Suppressio Veri and the Battle of Magnesia

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Relief of jumbled infantry and horsemen in Greek clothing fighting each other
A detail of a battle on a marble Attic sarcophagus of the early third century CE. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, inventory number A.521. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

A few weeks ago I was distracting myself by chatting about the Battle of Magnesia with Michael Park, a very thoughtful lover of ancient history. This battle was a shocking upset where the Seleukid king and and army raised from his whole kingdom were scattered by a small army from Rome and Pergamon which had not seemed very eager for the fight. The longest surviving accounts are by Livy (written about 150 years after the fact) and Appian of Alexandria (about 300 years later) both of whom had access to contemporary sources. This campaign is interesting to me because Antiochus’ enemies trotted out some 300-year-old tropes from the Persian wars to depict him as an Asiatic despot seeking to enslave Europe with his countless but feckless soldiers. However, they were limited by the fact that Antiochus and his Friends paid people to tell their story in fashionable Greek, so they could not claim that Antiochus had hundreds of thousands of soldiers or wore foreign clothing or was too cowardly to go into battle himself. If they went too far, people who had heard other versions after dinner or read them in a library would cry foul.

In this battle the fighting began on the wings, and each side won on its right: Antiochus and his Friends drove a legion back to its camp with the first charge, while panic broke out on his left wing and Eumenes of Pergamon found himself in control of the field there. The infantry on both sides had not yet engaged: perhaps Antiochus was nervous of the stories that while thyreophoroi were normally no danger to a Macedonian phalanx, the Roman ones had a way of getting into the small gaps which emerged if a phalanx tried to move too quickly or crossed rough ground. Livy gives us his version of what happened next:

The auxiliaries, posted between the cavalry and the phalanx, being thrown into confusion, the terror spread even to the centre. Here the ranks were broken, and by the flying soldiers rushing in between them, the use of their long spears, called by the Macedonians sarissas, was hindered. The Roman legions advanced and discharged their javelins among them in disorder. Even the elephants, standing in the way, did not deter the Roman soldiers, who had learned by experience in the African wars, both to evade the onset of the animal, and, getting at one side of it, either to ply it with darts, or, if they could come near enough, to wound its sinews with their swords. The front of the centre was now almost crushed, and the reserve, being surrounded, was attacked on the rear, when the Romans perceived their troops in another quarter flying, and heard shouts of dismay almost close to their camp.

Livy 37.42.3-6 c/o the Perseus Project

Appian has a different take:

The Macedonian phalanx, which had been stationed between the two bodies of horse in a narrow space in the form of a square, when denuded of cavalry on either side, had opened to receive the light-armed troops, who had been skirmishing in front, and closed again. Thus crowded together, Domitius easily enclosed them with his numerous light cavalry. Having no opportunity to charge or even to deploy their dense mass, they began to suffer severely; and they were indignant that military experience availed them nothing, exposed as they were on all sides to the weapons of the enemy. Nevertheless, they presented their thick-set pikes on all four sides.

They challenged the Romans to close combat and preserved at all times the appearance of being about to charge. Yet they did not advance, because they were foot-soldiers and heavily armed, and saw that the enemy were mounted. Most of all they feared to relax their close formation lest they might not readily bring it together again.

The Romans did not come to close quarters nor approach them because they feared the discipline, the solidity, and the desperation of this veteran corps; but circled around them and assailed them with javelins and arrows, none of which missed their mark in the dense mass, who could neither turn the missiles aside nor dodge them.

After suffering severely in this way they yielded to necessity and fell back step by step, but with a bold front, in perfect order and still formidable to the Romans. The latter kept their distance and continued to circle around and wound them, until the elephants inside the Macedonian phalanx became excited and unmanageable. Then the phalanx broke into disorderly flight.

(Appian 7.35 c/o Livius.org)

Now, it is traditionally said that both Appian and Livy are just summarizing Polybius, who was born about the same time as the battle and liked his military details. I doubt that, but I have not read the arguments behind that tradition. But here we can see how Livy has cut something out of his sources and tried to hide it. He leaves out the period when the phalanx was holding its own and challenging the Romans to “come and get some!” and the Romans were standing back. He leaves out Appian’s words describing the mortal terror which soldiers confronting the Macedonians felt (the verb δείδω and the adverb ἐπιφοβως). He also leaves out that most of the troops “assailing [the Macedonian phalanx] with javelins and arrows” were foreign cavalry and light-armed troops. Instead of talking about this phase, he moves directly to the end of the fight when the phalanx finally did begin to break up and the Romans began to kill people with swords and do other things that manly Roman soldiers were supposed to do. Appian is hardly a partisan of Antiochus, who he calls “generally fickle and light-minded” (6.28), but in his story of this battle he records some things which were favourable to him and his army which Livy did not want to repeat. (Similarly, none of the sources on the battle of Cunaxa is really ‘pro-Artaxerxes,’ but some of the alternative sources let us guess how Xenophon’s hatred of Tissaphernes and love of Cyrus has probably distorted his story).

