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Battle of Tigranocerta

(6 October 69 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Mitrydates VI Eupator

“Antiochus the philosopher makes mention of this battle in his treatise “Concerning Gods”, and says that the sun never looked down on such another. And Strabo, another philosopher, in his “Historical Commentaries”, says that the Romans themselves were ashamed, and laughed one another to scorn for requiring arms against such slaves. Livy also has remarked that the Romans were never in such inferior numbers when they faced an enemy; for the victors were hardly even a twentieth part of the vanquished, but less than this. The Roman generals who were most capable and most experienced in war, praised Lucullus especially for this, that he out-generalled two kings who were most distinguished and powerful by two most opposite tactics, speed and slowness. For he used up Mithridates, at the height of his power, by long delays; but crushed Tigranes by the speed of his operations, being one of the few generals of all time to use delay for greater achievement, and boldness for greater safety”, these opinions of the ancients are quoted by Plutarch, the biographer of Lucullus, describing the Battle of Tigranocerta. This clash, despite the fact that it is one of the most spectacular successes of the Roman weapon in the 1st century BCE, rarely appears on the pages of textbooks and is almost absent from the public consciousness. Most people associate the character of Caesar and his Gallic victories, which were so successfully popularized by the movies. On the other hand, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, the author of the victory at Tigranocerta, is an almost forgotten figure, albeit no less colourful. His life and career could serve as more than one film script, and the battle itself deserves a reminder.

King’s Town

Tigranocerta, the city behind the historic battle, was built from scratch by one of the greatest rulers of the ancient Armenian state, Tigranes II the Great (138-56 BCE). This ruler, taking advantage of the weakening of neighbouring countries, the Parthian Empire in the east and the Roman Republic in the west, plunged into civil wars, successfully expanded the state by including the neighbouring lands. The mighty Kingdom of Armenia, aspiring to the rank of a new empire on a par with Rome and the Party, needed a great capital that would embody its ruler’s political ambitions and the importance of the state. Today, this city is located north of the Tigris River, in what is now Iraq. Tigranocerta was founded on the model of Hellenistic cities with an acropolis, a royal palace and probably a theatre. It was to be the centre of the new empire of Tigranes, testifying to his glory and power. It is worth quoting the description of this city from the ancient historian Appian:

(…) He surrounded it with walls 25 meters high and wide enough to contain stables for horses. In the suburbs he built a palace and laid out large parks, enclosures for wild animals, and fish-ponds. He also erected a strong tower nearby.

In order to present the city even more fully, we must add that it was full of wealth and valuables because every resident, regardless of what state he came from, wanted to be properly presented in this beautiful city, as ancient historians emphasize. And under this great city in 69 BCE stood the outstanding Roman commander Lucullus.

Roman chief

A marble head sculpture found in Synopia, presumably Lucullus, who was the benefactor of the city.
S. Mrozek, The last leader of the Republic. The life and activity of Lucius Licinius Lucullus, Gdańsk 2003

Political and military career Lucius Licinius Lucullus falls on a very dynamic period in Rome’s history, namely the decline of the Republic. This time abounded in numerous wars, political struggles, and outstanding individuals were active in the historical arena at that time and entered the annals of history forever. Among them are Gaius Marius, Sulla, Marcus Crassus, Pompey the Great, Caesar to name only the most important. This dynamism also resulted in numerous historical sources, so this period of history is well known to us.

Certainly, the figure of Lucullus in any other period would definitely stand out from the era and only the multitude of great figures and events of the fall of the Roman Republic can justify such a weak interest in this character. Lucullus belonged to a patrician family who had held the highest offices in Rome for several generations. In the political arena, the Roman leader stands out for the first time by supporting Sulla, the dictator who, in 83 BCE, was the first to set off against Rome. Thus, the extremely bloody period of the final fall of the Roman Republic begins. Lucullus belonged to his immediate circle, as he was the only senior officer to remain with Sulla during his march to the eternal city. Thanks to this, he earned the gratitude and recognition of the dictator. Over the next few years, this resulted in access to the highest offices. This was crowned by the office of the consulate in 74 BCE and the placing of command in the war against Pontus’ ruler Mithridates VI Eupator. The command of an army in Asia Minor was a very tasty morsel. For it brought with it hope for enormous wealth, mainly from the plunder of rich eastern cities. For this reason, many Roman aristocrats sought to receive the above-mentioned command. Thanks to his political influence and support, Lucius Lucullus was ultimately granted this privilege.

