Battle of Magnesia

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Battle of Magnesia

Post by Hypaspist » Fri Jun 10, 2016 9:33 am

Hello dear compatriots

I wonder if anyone here has an interesting take on the battle of Magnesia. What exactly went wrong there? How the hell could they fail even with Hannibla himself as counselling? Hubris on Antiochus part? Pride perhaps, not fully taking into consideration his advice?
And why in Gods name did Antiochus place elephants in gaps between the infantery?! When they came charging back they smashed right into the phalanxes...


Jeff Champion (author of Pyrrhus of Epiurs - wonderful book!!) said the battle was a typical misunderstanding and that the phalanx should just have charged!!

So what should Antiochus and the phalanx have done instead?

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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by hiphys » Fri Jun 10, 2016 6:02 pm

I don't understand why you put here a post on the battle of Magnesia. What about Alexander?

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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by amyntoros » Fri Jun 10, 2016 7:19 pm

Moved from the regular forum.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Hypaspist » Sat Jun 11, 2016 9:12 am

Hiphys, my post is offtopic yes, but I figured it still belonged in the realm of Alexander's world since it was Antiochus, a hellenistic king, who commanded an army employing macedonian warfare and moreover ruled the Seleucid empire founded by Seleucis I Nicator - a general under Alexander.

I look forward to inputs from our distinguished panel! :-)


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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Alexias » Sat Jun 11, 2016 8:43 pm


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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Hypaspist » Sun Jun 12, 2016 7:00 pm

Thank you so much for the links! :))


But what do you think the phalanx should have done?

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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by sean_m » Sat Jun 18, 2016 7:04 am

Hypaspist wrote:Hello dear compatriots

I wonder if anyone here has an interesting take on the battle of Magnesia. What exactly went wrong there? How the hell could they fail even with Hannibla himself as counselling? Hubris on Antiochus part? Pride perhaps, not fully taking into consideration his advice?
And why in Gods name did Antiochus place elephants in gaps between the infantery?! When they came charging back they smashed right into the phalanxes...
Those are some good questions. I am going to suggest some data which you might want to ponder as you think about the answers.

A Hellenistic army had covered its front with elephants against a Roman one, with successful results. Remember the Roman invasion of Africa in the First Punic War (Polybius 1.32ff)? Pyrrhus also experimented with intermixing hoplites armed in the Macedonian fashion and peltasts armed in the Italic fashion, with reasonable success. In Hellenistic parlance an “elephant” usually include a swarm of skirmishers on foot to keep the enemy psiloi away, so Antiochus' order may not have been so different.

Because we are human beings, we need to watch out for our tendency to availability bias, illusions of understanding, scapegoating, and so on. It is tempting to look at any choice which the defeated side made and blame that for the defeat ... but if Antiochus had put his chariots in front of the phalanx rather than his left wing, or arranged his phalanx in a continuous line, there would be people saying that that was why he lost the battle. Our sources on the period are not interested in giving us the information about institutions which might let us see how the Romans beat one Hellenistic army after another ... but after the Second Punic War they were marching around the Mediterranean beating everyone's army again and again, whether they fought in the eastern Mediterranean style or the western Mediterranean style. So its hard to prove that some other strategy would have worked, although some of our ideas could well be right.

There might have been a chance at the beginning of the battle to bring Antiochus' phalanx to grips with the Romans, if there was anyone with the authority to give the order who was not busy trampling screaming Romans and stabbing them in the back. That would have restored parity: each army would have routed its enemy's left wing, and the phalanxes on both sides would have been engaged.

There is a new book on Antiochus III by, I think, Michael Taylor. It might have a take on the battle. There is also Bezalel Bar Kochva's book on the Seleukid army.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Hypaspist » Thu Jun 23, 2016 8:54 pm

Thank you Sean for an excellent and comprehensive answer! I read it twice. :-)

Lets not forget also that Antiochos had a pretty good advantage on his right wing but he should have kept on charging instead of heading down to the roman camp. Very carelessly done...

Pyrrhus had some great success against the romans. Of all the hellenistic kings he was the smartest who understood the necessity of intermingling italic style with macedonian...a very good hybrid indeed..


So what would you have done were you Antiochos? I would have skipped having the elephants in the middle and those blasted worthless chariots!!!

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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by sean_m » Fri Jun 24, 2016 3:28 pm

Hypaspist wrote:Thank you Sean for an excellent and comprehensive answer! I read it twice. :-)

Lets not forget also that Antiochos had a pretty good advantage on his right wing but he should have kept on charging instead of heading down to the roman camp. Very carelessly done...