An old legal maxim has it that suppressio veri suggestio falsi, to hide the truth is to spread a falsehood. Many ancient writers trained in rhetoric were masters of this, because it works so very well. Greek and Roman writers were not experts in source criticism or archival research, but some of them were very good at misleading careless readers.

Edit 2016-12-01: There is now a response to this post by Aaron B at Prufrockian Gleanings: Truth, Lies, Sources (and Videotape)

Edit 2018-07-28: Sarah C. Melville, “Win, Lose, or Draw? Claiming Victory in Battle”
Published In: Hans Neumann et al., ed., Krieg und Frieden in Alten Vorderasien, AOAT 401 (Ugarit-Verlag: Münster, 2014) pp. 517-537 argues that royal inscriptions followed the same general rule of ignoring or glossing inconvenient facts not inventing their own facts.

Edit 2020-11-21: Daniel Little, “Issues of ethics in philosophy of history,” 3 October 2020 https://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2020/10/issues-of-ethics-in-philosophy-of.html “(Estonian historian Andrus) Pork’s central concern in this short essay (“History, Lying, and Moral Responsibility,” History and Theory Vol. 29, No. 3 (October 1990), pp. 321-330) is the topic of lying about the past. Pork distinguishes between “direct lies” (falsification of facts about the past) and “blank pages” (deliberate omission of important details in a historical account), and suggests that the latter are the more insidious for the field of historical representation. He refers, for example, to Soviet historiography about Soviet behaviour in the 1930s: “Many other important historical facts that now surface (like the stories about massacres of thousands of people in 1937 and in the following years near Minsk in Byelorussia) were simply absent from history books of that [Stalinist] period.” Pork offers a more detailed and extensive example of Stalinist historiography based on the annexation of Estonia to the USSR in 1940. Stalinist histories that refer to this case use a combination of direct lies and “blank pages” to completely misrepresent and obscure the facts of Soviet coercion of Estonia. For example: “The existence of the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was usually not explicitly denied; rather it was simply not mentioned” (325).”

0 thoughts on “Suppressio Veri and the Battle of Magnesia

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Thanks for the post Sean, I read discussion on Pothos forum. Battle at Magnesia is quite suspicious, Bar Kochva in The Seleucid Army made an excellent reconstruction and reasons for Antiochus loss. One of the reasons could be bad state of supplies, mysterious ineffectivnes of Seleucid foot missile units (strings for bows and slings were wet?). Antiochus has several options what to do, I think his plan was good, simultaneous cavalry attack, encircling the enemy. I know it sounds weird, alibistic, but Antiochus didn’t have enough luck to make bigger breaktrough in the enemy lines.

    In John D. Grainger, The Roman War of Antiochus the Great is hypothesis, that in battle was present whole Pergamene army not just calvary, light infantry, that makes more sense. Perhaps were present even Pergamene war machines in Roman camp or on wing against chariots.

    That battle doesn’t make sense from a point, that Antiochus could annihilate enemy cavalry or rout her. He’s got Arabs on camels, Parthian cavalry archers, these unit could beat enemy without danger, horses hate camel stench, but Parthian horses were used to it. I really don’t understand many things about this battle. I hope in the future there will be some archeological discovery or new primary source.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Well, they did just find that palimpsest of Dexippus, and a new treatise by Galen in a Greek monastery, so you never know! I hope I can read Grainger’s book one day, but I only have so much time; I read Bar Kochva’s about ten years ago. “We know that Hellenistic armies were decadent because they lost, and they lost because they were decadent” is a circular argument (and Antiochus had been fighting and defeating all kinds of tough enemies) but we don’t have many sources to assess how effective they were other than those slippery historians.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      Another possibility that I would want to explore is that someone on Antiochus’ left had been paid to run away. That lies behind a number of British victories over “vast oriental hordes” in India. Its possible that Eumanes saw confusion and struck at just the right time .. once horses start running in one direction it is hard to stop them. But aside from a few remarks in Xenophon, our sources on scythed chariots are interested in using them as a symbol of Exotic Oriental Armies, not in discussing their technical strengths and weaknesses, and I am sure that Antiochus’ Friends were happy to blame the Arabs and Parthians for the disaster whether or not it was so simple.

  2. Paul McDonnell-Staff says:

    Sean Manning wrote:
    “This campaign is interesting to me because Antiochus’ enemies trotted out some 300-year-old tropes from the Persian wars to depict him as an Asiatic despot seeking to enslave Europe with his countless but feckless soldiers.”

    I don’t think matters were quite so simple that they can be dismissed as a mere ‘topos’. Antiochus had good reasons to take along various contingents, despite their rather limited military usefulness. As I posted on ‘Pothos’

    “Antiochus’ army also suffered one further disadvantage in its multitude of poor quality troops. One might well ask why Eastern armies always seemed to take along vast numbers of such low-quality “useless mouths”, creating a logistical nightmare. It was not just a literary ‘topos’. The answer lies in the nature of the Great King’s domains. It was not a monolithic Empire, but rather a conglomeration of different states, peoples etc with differing languages and cultures, and all resenting paying taxes/tribute to the “Great King”. Thus regardless of whether you were Darius, Xerxes, Alexander or Antiochus, you were mindful of the potential for rebellion if you took the ‘Royal Army’ away on campaign. Thus you took contingents from likely rebels, or those with potential armies, along as effectively hostages for the good behaviour of their relatives at home……an unfortunate necessity.”

