The Successor States and into the Hellenistic Age II

Hellenistic Ambush

With only meagre sources at our disposal, we can still document numerous cases of ambush, and they take the usual forms. Even the era of Philip and Alexander, so heavily based on the new Macedonian phalanx, has yielded examples of surprise and deception: for example, Polyaenus tells us about Philip when he was besieging the Thessalian city of Pharcedon in 356. The Pharcedonians surrendered, but as Philip’s mercenaries entered the city they fell into an ambush as many of the inhabitants threw stones and javelins at them from the roofs and towers. Philip, however, had already planned an ambush of his own. He ordered his Macedonians to make an assault on the rear part of the city, which was deserted because all the citizens were participating in ambush at the front. The Macedonians placed ladders against the wall and, when they reached the top, the Pharcedonians stopped hurling things at the mercenaries and ran hurriedly to ward off the men who had seized the wall. Before they could close in hand-to-hand combat, the Macedonians already had control of the city.

The Third Sacred war (356–346), fought between the Delphic Amphictyonic League (represented by Thebes) and Philip II of Macedon with the Phocians, set up the context for a story about diversionary tactics at sea used to set up an ambush. Polyaenus reports that, after ravaging the territory of Abdera and Maroneia in 352, Philip was returning with many ships and a land army. Chares, the Athenian, set an ambush with twenty triremes near Neapolis, a city on the east coast of the isthmus of Pallene, in the Chalcidice between Aphytis and Aegae. After selecting the four fastest ships, Philip manned them with his best rowers in terms of age, skill and strength, and gave orders to put out to sea before the rest of the fleet, and to sail past Neapolis, keeping close to the shore. They sailed past. Chares put out to sea with his twenty triremes in order to capture the four ships. Since the four were light and had the best rowers, however, they quickly gained the high sea. While Chares’ ships pursued vigorously, Philip sailed safely past Neapolis without being noticed, and Chares did not catch the four ships.

Even a clever commander such as Philip could find himself lured into an ambush. Onomarchus, the Phocian general in the Third Sacred war, set up such an operation against a Macedonian phalanx. He put a crescent-shape mountain in his rear, concealing men on the peaks at both ends with rocks and rock-throwing engines, and led his forces forward into the plain below. When the Macedonians came out against them and threw their javelins, the Phocians pretended to flee into the hollow middle of the mountain. As the Macedonians pursued with an eager rush after them, the men on the peaks threw rocks and crushed the Macedonian phalanx. Then Onomarchus signalled the Phocians to turn and attack the enemy. The Macedonians under attack from behind, and being pelted with rocks from above, retreated rapidly in great distress. During this flight Philip, no doubt covering his own reputation, said: ‘I do not flee, but retreat like rams do, in order to attack again more violently.’

There is a dispute among historians over whether Alexander the Great would actually use deception or whether he was above such tactics. A pair of passages in Arrian’s Anabasis provide a good illustration of a double standard concerning surprise and ambush. On the eve of Gaugamela, Arrian presents the story of Parmenion suggesting to Alexander that a surprise attack by night should be considered.55 Alexander replied that it was a dishonourable to steal the victory, and that he had to win his victories openly and without stratagem. The entire scene was probably invented to show that Parmenion was not as confident of a victory on the battlefield as Alexander. In 326, in contrast, during the campaign against Porus on the Hydaspes river, Alexander had to come up with a way to bypass Porus and his elephants, which were blocking his passage. Alexander used a feinting tactic to induce Porus to stand his ground and then he successfully crossed, under cover of night, some seventeen miles (twenty-seven kilometres) upstream. No one has suggested that this successful night operation was sneaky or morally dubious.

A similar example is told about Alexander when he took Thebes in 335 by hiding a sufficient force, and appointing Antipater to command it. He himself led a diversionary force against the city’s strong points. The Thebans went out and fought nobly against the force they saw. At the critical moment of the battle, Antipater led his force out of hiding, circled around to where the wall was unsound and unguarded, captured the city there and raised a signal. When Alexander saw it, he shouted out that he already had Thebes. The Thebans, who were fighting fiercely, fled when they turned around and saw the city captured. Both Philip and Alexander pioneered the successful use of the Macedonian phalanx and mixed contingents, yet both of them understood the use of deception and ambush when the situation called for it.