Pyrrhus had some great success against the romans. Of all the hellenistic kings he was the smartest who understood the necessity of intermingling italic style with macedonian...a very good hybrid indeed..


So what would you have done were you Antiochos? I would have skipped having the elephants in the middle and those blasted worthless chariots!!!
You are welcome Hypaspist!

If I wanted to guess why the battle turned out the way it did, I would start about ten years before the battle and work forward. Because our sources want to blame everything on Antiochus, the biggest question is what they are not telling us or fibbing about. Modern critics often blame the kings after Alexander for relying too much on their phalanx and neglecting their cavalry and psiloi, but in Appan's version Antiochus seems to have planned to encircle the Romans on both wings before his phalanx posted at the rear came up (I have not read Livy's version recently, or either in the original).

Maybe the scythed chariots would have been better left in the rear, and maybe Antiochus could have used better cavalry on the open ground to his left rather than packed between his phalanx and the river. One thing to decide would be whether the panic of his left wing should have been expected, or was just the sort of accident which happens in battle. Antiochus' phalanx fought very well on the day, but he seems not to have trusted it, and he knew more than we do ... and had just suffered some embarrassing defeats in Greece and Thrace and at sea which I would want to look at.

A horsey friend pointed out that horses are herd animals, so once a large group gets moving in a direction it is very hard to stop or turn them. The kind of thing which Hannibal's Spanish and Celtic horse did at Cannae was only possible for the best cavalry on a good day ... not everyone could do it every day, any more than the average amateur boxer can fight like Rhonda Rousey or Mohammed Ali. Another friend explained that as he was promoted in the military, he had to learn to accept that some of his subordinates were not very skilled and make plans which allowed for that, rather than rush around doing their work for them.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Paralus » Sat Jun 25, 2016 5:26 am

'Tis a pity Agesilaos is no longer with us. He expressed a desire to start an investigation of this battle.
sean_m wrote:If I wanted to guess why the battle turned out the way it did, I would start about ten years before the battle and work forward. Because our sources want to blame everything on Antiochus, the biggest question is what they are not telling us or fibbing about. Modern critics often blame the kings after Alexander for relying too much on their phalanx and neglecting their cavalry and psiloi, but in Appan's version Antiochus seems to have planned to encircle the Romans on both wings before his phalanx posted at the rear came up (I have not read Livy's version recently, or either in the original).
That is good advice. Some moderns continue to insist that Antiochos came to Greece with the intention of 'conquering'. This is not correct and his 'invasion' is rather more a publicity tour with little more than 10,000 troops. The old boy even got married while he toured. The Aitolians were the rabble rousers aiming at war against Rome and Antiochos - likely looking for allies in Greece or 'friends to push his political ends', unfortunately turned what had been a a 'cold war' of sorts - bull and bluster from both Rome and Syria - into a hot war which inevitably led to Magnesia.

On the battle itself, I think Sean is right. Antiochos' dispositions suggest just that. It's been argued that Antiochos' reliance on the scythed chariots and other 'oddities' on his left was his undoing along with "not trusting" his phalanx. There's a little hindsight operating in that. I'd agree the chariots were not the best idea and reliance on his left cavalry would have been a better option. Views that he did not trust his phalanx have been expressed likely since Polybios wrote the original upon which Appian and Livy are based. The fact is, we don't know that because the phalanx never really got into action after Antiochos' left self destructed. We can likely see what the idea was by following events on Antiochos' right. Here Livy is quite clear in his description. Antiochos realised the Romans relied on the river as protection and he attacked using the gap left between the Roman cavalry and the river (37.42.7-8):
For Antiochus, on his right flank, since he saw that there were no auxiliaries there except four troops of cavalry, because of the Romans' confidence in the river, and that these, while they were maintaining contact with their neighbours, were leaving the bank unguarded, made an attack upon them with the auxiliaries and the armoured cavalry; [8] nor did he charge from the front alone, but encircling them from the river was already pressing on from the flank, until first the cavalry fled and then the infantry who were nearest were driven headlong towards the camp.
Antiochos, far from pressing a headlong pursuit into the the never never, is delivering a flank attack and rolling up the left wing of the Roman line as panic spreads (sed circumito a flumine cornu iam ab latere urgebat). It would be at this stage that Antiochos' pahalnx should be 'charging' the Roman centre. With panic and a rout taking place on the Roman left, their centre would then be under sustained attack by the Macedonian phalanx and what happened to Antiochos will have been visited upon the Romans. Unfortunately for Antiochos, his phalanx was busy dealing with the collapse of its own left. As well, the close proximity of the Roman camp stymied Antiochos in his envelopment and, while dealing with that, Attalos came from the Roman right to end the attempt. For Antiochos it was a little like Raphia where the extremely close proximity of the Lagid camp prevented a similar attempt.

