Honey of Trebizond

I wouldn't recommend putting this on your morning toast, but here is how to make honey of Trebizond.
  1. Plant an entire field of deadly poisonous plants.  
  2. Introduce a bee nest.
  3. Let the bees collect the pollen.
  4. Collect the honeycomb.
The honeycomb and the honey will be toxic.  This really works.  How do we know that?  Because it happened in real life.

Back in ancient times, toward the end of the Roman Republic, the great General Pompey led an army into Asia Minor where he faced the rather competent local ruler Mithridates.  One of his detachments passed through Trebizond, or at least, they tried to.  The locals knew that the honey thereabouts was poisonous, due to the large number of toxic rhododendrons in the area.  But the Romans didn't know that.  They ate the honeycomb and became ill.  The locals immediately attacked and slaughtered the Romans.

Here's what it says in Strabo's Geography (from the Perseus version):
The Heptacomitae [those are the locals] cut down three maniples of Pompey's army when they were passing through the mountainous country; for they mixed bowls of the crazing honey which is yielded by the tree-twigs, and placed them in the roads, and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them.

Alas, if only they had paid attention to the classics.  Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the famous mercenary captain Xenophon had written about his men falling ill after eating honeycomb in the same area.

Here's what Xenophon had to say:
Now for the most part there was nothing here which they really found strange; but the swarms of bees in the neighbourhood were numerous, and the soldiers who ate of the honey all went off their heads, and suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea, and not one of them could stand up, but those who had eaten a little were like people exceedingly drunk, while those who had eaten a great deal seemed like crazy, or even, in some cases, dying men. So they lay there in great numbers as though the army had suffered a defeat, and great despondency prevailed. On the next day, however, no one had died, and at approximately the same hour as they had eaten the honey they began to come to their senses; and on the third or fourth day they got up, as if from a drugging.

A Corinthian helmet with a skull inside, found at Marathon

This picture has been doing the rounds on twitter.  It was pointed out to me by the excellent Loretta Ross (who as it happens is a debut author!), taken from the twitter account of @History-Pics.

The skull at bottom was found inside the helmet!  It was found on the plain of Marathon, where as you surely know was once fought a famous battle.   The helmet and skull therefore is usually described as being from the Battle of Marathon.

So are we looking at one of the heroes of Marathon?  Well, probably not.  But maybe.  Since my book The Marathon Conspiracy recounts the battle at once point, I thought I'd go through the pros and cons of this rather remarkable find:

First off, it's genuine.  This is a for-real Corinthian helmet that dates to the time of Marathon, plus or minus a few decades.  We are absolutely looking at a classical Greek warrior.

The Corinthian style was very popular so it's no problem that it was found at a place where only Athenians fought.

This helmet and skull is old news.  It was discovered in the 1800s by inquisitive amateurs.  They claimed they found it at Marathon.  By modern standards the provenance is horribly broken.  By the standards of Victorian England there's no problem; they're probably telling the truth.

After the battle the Athenians counted their dead.  There were 192 fallen heroes.  They were buried under a mound at the southern end of the battlefield.  The dead were cremated, a little unusually for the time but not outrageously so.  This skull was found elsewhere on the battlefield.  The only way this could be an Athenian from the famous battle would be if the Athenians somehow managed to miss one of the dead.  Since they also buried the Persian dead (their bones were found underneath a vineyard to the north of the battlefield) and since the site was revisited several times over the following days, it seems hard to believe they missed one of their own.

The Athenian casualty list was made public at the time (and parts have been recovered).  If a casualty wasn't on the list, but never came home, someone was bound to say, "Where's Uncle Bob?"  Bob would have been found for sure, because the men who fell at Marathon were treated like Trojan Heroes.

Here's a big problem: in those days, armour was always recovered before a burial.  This was expensive stuff.   It would typically go to the warrior's heir, or be snaffled by someone from the other side.  It might seem a little creepy to go into battle wearing armour that someone had died in, but that's how they did it.