Surprises, ambushes and deception continued in Greece proper during the era before the complete Macedonian take over. Diodorus complains about the wars in the 350s being characterised by all forms of knavery including false truces. He reports a night attack on a camp in Greece by the Boeotians in 352/1. The Phocians were assaulted by night near Abai, where many were slain.61 In the same year, the Phocians made a night attack upon the Boeotians and slew 200.

From 323 to 301 we follow the struggle for power between the successors of Alexander. Cassander, king of Macedonia from 305 to 297, provides an example of a stratagem designed to take a city by stealth. When returning from Illyria in 314, being a day’s march from Epidamnus, he hid a force in ambush. He then sent horsemen and infantry to burn villages high in the mountains of Illyria and Atintanis that were clearly visible to the Epidamnians. The Epidamnians assumed Cassander had left after the destruction, and came out of their city to tend their farms. Cassander sprang the ambush and captured 2,000 of the men outside the city. Finding the city gates open, he entered and occupied Epidamnus.

Rather than just appearing on the battlefield expecting a fair fight, it was now common for each general to try and out-trick the other. The Greek general Eumenes of Cardia, who participated in the wars of the Diadochi as a supporter of the Macedonian Argead royal house, staged a surprise in the autumn of 317 at the Battle of Paraetacene. Eumenes and Antigonus met in a battle in Asia at an unknown site in the province of Paraetacene. The armies were camped close together, but a deep riverbed separated them. Supplies were short on both sides. Antigonus sent messengers to tamper with the loyalty of Eumenes’ army. The deserters came from Antigonus’ side with the intelligence that he was going to march his army away by night into the unplundered province of Gabiene. The cunning Eumenes, however, sent pretended deserters the other way: Eumenes would attack his camp during the night, they lied to Antigonus, to confine him to his camp so that Eumenes could reach Gabiene first. Sending his baggage on ahead, Eumenes had a lead of two watches before Antigonus detected the ruse and set out in pursuit. Leaving his infantry to make their slow way, Antigonus led on his cavalry. At dawn, Eumenes saw the horsemen on the ridge behind him and thought that all of Antigonus’ army was there. He ordered his forces into battle formation and so wasted his lead.

In 290, the Aetolians took possession of Delphi, a position of prestige that was enormously enhanced when they defended it against an attack by the Galatians, referred to in the sources as Gauls, in the winter of 279/8. It did not hurt the Greek cause that night operations seemed to have spooked the Gauls much in the same way that it occasionally spooked the Greeks. They encamped where night overtook them, and during the night they fell into a panic. They imagined they heard the trampling of horses riding against them and the attack of enemies, and after a little time the panic spread through the camp. Taking their weapons, they divided into two parties, killing and being killed, neither recognising their mother tongue nor one another’s forms or the shape of their.shields The victory over the Gauls established the Aetolians firmly in north central Greece.

Cleomenes III, king of Sparta, waged a war against the Achaean League led by Aratus of Sicyon from 229 to 222. This is the context of the story told in Polybius. When Aristoteles of Argos revolted against Cleomenes’ supporters, Cleomenes sent a force under the command of his general Timoxenus to help him. We are told that these troops made a ‘surprise attack’ and succeeded in entering and capturing the city. We are not told how Cleomenes took Argos back in spite of a gallant Achaean resistance or whether it involved subterfuge. Cleomenes eventually defeated Aratus in a battle by Mt Lycaeum in 227.

The third century produced a number of examples of ambush and complaints about them. The raids and plundering of the Aetolians, and their predatory habits, kept them constantly embroiled with Macedon. In 219, Philip V called the deputies from the allied cities to assemble at Corinth, and held a council to deliberate on the measures to be taken with regard to the Aetolians. Polybius says that, in addition to such charges as plundering a sacred temple in time of peace, the Arcadians entered a complaint that the Aetolians had attacked one of their cities under cover of night. The deputies of the allies, after hearing all these complaints, decided unanimously to make war on Aetolia.