I'd suggest that Antiochos was content to hold on his left at worse and most definitely wanted to roll the Roman left back and in towards the centre where, had things gone to rights, his phalanx will have pinned and driven the Romans back. It didn't happen for him.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by sean_m » Sat Jun 25, 2016 4:34 pm

Paralus wrote:'Tis a pity Agesilaos is no longer with us. He expressed a desire to start an investigation of this battle.
That is a great pity :(
Paralus wrote:
sean_m wrote:If I wanted to guess why the battle turned out the way it did, I would start about ten years before the battle and work forward. Because our sources want to blame everything on Antiochus, the biggest question is what they are not telling us or fibbing about. Modern critics often blame the kings after Alexander for relying too much on their phalanx and neglecting their cavalry and psiloi, but in Appan's version Antiochus seems to have planned to encircle the Romans on both wings before his phalanx posted at the rear came up (I have not read Livy's version recently, or either in the original).
That is good advice. Some moderns continue to insist that Antiochos came to Greece with the intention of 'conquering'. This is not correct and his 'invasion' is rather more a publicity tour with little more than 10,000 troops. The old boy even got married while he toured. The Aitolians were the rabble rousers aiming at war against Rome and Antiochos - likely looking for allies in Greece or 'friends to push his political ends', unfortunately turned what had been a a 'cold war' of sorts - bull and bluster from both Rome and Syria - into a hot war which inevitably led to Magnesia.
Indeed, Polybius and his sort of people had no interest in hearing what the Galatians or the Cappadocians or the Arabians thought had happened. (We can see this in the Alexander historians, where the sources make it clear that the Cretans and Agrianes were some of his favourite troops, but barely even name their commanders). “Blame the foreign auxiliaries” is an old game, and so is turning my powerful multinational force of experts into your disorganized, many-coloured barbarian horde.

Eumenes of Pergamon, the supposed hero of the battle, spent vast sums of money commemorating the war. So its worth asking what is in the sources because he wanted it there and made sure that some of his Friends and Kinsmen put it in the ear of the right people.

And the thing with scythed chariots is that our sources use them as a symbol of oriental decadence. So they tell memoriable stories about the times that they failed. Xenophon thought that the idea was good, and they were used for about 350 years, so maybe people who had actually seem them in action knew things which we do not (although maybe Magnesia was not the time and place to use them). Looking into the ways that our sources draw on tropes about Xerxes and the Persians might be another way forward ... Antiochus "invades Greece" "is defeated at Thermopylae and flees to Asia" and "fights with a vast oriental horde of chariots and camel-riders against a small band of manly westerners." Just because they are tropes does not mean that they are false, but our souces certainly emphasize things which would make ancient readers identify Antiochus with a Darius or Xerxes, and they may leave out things which don't fit as well.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Paralus » Sun Jun 26, 2016 5:50 am

Yes, it is a common trope regarding eastern armies - even when that army is Seleukid as here. One gets the impression that Antiochos desired to fill the field with as many bodies and with as many disparate, near useless nations as possible simply for the effect. But this is nothing unusual; we see similar Asatic troops at Raphia when Antiochos had far less nationalities to call on. The impression here, as you say, is of the typical Asiatic polyglot horde against the virtuous and 'manly' western force of fewer numbers. Livy, likely echoing Polybios, describes it as a line of many varied races which, it seems, one modern translator prefers to render as "a motley force" (Cannon Roberts - Sage's "more varied, made up of many races" is far truer). A closer look shows that we have, for example, an agema (cavalry) of selected Medes and other typical 'Persian' cavalry types. There also are the Dahae, of whom Alexander made regular use. Other than the fact that it was made up of a multitude of Greek and Illyrian 'nations', we might be tempted to so describe Doson's force at Sellasia. Still, given that Antiochos is now the 'Great King', he, his court and his army will be treated in the same literary fashion as with previous monarchs such as Xerxes, Dareios III.

