Dacian fort. The first
scene illustrates a battle between a Roman formation and Dacians, in which part
of the Dacian forces is shown running away into the fort. The second scene portrays the retreat of the Dacians and legionaries storming the fortification. In the
latter scene the testudo formation is correctly shown, in a way that tallies with the
descriptions of ancient authors, as does the context in which this tactic was used.
Aware of the various problems of interpreting the Column (pro Thouvenot 1966:
907, contra Wheeler 2004: 320-21), I am convinced nevertheless that the regularity of testudo representation can confirm that in the former scene an equally typical Roman battle formation is represented.
The first two lines are made up of auxiliares, clad in chain-mail and helmets
and armed with oval shields and thrusting weapons. They hold them in raised
hands, with the position of the hands suggesting thrusting rather than throwing;
it is therefore likely that these were spears and not javelins. The weapon itself is
not visible – as many of the elements on the frieze, they were made from bronze
and have not survived. Soldiers fighting in close formation are accurately depicted
with overlapping shields. On the right flank there is a half-naked German, armed
with a shield similar to those held by auxiliary soldiers, fighting with a club in his
raised right hand. Next to him, on the edge of the formation on the right-hand
side, we can find a slinger clad in a tunic and cloak. In the background, behind
the rows of infantry and on the left wing, some archers on foot are represented.
By their dress and composite bows they are recognisably of eastern origin. The
formation that emerges here is similar to that employed by Arrian against the
Alans. In the middle of this formation are infantrymen fighting in a phalanx, as
termed by the Greek writer, and using spears like their Dacian opponents. Behind
the screen of the shield-wall are units of missile troops, firing at the enemy over
the heads of their comrades. The wings of the formation are protected by numeri
and auxilia, lightly-armed Germanic foot soldiers, and also slingers and archers
(Richmond 1982: 17-20). There are, however, three basic, interconnected differences: different categories of troops stationed in the centre; alternative methods of
fighting the opponent, and a lack of Roman cavalry units. The final difference can
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Wojciech Brillowski
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice…
be easily explained. The scene is set on rocky terrain, with trees in the background,
at the approaches to a Dacian fortress, which could have been protected by traps;
it is therefore not an area suited to cavalry operations. Additionally, unlike Alan
cavalry, the Dacian infantry did not pose such a threat to the Roman flanks, or the
threat was sufficiently small that it could be countered by lightly-armed Germanic
units. In this context it is worth mentioning that Lepper and Frere (1988: 108)
note that the grouping of soldiers in the background, between the trees, resemble
reserve cavalry forces in a dismounted position, though they do not give a basis
for this identification. We cannot find any visualisation of horses there, while the
accoutrements of the warriors do not differ in any way from the equipment of the
auxiliares placed at the front of the formation.
The main difference between the episode in the Dacian wars depicted here and
Arrian’s battle plan lies in the deployment of the troops in centre of the formation
– in the first instance auxiliary infantry is employed, but in the second legionaries.
We should be aware that in this period the differences in weaponry and training between the legions and auxilia were small enough that the two formations
could have been applied interchangeably (Goldsworthy 1996: 20; D.B. Campbell
1997: 481). It is worth considering what criteria decided this choice: whether at
its foundation were tactical fundamentals (Gilliver 1999: 113) or more abstract
notions, as Wheeler feels (1979: 304). His theory of the strategic dimension of
the policy of ‘saving Roman blood’ seems to exploit one of the most important
topoi of Roman historical literature (Tac. Agr. 35.1-2). In the time of Trajan the
realities were quite different, as Fronto confirms in his correspondence with Lucius Verus (Princ. Hist. 15-17). He charges the optimus princeps with spilling too
much blood of Roman citizens for his personal glory (Griffin 2000: 97). Wheeler
(1979: 310-11), seeing the battle at Mons Graupius as a key moment in the development of Roman tactics during the Principate, did not take sufficient account
of the adaptation of the Roman army to local conditions and opponents (Birley
2000: 137). Agricola used more mobile auxilia in the first line as they fared better
in combat with tribal foot soldiers than did heavily-armed legionaries. For this
reason, they made up a significantly higher percentage of Roman foot soldiers
stationed and raised in Britannia and on the Danube than in the eastern provinces
(Hassall 2000: 323). There the legions dominated, because they could be formed
into a more effective barrier against heavily-armed eastern cavalry and were more
resistant to missiles (Goldsworthy 1996: 67). The testimony of Tacitus on the raid
of the Roxolani against Moesia in AD 69 confirms that the selection of the formation was connected to the fighting methods of the opponent. Despite the fact that
numerous and more mobile units of auxilia were stationed in that province, it was
Legio III that became the main force against the Sarmatian riders’ shock charge
(Tac. Hist. 1.79)
Wojciech Brillowski
Opponents deployed and fighting in a different manner required the application of similar formations but different tactics, not defensive as with Arrian’s
battle plan, but offensive. It can be claimed that in Acies contra Alanos we have
a formation that is the prototype of Maurice’s fulcum used in a specifically defensive role against a cavalry charge (Rance 2004: 270-76; and elsewhere in this
volume). That being the case, on Trajan’s Column there is an illustration of a fighting method that resembles the fulcum being used offensively against foot soldiers.
