But the Punic generals had outwitted the arrogant Athenians and stubborn Spartans. Maharbal Sabrata, a descendant of the great Hannibal Barca himself, had used his troops to take control of Olympia and Messene within a year, but the General of the 1st Army was more ingenious still. General Cheiron Lambaesis had shown himself at an early age as a good General when he captured his namesake city in North Africa. After proving himself an able and just governor of the city, he took possession of the army which went on to conquer all Africa, and which now was at the verge of Peloponnesian dominance.
Now known as ‘The Conqueror’, he hadn’t even let the Greeks fight him from their own country…
As the 5th Greek taskforce landed in Salamis bay, they marched up a long, curving slope. But their Greek feelings of superiority were their undoing. The Carthaginians were waiting for them at the top of the Greek's own hill.
The Hoplitai of Thermon, Korinth, Rhodai, Krete, Athenai and even Sparte could do nothing but fall, die, explode and scream. Troops drew swords and ran uphill into a storm of archers from the Punic Cretan mercenary archers, who punished their countrymen with methodical lethality. Behind them stood rows of Sarissa toting phalanx troops, African hoplites and all manner of armoured demons. They stood motionless, only moving to cheer as flaming rocks tore a bloody scar in the sky, before impacting and leaving their smudges of impersonal death scattered on the hillside.
They were wiped out before they could even come to the aid of the sacred city of the Acropolis.
And now the last ditch field army of the Greeks had been summoned. Athens was under Cheiron’s control, but this Hellenic Army forced him to sally and do battle right outside the city walls. All the Greek cities had left to defend themselves were their small city garrisons; their navies had been wiped out by the legendary fleets of Carthage, so powerful that they did not even need an escort when transporting the troops from Africa to Greece.
The battle could not have been more evenly balanced, nor the prize more attractive, luring and brazenly screaming for a champion.
In the middle of the formation stood the proud units of Sacred Band. The followers of Ba’al and honoured men of the Punic armies had been drawn from the heartlands of Carthage, from both the Noble City herself and Thapsus. They were flanked by stout, unforgiving Poeni heavy phalanxes. These were among the best pikemen in the world, bettered only by expert troops from Macedonia and Seleucia. The same Cretan archers marched among them too, their double recurve bows menacing before they had even been drawn. Both flanks were propped up by waiting masses of Elephants, who were cloaked by the cavalry. Their riders spied from their high perches, watching and waiting for the moment to strike once the cavalry had done their work. Vast swathes of light, mobile and as the Iberians had fatally discovered too late, extremely deadly cavalry.
But these were only on the left. The right flank had far fewer horsemen amongst them. They had been recruited from Rome, and were the Sacred Band of Astarte. The cities of Greece had always feared the greater cavalry of other nations, and the Carthaginians proved that fear well-founded. Amongst their bright, polished helmets, sharp spears and impenetrable armour, sat the very man who had led them here.
Cheiron shifted his position, his old and weathered backside beginning to hurt already. He had only been in the saddle for an hour, but his battle scars and age were beginning to tell. He was nonetheless a fearsome giant of a man. His arms were thin, but with muscled shoulders and strong joints he could decapitate a man with ease using his kopis. His Sacred Band cavalry and his bodyguard remained beside him as he coughed, wiping the morning dew from his short, straggly grey beard and lifting his sword. “Send the archers forward!” he cried.
The Kretans were famed throughout the world, and what made them more lethal still was that at this battle there were hundreds of them. Scores were deployed in vast ranks to cover the plains with a smothering blanket of iron and whistling arrows. Little effect was had on the lamellar armour of the hoplites, their helmets or their famous aspis shields, upon which arrows were constantly repelled. Only an unlucky man or two would find an arrow in his neck or eye and crumple to the ground, writhing. But the Greek geneal had decided to deploy many psiloi and other forms of peltastai, and these suffered near total losses under the double-recurved fist of the Kretan archers
In a bid of desperation, the best archers the enemy had, the Athenian marines, were called upon. Cheiron saw the move and shook his head. “Foolish bastards. Our men are safer than the Parthenon itself.” He gave orders to switch targets, and within minutes, every missile or light infantry troop in the Greek contingent had either fled or been destroyed.
The Conqueror surveyed the battle line for one last time, before nodding, and telling one of his subordinates to send orders to the rest of the line, though it was a superfluous move. The troops knew Cheiron’s tactics perfectly and were simply waiting, leaning forward in their eagerness to attack. The old man shook himself to loosen his muscles, before gripping his horse and leaning back. The horse, trained for war and carrier of Cheiron for the last 3 battles of the Greek campaign, instinctively leant back and stood on two legs. It became caught up in the fraying air of tension and whinnied as it stared down the Greek flanks. Cheiron roared as loud as he could, straining his old and warped throat, before leaning forward and kicking his horse into flight; and fly she did.
