Parthians and Scythians: Julius Africanus on barbarian military techniques (early third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Parthians and Scythians: Julius Africanus on barbarian military techniques (early third century CE),' Last modified January 14, 2023,

Ancient authors: Julius Africanus (early third century CE), Embroideries (Kestoi) 7.

Comments: Recent discoveries and work on Julius Africanus have clarified some biographical information about the man. A papyrus fragment of his wide-ranging work titled Embroideries (18 = POxy 412 = F10) has him identifying his former homeland as the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina in Palestine (i.e. the place formerly known as Jerusalem), although it is not certain that he himself identified specifically as Judean. Other passages in the Embroideries point to his activities in the east (bordering Parthia) in connection with the court of Abgar VII king of Osrhoene at Edessa, in this case alongside another prominent philosopher and Jesus-adherent, Bardasain (link). If George Synkellos’ testimony is accurate, Africanus had served as an ambassador to Alexander Severus on behalf of the village of Emmaus in Palestine with the result that the village was renamed Nikopolis (George Synkellos, Chronography 439, lines 15-20). In the same passage, Synkellos also claims that the Embroideries was dedicated, at least in part, to the emperor Severus Alexander (reigned 222-235 CE). Africanus himself claims to have been involved in supervising the building of a library at Rome under Severus Alexander (Embroideries, F10, lines 52ff).

It is not clear just how important Africanus’ identification as a Jesus adherent was to him. Eusebius of Caesarea says that Africanus wrote a Letter to Aristides that dealt with apparent chronological discrepancies between the gospel narratives about Jesus, but Eusebius also praises Africanus as a smart (logios) man with extensive learning in “outside culture,” in other words outside of specifically Christian learning (Eusebius, Quaestiones evangelicae, testimony 2 in Walraff and others 2012; cf. Eusebius, Church History 6.31.1).

Although we only possess a small fraction of the literary output of Julius Africanus, what we do have shows him ranging across a variety of bodies of knowledge, including comparative chronology in Chronographies and pharmacological, natural, agricultural, and alchemical materials in Embroideries, much of which Africanus himself summarizes under the category of “secret knowledge.”

Africanus’ ethnographic interests and Roman imperial alignments emerge in fragments of the Embroideries. (See also the post on his comparative chronologies regarding Egyptians and Chaldeans: link coming soon). In his suggestions for improving the military success of the Roman army, Africanus attempts to refute claims that peoples of Asia – namely Parthians (“Persians”) in his time – were superior to Romans and others militarily speaking. Instead, he provides practical advice for Roman military success, arguing that it all comes down to weaponry and armour. Ultimately, he is suggesting the Romans can indeed defeat the Parthians if they focus on the practicalities of weaponry and armour, alongside techniques that match the equipment. In another fragment, for instance, Africanus briefly explains Scythians’ use of poison arrows before going on to outline a pharmacological way of imitating this technique.

Works consulted: Martin Wallraff, ed., Iulius Africanus, Chronographiae: The Extant Fragments, trans. William Adler (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007); Martin Wallraff et al., eds., Iulius Africanus, Cesti: The Extant Fragments, trans. William Adler (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012)

Source of translation: Adler from Wallraff et. al. 2012, adapted.


[Fragment 12: Seventh Embroidery (Kestos), prologue]

[Asian peoples’ claims of military superiority]

. . . It is especially good also to have an understanding of war. For I have also often wondered the reason for differences in the outcomes of armed conflicts. While the Greeks have been defeated by the Romans and the Persians by the Greeks, the Persians [i.e. Parthians] have still never been defeated by the Romans. Instead, the peoples (ethnē) of inner Asia are boasting about freedom and persist in claiming equal honour (isotimia) with us. As I gave this consideration, I found that the cause is not superior strategies or overall military power, because in war the courageous give no consideration to numbers. Instead, the preparation of weapons and the form of military equipment are the cause of this situation.

[Greeks’ military equipment and approach]

Greeks are fond of heavy, full armour: they have a double helmet, a breastplate covered with scales, a concave bronze shield held by two handles (of which the one surrounding the forearm allows shoving while the other is grasped by the end of the hand), two greaves, a hand-held javelin, and a spear for hand-to-hand combat, identical to those used by the royal cavalry, and a broad but long sword. Running with this equipment is infrequent and not prolonged. Instead, it is quick and similar to what would occur when one is in a hurry to get inside the trajectory of an arrow. They knew how to fight side by side and each of them could fight on his own. The result was that the courage of the soldier was two-fold: both collective and individual.

