The History, 20.11

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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11These were the events which took place in Gaul, and while they were thus conducted with prudence and good fortune, Constantius, having summoned Arsaces, king of Armenia, and having received him with great courtesy, advised and exhorted him to continue friendly and faithful to us.

2For he had heard that the king of Persia had often tried by deceits and threats, and all kinds of stratagems, to induce him to forsake the Roman alliance and join his party.

3But he, vowing with many oaths that he would rather lose his life than change his opinion, received ample rewards, and returned to his kingdom with the retinue which he brought with him; and never ventured at any subsequent time to break any of his promises, being bound by many ties of gratitude to Constantius. The strongest tie of all being that the emperor had given him for a wife, Olympias, the daughter of Abladius, formerly prefect of the prætorium, who had once been betrothed to his own brother Constans.

4And when Arsaces had been dismissed, Constantius left Cappadocia, and going by Melitina, a town of the lesser Armenia, and Lacotene, and Samosata, he crossed the Euphrates and arrived at Edessa. Stopping some time in each town, while waiting for divisions of soldiers who were flocking in from all quarters, and for sufficient supplies of provisions. And after the autumnal equinox, he proceeded onwards on his way to Amida.

5When he approached the walls of that town, and saw everything buried in ashes, he groaned and wept, recollecting what sufferings the wretched city had suffered. And Ursulus, the treasurer, who happened to be present, was moved with indignation, and exclaimed, “Behold the courage with which cities are defended by our soldiers; men for whose pay the whole wealth of the empire is exhausted.” This bitter speech the crowd of soldiers afterwards recollected at Chalcedon, when they rose up and destroyed him.

6Then proceeding onward in close column, he reached Bezabde, and having fixed his camp there, and fortified it with a rampart and a deep fosse, as he took a long ride round the camp, he satisfied himself, by the account which he received from several persons, that those places in the walls which the carelessness of ancient times had allowed to become decayed, had been repaired so as to be stronger than ever.

7And, not to omit anything which was necessary to do before the heat of the contest was renewed, he sent prudent men to the garrison to offer them two conditions; either to withdraw to their own country, giving up what did not belong to them, without causing bloodshed by resistance, or else to become subjects of the Romans, in which case they should receive rank and rewards. But when they, with native obstinacy, resisted the demands as became men of noble birth, who had been hardened by dangers and labours, everything was prepared for the siege.

8Therefore the soldiers with alacrity, in dense order, and cheered by the sound of trumpets, attacked every side of the town; and the legions, being protected by various kinds of defences, advanced in safety, endeavouring by slow degrees to overthrow the walls; and because all kinds of missiles were poured down upon them, which disjoined the union of their shields, they fell back, the signal for a retreat being given.

9Then a truce was agreed upon for one day; but the day after, having protected themselves more skilfully, they again raised their war-cry, and tried on every side to scale the walls. And although the garrison, having stretched cloths before them not to be distinguished, lay concealed within the walls; still, as often as necessity required, they boldly put out their arms and hurled down stones and javelins on their assailants below.

10And while the wicker penthouses were advanced boldly and brought close to the walls, the besieged dropped upon them heavy casks and millstones, and fragments of pillars, by the overpowering weight of which the assailants were crushed, their defences torn to pieces, and wide openings made in them, so that they incurred terrible dangers, and were again forced to retreat.

11Therefore, on the tenth day from the beginning of the siege, when the confidence of our men began to fill the town with alarm, we determined on bringing up a vast battering-ram, which, after having destroyed Antioch with it sometime before, the Persians had left at Carrhæ; and as soon as that appeared, and was begun to be skilfully set up, it cowed the spirits of the besieged, so that they were almost on the point of surrendering, when they again plucked up courage and prepared means for resisting this engine.