What is important in both cases is that, despite the differences in the methods of
fighting the opponent, the chief weapon of the Roman infantry is their spears, not
their swords or javelins. The similarities indicate that the organisation and equipment of the Roman army in the first half of the second century AD could have
been more flexible than is usually supposed. The experience auxilia gained on the
Danube, in reducing the advantages of their mounted opponents’ weaponry and
tactics, could have formed the basis of the wider modifications of weaponry and
tactics of the eastern legions (Argüín 2000: 340). Unfortunately, the damage to the
decoration of Trajan’s Column leaves us in a similar situation as the one in which
we find ourselves when analysing the weapons of Arrian’s legions. In both cases
we know that the Roman army fought from behind a wall of shields using thrusting weapons, but regrettably we are not in a position to define their exact type.
However, iconographic sources from the post-Hadrianic era, like the Column of
Marcus Aurelius or his reliefs reused on the Arch of Constantine, show legionaries armed with heavy spears rather than pila.
Hadrian made use of experience gained during Trajan’s expeditions, in which
he was personally involved (Birley 2000, 133-4), to modify his adoptive father’s
reforms in order to suit a passive defence of the limes. One can suspect that in his
relocation of the legions he was conscious of the selective criteria, while one can
also see a calculated use of auxilia and numeri. The permanent attachment of garrisons to a province led to their specialisation in methods of fighting against local
enemies and a thorough knowledge of the threats they posed (Birley 2000: 137).
On the other hand, this strategy also had negative effects, such as the stagnation
or reduction in combat value of units in the event of their relocation to another
region. The intensive training programme initiated by Hadrian was above all intended to avert a relaxation in discipline, bringing in a rigorous drill regime as
a fulfilment of the ideal disciplina Augusti (Luttwak 1976: 118-21). Cavalry exercises, described by Arrian in his Ars tactica (33-44), incorporating elements of the
tactics of foreign peoples, including Armenians and Parthians, allowed Roman
units to retain their battle potential against different opponents (Kiechle 1964:
123-7; Stadter 1978: 127-8). To understand fully the patterns of Hadrianic reorganisation of Roman provincial armies, we should consider extensive borrowings
from contemporary fighting traditions, in addition to the traditions of individual
units and tactical treatises connected to the reform (Haynes 2013: 240, 285-300).
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice…
One result of these alterations in the Roman army was a transformation of the tactics used against eastern-type cavalry. We should therefore recognise the infantry
formations described in the Acies, incorporating elements of the phalanx, testudo
and the combat methods of Germanic peoples, and subdivided into kontophoroi
and lonchophoroi, as a result of reforms carried out by Trajan and Hadrian, rather
than the tactical innovation of Arrian alone. There are other factors which limit
his licentia, mainly questions of training and logistics. For a new tactic to be employed successfully against an enemy in a major battle required a much longer
period of training than Arrian had at his disposal when news of the Alans’ raid
reached him. The same should be said of the atypical weaponry in the hands of his
legionaries, even if the traditional hasta or cavalry contus were not so unfamiliar
to Roman infantrymen. Second, providing several thousand men with this kind
of weapon within a few weeks would be an impossible logistical challenge if it was
not their standard equipment. Clearly it would take years to make this “war machine” work efficiently (though see B. Campbell 1987: 28). If indeed this was the
case, and considering the previously discussed problematic political dimension of
military reforms during the Empire, Arrian’s own initiative seems very unlikely.
He could have been involved in the process, being an active governor of the province and Hadrian’s military executive for several years, but it is his testimony to
the reforms, not his innovative role, that makes him exceptional.
Lucian (Alex. 55) confirms that the reforms were enduring, at least in the Cappadocian army. We can also observe a similar pattern to that proposed above in
the military re-organisation of the army under the Severan dynasty, with the direct involvement of Septimius Severus and Caracalla. Tombstones of legionaries
of the II Parthica at Apamea, attesting to a discens phalang(arium) and discens
lanchiari(um), can be taken as proof of continuity of the division of Arrian’s battle formation against Alans (Speidel 1992: 19; Wheeler 2004: 312-13; also Gilliver
1999: 115). The II Parthica was formed in Italy by Septimius Severus for a planned
war against Parthia and composed of vexillationes of formations stationed on the
Danube (Wheeler 2004: 313). The names of soldiers inscribed on tombstones are
mainly Thracian, Macedonian and Greek, which clearly shows a recruiting base
in the Balkans (Balty 1988: 102), in proximity to Sarmatian tribes. It should be
underlined that the tombstones also confirm that archers and artillerymen served
in the II Parthica (Balty 1988: 101). We can therefore see in this legion all the
decisive elements of the battle line described in Arrian’s Acies, even without the
involvement of auxilia. Only the horsemen are missing, but in the Acies they serve
a rather secondary role as a pursuit force (Davies 1971: 755, Wheeler 2004: 210),
in accordance with Roman tradition (Sabin 2000: 5). The situation had changed at
Apamea around AD 250 with the introduction of a defensive strategy against the
well-organised Persians, when specialised cavalry units of Domitianic and Trajanic origin arrived (Balty 1988: 102-3), again from the Danube region, namely from
Wojciech Brillowski
Pannonia. They were the Ala I Flavia Augusta Britannica and Ala I Ulpia contariorum (the very first Roman unit organised and trained in the tradition of steppe
cavalry), both experienced in the role of a special task force against a mobile enemy, for example in the Moorish War of Antoninus Pius (Speidel 1977: 129-35).
