Battle of Tigranocerta: Outnumbered Romans Defeat Armenians

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Battle of Tigranocerta: Outnumbered Romans Defeat Armenians

Ruins of city of Tigranocerta, located in modern-day eastern Turkey
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: October 6, 69 BC

It's been some time since I spotlighted a battle involving the Roman armies of the late Republic period (100-44 BC or so). Therefore, today's "stroll through history" spotlights a major battle of the Third Mithridatic War (73-63 BC). There are a number of histories and chronicles – some contradictory – which make this fight a confusing one; even the numbers of the two armies are the subject of historical debate after almost 2100 years. But that won't stop me…


Armenian coin bearing portrait of Tigranes the Great
Armenian coin bearing portrait of Tigranes the Great

After an inconclusive end to the Second Mithirdatic War, the Roman Republic left the allied nations of Pontus and Armenia alone for just over a decade. This gave Tigranes the Great of Armenia the time to expand his empire, with the help of his father-in-law Mithridates VI of Pontus, which guarded Armenia's western flank.

Tigranes' expansion into the Near East led to the creation of an Armenian empire that stretched almost across the entire region. Tigranes was able to conquer territories in Parthia and Mesopotamia and annex the lands of the Levant. His kingdom stretched from the southwestern shores of the Caspian Sea, to the Caucasus Mountains to the northeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. In Syria, he began the construction of the city of Tigranocerta, which he named after himself, and imported a multitude of peoples, including Arabs, Greeks, and Jews, to populate it. The city soon became the king's capital and flourished as a great center for commerce and Hellenistic culture, complete with theaters, public baths, parks and hunting grounds.

Middle East prior to Third Mithridatic War (c. 75 BC); Image by Wikipedia user Eupator & Wikipedia [Modern national boundaries in white]
Middle East prior to Third Mithridatic War (c. 75 BC)
Image by Wikipedia user Eupator & Wikipedia
[Modern national boundaries in white]

Armenian hegemony in the region was coming close to an end with a series of Roman victories in the Third Mithridatic War. Friction between the two political entities had existed for several decades, although it was during this latest war that the Roman armies under Lucius Licinius Lucullus made significant progress against Mithridates, forcing him to take refuge with Tigranes. Lucullus sent an ambassador to Antioch to demand that Tigranes surrender his father-in-law; should he refuse, Armenia would face war with Rome. Tigranes refused the Roman demands, stating that he would prepare for war against the Republic.

Lucullus was astonished upon hearing this in the year 70, and he began to prepare for an immediate invasion of Armenia. Although he had no mandate from the Senate to authorize such a move, he attempted to justify his invasion by distinguishing as his enemy king Tigranes and not his subjects. In the summer of 69, he marched his troops across Cappadocia, crossed the Euphrates River and entered the Armenian kingdom, heading straight for Tigranocerta.

Engraving of a marble bust believed to be Lucius Licinius Lucullus; Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Janmad & Wikipedia; Original currently in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Engraving of a marble bust believed to be Lucius Licinius Lucullus
Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Janmad & Wikipedia
Original currently in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Roman Army

If we believe one of the major historians who wrote of this battle, Lucullus originally brought only one legion (6000 soldiers) with him to attack Tigranocerta. It is likely he recruited at least one additional legion from experienced, discharged troops in Roman-ruled territory in Cappadocia and Bithynia. Lucullus also may have assumed command of two additional legions already in the Near East (though both were likely under-strength from previous campaigning). In addition a large number of Bithynian auxiliaries – light infantry experienced in skirmishing, local archers and slingers – were recruited totaling about 3000 men. Finally, his cavalry contingent consisted of about 3300 Roman and 10,000 Thracian and Galatian (Gallic) horsemen, these last from the interior of Asia Minor. It is therefore likely that Lucullus commanded a combined force of about 40,000 men, approximately half of which were Roman.

Armenian Army

The manpower of the Armenian army is much, *much* more problematic. Ancient historians inflated the size of this army, to as many as 250,000 infantrymen and 50,000 cavalrymen. [It is interesting that ancient and medieval chroniclers, in reporting on decisive battles, usually enlarged the size of the losing army, usually to pump up the achievement of the winning general and his troops. Such is surely the case with the battle of Tigranocerta…] If these figures are even close to the truth, the Armenian army's commissariat would be hard-pressed to supply food and forage for all those men and horses.