So they would slaughter the barbarians in the following way: while on the march, they frequently took rests so that they would not lose their edge because of the journey. In this way, they remained unfatigued until the battle. With rapid speed, they would take care to get in front of the landing missiles, the missiles flying over them at a longer distance as they ran forward under the trajectory. Because the enemy foot-soldiers were lightly-armed, they could not endure the onslaught of this sort of military assault. For the effectiveness of a missile is in its range, but in close-up fighting, security in battle is achieved by full armour. Therefore, to avoid suffering injury from far away, the breastplate is superior to any missile, owing to the overlapping plates, which maintain protection against wounds. The helmet consists of a headpiece with an additional covering of bronze, that is, one layer superimposed on another, protecting the head against shots from a sling. While the outer plate becomes dented all around and gives way, the projectile does not penetrate to the inner covering of the head. And the face is uncovered, and an unencumbered neck allows for an unhindered view of everything. With their spears, one group repulses the assault of the enemy cavalry with spears, as they probe ahead before attacking. The other group, after setting up their battlelines in more open order, is dispersed when they engage with the barbarians . . . [omitted phrases]. They use both light troops and slingers, who are safely shielded by the forward rampart of shields. Indeed, even the short swords are effective because of their ease of use and the forcefulness of their stroke.


The Macedonians who came later made some slight alterations to this equipment. Since the nature of their warfare was varied, they fashioned weaponry for use against both the barbarians and one another [i.e. other Greeks]. A case in point: the view of the combatants was unobstructed through the use of the Lakonian helmet in the Macedonian army. They assign this use and practice to the soldier king. For Alexander was himself also the one who ordered his soldiers to shave off their beards. When someone protested that he was cutting off his facial adornment, he replied, “Do you not know, ignorant civilian, that in battle there is nothing easier to grab hold of than a beard?” Therefore, face to face with such equipment, no barbarian would be able to stand firm no matter how he had been fitted out.


But for the Romans, there is a headpiece of single material leaving little room for the face for both breathing and vision, but descending as far as the shoulder blades, binding the neck tight and immobile. A breastplate made from chains; one greave; the long broad-sword; an oblong shield for defense, borne by the end of one hand (which is less effective for the body in fighting in closed ranks, because the soldier is unable to press on the weapon with his whole shoulder); and their spears are shorter than those of the Greeks. Against the full armour previously described, they fight successfully. This is because, whereas they are protected from those roughly their equals, they have an advantage in agility, ready both for attacks and retreats. They are swifter both in seizing higher ground, and in the use of the broad-sword, well-disposed to strike the necks of the Greeks. Through the stroke of the sword, they thereby preempt close combat. They themselves are also trained in every technique of hand-to-hand combat, so that in know-how both they and the Greeks are equally matched, but in the lightness of their equipment they have the advantage. But in order to keep the point of their spears from becoming dull, or broken by impact with the Greeks’ breastplates, they skillfully aim their weapon to the right spot and with a thrust would pierce the scales. Therefore, those who, it could almost be said, have been constantly victorious over the Greeks seldom defeated those who had been continually defeated by the Greeks. The first reason is that the Romans do not rush into hand-to-hand combat, so as not to leave the pack animals behind (these have always been enclosed by the square of the army). Instead they fall to a knee, creating a roof over the army by throwing up their shields in an effort to neutralize the Parthians’ missiles. But to the extent that it leaves them unharmed, this practice renders them powerless and worn out by the sun and the exertion, while the barbarians attack in turns and retreat again, with the opposing peoples pausing to rest by launching assaults at intervals. Moreover, no Roman soldier fights on his own, nor is there anyone who excels in single combat against a throng of men. Projectiles cast at the head from a sling crush the helmet and penetrate. Turning the head away from the missile heading one’s way is made difficult by the cutting of the iron collar. But besides this, they discharge the javelins indiscriminately, expending ten of them on one chance kill. They cannot counter the cavalry charge with their short spears. If, therefore, one would outfit a Roman soldier with a Greek breastplate and helmet, and give him a longer spear, and teach him to throw each of his spears at a particular target, and each to fight on his own, and if one would at times coordinate a running assault so as to make a rapid onslaught against the enemy within the missile’s trajectory, the barbarian [Parthians likely in mind] would be mowed down and no match for the Romans.


[D19, preserved in Military Preparation / Apparatus Bellicus 37]

[Scythians’ poison arrows]

Coating arrows: The Scythians coat arrows with something called “toxicon” [i.e. a drug / pharmakon to spread on an arrow / toxikon] which is designed to kill those who are wounded. Now when I was exploring this, a trustworthy person gave me the following drug that achieves the same effect (energeia). It is this: take a spurge-plant of the type that grows up into stalk-like branches, put it into a newly-formed clay pot, and heat it in water until it secretes all its greasy sap into the hot water. Then remove the stalks of the plant that had been put in, and add to the same water other, freshly picked, stalks. Likewise, remove these and add in others. Heat it until the water becomes like honey from their juice. But I would not personally dare to guarantee a certain result. Some of the ancients say the venom of the viper, the asp, and the salamander is also a certain way to produce this effect.

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