The History, 24.4

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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4In this district a city, which on account of the lowness of its walls, had been deserted by its Jewish inhabitants, was burnt by our angry soldiers. And afterwards the emperor proceeded further on, being elated at the manifest protection, as he deemed it, of the Deity.

2And when he had reached Maogamalcha, a city of great size and surrounded with strong walls, he pitched his tent, and took anxious care that his camp should not be surprised by any sudden attack of the Persian cavalry; whose courage in the open plains is marvellously dreaded by the surrounding nations.

3And when he had made his arrangements, he himself, with an escort of a few light troops, went forth on foot to reconnoitre the position of a city by a close personal examination; but he fell into a dangerous snare from which he with difficulty escaped with his life.

4For ten armed Persians stole out by a gate of the town of which he was not aware, and crawled on their hands and knees along the bottom of the hill, till they got within reach so as to fall silently upon our men, and two of them distinguishing the emperor by his superior appearance, made at him with drawn swords; but he encountered them with his shield raised, and protecting himself with that, and fighting with great and noble courage, he ran one of them through the body, while his guards killed the other with repeated blows. The rest, of whom some were wounded, were put to flight, and the two who were slain were stripped of their arms, and the emperor led back his comrades in safety, laden with their spoils, into the camp, where he was received with universal joy.

5Torquatus took a golden necklace from one of the enemy whom he had slain. Valerius by the aid of a crow defeated a haughty Gaul and earned the surname of Corvinus, and by this glory these heroes were recommended to posterity. We do not envy them, but let this gallant exploit be added to those ancient memorials.

6The next day a bridge was laid across the river, and the army passed over it, and pitched their camp in a fresh and more healthy place, fortifying it with a double rampart, since, as we have said, the open plains were regarded with apprehension. And then he undertook the siege of the town, thinking it too dangerous to march forward while leaving formidable enemies in his rear.

7While he was making great exertions to complete his preparations, the Surena, the enemy’s general, fell upon the cattle which were feeding in the palm groves, but was repulsed by those of our squadrons who were appointed to that service, and, having lost a few men, he retired.

8And the inhabitants of two cities which are made islands by the rivers which surround them, fearing to trust in their means of defence, fled for refuge to Ctesiphon, some fleeing through the thick woods, others crossing the neighbouring marshes on canoes formed out of hollowed trees, and thus made a long journey to the principal or indeed the only shelter which existed for them, intending to proceed to still more distant regions.

9Some of them were overtaken, and on their resistance were put to death by our soldiers, who, traversing various districts in barks and small boats, brought in from time to time many prisoners. For it had been cleverly arranged that, while the infantry was besieging the town, the squadrons of cavalry should scour the country in small bands in order to bring in booty. And by this system, without doing any injury to the inhabitants of the provinces, the soldiers fed on the bowels of the enemy.

10And by this time the emperor was besieging with all his might and with a triple line of heavily armed soldiers this town which was fortified with a double wall; and he had great hope of succeeding in his enterprise. But if the attempt was indispensable, the execution was very difficult. For the approach to the town lay everywhere over rocks of great height and abruptness; across which there was no straight road; and dangers of two kinds seemed to render the place inaccessible. In the first place there were towers formidable both for their height and for the number of their garrison; equalling in height the natural mountain on which the citadel was built; and secondly, a sloping plain reached down to the river, which again was protected by stout ramparts.

11There was a third difficulty not less formidable that the numerous garrison of picked men which defended the place could not be won over by any caresses to surrender, but resisted the enemy as if resolved either to conquer or to perish amid the ashes of their country. The soldiers, who desired to attack at once, and also insisted upon a pitched battle in a fair field, could hardly be restrained, and when the retreat was sounded they burnt with indignation, being eager to make courageous onsets on the enemy.

12But the wisdom of our leaders overcame the eagerness of mere courage; and the work being distributed, every one set about his allotted task with great alacrity. For on one side high mounds were raised; on another other parties were raising the deep ditches to the level of the ground; in other quarters hollow pitfalls were covered over with long planks; artisans also were placing mural engines soon intended to burst forth with fatal roars.

13Nevitta and Dagalaiphus superintended the miners and the erection of the vineæ, or penthouses; but the beginning of the actual conflict, and the defence of the machines from fire or from sallies of the garrison, the emperor took to himself. And when all the preparations for taking the city had been completed by this variety of labour, and the soldiers demanded to be led to the assault, a captain named Victor returned, who had explored all the roads as far as Ctesiphon, and now brought word that he had met with no obstacles.

14At this news all the soldiers became wild with joy, and being more elated and eager for the contest than ever, they waited under arms for the signal.

15And now on both sides the trumpets sounded with martial clang, and the Roman vanguard, with incessant attacks and threatening cries, assailed the enemy, who were covered from head to foot with thin plates of iron like the feathers of a bird, and who had full confidence that any weapons that fell on this hard iron would recoil; while our close-packed shields with which our men covered themselves as with a testudo, opened loosely so as to adapt themselves to their continual motion. On the other hand the Persians, obstinately clinging to their walls, laboured with all their might to avoid and frustrate our deadly attacks.

16But when the assailants, pushing the osier fences before them, passed up to the walls, the archers, slingers and others, rolling down huge stones, with firebrands and fire-pots, repelled them to a distance. Then the balistæ, armed with wooden arrows, were bent and loosened with a horrid creak, and poured forth incessant storms of darts. And the scorpions hurled forth round stones under the guidance of the skilful hands of their workers.