Kitaus grinned and tightened the grip of his chalk stained hand on the shaft of his spear. He turned to Anak, his friend and junior officer. The boy still had the shiny eyes and smooth face of his childhood, yet had earned a fearsome enough reputation in the training camp. It wasn’t that he had learnt to ignore fear, Kitaus had once said: it just didn’t affect him. Some warriors were like that and Anak was one of them, young and inexperienced as he was. “Forward!” Kitaus shouted and Anak nodded, patting the flank of his horse to reassure it in the middle of the increasing noise and dust of the battlefield. The unit rode forward quickly, but kept itself in reserve, not galloping or attacking yet… Cheiron himself only wanted the cavalry to creep forward slowly if his plan were to work. The Hellenes must suspect nothing.
The Sacred Band roared from behind their beards, and they met the strongly embedded phalanx with mouths wide, screaming from their open faced helmet. One boy in the enemy ranks fainted and was immediately replaced, but of course, the charge did not break the spearmen. The men quickly formed fighting ranks with their shields and began to prod back, pushing pikes aside with spearheads and aiming to get past one row of pikes, to get a chance at the next, until they reached the shield wall itself.
The hoplites clashed shield to shield with their near identical counterparts, the dark paint of the Cyrenians staining, grinding off on and mingling with the cream yellow of the enemy hoplitai. Spears were lofted over shoulders, over shields, into soft faces in agony. Men blew horns to rally their troops, and at the last moment, the Poeni phalanx caught their opponent off guard. They dropped their sarissae to the ground, before drawing their Greek xiphos swords and charging in. The mass of men was so tightly packed that only the few at the front could lift their arms to swing their swords.
The line flexed and ebbed; it was in constant flux. Some parts faltered and buckled, fresh troops were moved from one part to another for reinforcements, and troops found themselves fighting unusual opponents. Some elite African troops, the Thorakitai, were slowly cutting their way through clouds of irritating militia and levies, whereas the Cretan archers fought face to face against the strong shields of the swordsmen.
This was not a mere mistake on Cheiron’s part. He had intended it. The Cretans were famed, not just for their unrivalled capabilities with a bow, but for light and mobile archers they were very capable in a mêlée battle - that is, for lightly armoured archers. They were simply ordered to taunt their foes, keeping them in place, holding the enemy centre in place, not engaging fully, simply prodding the methodical lion’s flesh whenever it appeared beneath the folds of armour to keep it angry.
The elephants had begun to run in a large, sweeping movement that allowed them to continue their advance at full speed at the same time as the cavalry in front of them. Cheiron raised his arm as the horses moved forward, waiting for the right moment as the infantry ran forward. “Hold… hooolllddd… HOLD!” he shouted as he watched them. He was nearly behind them now. “And….. NOW! GALLOP - CHARGE!”
The horsemen on the right flank kicked at the flanks of their horses, and the cavalry headed… straight past the enemy and onto the open ground to the sides. This was mirrored in the left a second later, but Cheiron had had to leave it till the last minute. Too early, and the enemy would change their formation to bring their spears to bear on his cavalry. Too late, and his infantry would take too many casualties against their heavily armed opponents to continue the campaign.
Kitaus laughed. “HERE WE GO!” He shouted to Anak, but the young man wasn’t listening. The militia hoplites right next to the marching line of the cavalry were facing the other way, and it would take only a few seconds to ride past them and outflank the enemy troops from behind along the line, rather than simply crushing the flanks beneath a thousand weight of horse flesh and spearheads.
Anak hated the Greeks. His father had been enslaved and killed in Larissa, and he had been looking for revenge ever since. He found it hard to follow orders at the best at times (as good as he might have been at following those orders), but seeing fellow Phoenicians fall under the xystons of the Greeks made him even more angry. He didn’t look at Kitaus, but simply kept his eyes on the exposed backs of the militia.
He muttered - nearly shouted - but in the storm of the hooves’ noise, it was little more than a whisper only Kitaus could hear. “No… I’m taking them NOW…” Kitaus’ head whipped to the right, ripped up and down like a rag doll by the speed of the galloping horses. His eyes widened as he understood the boy a split second later. Anak was already charging out from the formation as he shouted “No Anak, no! NO!”