Again we can see Danubian experience as the main factor in the preparation of
troops for the eastern theatre of war. One could argue that in the second and third
centuries the Danubian provinces were simply the main area of concentration of
the Roman army, providing forces for other provinces in time of need (for example, the Parthian War of Lucius Verus), but this statement would be too general to
explain the patterns observed.
Arrian is still hailed as one of the basic authorities concerning not only Roman but also Hellenistic tactics (Stadter 1978: 117-18). Next to his Acies contra
Alanos, a unique plan of the order of march and battle deployment of the Roman
army, another text by the Greek historian, the Ars tactica, is responsible for this
view. Its title has served as a key to this article, whose main aim was to understand
the formation against the Alans and the role of the commander, taking into account the realities of the period. Most important in this era was the conception of
tactics, and war in general, as an “art”. It could be argued that in the modern era
matters are no different and, according to some, are the same today. While this
may be true, however, a chief difference appears to be a change in the meaning of
the word “art”. In the modern period it has undergone enormous evolution, which
has lead to the formation of the postulate “art for art’s sake”. It is similar in the area
of war, which too often was an object of purely theoretical study, with tactics as
the main point of interests, while its other aspects, such as logistics, equipment,
experience and morale of the troops, are not held in such high regard.
In the ancient world, art was perceived more as a craft, Greek technē or Latin
ars. It was understood not as a theoretical generalisation of observed phenomena,
but as a knowledge of principles and the constraints of materials and techniques,
which was used to attain a particular target or to create an object. From this point
of view, the ancient art of war does not diverge from the task of the sculptor or architect; in both cases directives were made in the form of topoi and, while the need
for general education (praecepta) was understood, the importance of practical experience (exempla) was above all emphasised (B. Campbell 1987: 20). The study of
treatises and textbooks could not be a substitute for this, though most often these
works were very specific and formulated on the basis of directives drawn from
historical examples (Stadter 1978: 122-3). This way of thinking was very much
oriented towards the past: any contemporary discoveries and alterations were carried out slowly, through gradual modifications of tradition. In the case of artists,
conservatism was built up through training in workshops and the low social status
of art. In the case of commanders, owing to the political dimension of the armed
The Principles of ars tactica: Roman Military Theory and Practice…
forces, institutional limitations were more important, and for this reason reforms
were only possible through the direct involvement of rulers.
I have tried to consider briefly, as far as space allows, the range of structural conditions which could have influenced the make-up of Arrian’s battle plan.
His aim, victory in a confrontation with the Alans, demanded the application of
a deployment that was tried and tested against such an opponent with the participation of specific formations and in the appropriate environment. I have indicated the author’s knowledge of the topography and culture of Cappadocia and
adjoining regions, underlined the question of his military experience and also his
knowledge of texts pertaining to the customs of military opponents. I have treated
the question of the organisation and tactics of the Roman army in the period more
broadly, underlining transitions that took place from the time of the Flavians to
the reign of Hadrian. As is widely known, this gave the army a distinctive character that was decidedly more universal on the levels of culture, strategy and tactics.
I have tried to emphasise how this influenced Arrian’s generalship, inasmuch as
the drill and experience of the units under his command could have been largely
responsible for their arrangement and planned use. The role of professional officers, familiar with the enemy’s method of fighting and conscious of the advantages
and limitations of their subordinates was also important. All the aforementioned
circumstances should be considered from the perspective of ars tactica, as materials and techniques to which Arrian, adept in the art of war, resorted in order to
repel a threat to his province. This claim finds further justification in his affiliation to the writings of Xenophon, in which he found the ideal of the ancient art
of war in the form of an archetypical perfect general. This gave him, together with
other historical narratives, a guidebook for a rational use of these materials and
techniques, in effect a way to shape the substance of war. Hence all the necessary
elements of the definition of ars tactica are present in Acies contra Alanos, as seen
in its original context, half way between military practice and theory. Using different formulae Arrian was able to show ‘a combination of traditional knowledge
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