Modern historians believe the Armenian force was most likely somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 men. About one quarter of the army consisted of Armenians, while the balance were recruited from various provinces of Tigranes' empire, including Adiabene, Gordyene, Iberia (a province in the Caucasus Mountains), Arabia, and Media. A number of historical sources say that a large portion of the Armenian foot soldiers were peasants forcibly recruited to bump up the size of the army.

Approximately 20,000 heavy infantry and 20,000 archers and slingers comprised the bulk of the Armenian foot. Many of the heavy infantry were pike-armed phalangists, as well as troops described as trained in the Roman style of fighting (some modern historians have termed these latter troops as "imitation legionaries"). The forcibly-enlisted peasants numbered about 30,000, and formed a second line of Tigranes' army. The mounted portion of the Armenian army – approximately 30,000 strong – consisted of about 20,000 horse archers; the balance of the mounted contingent was about 10,000 cataphracts. These were elite heavy cavalrymen wielding lances. They were usually deployed to charge and break up large blocks of enemy infantry and were among the most feared cavalry of the ancient world.

Prelude to the Battle

Tigranes, who was in residence at Tigranocerta in the summer of 69, was not only astonished by the speed of Lucullus' rapid advance into Armenia but by the fact that he had even launched such an operation in the first place. He belatedly sent 2,000 to 3,000 cavalrymen to slow down Lucullus' advance but his forces were cut to pieces and routed by the Roman cavalry. Learning of the defeat, Tigranes entrusted the defense of his namesake city to one of his subordinates and left to recruit a relief force from the nearby provinces of his empire. Nevertheless, Lucullus' legates were able to disrupt two separate detachments coming to the aid of Tigranocerta. Lucullus, nevertheless, chose not to pursue Tigranes while he had an unimpeded path towards Tigranocerta; he advanced and arrived at the Armenian capital in late August or early September, and immediately besieged the city.

Tigranocerta was still an unfinished city when Lucullus arrived in the late summer of 69. The city was heavily fortified and according to the Greek historian Appian, had thick and towering walls that stood 80 feet high, providing a formidable defense against a prolonged siege. The Roman siege engines employed at Tigranocerta were effectively repelled by the defenders by the use of naptha, making Tigranocerta, according to one scholar, the site of "perhaps the world's first use of chemical warfare."

However, the loyalty of the city's population was untested: since Tigranes had forcibly removed many of its inhabitants from their native lands and brought them to Tigranocerta, their allegiance to the king was doubtful. They soon proved their unreliability: when Tigranes and his army appeared on a hill overlooking the city, the inhabitants "greeted his [Tigranes'] appearance with shouts and din, and standing on the walls, threateningly pointed out the Armenians to the Romans."

Battle of Tigranocerta

The Armenian army established its battle line on the eastern bank of the Nikeporeon River, across from Tigranes' besieged capital. The army was divided into a right, center and left. The right was commanded by the King of the Medes, the left by the King of the Adiabeni, and the center was under the direct command of Tigranes the Great.

Each segment of the Armenian force had a line of heavy infantry – pikemen, "imitation legionaries," and probably some Greek mercenary hoplites interspersed with the others. In front of the footmen were the Armenian and Pontic archers and slingers. Placed forward of the missile troops were the cataphracts and the horse archers. Behind the regular heavy infantry was the mob of unwilling peasant recruits, whose only purpose was to make the Armenian army appear larger.

Typical Middle Eastern cataphract; Image courtesy of John Tremelling & Wikipedia (Although this re-enactor represents a horseman from about AD 300, most earlier cataphracts closely resembled this one)
Typical Middle Eastern cataphract
Image courtesy of John Tremelling & Wikipedia
(Although this re-enactor represents a horseman from about AD 300,
most earlier cataphracts closely resembled this one)

Lucullus realized he was outnumbered but that did not deter him. He assigned his auxiliaries and understrength Roman units to continue the siege of Tigranocerta. At dawn the Roman commander turned out two of his legions and all of his cavalry, marching them into position across the river from the Armenian host. He had observed the heavily armored cataphracts in the enemy army, and quickly realized in order for the Romans to win, those heavy horsemen needed to be neutralized.

