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The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 2: The General

January 30, 2014


It is especially good also to have an understanding of warfare. For I have also often wondered why outcomes in armed conflicts vary, and that whereas the Greeks have as a result been defeated by the Romans and the Persians by the Greeks, even so the Persians have never been defeated by the Romans; instead the nations of inner Asia are boasting of freedom and persist in asserting equality with us. So in allowing myself to consider this question, I found that the cause is neither superior generalship nor overall military power (for in war, no account is taken of numbers by the valiant), but rather the armament and the form of the military equipment.[1]

Thus Africanus began the section of the Kestoi concerning military matters. By the time he wrote the Kestoi between 227 and 231 Rome had been fighting the Parthians in the east on and off for 280 years with little success.[2] During Africanus’ own lifetime Septimius  Severus sacked the the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon but just as quickly withdrew. His successors Caracalla and Macrinus had diminishing success in their attempts to keep the Parthians at bay. The situation became even worse in 224 when Ardashir I overthrew the Parthians, established the new Sassanid dynasty, and announced his intention to restore the borders of the ancient Achaemenid Empire.[3]

War was clearly imminent, and when Africanus dedicated the Kestoi to the young emperor Alexander Severus it seems he intended the sections on military matters to serve as advice for the emperor or any other Roman military officer for the coming war.

His views were simply stated: War is decided by training, technology, and tactics. Superiority in all three will ensure victory. While this may seem obvious in the age of high-tech war, this was not always the case, and in the ancient world it was much more common to see fighting spirit and morale as the keys to victory rather than weapons technology. But Africanus seems to have been there, and done that, either on Sepitimius Severus’ campaign in 198, or Caracalla’s invasion in 216, or both. The gritty, down to earth viewpoint of the foot soldier seems to have been quite familiar to him, and we can surmise that he was possibly a junior officer.

Classical Greek depiction of a hoplite in armor.

Classical Greek depiction of a hoplite in armor.

Roman legionnaire showing tight-fitting helmet, chain mail armor and oblong shield.

Roman legionnaire showing tight-fitting helmet, chain mail armor and oblong shield.

In his chapter titled “armaments,” he noted that the Greeks fought with heavy armor and long spears. Their soldiers wore strong helmets with a leather liner on the inside that provided extra padding, greaves, breastplates and carried large round shields which attached to the forearm with two straps. With so much armor, they could only run short distances, but that was enough to run under the arrows of Persian armies and fight at close range.

The Romans, on the other hand, wore tighter-fitting helmets without the leather liner, and tying the cheek protectors made it difficult to turn the head. They wore chain mail instead of heavier scale armor, and their shields were tall and oblong and held by one hand, which made covering the shoulder difficult. But the Romans defeated the Greek phalanxes, because their lighter armor made them more agile and gave them more endurance, while Greek armor left their necks exposed to a quick slice or thrust by the longer Roman swords.

Yet as Africanus noted, “[those who have] been constantly victorious over the Greeks seldom defeated those who had been continually defeated by the Greeks.” In his estimation, Roman soldiers were too quick to lock their shields into a testudo formation and attempt to ride out the Parthian arrow attacks. “Truly such a habit is impractical,” argued Africanus, for while “one stands untouched, distressed by sun and toil, the barbarians in relay [are] attacking and withdrawing again, while by means of attacking successively, the nations are taking rest.” Furthermore,

Roman infantry locking shields in a testudo formation for protection against archers. Africanus argued this was a poor tactic which gave the enemy the initiative.

Roman infantry re-enactors locking shields in a testudo formation for protection against archers. Africanus argued this was a poor tactic which gave the enemy the initiative.

Roman helmets were too tight-fitting and made it difficult for soldiers to duck to avoid an arrow or slingstone. They were also prone to throw their javelins in one mass shower, “expending ten of them on once chance kill.” Their spears were far too short for holding off a charge from heavily armored Persian cataphracts who carried twenty-foot lances.

