Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Battle of Daras--The First Victory of the Last Great Roman General

“It is possible to govern based on an approach that is distinctly different from one of coercion, force and injustice,” wrote Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently in an open letter he thoughtfully scribed for the benefit of the American people. “It is possible to sincerely serve and promote common human values, and honesty and compassion. It is possible to provide welfare and prosperity without tension, threats, imposition or war.”

These statements sound almost reasonable until it is remembered that they came from the pen of an individual whose repressive regime funds proxy paramilitary forces and outright terrorist groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, recently sponsored an international conference of Holocaust deniers, regularly calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, and punishes the “crime” of conversion from Islam to Christianity with torture and death. Perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad is so detached from reality that he doesn’t realize the rank hypocrisy of his words. More likely, as the letter was meant for the American public, its purpose was purely propagandistic—any passing resemblance to the truth contained therein being merely coincidental.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s “honesty and compassion” letter is merely the latest thrust in the propaganda battle between Iran and the United States—a war of words that the U.S., in fact, seems to be losing pretty badly. To a student of history, it is perhaps not surprising that the Iranian regime has shown itself so adept at waging a propaganda war—of providing sincere and reasonable sounding pretexts for their subsequent insincere and unreasonable actions.

Iran has a long history of facing off against the West. In the days of King Xerxes—when Iran was known as Persia—their mighty armies nearly destroyed the nascent civilization of ancient Greece. A century and a half later, the West got its revenge when Alexander the Great crossed into Asia and conquered the vast Persian dominions. By the time of Christ, Persia was ruled by the Parthians, a nomadic people whose expert use of cavalry tactics proved a match even for the vaunted Roman legions of Marcus Crassus. While the Parthians were an occasional annoyance to the Romans—the superpower of the first two centuries of the Christian era—they quickly wilted when the full power of Rome was brought to bear against them. In AD 116, the Emperor Trajan conquered the region and made it a province of the Empire for a short time.

But Rome was an empire in decline by the early 3rd century AD and Persia, by contrast, was just beginning to reconstitute itself as a great power. By the time Constantine the Great became sole ruler of the Roman world in the early 4th century AD, a sophisticated Persian kingdom had re-emerged. Ruled by a dynasty known as the Sassanids, this powerful state would prove a deadly enemy to Roman emperors—quite literally in the case of Valerian who was captured on the battlefield and later executed by the Persian king Sapor I.

As the Roman Empire became more exclusively Christian in the 4th and 5th centuries, wars of conquest suddenly seemed unthinkable—and less possible given dire manpower shortages and the rising threat of the Germanic peoples in the West. Thus, for the next century and a half, a general peace reigned on the eastern frontier, broken sporadically by sudden Persian or Arab raids on the frontier towns. The Roman response to these occasional outbreaks of violence was weak and pathologically inept, and Eastern Roman Emperors proved willing to pay tribute to the Persians in exchange for peace—a notion that would have been anathema to their more military-minded predecessors.

This situation came to a head at the beginning of the 6th century when the Eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius refused to pay the annual tribute and the energetic Persian King Cabades I launched an invasion of Roman Mesopotamia in response. This war lasted four years and though it resulted in a stalemate, Roman arms did not distinguish themselves, fighting more often than not from behind strong walls. An uneasy truce kept the peace for 20 years as Cabades dealt with other threats to his kingdom, but by AD 525, he was again ready to tangle with the Romans.

When war broke out, the Roman frontier defenses were unprepared. Cabades first set his Lakhmid Arab allies upon the Roman towns of the East. Under the command of their kinglet, Al-Mundhir, the bloodthirsty Lakhmids devastated all in their path. At the Roman town of Emessa alone, Al-Mundhir sacrificed 400 nuns to the Arab goddess al-Uzza. He defeated the poorly led Roman armies sent out to thwart his incursion and returned home in triumph with two Roman generals among his long train of captives.

But the old soldier, Justin, who had been crowned Roman Emperor unexpectedly in AD 518, was not about to allow such outrage to go unanswered. Of common birth and already an old man when elevated to the throne, Justin and his brilliant nephew and successor Justinian steadily built up the frontier defenses, refortifying a the city of Daras which stood less than a day’s ride from the Persian border.

King Cabades immediately recognized the threat this fortress posed and in AD 530 mustered an army some 40,000 strong to destroy it. Entrusting the command to Perozes, a Persian nobleman, Cabades had every expectation of easy success. After all, Persian armies had a history of getting the better of their Roman counterparts that extended back nearly 200 years.

Against such a foe, the dashing young Roman general Belisarius was dispatched to defend the city. Having attained the exalted rank of Master of Soldiers of the East at the age of 25, Belisarius was born in Thrace—modern day Bulgaria—and had risen meteorically through the ranks. With an army of 25,000, the largest the Romans had been able to muster on the eastern frontier for nearly 150 years, Belisarius made ready to defend Daras against the expected Persian attack.