Tigranes II the Great

In the first century BCE, the kingdom of Pontus in the north-central part of Asia Minor under the rule of Mithridates VI became the most formidable enemy of Rome in the eastern Mediterranean. The Kingdom itself lay at the crossroads of trade routes and the east-west road. In Pontus, both Hellenistic and Eastern Persian influences intertwined. This was reflected in the very ideology of Mithridates’ power, referring to both Alexander the Great and the Persian Achaemenid dynasty. The Roman-Pontic conflict included three wars fought between 88-64 BCE

One of the most spectacular events of these wars were the so-called “Asian vespers”. In 88 BCE in Ephesus, Mithridates VI issued an appeal to Asian cities calling for the murder of all Roman citizens located in their area. As a result of this meticulously prepared “perfect murder”, according to ancient authors, up to 80,000 people fell, which clearly shows how much the Romans in the East were hated. After this event, peace could no longer be counted, because Rome did not forgive the murder of its own citizens. Such a monstrous crime had to be avenged.

Initially, the war in Asia was led by Sulla. The later Roman dictator had many spectacular successes weakening Mithridates VI. However, political disturbances in Rome forced him to make a compromise of peace and return to Italy. In 74 BCE the task of continuing the war this time was given to Lucullus, who managed to defeat the Pontic ruler in several spectacular battles and in 70 BCE took Pont. Despite this, the Romans failed to capture Mithryades VI, who fled to his ally, King Tigranes II of Armenia. He managed to convince him to help him and declare war on the Romans.

Armenian campaign

Lucullus entered Armenia in 69 BCE. The goal of the Roman leader from the beginning was the capital of the Kingdom of Tigranes II Tigranocerta. Marching to the capital of Armenia, the Roman commander wanted to provoke the king into a decisive battle in which he intended to break the main forces of Tigranes. Lucullus’ campaign was like an ancient blitzkrieg, as he took his opponent by surprise with his quick and decisive movements. Even one of his messengers was convinced of Tigranes’ fury, and the king, dissatisfied with the news conveyed to him, shortened his head. As a result, Tigranes, terrified by the rapid advances of the Romans, left the capital to gather an army in the interior.

Asia Minor and Armenia during the Lucullus campaign in the east.

Meanwhile, Lucullus approached Tigranocerta quickly and began its siege. Despite the surprise, the hopes for quick capture of the city were shattered because the defenders of the capital put up brave resistance to the Romans. Despite his fierce defence, Lucullus did not give up conquering the city. He knew that Tigranes could appear at any moment with the main forces still flowing under the royal banners. The appearance of Tigranes would put the Romans in grips between the city’s defenders and the royal army. The capture of Tigranocerta would completely change the strategic situation in favour of the Roman leader. Besides, Lucullus calculated that the pressure on the city and the threat of its conquest would make the king not wait for all his strength and would soon come to the city to give him a battle. With this hope, Tigranes was satisfied, and soon at the head of a huge army, he crossed the Taurus Mountains and set off to save the capital.

Battle

The decisive battle was fought on October 6, 69 BCE in the hills surrounding Tigranocerta. The date of the battle, from the point of view of superstitious Romans, was chosen quite unfortunate, because on the same day, 37 years earlier, the Roman army was defeated at Arausio at the hands of the barbarian Cimbri. However, Lucullus turned out to be less superstitious than his subordinates and ordered final preparations for the battle. The Roman army was in a difficult position because some of its forces were immobilized near the Armenian capital in order to prevent possible attacks by the defenders on the rear of the forces against the king. As if that were not enough, Tigranes took a more convenient position, deployed his army on the hill under which the river flowed. The Romans had to overcome this natural obstacle first, in order to be able to attack the opponent later by moving up the hill. The Armenian king had a huge advantage in numbers to the disadvantage of Lucullus’ army, according to ancient authors, up to 300,000 warriors, including 17,000 heavy cavalry, were to fight in his ranks. Modern historians limit the forces of Tigranes to 70-80 thousand men, which, even if such a number were true, would give him a significant advantage over the 20 thousand Roman army. The Armenian king was so sure of his numerical superiority that when he saw the Roman forces, he would shout: “(…) If they are envoys, then there are too many of them, and if they are enemies, then they are far too few. Meanwhile, on this October day, not numbers but determination, speed of action and strength of character were to give the winning advantage.