To solve this, he recommended that Roman troops be given Greek style helmets and breastplates, and longer spears, and trained to fight with individual initiative as well as in units. They should also be trained to charge the Persians immediately to get underneath the trajectory of their arrows rather than hiding under their shields trying to wait them out.[4]

Persian armies relied on cavalry, and Roman armies fighting the Persians would also need a lot of cavalry. Africanus spent much of his chapter on military affairs discussing the proper care and training of horses. The Parthians trained their horses to remain silent in battle so as not to give away an ambush, and Africanus suggested the Romans should do the same. He also gave recipes for number of noxious potions whose smell startled horses and made them dump their riders.[5]

Relief of a heavily armored Sassanid cataphract at Taq-e-Bostan, Iran.

Relief of a heavily armored Sassanid cataphract at Taq-e-Bostan, Iran.

But by far the greatest threat to Roman cavalry and infantry came from the Sassanid war elephants, and Africanus discussed in detail how to fight them. “An elephant in combat makes the impression of a mountain,” he wrote. “It overturns, it hurls down, it smashes, it annihilates, and it does not disdain at all anyone lying in its way…it overthrows the one who makes a stand, the one who flees it seizes, the one who falls it tramples, the horseman it terrifies, and the charioteers it hits from its tower.” Since horses are terrified of elephants, cavalry should be kept far away from them. Instead, Africanus recommended the use of archers firing burning arrows. Once the wooden tower on the elephant’s back was set on fire, the terrified beast would throw it off.

However, a terrified elephant was even more of an indiscriminate killing machine than a battle-trained one. “I personally am of the opinion, however, that it is better to neither stand up to the elephant at the outset nor to come in close with this manifold danger, but rather to anticipate its threats, its charges, its battles, and its falls,” wrote Africanus. Even better than the flaming arrows were iron caltrops. The army could feign a retreat and bury the sharp iron spikes in the sand behind them. Walking into this early minefield, the elephants would step on the spikes, and in the end “either in its suffering, it destroys those who are trying to relieve its incurable pain, or unable to stand it, collapses in a heap.”[6]

Sassanid war elephants fight Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr in this medieval Armenian depiction.

Sassanid war elephants fight Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr (AD 450) in this medieval Armenian depiction.

Africanus may have learned about caltrops at the Battle of Nisibis in 217. There, Macrinus’ Roman forces  made a tactical retreat and buried the sharp iron spikes in the sand behind them. Parthian cavalry mounted on horses and camels trod on the spikes and threw their riders. The Roman infantry then turned back and finished off the dismounted, lightly armored riders in hand-to-hand combat.[7]

His interest in elephants is all the more intriguing because the Parthians do not seem to have used them. It was the Sassanids who reintroduced war elephants, but when Africanus was writing the Romans had not yet encountered a Sassanid army. In fact, it is not at all clear that the Sassanids used elephants in battle against the Romans until the mid fourth century. But Africanus seems most concerned with practical advice, and it seems strange that he would describe a threat that had not been seen for hundreds of years. But elephants were linked to the Sassanid kings from the very beginning; stories about the rise of Ardashir mentioned a vision his grandfather saw a vision of a man riding on a white elephant, symbolizing power and kingship. It seems more likely that Africanus had some sort of intelligence about Sassanid affinity for elephants and that they were possibly training them for use in war. Anticipating that Roman troops would have to fight them, he consulted the history books to find out how to do it.[8]

Africanus had some other suggestions for training and tactics. Trenches made effective barriers against cavalry charges. Mathematical formulas were given for calculating the heights of walls and the width of rivers. Recipes were given for combustible chemicals that could be applied to enemy siege weapons in the middle of the night and would then burst into flame in daylight. Somewhat more strange were his designs for “intercepting sound” by digging a hole and covering it with a cloth. He claimed that a man standing in the hole could hear distant sounds not normally audible to the human ear. Other seemingly batty ideas probably worked just fine if people thought they would work. If you think that wearing a dead bat around your neck will keep you awake when on late night guard duty, it will. If you think eating a fighting rooster the night before a battle, in Africanus’ words “makes the one eating it heir to its own invincibility, and migrates along with its military prowess to the man,” it will.[8]