So for those reasons it's far from obvious that this guy fought at Marathon.  He might have died on the plain any time from a few decades before to a few decades after.  He probably wasn't murdered (though that thought crossed my mind) because the helmet is still there.  Any criminal would have taken it.

So the skull in the helmet remains a mystery!

The Battle of Marathon

There are two astonishing ratios about the Battle of Marathon.

There were almost exactly 11,000 Greeks: that's 1,000 men from each of the tribes of Athens, and 1,000 men from nearby Plataea.

The Persians used 600 boats to ferry in troops. The actual number of troops is unknown, but for that number of transport craft it comes to between 30,000 and 100,000 Persians, including a few thousand cavalry.

So the first ratio is that the Greeks were outnumbered somewhere between 3:1 to 9:1, depending what assumptions you want to make about Persian transports.

The next ratio is known with great precision:

203 Greek dead.
6,400 Persian dead.

That's 32 Persian dead for every Greek who fell.

Which isn't bad going when you're not just outnumbered, but also you're the attacking side.

The casualty numbers are known because the Greeks set up a memorial that listed all their fallen.  The Persian numbers are known because before the battle the Greeks had promised to the Gods to sacrifice a goat for every enemy they killed.  They counted the Persian dead carefully and then discovered they'd killed so many enemies that they couldn't find enough goats.  They paid off their debt to the Gods on a yearly instalment plan that took thirteen years to complete.

Despite its vast importance, there's very little agreement about what actually happened.  Modern historians can’t even agree on which direction the opposing lines faced, let alone details like whether the Persian cavalry took the field.

One theory goes that the Persians were aligned with their backs to the sea, and the Greeks attacked from inland.  Like so:

I just can't credit this.  As you can see the plain of Marathon forms a rectangle that runs lengthways along the coast, ringed by mountains to landward.  The Greeks would have to be insane to place their grossly outnumbered troops where they could be easily outflanked by the numerically superior Persians.  Also this alignment puts their left flank in easy reach of the Persian cavalry.

I'm pretty sure if you gave this problem to any modern military commander, he would instantly place his outnumbered Greeks so that they had to span the shortest possible line. Which would be like this:

Right.  From The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz
This map comes from the excellent The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz. My copy's sitting by my left elbow as I write this.

You'll notice there's solid land in the top right of one map and a small bay in the other. Most maps put a marsh there. In fact the Greek coastline changes constantly and all three options have been on that spot at one time or another. Nobody really knows what was there when the battle was fought.

The Greeks made the decision to take the fight to the enemy.  Each soldier lightened his battle load as much as possible the night before and then they marched out at first light.

The next big point of contention is that Herodotus states, very clearly, that the Greeks marched to within 8 stadia of the enemy, and then they ran in the rest of the way under a hail of arrows.

At the ancient Olympics there was an event in which the competitors ran two lengths of the stadium — two stadia — in soldier’s kit.  The men of Marathon ran four times that distance, knowing that at the end they would have to fight for their lives against an enemy many times more numerous.

A lot of modern historians discount that story out of hand, on the grounds that heavy infantry can't run almost a mile and then fight.

The problem is, that the ancient sources are absolutely unanimous that that's what happened.  Every written source, every sculptural relief , gives the same picture.  And Herodotus, who is often vague on numbers, is absolutely precise on this one.  Herodotus also goes out of his way to make the point that everyone dropped as much load as they could, even shedding armour so they could move fast.

Why did they have to run?  I think the reason was the Persian cavalry, who could have torn the Greeks apart. Herodotus says the cavalry was there, but once the battle begins he never mentions them.  I think the reason is that the Greek plan was to engage the enemy line before the enemy cavalry had time to deploy. With the mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it meant that once the infantry engaged the mounted troops were bottled up behind their own line.

The fact is that modern elite troops could make that run.  The counter-argument is that the citizen militia of Athens weren't professional soldiers.  Which is true.  But what is also true is that we're talking about the most successful citizen army in all history, and those guys in the line knew with utter certainty that they wouldn't live to midday if they didn't cross the field in time.