Polybius reports the ambush of a force attacking a rearguard during a march near Thermon in 218 during the hostilities with Philip. The Aetolians had gathered to defend their country and numbered about 3,000. As long as Philip was on the heights, they did not approach him but remained hidden in strongholds under the command of Alexander of Trichonium. As soon as the rearguard had moved out of Thermus, they entered the town at once and attacked the last ranks. With the rearguard thrown into some confusion, the Aetolians fell on them with more determination and did some execution, emboldened by the nature of the ground and this opportunity. But Philip, having foreseen this, had concealed under a hill on the descent a picked force of peltasts. When they sprang up from this ambush and charged those of the enemy who had advanced farthest in the pursuit of the rearguard, the whole Aetolian force fled in complete rout across the country with a loss of 130 killed and about as many taken prisoner. It was a serious defeat at the hands of the Macedonians in 219 that finally drove the Aetolians into the arms of the Romans, who eventually stripped them of their powers and let the League die a quiet death.

Taking a city by stealth and trickery continued to be a major activity in the Hellenistic period. For a city, a foreign attack and a long siege were costly. It not only meant the temporary loss of its countryside with all its resources, but also the substantial destruction of the urban centre, especially as artillery devices became increasingly effective at punching through walls.

We are told of an ambush in 219 when Philip V besieged the Aetolian city of Phoetia and it surrendered. During the following night, a force of 500 Aetolians arrived to help, under the impression that the city still held out. The king got word of their approach and placed an ambush in a favourite spot, then killed all the captured troops except for a very few.

Polybius describes the destruction of a marauding army of Eleans under Euripidas in January–February 218. Euripidas, whom the Aetolians had sent to the Eleans to command their forces, made an attack on the territories of Dyme, Pharae and Tritaea and had collected a considerable amount of booty. He was on his way back to Elis when Miccus of Dyme, substrategus of the Achaeans, taking with him the complete levies of Dyme, Pharae and Tritaea, marched out and attacked Euripidas and his men as they were retiring. Pressing on too vigorously, however, Miccus fell into an ambush and was defeated with considerable loss: forty of his infantry and about 200 taken prisoners. A year later in 217, Polybius reports an almost identical situation where Lycus and Demodocus were the commanders of the Achaean cavalry. On hearing of the advance of the Aetolians from Elis, they collected the levies of Dyme, Patrae and Pharae and with these troops and the mercenaries invaded Elis. Reaching the place called Phyxium, they sent out their light-armed infantry and their cavalry to overrun the country, placing their heavily armed troops in ambush near this place. When the Eleans with their whole force arrived to defend the country from pillage and followed up the retreating marauders, Lycus issued from his ambush and fell upon the foremost of them. The Eleans did not wait to charge but turned and ran at once on the appearance of the enemy, who killed about 200 of them and captured eighty, bringing in all the booty they had collected in safety.

Another report from 218 has the Ptolemaic forces defending the city of Atabyrium in the Jezreel valley. Antiochus III and his Seleucid army lured them to their death by means of an ambush. The city lay on a conical hill, the ascent of which was more than fifteen stades. First he hid a force in ambush, then on the ascent he provoked the garrison into sallying out and skirmishing. He feigned fear and began to retreat, enticing the advanced guard to follow his own retreating troops for a considerable distance downhill. Finally, he turned his own troops around and advanced on them, while those concealed in the ambush issued forth. He attacked the enemy and killed many of them, and throwing them into panic took the city by assault.

Aratus of Sicyon [d. 213 BCE], a third-century Greek statesman who brought his city-state into the Achaean League and led the League forces, has an ambush attributed to him by Polybius where the besiegers of a town failed because of a mistake in signalling. Aratus was plotting with elements in the city of Elea to exit the city quietly. One of the men was meant to act as a signaller. He was to reach a certain tomb on a hill outside the city and take a position there wearing a mantle. The others were to attack the officers who kept the gate at midday when they were sleeping. Once they received the signal that this was done, the Achaeans were to spring from their ambush position and make for the city gate at full speed. The arrangements were all made and when the day came Aratus arrived and hid in the riverbed waiting for the signal. But at the fifth hour of the day, the owner of some sheep, who was in the habit of grazing them near town, had some urgent private business with his shepherd and came out of the gate dressed in a mantle and went and stood on the identical tomb looking round for the shepherd. Aratus and his troops, thinking that the signal had been given them, made a rush for the town, but the gate was immediately closed in their faces by its keepers. Their friends inside the town had as yet taken no action, and the consequence was that Aratus’ coup failed. This debacle brought destruction on those of the citizens who were acting with him too, because once they were detected the citizens put them on trial and had them executed. This incident illustrates, once again, that even a well-planned ambush can end in disaster if something goes wrong with the execution. In this case, Polybius was of the opinion that the flaw in the plan was the use of a single signal by the commander who, he claims, was still young and ignorant of the accuracy secured by a double signal and countersignals.

