Military history



The Peloponnesian War, Alexander the Great in
Central Asia, the Maccabees, and the
Bar Kokhba Revolt, 426 BC–AD 132

THE ROMAN LEGIONS returned four years later, in AD 70, under the emperor’s son and future emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, to conquer Jerusalem. By the time they were done, the Jewish Temple lay in ruins and, wrote Josephus, no doubt with some poetic license, the streets were piled so high with corpses that “the ground did nowhere appear visible” and “the whole city [did] run with blood.” Captured rebels were crucified or sold into slavery.4

Although unsuccessful, the Jewish Revolt showed the vulnerability of even ancient empires to irregular tactics. The Jews were among the most successful practitioners of guerrilla warfare in the classical world, but they were far from alone. The surviving literature of this period amply attests to the power of guerrillas, even if the word itself would not be coined for millennia to come. A few famous examples make the point, starting with the most influential account of war and politics ever written.

Most of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War recounts a conventional conflict between Athens and Sparta, but there were also many clashes of irregulars. During a war lasting almost three decades, there were only fifty-five major battles, whereas just in the first few years the Athenians alone staged hundreds of low-level attacks on various locations. “This was raiding and killing,” writes the historian Victor Davis Hanson, “not formal war as previously defined by the Greeks.”5 The less-than-heroic side of this iconic conflict was best captured in Thucydides’s description of a civil war on the island of Corfu in 427 BC pitting pro-Spartan “oligarchs” against pro-Athenian “democrats”: “There was death in every shape and form. And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it. There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars; some were actually walled up in the temples of Dionysus and died there.”6

This was far from the lone instance of unconventional warfare in the Peloponnesian War. Consider, for example, Thucydides’s account of how in 426 BC the “fast moving and light armed” natives of the Aetolian hills in northwestern Greece decimated a ponderous force of armored hoplites from Athens. The Athenian commander, Demosthenes, had been convinced that “the Aetolians were an easy conquest.” Like other generals from city-states located on a plain, he preferred whenever possible to seek victory by sending densely packed phalanxes of infantry, as many as fifty men deep, each of them equipped with a bronze helmet and heavy armor, crashing into an enemy similarly equipped and arrayed. But the Aetolians’ “asymmetric” tactics made that impossible. They would fall back “whenever the Athenian army advanced” and advance again “as soon as it retired.” Only allied archers saved the Athenians from disaster initially, but as soon as their arrows ran out, the rout was on. The Athenians tried to flee, but, in a scene reminiscent of the later slaughter at Beth-horon, “a great many were overtaken” by the Aetolians “and fell beneath their javelins.” Others plunged “into pathless gullies and places that they were unacquainted with” and “thus perished.” The remainder fled into a forest, which the Aetolians set on fire. One can only imagine the agony of these hoplites being roasted alive in their cumbersome armor or else being asphyxiated as they tried desperately with fumbling hands to strip off their breastplates and helmets. “The Athenian army,” Thucydides concluded, “fell victims to death in every form, and suffered all the vicissitudes of flight.”7

The Athenians might have taken some comfort at their misfortune if they could have known that the greatest Greek conqueror of them all—Alexander the Great—would experience similar frustrations at the hands of supposedly inferior foes. Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander, Plutarch’sThe Life of Alexander the Great, and Quintus Curtius Rufus’s The History of Alexander, among other sources, recount the difficulties that the Macedonian king experienced in Bactria, Sogdiana, and Scythia—modern-day Afghanistan and Central Asia. Alexander had already defeated the mighty Persian Empire, but it took him another two years (329–327 BC) to subdue the fierce tribes of this frontier region. Entire Macedonian detachments were lost in ambushes, and Alexander himself was wounded twice. In one battle his leg was shattered by an arrow; in another he was struck in the neck and head by a stone, causing diminished eyesight and nearly blindness. The harsh terrain, ranging from the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush to the arid deserts of Central Asia, added to the Macedonians’ difficulties. Plutarch later compared fighting this decentralized uprising led by numerous petty warlords to “cutting off the heads of the Hydra, which always grow back twice as thick.” To supplement his military countermeasures, which included sending his soldiers to scale snowy, rock-bound peaks where the rebels were ensconced, Alexander had to undertake diplomatic outreach, his most successful initiative being his agreement to marry Roxane, the beautiful daughter of a rebellious baron named Oxyartes. By the time Alexander finally moved on to India, he had been thoroughly drained by his exertions and did not have long to live.8

After Alexander’s death, his empire was carved up among various successor states. The greatest was the Seleucid kingdom, which came to control much of the Middle East. One of its kings, Antiochus IV, overreached himself, however, when he erected a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, ordered Jews to sacrifice pigs, and generally tried to ban at spear point the practice of the Jews’ own religion. Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities and the Bible’s two Books of Maccabees tell the story of the resulting revolt launched in 167 BC by the priestly Hasmonean clan to reclaim independence for Judaea. Under the leadership first of Judas Maccabeus (“Judas the Hammer”) and then, after he was killed, of his brothers, the Jewish rebels used ambush and surprise to wear down and defeat the more powerful occupation army with its intimidating armored elephants. By 142 BC, after more than two decades of warfare, they had driven the Seleucids out and established their own dynasty in one of antiquity’s most successful insurgencies.9

The Maccabees had less than a century of independence before their state fell under the sway of an empire far mightier than the Seleucids’—and one that, as we have already seen, had far greater success in crushing another Jewish revolt. Yet even the devastating Roman response to the uprising of AD 66–70 was not sufficient to extinguish the Jewish desire for independence. As recounted by Cassius Dio in his Roman History, the Jews rebelled twice more against Roman authority. A revolt among Diaspora Jews living in the Middle East occurred in AD 115 and a revolt among Jews in the Holy Land in AD 132. The latter uprising was led by a self-proclaimed messiah known as Simon bar Kokhba (“Son of the Star”), whose followers scurried out of caves in the Judean desert to harass the Roman garrison. Both uprisings were ultimately crushed, but their suppression required several years in each case and the dispatch of many thousands of Roman troops. After the Bar Kokhba revolt, Judaea was renamed Syria Palaestina—hence the origin of “Palestine.”10

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