Thursday, 28 November 2013

6mm Hail Caesar - Arabs in the service of Antiochos the Great King.

From the limited sources available to us regarding the composition of the Seleukid army, and the details are sketchy despite what some wargaming army lists would have us believe, it is clear that at least some Seleukid kings and generals made use of irregular fighters from the desert frontiers of Syria and Mesopotamia.

Roman denarius depicting the supplication of the Nabataean king Aretas III - with camel
Antiochos III is reported to have fielded a unit Arabs at the battle of Raphia in 217 BC. According to Polybius, the Arabs and neighbouring tribes numbered about ten thousand and were commanded by Zabdibelus. Considering the entire Seleukid infantry - among whom the Arabs are list - at Raphia only (only!) numbered 58,000, the Arab contingent amounted to 17.24% of the manpower. Such a total is almost unheard of in wargaming army lists and that is where the joy of Hail Caesar's approach come in. If you want Arabs, you can have them.

McBride painting of Iron Age Arab camelry
Twenty-six years later, we find an undisclosed number of Arabs fighting from camel-back at the battle of Magnesia (191 BC). Appian and Livy both provide limited details about these forces. At magnesia they were specified as archers who also carried a long sword for melee. Their position in the battle, screning the left wing cavalry suggests that they served as mounted skirmishers and that the sword was intended as a worst-case-scenario tool rather than part of their principal kit. 

McBride painting of Roman period Camelry
Neither Livy nor Appian tell us about the armour, if any, used by this force. According to Herodotus, the Arabian camelry who fought during the Greco-Persian wars were armoured (and possibly armed) in the same manner as their infantry archers; this means that they wore a long, thick robe with a girdle. However, the Roman period sculptural representations from Dura-Europos show a Palmyrene camelryman wearing a cuirass, trousers, and either a knee-length boot or an ankle boot and greaves. The Dura rider carries a small round shield and a quiver.

Cavalry of the 1916 Arab Revolt
20th century (Arab Revolt?) Arab camelry
But who were these so-called Arabs? The short answer is that it is impossible to say. Recent scholarship on the ancient use of the term, ‘Arab’, suggests that the designation should be read as a malleable label applied to multiple different groups who maintained a similar lifestyle - that is to say, a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life or deriving from populations who lived in such a way in the past. For anyone interested enough to chase this up, I'd recommend M.C.A. MacDonald, ‘“Les Arabes en Syrie” or “La pénétration des Arabes en Syrie”: a question of perceptions?’, Topoi suppl. 4 (2003) and J. Retsö, The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads (Abingdon, 2003). Unhelpfully enough, classical authors also use tribal names for some groups known to fall into this classification without specifically calling the groups Arabs, and sometimes use alternative terms such as 'Skenitai' meaning tent-dweller.

The Palmyrene god Arsu
Arabs, how to you represent yours? One of the downfalls of 6mm gaming is that you are somewhat restricted in your choice of models and that variety is not always available in your chosen range. My Seleukids are composed of both Baccus and Rapier figures which as I have said before, tend to mix well. Ancient Arabs do not exist in these ranges. Only Rapier produce ancient camelry - for their Persian range - and while nice, they are quite small. They are camel archers but with a driver and an archer mounted pillion which occurs in Bronze Age and Iron Age depictions, but seems to have escaped the notice of Classical authors so may have fallen out of use by the Hellenistic period. Baccus produce lovely 19th century Mahdists which are perhaps the most wonderful 6mm figures I've ever painted and these include camelry - but armed with spears and shields, not bows.

UN Peace Keepers serving  in Eritrea
I decided to go with three 'Arab' units to add some colour and fun to my Seleukid army - one each on foot, mounted and on camels. I felt that I had to use the Rapier camel archers to represent , well, camel archers. However, I cheekily fleshed out a small unit of Arab Light infantry with a couple of Baccus Mahdist spear armed chaps. I felt that that group may have served as camel mounted infantry - and why not eh? In my own head I rationalised that not all of these so-called Arabs need look the same; my cavalry and infantry are obviously from one group (perhaps from the Syran steppe) as they are dressed similarly and both use a white and green colour scheme. The 'pure' camelry are much more your desert variety of arabs. The dress differently, fight in a different manner and prefer yellow to green. And here are the results:

Baccus Mahdist cavalry
Baccus Mahdist infantry (with camel mounts)
Rapier Persian camelry


  1. Very nice painting especially considering the tiny scale. Thanks for all the historical background by the way. It's always interesting to read about peoples intentions when painting their units.

  2. Nice post and great looking figures!