Not without cause, the Romans had come to respect and fear Persian military might. In his tactical manual, The Strategicon, the late 6th century Roman Emperor Maurice lauded the Persians as “steadfast in enduring hard work and warfare on behalf of their fatherland. They prefer to achieve their results by planning and generalship and stress an orderly approach….They are formidable when laying siege, but even more formidable when besieged.”

By contrast, the Persians treated Roman arms with contempt. When speaking to his army, Perozes derided the Romans, saying: “I would not have you think that the Romans have suddenly become better warriors….If the fighting comes to close quarters, fear will seize them, and this, together with their inexperience, will throw them into their customary disorder.” Furthermore, as he approached the city of Daras to begin the siege, Perozes sent a haughty letter to Belisarius calling upon the young general to make ready a bath—Perozes intended to bathe within the city on the following day.

The Persians were, perhaps, not expecting the sight that greeted them before the gates of Daras. Far from seeking safety behind the walls of the city, Belisarius assembled his entire army in well-ordered ranks, ready for battle. Their appearance must have rattled Perozes who hesitated to order a general assault. Instead, in a manner reminiscent of the Illiad or 1 Kings, he sent forth two champions to challenge the Romans to single combat. Both were defeated in turn by the same man, a Roman wrestler named Andreas. These unexpected failures must have further shaken Perozes, because he immediately withdrew to his camp, hoping for better luck the next day.

During the evening, the opposing generals exchanged letters. Belisarius initiated the negotiations, writing: “The first blessing is peace…..The best general, therefore, is one who is able to bring about peace from war. But you, when affairs were well settled between the Romans and Persians, have seen fit to bring upon us a war without cause….Do not stand in the way of the greatest blessings, lest at some time you be held responsible for the disasters which will no doubt come to pass.”

In reply, Perozes wrote: “I should have been persuaded by what you write were the letter not from Romans for whom the making of promises is easy, but the fulfillment of them is a deed beyond hope. Despairing in view of your deception, we are compelled to come before you in arms. As for you, Romans, from now on you will be obliged to engage us in war until you accord us justice.”

The arrival of an additional 10,000 men bolstered Perozes’s confidence, and he lined up for battle the next day with a full two-to-one advantage over the Romans. The battle began just after noon with an exchange of archery. Though the Romans seemed to be getting the worst of it at first, a stiff wind began to blow at their backs which gave added impetus to their missiles, while retarding those of the Persians.

When the armies came to close-quarters, the hand-to-hand fighting became intense and the Roman left wing began to fall back under a furious attack. The situation was saved by a sudden assault on the Persian flank by a contingent of Huns who were fighting as allies alongside the Romans. Another unit of Herulian allies ambushed the Persian rear at almost the same moment, creating chaos and causing the entire Persian right wing to dissolve into a rout.

Though defeated on one wing, Perozes had yet to commit his best troops, the vaunted Persian Immortals. These heavy cavalry units were the elite of the Persian army and Perozes must have had every confidence that they would easily smash through the Roman right wing. And indeed, their initial onset drove back the Romans and set them running. But Belisarius was ready and launched a heavy flank attack—again, spearheaded by his Hunnic allies—which cut the Immortal wedge in half. Thousands of the Persian elites were enveloped by the Romans and destroyed while the rest beat a hasty retreat after their commander was thrown from his horse and slain.

When the dust cleared, the Persian army was in full flight and there must have been great rejoicing among the Roman soldiers and the people of the city of Daras. “For on that day the Persians had been defeated in battle by the Romans,” wrote an eye-witness—the historian Procopius of Caesarea, “a thing which had not happened for a long time.”

Sadly, this was not to be the end of the fighting. Though an “Eternal Peace” was concluded between the two realms after the Battle of Daras, eternity proved to be less than ten years as the Persians launched a surprise invasion in AD 540 and sacked the magnificent city of Antioch. Only the first recorded emergence of the Black Plague prevented the Persians from conquering the entire Roman east at this time.

The Romans and Persians continued this death struggle for another century, while a third force stood waiting in the wings, slowly gathering its strength. Once the two great powers had bled themselves white, this newcomer burst suddenly onto the scene and took full advantage of their weakness. The whole of Persia was conquered within a few decades and the Christian Roman provinces of Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and North Africa fell in quick succession to this force—the Islamic Jihad.

When one recalls the still unrepented tactics which Islam used to conquer and rule these lands, the words of Mr. Ahmadinejad quoted at the beginning of this article become even more hollow. In response to his insincere letter, I quote the words of Belisarius at Daras: The first blessing is peace. Do not stand in the way of the greatest blessings, lest at some time you be held responsible by God for the disasters which will no doubt come to pass.