12From this time neither their courage nor their ingenuity failed; for as the ram was old, and it had been taken to pieces for the facility of transporting it, so while it was being put together again, it was attacked with great exertions and vigour by the garrison, and defended with equal valour and firmness by the besiegers; and engines hurling showers of stones, and slings, and missiles of all sorts, slew numbers on each side. Meantime, high mounds rose up with speedy growth; and the siege grew fiercer and sterner daily; many of our men being slain because, fighting as they were under the eye of the emperor, and eager for reward, they took off their helmets in order to be the more easily recognized, and so with bare heads, were an easy mark for the skilful archers of the enemy.

13The days and nights being alike spent in watching, made each side the more careful; and the Persians, being alarmed at the vast height to which the mounds were now carried, and at the enormous ram, which was accompanied by others of smaller size, made great exertions to burn them, and kept continually shooting firebrands and incendiary missiles at them; but their labour was vain, because the chief part of them was covered with wet skins and cloths, and some parts also had been steeped in alum, so that the fire might fall harmless upon them.

14But the Romans, driving these rams on with great courage, although they had difficulty in defending themselves, disregarded danger, however imminent, in the hope of making themselves masters of the town.

15And on the other hand, when the enormous ram was brought against the tower to which it was applied, as if it could at once throw it down, the garrison, by a clever contrivance, entangled its projecting iron head, which in shape was like that of a ram, with long cords on both sides, to prevent its being drawn back and then driven forward with great force, and to hinder it from making any serious impression on the walls by repeated blows; and meanwhile they poured on it burning pitch, and for a long time these engines were fixed at the point to which they had been advanced, and exposed to all the stones and javelins which were hurled from the walls.

16By this time the mounds were raised to a considerable height, and the garrison, thinking that unless they used extraordinary vigilance their destruction must be at hand, resorted to extreme audacity; and making an unexpected sally from the gates, they attacked our front rank, and with all their might hurled firebrands and iron braziers loaded with fire against the rams.

17But after a fierce but undecided conflict, the bulk of them were driven within the walls, without having succeeded in their attempt; and presently the battlements were attacked from the mounds which the Romans had raised, with arrows and slings and lighted javelins, which flew over the roofs of the towers, but did no harm, means having been prepared to extinguish any flames.

18And as the ranks on both sides became thinner, and the Persians were now reduced to extremities unless some aid could be found, they prepared with redoubled energy a fresh sally from the camp: accordingly, they made a sudden sally, supported by increased numbers, and among the armed men were many bearing torches, and iron baskets full of fire, and faggots; and all kinds of things best adapted for setting fire to the works of the besiegers were hurled against them.

19And because the dense clouds of smoke obscured the sight, when the trumpet gave the signal for battle, the legions came up with quick step; and as the eagerness of the conflict grew hotter, after they had engaged, suddenly all the engines, except the great ram, caught fire from the flames which were hurled at them; but the ropes which held the chief ram were broken asunder, and that the vigorous efforts of some gallant men saved when it was half burnt.

20When the darkness of night terminated the combat, only a short time was allowed to the soldiers for rest; but when they had been refreshed by a little food and sleep, they were awakened by their captains, and ordered to remove their works away from the walls of the town, and prepare to fight at closer quarters from the lofty mounds which were untouched by the flames, and now commanded the walls. And to drive the defenders from the walls, on the summit of the mounds they stationed two balistæ, in fear of which they thought that none of the enemy would venture even to look out.

21After having taken these efficacious measures, a triple line of our men, having a more threatening aspect than usual from the nodding cones of their helmets (many of them also bearing ladders), attempted about twilight to scale the walls. Arms clashed and trumpets sounded, and both sides fought with equal boldness and ardour. The Romans, extending their lines more widely, when they saw the Persians hiding from fear of the engines which had been stationed on the mounds, battered the wall with their ram, and with spades, and axes, and levers, and ladders, pressed fiercely on, while missiles from each side flew without ceasing.

22But the Persians were especially pressed by the various missiles shot from the balistæ, which, from the artificial mounds, came down upon them in torrents; and having become desperate, they rushed on, fearless of death, and distributing their force as if at the last extremity, they left some to guard the walls, while the rest, secretly opening a postern gate, rushed forth valiantly with drawn swords, followed by others who carried concealed fire.