The impetuous young cavalryman leaned over and ran his spear forward into the unresisting flesh of a Korinthian. The man collapsed without a cry as Anak withdrew the spear, still moving, and gave a loud grunt of satisfaction, his mouth open in a manical grin. Blood spattered his face and he blinked as a second Greek fell a few seconds later, this one writhing on the floor with pierced lungs. Anak strained his shoulders and pulled upwards, releasing the spear as the head became stuck in the body. His last dregs of momentum washed away, he drew his sword and turned the horse in a circle, whipping the sword vertically in many windmills. It wasn’t efficient but it worked, slicing through some men’s helmets and bisecting the foreheads of others.
But one hoplite had the presence of mind to aim for his horse, slashing the razor tip of his spear along the neck of the beast. Blood drained out like a flood and the horse fell like a toppled statue, throwing Anak to the ground. He lost his helmet, and looked up, getting his breath back. The enemy drew back his arm, but Anak slashed out with his falcata and cut through the man’s ankle. He toppled over and Anak rose to his knees, dispatching the man with a heavily weighted blow that cleaved his sternum. As he groaned and lay still, Anak raised his sword for a blow of vengeance on the corpse.
An unseen hand descended from the heavens and the sword within it sliced through Anak’s wrist without any effort. Before he had even registered it, a heavy foot caught him in his spine and he keeled over.
He looked up into the sun, blinded by the momentary presence of his killer, but a familiar person reached out and blocked the killer’s blade, before driving an elbow into his face and following through backhand to send the man spilling over himself onto the ground, never to rise again. He knelt down and began to pour water from a goatskin in his pocket over the profusely bleeding stump.
Anak smiled weakly. “That the best you can do for a dying friend?” He tried to sit up but began to cough limply, groaning and looking away as his missing appendage lying on the dry earth. Kitaus looked at the face of his dying comrade as he dragged him behind the Greek line.
“You bloody fool… what were you thinking? Take on a whole regiment by yourself?” Anak opened his mouth to speak, but could not explain to Kitaus that infinite sense of joy, opportunity and just vengeance. Anak asked as his saviour looked around him. “Why has the battle… stopped?” Kitaus shook his head, before seeing something that made all his muscles tense. He twitched and leant over Anak, sheltering him from the angry rush of Carthaginian cavalry that was slicing through the pathetic Greeks, avoiding the two comrades in their path.
“Here lies Anak, a warrior of spirit, killed in the name of his country as he defended Athenai from his enemies.”
All along the line of battle, the cavalry fanned out and spread their death. The enemy general and his cavalry bodyguard were dispatched, any remaining routing troops… The elephants moved along the line, pushing sideways through it. The Greek formations were nearly destroyed, and easy pickings for the infantry. But the Greeks remained in the dark. As the elephants came along, the Punic infantry had stepped back to avoid the thundering tusks, but now they stepped forward and braced themselves. For what?
Cheiron withdrew his aching arm and sliced sideways through the torso of a pike trooper, closing his eyes with the effort as his cape flew. A heavily armoured Rhodian ran at him, and swivelled his perch to throw his attacker off balance. Cheiron threw his sword upwards, and caught it with the blade now facing downwards. His eyes connected with those sheathed in a bronze helmet for a second, before the Greek leaned forward. Although Cheiron managed to sink his blade into the man’s exposed back, the Rhodian had managed to open the belly of his horse, and as it’s guts fell out so Cheiron fell off.
He ducked under the tusk of a stationary elephant, before stabbing downwards to embed his sword in the ground. He shouted at a man in front of him - “Bastard!” - as he reached upwards with both hands and pulled. He lifted himself into the air using the tusk of the elephant and lashed out with both feet, knocking the man to the ground. Nodding to the rider, who threw a javelin that pinned the man to the soggy crimson earth with practised precision, he sighed, before coughing hard and regaining his breath. As he inhaled the hot air, repugnant with the stench of battle and heavy behind his armour, he saw a Sacred Band cavalryman cradling his dying friend in a pool of blood. Looking back at the dead Rhodian, and then the Greek with a javelin in him like a flagpole, he said to himself “That’s how a war should be fought…” before looking at the crying officer holding a now dead boy.
“… not like that. Never like… that.”
He spat and shook his head, walking away.
The Phoenician cavalry spread out in a line, and crashed into the few surviving units and other Greeks, removing any traces of surviving Hellenes from the face of the Earth. The infantry cheered, and then slowly began to withdraw to the city, leaving auxiliaries to gather up the bodies and weapons of the fallen. Historians and artists scribed and sketched furiously, and the sun burned ever brighter as the Battle of Athens came to a sudden rushing halt.