Military reconstructionists

I've previously said that for book research I prefer to trust original ancient sources over modern ones, but there's one field where I would never dare to question the modern experts, and that's the people who are into military re-enactment.  I don't think there's anyone more into getting details right than these guys.

You've probably heard of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  SCA is more mediaeval than ancient, though it does have its ancient enthusiasts.  SCA covers all the aspects of past times, but anyone who's ever been to a SCA festival could tell you it's the skirmish combats that get the crowds.

There are similar re-enactment groups who're more ancient oriented, though the organisations don't seem to be as closely knit so if you're interested you'd need to google around for what's in your area.  Most of them are into Roman army reconstruction but there are some Greek Hoplite groups too.

A good place to start would be Ancient Warfare Magazine.  I'm pretty sure most of the people who write or read it are into doing re-enactments.  (No, I don't do this myself, but it's fun to watch.)

Despite its name, the Roman Army Talk forum has a substantial Greek section.  These guys are awesome for minute details about how people used to slaughter each other.   If you want the pros and cons of holding your spear overhand vs underhand, then this is the place to be.  Their knowledge of military history would  rival that of any Oxford don.

I don't need this sort of information very often, because Nico's not into regular army life.  When he gets into a fight, it's invariably a street brawl in some grotty back alley, or else a tavern brawl (I had such fun writing the barroom fight in Ionia Sanction).

But when I do need soldierly detail, the re-enactors have the advantage that they've actually tried out in real life the stuff that's mentioned in original sources.  They bring a certain practicality to the subject that makes it easier to sort out from the original sources what's likely true and what might be false.

History's Best (or at least Greatest) Military Leaders

Purely for fun, I thought I'd talk about something that's long interested me.  Who would you pick for the best military leaders of all time?

There are a lot of factors you can use to quibble with here.  Someone might have been technically brilliant, and yet circumstances drew them a raw deal, so that they never got a chance to shine.  You could argue some other guys lucked out; they were in the right place at the right time, so that they looked better than they were.

So to give it some context, here are the parameters:  if Earth was being attacked by aliens and you could go back in time to pick out one leader to save us, who would be on your list of candidates?

I'll start with the no-brainers, in their chronological order.

1.  Alexander the Great
2.  Julius Caesar
3.  Genghis Khan
4.  Napoleon

You could make an argument that Caesar was a brilliant politician who happened to be an above average general, so that technically he doesn't belong.  But the man was in the habit of winning, and that's what we're looking for; there've been periods in history when the best leader was the one with the organisational skills.

Onwards with the best of the rest:

5.  Khurush the Great

Who?  You probably know him as Cyrus the Great, but his real name was Khurush.  He founded the Persian Empire by starting with a small client state and then conquering everyone in sight.  He built the largest empire the world had yet seen.  Alexander was fascinated by Khurush and studied him intensely.  In turn, Caesar was fascinated by Alexander, and Napoleon by Caesar.  

6.  Charlemagne

You know it's tough company when the founder of the Holy Roman Empire can only get slot #6.   Charlemagne often gets dropped off lists of great leaders, and I don't know why, because it's not like unifying Europe is easy.  Maybe it's because he lived at a time when military technology had reduced the craft to a level of "see-enemy-hit-enemy".

7.  Scipio Africanus

After the battle of Cannae, at which Hannibal's army slaughtered 50,000 Romans, including most of the leadership team, a junior officer named Scipio was given command, at the age of 25.  At that time, Rome's control had been reduced to her city walls.

Scipio reconquered Italy.  Then he reconquered Southern France.  Then he reconquered Spain.  Then he took back the Mediterranean.  Then he invaded North Africa.  Then he conquered Carthage.

Scipio never lost a battle, and he did it against Hannibal, widely considered the greatest commander since Alexander.  There wouldn't be another such match of titans until Napoleon faced Wellington.

Speaking of which...

8.  Hannibal
9.  Wellington

10.  I'm open to suggestions!