Full Version: Battle of Ctesiphon - An Unlikely Victory??
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I've been reading up on Julian's victory at Ctesiphon (AD 363)in Ammianus 24.6 and Zosimus; the victory seems unexplainable or unlkely. Obviously Julian won, but it seems all the odds were stacked against him, and I'm trying find some tactic he used as a lever.

The Persians knew he was coming. Julian arrived at the river Tigris, and had to cross. He tried a night crossing, sending over a landing raid of 5 ships which went wrong, they were a flame but Julian pushed the other 10 ships across (if I'm reading right, he had 3 squadrons of 5 ships ready). When these new troops won the opposing bank, rescued some of the burning ships, the army crossed - its not clear if they went over on all the hundreds of boatd he'd brought with him, because Ammianus tells us many soldiers swam across on their shields !

I can buy that victory Smile

As dawn began the serious fighting took place, did Julian get the full 60,000 men across??? He seems to have used a cresent formation to lure the Persians in, but those Persians, although centreing on a line of poor quality infantry, with a skirmish line in front, had a complete line of war elephants in their rear. Of course extremely heavy cataphracts were to both flanks. How did Rome deal with these terrors? Ammianus and Zosimus do not say.

Strangely they don't tell us about the cavalry or the elephants, just that the infantry v infantry fighting was tough and brutal, and that the Romans won, the Persian commanders being the first to flee.

Since I'm trying to create a fictional narrative, based on hard history, I am at a loss how to describe or explain the battle. Both authors leave out the juicy details of one of the most critical battles for the Late Roman empire.

Any help filling in gaps, explaining this victory would be very appreciated!!
Hmm, I found Doug McNair's step by step of a wargame fighting out Ctesiphon using the Fading Legions game.

That might help me create a narrative. I will digest.
Forget about the elephants. They do not take an active role in the fighting (it's not the battle of Pelennor Fields! :wink: ) and they may have been scared off by the normal Roman missile barrage. The Persian cavalry may have been present in smaller numbers than usual? If so, that would explain their concentration on the flanks. If the Roman infantry held firm however, the Persian cataphracts may have failed to make an impact. Leaving the Romans to fight a classic infantry battle, against larger numbers but far less quality, which they (of course?) win by attrition.
I agree about the elephants. By this time, Romans should have known how to deal with war elephants. As far as the cataphracts are concerned, one possible answer lies in the fact that this was a river crossing battle. If Julian was able to firmly anchor both of his flanks on the river, then the cataphracts would have not had any easy target to attack - there would have been no open Roman flank. They would have been limited to direct frontal attack on formed infantry, which has never been a good option for cavalrymen.
Yes, the ground is not described either, and the fighting according to Ammianius is a progression of the river crossing (lasting according to Zosimus from midnight to noon, IIRC).

AM does mention squadrons of Persian cataphracts, but as you say, there is no indication of how the battlefield favoured one or the other. That could certainly play an influential factor ...
Hello Paul,

the battle of Ctesiphon is one of my favourites of Ammian - but I think it was not the set piece battle Ammian wants us to believe.
That story told by Zosimus proves Ammianus account (AM 24.6.1ff) a little bit blown up. Ammianus let it seem to be a major battle, but from Zosimus it is clear that it was a bridge head operation and the greater part of the army crossed later. Ammianus even lets Julian be present at the battle - another point contradicted by Zosimus. If u would pay more credit to Ammian than Zosimus (as I would do normally) - well, then let Libanius decide. He was a VERY great fan of Julian and used evry chance to applaud him - but he mentions a third kind of story: a bridge head operation surprising the Persians at night with thousands of dead, then a figth with cavalry the next day, only afterwards the crossing of the rest of the Roman army (that fits the story of Zosimus).