But battlefield tactics were only part of the equation. Africanus advocated a war strategy to take advantage of all the weaknesses of the Persian armies. “With them,” he wrote, “the marshaling of an army is makeshift, and means are limited, depending instead on booty from a surprise attack. They bring with them rations measured in days, and a fixed number of missiles also; when they are used up, flight is foreordained.” Persian armies were not professional but were made up of noblemen and ordinary civilians called up for military service. The lack of a rigorous logistics element in Persian armies made them vulnerable to certain strategies, he argued. “What then, is the point in confronting an enemy onslaught, when, if I wait them out, I will see them chased down by the time they have appointed for themselves? Starvation descends upon them the day after time runs out, their meager provisions having been used up to no end.”[9]

To defeat a citizen army Africanus advocated total war. His recommendations are sometimes shocking. In his section titled “On the Destruction of Enemies,” he advocated avoiding battle whenever possible and instead targeting the means for keeping an army in the field:

Time first of all, and attrition, starvation and deadly pestilence must especially be deployed against the barbarians…Let us see if we might even keep them from fleeing in starvation; let annihilation overcome them without the use of the sword, and death without battle. Let us defeat them with the air as an ally and water as our support, with the elements let us arm ourselves against them. I am commander of a secret battle array. The battle I am waging is in the shadows. Let every adversary fall down, when he breathes, thirsts for a drink, or eats. I make everything his peril.[10]

He advocated avoiding battle whenever possible and harassing the enemy with night raids to prevent sleep and weaken an opponent. The enemy’s fields were to be plowed with salt or seeded with poisonous hellebore. Fruit trees in enemy country should be cut down. “For me, more to be commended is one who orders the destruction of everything that grows in abundance,” he argued. The goal was “total annihilation.”[11]

Wild White Hellebore (Veratrum album), whose roots contain a potent neurotoxin which was one of the poisons Africanus advocated utilizing.

Wild White Hellebore (Veratrum album), whose roots contain a potent neurotoxin which was one of the poisons Africanus advocated utilizing.

To achieve this goal Africanus spent a lot of space advocating the use of chemical and biological weapons. Among the proposed strategies: Preparing poisoned bread by mixing the dough with pulverized remains of decomposing tree frogs and snakes, and allowing it to be captured by the enemy. The resulting illness would not necessarily kill, but the disease would spread throughout the enemy camp. Wine poisoned with sodium carbonate, boxwood or hemlock could be left behind for the enemy to drink. Poisoned arrowheads would ensure that every wound was fatal. Prisoners of war could be infected with plague and then released to carry diseases into the enemy camp. The enemy was to be offered what Africanus called “a drink with a cup of friendship” by poisoning their water supply. Wells were to be filled with stones and human excrement. In desert fighting, an army without water was as good as dead, and an army wracked by disease could barely be expected to fight.

The effectiveness of some of his other suggestions is somewhat more dubious, such as his idea to create poison gas by attempting to aerosolize snake venom. Venomous snakes of various species were to be shut up in a clay pot and then left in the sun to die and rot. Opening the jar, he claimed, would cause men and horses to collapse and birds to drop out of the air dead.[12] Poison gas was not unknown in ancient Near Eastern warfare. In 256, Sassanid troops used sulfur dioxide during their assault on the Roman city of Dura-Europos. This mixture was made from igniting pitch and sulfur together in a pot inside an underground siege tunnel. We do not know how often this tactic was used, but it was highly dangerous. The Persian soldier who released the gas appears to have been badly burned and overcome by the gas before he could escape the tunnel. His body was found along with twenty Romans.[13]

The remains of the lone Persian soldier who died in the tunnel, overcome by the gas.

The remains of a Sassanid soldier from inside the tunnel at Dura-Europos. He was overcome by the sulfur dioxide gas he most likely released.