17The combat was repeated and redoubled in violence till the heat increasing up to midday, and the sun burning up everything with its evaporation, recalled from the battle the combatants on both sides, equally intent as they were on the works and on the fray, but thoroughly exhausted by fatigue and dripping with sweat.

18The same plan was followed the next day, the two parties contending resolutely in various modes of fighting, and again they parted with equal valour, and equal fortune. But in every danger the emperor was foremost among the armed combatants, urging on the destruction of the city lest, by being detained too long before its walls, he should be forced to abandon other objects which he had at heart.

19But in times of emergency nothing is so unimportant as not occasionally to influence great affairs, even contrary to all expectation. For when, as had often happened, the two sides were fighting slackly, and on the point of giving over, a battering-ram which had just been brought up, being pushed forward awkwardly, struck down a tower which was higher than any of the others, and was very strongly built of baked brick, and its fall brought down all the adjacent portion of the wall with a mighty crash.

20Then in the variety of incidents which arose, the exertions of the besiegers and the gallantry of the besieged were equally conspicuous with noble exploits. For to our soldiers, inflamed with anger and indignation, nothing appeared difficult. To the garrison, fighting for their safety, nothing seemed dangerous or formidable. At last, when the fierce contest had raged a long time and was still undecided, great slaughter having been made on both sides, the close of day broke it off, and both armies yielded to fatigue.

21While these matters were thus going on in broad daylight, news was brought to the emperor, who was full of watchful care, that the legionary soldiers to whom the digging of the mines had been intrusted, having hollowed out their subterranean paths and supported them with stout stakes, had now reached the bottom of the foundations of the walls, and were ready to issue forth if he thought fit.

22When therefore a great part of the night was passed, the brazen trumpets sounded the signal for advancing to battle, and the troops ran to arms; and as had been planned, the wall was attacked on both its faces, in order that while the garrison were running to and fro to repel the danger, and while the noise of the iron tools of the miners digging at the foundations was overpowered by the din of battle, the miners should come forth on a sudden without any one being at the mouth of the mine to resist them.

23When these plans had all been arranged, and the garrison was fully occupied, the mine was opened, and Exsuperius, a soldier of the Victorian legion, sprung out, followed by a tribune named Magnus, and Jovianus, a secretary, and an intrepid body of common soldiers, who, after slaughtering all the men found in the temple into which the mine opened, went cautiously forward and slew the sentinels, who were occupying themselves after the fashion of their country in singing the praises, the justice, and good fortune of their king.

24It was believed that Mars himself (if indeed the gods are permitted to mingle with men) aided Luscinus when he forced the camp of the Lucanians. And it was the more believed because in the height of the conflict there was seen an armed figure of enormous size carrying ladders, who the next day, when the roll was called over, though sought for very carefully, could not be found anywhere; when if he had really been a soldier he would have come forward of his own accord from a consciousness of his gallant action. But though on that occasion it was never known who performed that splendid achievement, yet those who now behaved bravely were not unknown, but received obsidional crowns, and were publicly praised according to the ancient fashion.

25At last the fated city, its numerous entrances being laid open, was entered by the Romans, and the furious troops destroyed all whom they found, without regard to age or sex. Some of the citizens, from dread of impending destruction, threatened on one side with fire, on the other with the sword, weeping threw themselves headlong over the walls, and being crippled in all their limbs, led for a few hours or days a life more miserable than any death, till they were finally killed.

26But Nabdates, the captain of the garrison, was taken alive with eighty of his guards; and when he was brought before the emperor, that magnanimous and merciful prince ordered him to be kept in safety. The booty was divided according to a fair estimate of the merits and labours of the troops. The emperor, who was contented with very little, took for his own share of the victory he had thus gained three pieces of gold and a dumb child who was brought to him, and who by elegant signs and gesticulations explained all he knew, and considered that an acceptable and sufficient prize.

27But of the virgins who were taken prisoners, and who, as was likely in Persia, where female beauty is remarkable, were exceedingly beautiful, he would neither touch nor even see one; imitating Alexander and Scipio, who refused similar opportunities, in order, after having proved themselves unconquered by toil, not to show themselves the victims of desire.

28While the battle was going on, an engineer on our side, whose name I do not know, who happened to be standing just behind a scorpion, was knocked down and killed by the recoil of a stone, which the worker of the engine had fitted to the sling carelessly, his whole body being so dislocated and battered that he could not even be recognized.

29After the town was taken intelligence was brought to the emperor that a troop was lying in ambuscade in some concealed pits around the walls of the town just taken (of which pits there are many in those districts), with the intention of surprising the rear of our army by a sudden attack.

30A body of picked infantry of tried courage was therefore sent to take the troop prisoners. But as they could neither force their way into the pits, nor induce those concealed in them to come forth to fight, they collected some straw and faggots, and piled them up before the mouths of the caves, and then set them on fire, from which the smoke penetrated into the caverns through the narrow crevice, being the more dense because of the small space through which it was forced, and so suffocated some of them; others the fire compelled to come forth to instant destruction; and in this manner they were destroyed by sword or by fire, and our men returned with speed to their camp. Thus was this large and populous city, with its powerful garrison, stormed by the Romans, and the city itself reduced to ruins.

31After this glorious exploit the bridges which led over several rivers were crossed in succession, and we reached two forts, constructed with great strength and skill, where the son of the king endeavoured to prevent Count Victor, who was marching in the van of the army, from crossing the river, having advanced for that purpose from Ctesiphon with a large body of nobles and a considerable armed force; but when he saw the numbers which were following Victor, he retreated.

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