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Paul, I do not have time for a full reply, and I am not sure what I think happened at the battle- but I am pretty sure that Antiochus’ army is portrayed the way it is because of literary reasons, not neutral professional judgement. Any battle can be ‘framed’ in several different ways, even by someone much more scrupulous than Livy and with more knowledge of warfare than Appian. I think that our sources were more interested in telling a good story than in being fair and presenting the same events from several points of view. It might be that Antiochus led the ineffective kind of multiethnic army, but Livy is not interested in asking “are we sure? Antiochus had conquered all sorts of mighty enemies with the same army, so what went wrong at Magnesia? What makes these Galatians and Dahai reluctant conscripts not fierce and skilled specialists from warlike nations?”

    2. Sean Manning says:

      Also, it looks like WordPress accepted two copies of your comment, so I approved the first one and trashed the second. WordPress usually makes the blog-owner approve the first post by a new commentator, because even with that there are about 300 spam comments for every actual human! If something is missing, please let me know.

  3. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I’m terribly behind in my reading schedule, I still haven’t read Grainger’s book or other works for Hellenistic history, military matters, but one interesting article is here https://www.academia.edu/4169586/Syvanne_Battle_of_Magnesia Finally after long time somebody is describing and depicting Seleucid army and commanders as competent force. Romans suffered heavy losses and elephants were quite efficient, Romans knew, why they forbade them for Seleucid and Macedonians… Until somebody collects and analyze available tactical war manuals, historical sources from India (Akbarnama is newly published!), Barma, Thailand, Cambodia, etc. there is no chance to reconstruct role of elephants in a new way… I’m afraid nobody is doing this with traditional excuse, hey I can’t read in so many languages, translations doesn’t exists, or there is no confidence in existing translations. Quantrich https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-asian-studies/article/ancient-southeast-asian-warfare-by-h-g-quaritch-wales-london-bernard-quaritch-ltd-206-index-1-15s/A755D37D2525C8FE7BAC3747518F810F in 1950’s mentioned tactical book about South East Asian warfare, role of elephants, but I still don’t know, if the source exists and is translated. If You remeber Sean, You have that ebook about Asian warfare https://www.amazon.com/Warfare-Indochina-Military-Medieval-Southeast-ebook/dp/B01DF7726E Did You read it, is there something regarding sources? In my searching for Indochina Warfare (Brill book about theme is excellent https://brill.com/view/title/8997) I found this https://www.amazon.com/Animal-Labor-Colonial-Warfare-James/dp/022656228X/ Last but not least, our only hope for antiquity source lies in finding Damis (I’m not sure if I have the right name) book about war elephants or some other author from Hellenistic era (perhaps some new Carthage or Phoenician author could suprise us, I don’t know what are French and others doing with Arabic sources (Timbuktu) where are ancient books).

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I read the book by Bar-Kochva on Seleukid armies, Sekunda on Hellenistic infantry ‘alla Romana’, and the one by Chaniotis on warfare in the Aegean, but have only skimmed Christelle Fischer-Bouvet’s book on Ptolemaic armies and Hatzopoulos’ book. I have not seen Trautman’s “Elephants and Kings” yet. Egerton’s Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour has some nice excerpts from 18th and 19th century ethnological accounts and its cheap from Dover Books.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      For one of my other projects I found out that the public domain translation of Baha ad-Din’s life of Saladin has issues (the English was translated from the French, then checked against an edition of the Arabic text which was probably different than the one the French was based on). It seems like most of the medieval Arabic and Persian military manuals have never been translated and some have never been properly edited.

      1. Pavel Vaverka says:

        Well, it seems that Western ignorance has long roots with shadows shading our view till today. I’m personally curious if some professional activity can be made into near future, or not, because in Turkish libraries, museums (not to mention archaeological sites) lies incredible treasures (You probably already saw Ask an archer with Adam Karpowicz). Sasanid era also isn’t exhausted either for literary and other sources. Khorasani is doing with others incredible work for accesing lost knowledge of “oriental warfare,” but I know he has to face big adversity, yet Iran has still sources to offer. In China there are still intersting primary sources for history, war manuals, untranslated, or just partially translated. Trautman’s “Elephants and Kings” is a very good book, but it’s more historical, enviromental oriented, than purely warfare approach. I simply want to know more, but I don’t know, if that’s the possible in the current state of academic affairs…

        1. Sean Manning says:

          Someone is translating a 15th century Mamluke manual for HAMA but there was a personal conflict between the original translator and the rest of the group which may slow their plan down. Ištar is mighty.

          I think Adam Karpowicz is based in New Brundwick or Nova Scotia, I did not know about the video.

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