The question that has puzzled scholars for a hundred years is how any of this squares with Africanus’ Christianity. In fact, some have gone so far to suggest that Africanus was a pagan convert who wrote the Kestoi before he became a Christian.[14] Yet, while the Kestoi frequently mentions Greek gods, it always does so either as a metaphor or as a description of what some people do. For instance, Africanus noted that some people pray to Poseidon before battle to trouble enemy horses, without recommending this course of action or endorse it as valid. Ultimately, it was up to human action to decide conflict: “The victorious attribute these sorts of wars to their own gods. Those gods let us also imitate; chance will spontaneously become subject to our own skill.”[15] He was writing to a predominately pagan audience, and he spoke their language.

Finally, all available evidence indicates that Africanus wrote his clearly Christian Chronographia before he wrote the Kestoi. While the Kestoi was not written before 227, as indicated by references to the Baths of Alexander which were not completed before that time, the Chronographia only lists events up until the third year of Elagabalus, or 221.[16] Africanus was a Christian when he wrote the Kestoi. So why did he do it?

Africanus himself seems to have anticipated that some people might raise moral objections to his ideas. “Let no one consider the barbarians of the East ignorant of these stratagems,” he pleaded right after arguing in favor of poisoning reservoirs. “Oftentimes they themselves commit vicious acts against their attackers.” He then went on to describe how some Jewish rebels had once fled their lunchtime meal and left behind a poisoned feast which killed a contingent of Roman soldiers. Poisoned foods, he said, were “just meals of recompense against the barbarians.”[17]

A mosaic of Tyche, goddess of chance from a Jewish home in 3rd century Sepphoris. Africanus mentioned Tyche in the Kestoi, but only as a metaphor for chance acts which could benefit or hurt an army at war.

A mosaic of Tyche, Greek goddess of chance from a Jewish home in 3rd century Sepphoris. Africanus mentioned Tyche in the Kestoi, but only as a metaphor for chance acts which could benefit or hurt an army at war.

Augustine would not be alive for another 120 years or so, and no one in the church had yet proposed a set of guidelines for how to wage a just war. For Africanus, it seems the only thing just about war was winning it. The right way to conduct a war was the way that would produce victory the fastest. Anything that supported the enemy’s ability to wage war was a legitimate target, and any method of destroying it could and should be used.

Some of Africanus’ Christian contemporaries would have vehemently disagreed. Tertullian, Origen and Hippolytos all argued that war was not an appropriate activity for Christians. Tertullian argued that Christians should have no loyalty but to Christ, and Christ had told Peter to put away his sword. Origen argued that if everyone became a Christian pacifist, there would be no more wars, and no need for armies.[18]

Yet, Tertullian and Origen both lived in peaceful locales, largely untroubled by the wars raging along the edges of the empire. Tertullian lived in Carthage and Origen in Alexandria, and both were deep within the borders of the empire and free from the imminent threat of foreign invasion. One can legitimately wonder if they would have developed the same views if they lived on the Euphrates or Danube frontiers, or along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain where hostile Parthians, Germans and Caledonians raided settlements and sacked cities.

What Africanus does show us is that there were Christians who disagreed with the pacifist view. And not just anyone, but educated Christians who knew both the scriptures and history. Unfortunately, we do not have any treatise by Africanus providing a theological justification for his views. Maybe he saw the domains of God and Caesar as completely separate, with the government having the right to wield the sword with a different set of moral obligations than the individual. Maybe he just never thought about the contradiction between his views.

Whatever his justification, after Augustine they were not popular. Rufinus and Jerome deleted the Kestoi from their lists of Africanus’ writings. The tenth century Byzantine military manual Sylloge Tacticorum called his methods of warfare “unworthy of the Christian way of life.” Yet, his military writings have survived because they were copied and preserved in medieval Byzantine military manuals.[19] Clearly his advice was still seen as having value, even if some did not endorse everything in it, or at least would not admit so publicly.

What Africanus shows us is that pacifism was not a universal view amongst Christians in the late second and early third centuries. At the same time, he shows us that those who were not pacifists did not seem to have a philosophy of how to justly wage a war in accordance with Christian principles. Instead of a rigorous theology of jus in bello, the attitude existed that anything went so long as it is useful in bringing about victory. The domains of Caesar and Christ were completely separate. The contradictions of this view would have to be resolved later.