One of the most prominent physical features in the immediate area was a large hill with a fairly flat top and gentle slopes. The Armenian right wing was anchored on that hill, hoping to protect its flank from Roman attacks. Lucullus formed his force with the cavalry screening his legionaries, and strung the infantry out in a long line to make his army seem larger. The Nikeporeon River was a fairly shallow stream, and Roman scouts discovered an even shallower ford near a bend in the river close to the flat hill.

Lucullus then ordered his two legions to form up to march, guessing that Tigranes would think they were preparing to lift the siege and leave. [According to the historian Plutarch, this is precisely what occurred. However, one of Tigranes' subordinates pointed out, "When these men are merely on the march, they do not put on gleaming armor, nor have their shields polished and helmets uncovered as they have now, taken the leather covers from their armor. No, this splendor means they are going to fight, and are now advancing on their enemies."] Before the Armenian king could make sense of the Romans' movement, Lucullus ordered his entire cavalry force to charge the enemy horsemen, in hopes of drawing attention away from the Roman foot.

The charge of the Roman/Thracian/Galatian cavalry achieved their immediate objective, and further disrupted the Armenian formations. The confusion also allowed the Roman heavy infantry to cross the river and scale the hill looming over the Armenian right flank. Lucullus re-ordered his two legions into tight formation. He realized that his men had to advance quickly to engage the cataphracts, while cutting down the possibility of the Armenian missile troops – archer, slingers, and horse archers – from firing on them before they could come to grips with the heavy cavalry. He ordered his well-trained legionaries not to throw their pila (javelins) at the enemy horsemen before coming into contact. Lucullus further told his men to attack the legs and thighs of the cataphracts' horses, which were the only parts not covered with armor.

When his foot soldiers were ready, Lucullus drew his sword, and shouted to his men, "The day is ours! The day is ours, my fellow soldiers!" He charged downward the hill along with his legionaries and his orders soon proved fatal to the enemy: the lumbering cataphracts were caught by surprise and, in their attempts to break free from their attackers, careened into the ranks of their own men as the Armenian lines began to collapse.

If we believe the ancient historians (especially Plutarch and Appian), the charging Roman heavy infantry inflicted little damage on the cataphracts, whose panicked rout from the rampaging Romans inflicted more "friendly fire" casualties on the Armenian infantry than the Romans. After only two or three hours of fighting, the battle of Tigranocerta was over.


As with the make-up of the armies, the casualty figures are inconclusive. Armenian deaths were said to be between 10,000 and 100,000 (the latter only believable if the Armenian army was truly composed of 300,000 soldiers). Plutarch claims the Romans sustained a few hundred wounded and 5 killed. This is surely quite unrealistic. Still, even if Roman casualties were 1000 or so, the Armenian army sustained much larger casualties.

Footnote #1: Once the battle ended, the inhabitants of Tigranocerta threw open the city gates to the Romans. The inhabitants of the city took the opportunity to return to their original homelands. The appreciative victors immediately began looting the city and tearing it down block by block. The Armenian king's treasury was looted, and 8 talents of silver (worth about a $1 million in 2004 value) was carried away. In recognition of work well done, each soldier in Lucullus' army received a "hazardous duty" bonus of 800 drachma. [A drachma represented a working man's wage for one day's work.]

Footnote #2: Tigranes and his son-in-law Mithridates had escaped the finale of the battle, fleeing at the onset of the attack of the legionaires. Despite the favorable outcome of the battle for the Romans, it still did not provide a decisive end to the campaign. Lucullus pursued the Armenian monarch into the Anti-Taurus Mountains and the campaign continued into the next year.

Footnote #3: After fighting another battle against Tigranes and his army in September of 68, the Armenian monarch escaped again. When snow began to fall around the autumnal equinox, the Roman soldiers mutinied, refusing to take any further orders from Lucullus. After leaving the snowy mountains, his army became much more amenable.

Footnote #4: Lucullus returned to Rome in 66, after being replaced as army commander in the east by Pompey the Great. Lucullus had accumulated a great deal of treasure from his Armenian campaign. He spent money lavishly on gardens in the city of Rome, personal villas in Tusculum and Naples, and became a world-class gastronome. Lucullus threw lavish feasts for friends and political opponents. The word "Lucullan" was coined in his honor.

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Thank for the history lesson.

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