Plan of the Battle of Tigranocert.

The Roman commander attacked first and quickly marched his army across the river. Then, the main forces ordered an attack on the right-wing of the Armenian troops where the pride of Tigranes was heavy cavalry; while alone, at the head of two cohorts (approx. 960 men), he moved along the foot of the hills to go around the right-wing of the enemy. The Armenian king was completely taken aback by Roman’s moves so that he did not even finish deploying his forces. The still not orderly army of the right-wing was struck by a fierce attack by the Romans, who cut off the riders’ lances and cut open the bellies of the horses; this combat tactic was proposed by Lucullus himself. Confusion grew in the Armenian ranks, and at that moment Lucullus, at the head of two cohorts, struck the rear of the right-wing. This tipped the scales of victory. The confusion turned into panic, at first, the heavy Armenian cavalry escaped, in effect taking the infantry with it. Soon the panic of the right-wing spread to the rest of the army, and no one was able to stop the general chaos. The king himself, Tigranes, was one of the first to retreat from the battlefield. After winning the clash, the Romans turned against Tigranocert, which, after a short siege and betrayal of Greek mercenaries, surrendered. Lucullus ordered that Tigranes’ pride be razed to the ground, although he showed the grace of letting the inhabitants go.

The Fall of Lucullus

However, such a great victory did not end the war. Tigranes continued his resistance, but this time by changing tactics, he avoided major battles; dragging Lucullus deep into the Armenian kingdom, waging a guerrilla war. This method turned out to be effective because soon the Roman soldiers, tired of the war with the elusive enemy, rebelled against their leader and refused to continue their march. At that time, Mithridates VI was not idle, he undertook a counteroffensive in Pontus, which Lucullus, involved in Armenia, could not effectively oppose. So soon many of Rome’s spectacular successes turned to waste. These failures, as well as the political changes in Rome, meant that in 66 BCE Lucullus was deprived of his command, entrusting it to Pompey the Great.

This “last leader of the republic”, as historians call him, returned to Rome where he lived his last days in abundance, and his name became synonymous with luxury. However, his influence on politics has remained marginal.

Causes of Tigranes’ defeat

In conclusion, it should be said that the root of Tigranes’ defeat was his extreme disregard for Roman forces and his trust only in his own numerical superiority. The basic mistakes of the king include the too late issuance of orders to form the formation, which caused total chaos in the Armenian forces when the Romans attacked. It was only when it was noticed that Lucullus was attacking that Tigranes tried to rectify his mistake, but it was too late for that. Another blameworthy neglect was to leave the river line unprotected; this natural obstacle created favourable conditions for stopping the Roman forces or giving them serious losses. In the course of the clash, the Armenian army remained completely passive, awaiting the attack of Lucullus. Heavy cavalry, queen of the battlefield, did not enter into any organized attack, and a decided charge would tip the tide of victory. This suggests that Tigranes was not in control of all events. The king also allowed the weak forces led by Lucullus to bypass his position and hare the hill at the rear, which was a complete surprise and a nail in the coffin of his army. After the Roman strike and panic in the military, Tigranes was unable to restore discipline and the Armenian forces were crushed.

Undoubtedly, the Battle of Tigranocerta is one of the most spectacular victories of the Roman weapon in history. It clearly shows that not numbers but fortitude, determination and leadership skills give victory.

Author: Łukasz Bazentkiewicz (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Sources
  • Appian, Roman history
  • Keaveney A., Lukullus, Warszawa 1998
  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives

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