The History, 24.6

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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6From this place they advanced to a canal known as Naharmalcha, a name which means “The River of Kings.” It was then dry. Long ago Trajan, and after him Severus, had caused the soil to be dug out, and had given great attention to constructing this as a canal of great size, so that, being filled with water from the Euphrates, it might enable vessels to pass into the Tigris.

2And for every object in view it appeared best that this should now be cleaned out, as the Persians, fearing such an operation, had blocked it up with a mass of stones. After it had been cleared and the dams removed, a large body of water was let in, so that our fleet, after a safe voyage of thirty furlongs, passed into the Tigris. There the army at once threw bridges across the river, and passing over to the other side, marched upon Coche.

3And that after our fatigue we might enjoy seasonable rest, we encamped in an open plain, rich with trees, vines, and cypresses, in the middle of which was a shady and delicious pavilion, having all over it, according to the fashion of the country, pictures of the king slaying wild beasts in the chase; for they never paint or in any way represent anything except different kinds of slaughter and war.

4Having now finished everything according to his wish, the emperor, rising higher in spirit as his difficulties increased, and building such hopes on Fortune, which had not yet proved unfavourable to him, that he often pushed his boldness to the verge of temerity, unloaded some of the strongest of the vessels which were carrying provisions and warlike engines, and put on board of them eight hundred armed men; and keeping the main part of the fleet with him, which he divided into three squadrons, he settled that one under the command of Count Victor should start at nightfall, in order to cross the river with speed, and so seize on the bank in possession of the enemy.

5The generals were greatly alarmed at this plan, and unanimously entreated him to forego it; but as they could not prevail, the signal for sailing was raised, as he commanded, and at once five ships hastened onwards out of sight; and when they drew near to the bank they were attacked with an incessant storm of fire-pots and every kind of contrivance to handle flames, and they would have been burnt soldiers and all if the emperor, being roused, had not with great energy hastened to the spot, shouting out that our men, as they were ordered, had made him a signal that they were now masters of the bank of the river, and ordering the whole fleet to hasten forward with all speed.

6In consequence of which vigour the ships were saved, and the soldiers, though harassed by the enemy from their commanding ground with stones and every kind of missile, nevertheless after a fierce conflict made good their footing on the high bank of the river, and established themselves immovably.

7History marvels that Sertorius swam across the Rhone with his arms and his breastplate; but on this occasion, some soldiers, though disordered, fearing to remain behind after the signal for battle was raised, clinging firmly to their shields, which are broad and concave, and guiding them, though without much skill, kept pace with the speed of the vessels through a river full of currents.

8The Persians resisted this attack with squadrons of cuirassier cavalry in such close order that their bodies dazzled the eye, fitting together, as it seemed, with their brilliant armour; while their horses were all protected with a covering of stout leather. As a reserve to support them several maniples of infantry were stationed, protected by crooked, oblong shields, made of wicker-work and raw hides, behind which they moved in compact order. Behind them were elephants, like so many walking hills, which by every motion of their huge bodies threatened destruction to all who came near them, and our men had been taught to fear them by past experience.

9On this the emperor, according to the arrangement of the Greek army as mentioned by Homer, allotted the centre space between his two lines to his weakest infantry, lest if they were placed in the front rank, and should then misbehave, they should disorder the whole of his line; or lest, on the other hand, if posted in the rear, behind all the other centuries, they should flee without shame, since there would be no one to check them: he with his light-armed auxiliaries moving as might be required between the lines.

10Therefore when the two armies beheld each other, the Romans glittering with their crested helmets, and brandishing their shields, proceeded slowly, their bands playing an anapæstic measure; and after a preliminary skirmish, carried on by the missiles of the front rank, they rushed to battle with such vehemence that the earth trembled beneath them.

11The battle-shout was raised on all sides, as was usual, the braying trumpets encouraged the eagerness of the men: all fought in close combat with spears and drawn swords, so that the soldiers were free from all danger of arrows the more rapidly they pressed onwards. Meanwhile, Julian, like a gallant comrade, at the same time that he was a skilful general, hasten to support his hardly-pressed battalions with reserves, and to cheer on the laggards.

12So the front line of the Persians wavered, having been never very fierce; and at last, no longer able to support the heat of their armour, they retreated in haste to their city, which was near: they were pursued by our soldiers, weary as they were with having fought in those torrid plains from daybreak to sunset; and we, pressing close on their heels, drove them, with their choicest generals, Pigranes, the Surena, and Narses, right up to the walls of Ctesiphon, inflicting many wounds on their legs and backs.

13And we should have forced our entrance into the city if a general named Victor had not, by lifting up his hands and his voice, checked us, being himself pierced through the shoulder with an arrow, and fearing lest if the soldiers allowed themselves to be hurried within the walls without any order, and could then find no means of returning, they might be overwhelmed by the mass of their enemies.

14Let the poets celebrate the ancient battles of Hector, or extol the valour of the Thessalian Achilles; let past ages tell the praises of Sophanes, and Aminias, and Callimachus, and Cynægirus, those thunderbolts of war in the struggles of the Greeks against Persia; but it is evident by the confession of all men that the gallantry displayed by some of our troops on that day was equal to any of their exploits.

15After having laid aside their fears, and trampled on the carcases of their enemies, the soldiers, still stained with the blood so justly shed, collected round the tent of the emperor, loading him with praises and thanks, because, while behaving with such bravery that it was hard to say whether he had been more a general or a soldier, he had conducted the affair with such success that not above seventy of our men had fallen, while nearly two thousand five hundred of the Persians had been slain. And he in his turn addressed by name most of those whose steady courage and gallant actions he had witnessed, presenting them with naval, civic, and military crowns.

16Thinking that this achievement would surely be followed by other similar successes, he prepared a large sacrifice to Mars the Avenger. Ten most beautiful bulls were brought for the purpose, nine of which, even before they reached the altars, lay down of their own accord with mournful countenances, but the tenth broke his bonds and escaped, and was with difficulty brought back at all; and when sacrificed displayed very unfavourable omens: but when he saw this, Julian became very indignant, and exclaimed, calling Jupiter to witness, that henceforth he would offer no sacrifices to Mars. Nor did he recall his vow, being cut off by a speedy death.

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