Zosimus Book3:
Quote:The emperor, however, being very resolute, two barges crossed over full of foot soldiers ; which the Persians immediately set on fire by throwing down on them a great number of flaming darts. This so increased the terror of the army, that the emperor was obliged to conceal his error by a feint, saying, "They are landed and have rendered themselves masters of the bank ; I know it by the fire in their ships, which I ordered them to make as a signal of victory." He had no sooner said this, than without further preparations they embarked in the ships and crossed over, until they arrived where they could ford the river, and then leaping into the water, they engaged the Persians so fiercely, that they not only gained possession of the bank, but recovered the two ships which came over first, and were now half burnt, and saved all the men who were left in them. The armies then attacked each other with such fury, that the battle continued from midnight to noon of the next day. The Persians at length gave way, and fled with all the speed they could use, their commandors being the first who began to fly. Those were Pigraxes, a person of the highest birth and rank next to the king, Anareus, and Surenas. The Romans and Goths pursued them, and killed a great number, from whom they took a vast quantity of gold and silver, besides ornaments of all kinds for men and horses, with silver beds and tables, and whatever was left by the officers on the ramparts. It is computed, that in this battle there fell of the Persians two thousand five hundred, and of the Romans not more than seventy-five. The joy of the army for this victory was lessened by Victor having received a wound from an engine.

Upon the following day the emperor sent his army over the Tigris without difficulty, and the third day after the action he himself with his guards followed them.

The Goths sent Julian according to their foedus with Constantine 3000 elite warriors of the Tervingi for the Persian campaign.

Libanius, Funeral Oration:
Quote:At last the choicest force of the Persians shows itself, and covers the river-bank with shining shields, with neighing horses, with bent bows, and with the huge bodies of elephants, to which it is the same thing to walk through stalks of corn and the midst of legions in battle array. [...] In the meantime, whilst the army was diverting itself with the horse-races, the boats were emptied of their guards, under the pretext that the rowing gear might be examined to ascertain whether it were in any way worn out; but in reality the emperor wished suddenly to embark the soldiers without previous notice, having called together those in command after they had feasted, and proved to them there was only one way left for escape----namely, for them to cross the Tigris, and so be enabled again to have the use of an undevastated country. The other officers he found kept silence, but the one under whose command was the bulk of the army spoke in opposition, being discouraged by the height of the bank and the multitude of the enemy. To this the emperor replied that the nature of the locality would be the same however long they delayed, whilst the enemy would grow more numerous, and bad another officer. [...] Now the boats had already taken the combatants on board; but he stood looking up to heaven, and when he had received the sign from thence, he gives the signal to the tribunes, and they to the rest with all possible secrecy; they sailed, and landed, though discovered by those close at hand, and plied with shot; but nevertheless a steep bank that even in time of peace, with no one to hinder them, men without incumbrance would not have dared attempt by daylight, this same bank they at night and having the enemy above their heads, and loaded with armour, succeeded in mounting; but how they did it, not even now can they tell when asked. In reality this exploit was not so much due to man as to some god that lifted him with his own hands. Our soldiers therefore followed up their crossing with slaughter, and beat down such as opposed them, whilst they came upon others like an evil dream, and slew them in their sleep; and those aroused from their slumber had thus much the advantage over the sleepers that they knew what they were suffering, for even these had no power to defend themselves; and, as was likely in night and darkness, many swords fell upon men's bodies, many upon the trees; the latter the sound betrayed, a groan was heard when men were hit, had been hit, expected to be so, were begging quarter, were expiring; the others advanced slaughtering as they went, and the ground was covered with the bodies of the fallen, as far as six thousand corpses could cover it; and if our men had not through greediness after spoils wasted their time over the slain, but had rushed to the gates, and either torn them open or cut them down, they would have gained the famous Ctesiphon; as it was, they got the gold, silver, and horses of the slain.

But with dawn of day they had to fight with cavalry, which at first gave them some trouble; but these, afterwards, having received some loss from a single soldier who ran up to them from behind a stone fence, they took to flight. Then the rest of the camp passed over; ...
Libanius and Zosimus' versions sound more authentic, particularly when Ammianus' battle casualties are so damn low.

It's just ... Libanius' story of the 'games' just appears out of no-where and seems so odd and unlikely!!

But I think your right, more of a surprise night-crossing, with a cavalry fight the next morning. I like that version better than the pitched epic battle that Ammianus depicts.
There is a description of another smallish scale victory of Romans over Persian cataphracts in the reign of Constantius II, in a panegyric on the sons of Constantine in Lieu, S.N.C and Montserrat, D. (Ed.s) (1996), From Constantine to Julian, London. ISBN 0-415-09336-8

It is a similarly scrappy affair with Roman infantry coming off best against Persian clibs backed up by fortifications, a river and light infantry posted on flanking heights. There is also a very good description of the heavy armour of the Persian cavalry. It might give some additional background.
Thanks, I didn't know about that at all. Big Grin D