23And while the Romans at one moment were pressing on those who retreated, at another receiving the assault of those who attacked them, those who carried the fire crept round by a circuitous path, and pushed the burning coals in among the interstices of one of the mounds, which was made up of branches of trees, and rushes, and bundles of reeds. This soon caught fire and was utterly destroyed, the soldiers themselves having great difficulty in escaping and saving their engines.

24But when the approach of evening broke off the conflict, and the two sides separated to snatch a brief repose, the emperor, after due reflection, resolved to change his plans. Although many reasons of great urgency pressed him to force on the destruction of Phœnice, as of a fortress which would prove an impregnable barrier to the inroads of the enemy, yet the lateness of the season was an objection to persevering any longer. He determined, therefore, while he preserved his position, to carry on the siege for the future by slight skirmishes, thinking that the Persians would be forced to surrender from want of provisions, which, however, turned out very different.

25For while the conflict was proceeding sharply, the heavens became moist, and watery clouds appeared with threatening darkness; and presently the ground got so wet from continual rain, that the whole country was changed into an adhesive mud (for the soil is naturally rich), and every plan was thrown into confusion; meantime, thunder with incessant crashes and ceaseless lightning filled men’s minds with fear.

26To these portents were added continual rainbows. A short explanation will serve to show how these appearances are formed. The vapours of the earth becoming warmer, and the watery particles gathering in clouds, and thence being dispersed in spray, and made brilliant by the fusion of rays, turn upwards towards the fiery orb of the sun and form a rainbow, which sweeps round with a large curve because it is spread over our world, which physical investigations place on the moiety of a sphere.

27Its appearance, as far as mortal sight can discern, is, in the first line yellow, in the second tawny, in the third scarlet, in the fourth purple, and in the last a mixture of blue and green.

28And it is so tempered with this mixed beauty, as mankind believe, because its first portion is discerned in a thin diluted state, of the same colour as the air which surrounds it; the next line is tawny, that is a somewhat richer colour than yellow; the third is scarlet, because it is opposite to the bright rays of the sun, and so pumps up and appropriates, if one may so say, the most subtle portion of its beams; the fourth is purple, because the density of the spray by which the splendour of the sun’s rays is quenched shines between, and so it assumes a colour near that of flame; and as that colour is the more diffused, it shades off into blue and green.

29Others think that the rainbow is caused by the rays of the sun becoming infused into some dense cloud, and pouring into it a liquid light, which, as it can find no exit, falls back upon itself, and shines the more brilliantly because of a kind of attrition; and receives those hues which are most akin to white from the sun above; its green hues from the cloud under which it lies, as often happens in the sea, where the waters which beat upon the shore are white, and those farther from the land, which, as being so, are more free from any admixture, are blue.

30And since it is an indication of a change in the atmosphere (as we have already said), when in a clear sky sudden masses of clouds appear, or on the other hand, when the sky changed from a gloomy look to a joyful serenity, therefore we often read in the poets that Iris is sent from heaven when a change is required in the condition of any present affairs. There are various other opinions which it would be superfluous now to enumerate, since my narration must hasten back to the point from which it digressed.

31By these and similar events the emperor was kept wavering between hope and fear, as the severity of winter was increasing, and he suspected ambuscades in the country, which was destitute of roads; fearing also, among other things, the discontent of the exasperated soldiers. And it further goaded his unquiet spirit to return balked of his purpose, after, as it were, the door of the rich mansion was opened to him.

32However, giving up his enterprise as fruitless, he returned into the unwelcome Syria, to winter at Antioch, after having suffered a succession of melancholy disasters. For, as if some unfriendly constellation so governed events, Constantius himself, while warring with the Persians, was always attended by adverse fortune; on which account he hoped at least to gain victories by means of his generals; and this, as we remember, usually happened.

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