An ambush story comes from Philip V’s taking of the city of Lissus in Illyria in 213. The arrival of Philip was no secret; considerable forces from neighbouring parts of Illyria had collected at Lissus to confront him. But the Acrolissus stronghold had such natural strength that they stationed only a small garrison to hold it. At first, the battle seemed even, but eventually Philip withdrew his forces. Seeing Philip slowly withdrawing his divisions one after another, the Illyrians mistakenly thought that he was abandoning the field. They let themselves be enticed out of the city owing to their confidence in the strength of the place. They abandoned Acrolissus in small groups and poured down using by-paths to the level ground, thinking there would be a thorough rout of the enemy and a chance at capturing some booty. Instead, the troops Philip had placed in ambush rose unobserved and delivered a brisk attack. At the same time, his peltasts turned and fell on the enemy. The force from Lissus was thrown into disorder and retreated in scattered groups running for the shelter of the city, while those who had abandoned Acrolissus were cut off from it by the troops that had issued from the ambush. In this way both Acrolissus was taken without striking a blow, and Lissus surrendered the next day after a desperate struggle.

The same kind of story is told about the mercenaries of Pellene in 200. Their scouts reported the invasion of the enemy, and at once they advanced and attacked the invading Achaeans. The Achaeans, however, had been ordered to retreat and lure them into an ambush. When the pursuit took them to the place where the ambush had been set up, the Achaeans rose up and cut some of them to pieces (katakopeisan); others were made prisoners.


The heyday of mercenaries seems to have been the last thirty years of the fourth century and perhaps the first thirty years of the third. Our principal literary sources end with the Battle of Ipsus in 301. After Ipsus the Hellenistic world slowed down, not to peace but to warfare under a new and more settled system. During this generation, mercenaries were for a short time the most important soldiers in the service of the great army commanders. We would know a lot more about ambushing in this period if we had biographies of some of the great commanders, or even the diary of a common soldier, but nothing of this sort has survived. Men such as Leosthenes the Athenian, the ‘mystery man’ of Hellenistic history, or the Aetolians Theodotus and Scopas could have told us something about their activities in the field. These were generals who lived by their wits and died in the field. They were stars of their profession, but they have vanished from the historical scene.

Ambush took the same forms in the Hellenistic Age as it did in the fifth and fourth centuries. The Hellenistic army was one of professionals, with its many specialised troops. Most of the non-phalangite Greek mercenaries from the Hellenistic period were peltasts. Specialist contingents such as the Cretan archers fought in their own native style. Commanders had a vast array of professional fighters to choose from. The use of these diverse troops is exemplified under the command of Eumenes II at Magnesia, where he broke up the charge of Antiochus’ war chariots with his Cretan archers, slingers and mounted javelin men.

When men ranked commanders in the Hellenistic Age they thought in terms of personal prowess as well as intellectual quality. Cleverness and courage were the qualities that described a good commander. A general’s ability to think quickly and capitalise on the speed and flexibility of his troops to stage an ambush was considered a great asset. And while high social status was never given to peltasts, skirmishers or mercenaries of any kind, no Hellenistic army operated without them. Warfare had become endemic and too complicated to rely on simply the phalanx. The terrain on which an army might have to fight was far-ranging and required the flexibility of highly mobile, light-armed troops. The ever-present possibility of an ambush meant one had to be on guard for the safety of one’s army, one’s city and one’s life. Sometimes, the only way to secure this safety was to ambush the enemy first. Polybius might mourn the loss of a kinder, gentler age, but what he could not conjure up was a past that did not have ambush as part of its military repertoire.

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