Second in a Five-Part Series:
The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 1: The Diplomat.
The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 3: The Scientist.
The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 4: The Scholar.
The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 5: The Historian.


[1] Julius Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, trans. by William Adler (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2012), F12: p. 35-37.

[2] Adler et al., Cesti: The Extant Fragments, p.XIX.

[3] Cassius Dio, Roman History, trans. by Earnest Cary (1927), LacusCurtius, (accessed December 23, 2013), 80.3; Herodian, Roman History, trans. by Edward C. Echols (1961),, (accessed December 27, 2013), 6.2.2.

[4] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.1: p.37-41.

[5] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.7, 11: p.67-68.

[6] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.18: p. 90-93.

[7] Herodian, Roman History, 4.15.3-5.

[8] For a more detailed discussion of the rise of Sassanid elephants, see Michael B. Charles, “The Rise of the Sassanid Elephant Corps: Elephants and the Later Roman Empire,” Iranica Antiqua 42 (2007): 301-346.

The Sassanid composition The Records of Ardashir mentions the elephant vision. See translation by Paul Halsall, 1988, (accessed January 28, 2014). It must be noted that this composition dates to the reign of Shahpur II, when war elephants were definitely in use.

[9] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.3, 11, 15-17, D25: p. 55, 69, 74-83, 87, 116-119.

[9] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.2: p. 45.

[10] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.2: p. 45.

[11] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.2, D16-17: p. 45, 107.

[12] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.2, D19: p. 45-53, 109.

[13] “Death Underground: Gas Warfare at Dura-Europos,” Current Archaeology, November 26, 2009 (online feature) (accessed May 2, 2012); “The Final Siege of Dura: Ancient Chemical Warfare?” (accessed May 2, 2012); Samir S. Patel, “Early Chemical Warfare – Dura-Europos, Syria,” Archaeology, Vol. 63, No. 1, January/February 2010, (accessed May 2, 2012); Stephanie Pappas, “Buried Soldiers May Be Victims of Ancient Chemical Weapon,” LiveScience, March 8, 2011, (accessed May 2, 2012).

For the original analysis of the Dura-Europos chemical warfare evidence, see Simon James, “Stratagems, Combat, and “Chemical Warfare” in the Siege Mines of Dura-Europos,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 115, No. 1 (January 2011): 69-101.

[14] Francis C.R. Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic (Tübingen, Germany: J.C.B. Mohr, 1984), 65.

[15] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.2, 10: p. 47, 67.

[16] Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic, 79; Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, trans. by William Adler, ed. by Martin Wallraff (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007), T11: p. 18-19; Adler et al., Cesti: The Extant Fragments, p.XIX.

[17] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, F12.2: p. 49.

It seems the story about the Jewish rebels fits best with the Bar Kokhba war, which was fought with guerrilla tactics and concluded only forty or so years before Africanus was born. Stories about the conflict may well have been current in his lifetime.

[18] Tertullian, On Idolatry, trans. by S. Thelwall (1885),, (accessed April 19, 2012), 19; Tertullian, On The Military Crown, trans. by S. Thelwall (1885),, (accessed April 19, 2012), 11; Origen, Against Celsus, 8.68-73.

[19] Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, p. XVI, XLVIII-LI.

Article © Christopher Jones 2014.

Image sources: [banner]: Arch of Septimius Severus from Leptis Magna, image from; Roman helmet photo © Christopher Jones 2012. [body]  Greek hoplite photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, used under Creative Commons (; Roman legionnaire from Jona Lendering @; Testudo photo by Neil Cary, used under Creative Commons (; Taq-e-Bostan relief in the public domain (; Armenian art in the public domain (; Photo of Hellebore by Danny S., used under Creative Commons (; Yale University /; Tyche mosaic © Christopher Jones 2012.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2015 8:58 PM

    I love your blog and articles! Any idea when we can expect the next installment on Sextus Julius Africanus?

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