This period is really quite fascinating. One cannot help but wonder, idly, what can have been had Philip V taken Antiochos' corner. Personal interest always trumped the wider cause. The political to-ing and fro-ing by Flamininus, Rome, Aetolia and Syria are really quite revealing. While we should indeed take your caution regarding Eumenes' hand in what has come down to us, one also needs to exercise similar caution with the descriptions of Aetolia, her actions and motives. Livy's description of the Aetolian assembly inviting the Asian king to liberate the Greeks (the height of tragic Greek irony, surely) is indicative. Finishing off the description Livy writes: "the decree and the answer he (Aetolian chief magistrate Damocritus) would presently deliver in Italy when his camp was pitched on the banks of the Tiber: such madness had at that time seized the Aetolian people and their magistrates". That presents as near straight lift from Polybios who lit no candles for the Aetolians. It also is reminiscent of his splenetic condemnation of Critolaus and his fellow Achaeans voting for a war of liberation from the Romans (38.10.8, 13; 13.8) It appears the Megalopolitan had access to Aetolian sources as these descriptions and the starring role of the Aetolians and their commanders in the Kynoskephalai campaign indicate. Trick is, how much of Polybios' hatred of these people infuses his narrative?
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by sean_m » Mon Jun 27, 2016 5:06 pm

I found one modern scholar who is indignant that Antiochus left some of his elephants “uselessly in reserve.” I think that shows how almost any decision he made can be criticized ... he seems to have thought that he had a much stronger cavalry, so he had no use for the elephants on the wings to scare the Pergamene and Roman horses, so the elephants had to go in front of the phalanx, interspersed with the phalanx, or behind the phalanx. Keeping the troops which he did deploy working in harmony would have been difficult enough ...
Paralus wrote:This period is really quite fascinating. One cannot help but wonder, idly, what can have been had Philip V taken Antiochos' corner. Personal interest always trumped the wider cause.
The Pergamenes and Rhodians did learn that calling in the Romans to help them against the Seleukids was sort of like inviting in a pack of wolves to keep away the foxes who had been eating their chickens ...

I also wonder if we know what earlier sources Polybius based his account on (the battle was a bit before his time).

But I can't spare the time to study up on another 30 year period and kind of warfare. Its not the Achaemenid Studies that I do as my job, or the Waffenkunde which I do as a hobby, and I need to do some things which don't involve computers and books.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Paralus » Tue Jun 28, 2016 9:56 am

sean_m wrote:The Pergamenes and Rhodians did learn that calling in the Romans to help them against the Seleukids was sort of like inviting in a pack of wolves to keep away the foxes who had been eating their chickens ...
The Greeks did not really understand Rome and the Romans. And if the Greeks failed to understand the Romans, the Romans, for their part, were rather perplexed at the Greeks. It was as normal as the sun coming up each morning for the Greeks to recognise a stronger power and to then use that power to their ends. To whit, applying to Rome to settle disputes between one 'state' and another or koinon. While Rome might not have seen settling a dispute as terribly out of the ordinary in and of itself, the incessant internecine politics and, more so, the "thanks very much now bugger off" after the settlement only to be asked back again by one or another party clearly seemed to them as somewhat unusual. One can only wonder at how the good senators saw the interminable embassies from Greece and the waffle they must have delivered!

It did not take Rome terribly long to get a handle on this country of belligerents so fond of talk fests and arbitration though. Smart operators such as Flamininus soon picked up the lingua franca of Greek politics and his skewering of Antiochos via that tired old Greek slogan "the freedom of the Greeks" is a splendid example. That he liberated more Greek art from Greeks than states is an irony the Greeks might have noted one thinks. Failing to learn form their errors, the Greeks constantly contrived ways to invite Roman intervention until, as Critolaus and many of his fellow Achaeans saw it, a fight for the freedom of Greece was necessary even if it was utterly unwinnable.
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Re: Battle of Magnesia

Post by Hypaspist » Tue Jun 28, 2016 10:02 am

Sean and Paralus

Vastly interesting views, of yours, on this topic. I enjoyed reading it so. The thing that continues to stick in my craw is how unlucky the macedonian phalanx system continued to manifest itself against the romans. Magnesia, Pydna, Cynosephalae... Undoubtedly, the most clever of the Hellenistic kings in the war waging against the romans would have to be Pyrrhus - a better general than himself, claimed Hannibal...

I am reading up on Pyrrhus bio and find it a treat to study how he handled the romans... he really gave them hell there for a while. Just take a look at how he deployed and composed his army and tactics against the romans. He was the first and only one, apparently, to understand how to check them and offer a great match!

Had Pyrrhus commanded the army at Magnesia, I am pretty sure he would have refashioned the army and reconsidered the tactics.


What a shame he did not adhere to the advice of Hannibal. Does anyone know Hannibal's thoughs on the battle, pre-battle, post-battle?


Atb, Rob

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