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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 47, No. 7 (Apr. 1952), 285‑288.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p285 Military Dust
Read before CAMWS, Memphis, 1951

And Zeus roused from the Idaean hills a blast of wind which bore dust straight at the ships and froze the minds of the Achaeans but to the Trojans and Hector gave renown. Il. 12.253‑255.

Along with storms, floods, and other Acts of God, dust is one of war's many imponderables, those unpredictable elements which frequently upset the best laid of military plans because no sure precautions can be taken against them. In modern warfare, dust is a persistent problem to the service troops; its penetration into the vitals of precision machinery requires constant maintenance attention. Dust, however, played an important tactical role in the North African campaigns of World War II, where the German general, Rommel, ably revived a number of the Classic gambits of dust-warfare. "He tried a feeler attack on El Alamein on July 1 under cover of a dust storm . . ."1 and "it was at first light on January 21st that the attack against Tobruk began, in a violent dust storm which made matters extremely uncomfortable for the troops."º2 Rommel also employed dust with intent to deceive and with marked success: "He constantly used his transports to create dust and suggest the presence of his panzer divisions. He started by dragging tarpaulins behind trucks, but soon got the idea of fitting propellers behind them."3 Since dust, then, continues to play a part in today's most efficient warfare, it is to be expected that ancient military strategists, laboring under the handicap of primitive equipment, should take full advantage of dust-assistance, both natural and man-made, whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Onasander, considering the theory and practice of scouting, observes (6.8): ". . . in a level and treeless country a general survey is sufficient for a preliminary investigation; for a cloud of dust announces the approach of the enemy by day . . . ."

The appearance of a cloud of dust did serve to give advance notice of an approaching enemy to a number of Classical commanders. Cyrus, having taken up battle positions on the banks of the Euphrates, was awaiting the arrival of his pursuers; ". . . now it was midday, and the enemy were not yet in sight; but when afternoon was coming on, there was seen a rising dust which appeared at first like a kind of blackness in the plain, extending over a great distance."4 This "blackness" was soon revealed as the army of Tissaphernes.

At one point in the Civil War, Caesar and Pompey found themselves involved in a spirited dash for Dyrrachium, Pompey's military arsenal. Both armies marched day and night, and the resultant jockeying for position began to border on the ludicrous when, "if either army saw any dust, or fire, or smoke at a distance they thought it was caused by the other, and they strove like athletes in a race."5 Pompey triumphed, in a close finish.

The sudden appearance of dust clouds in the midst of battle gave immediate and conclusive evidence of mass action. At Pharsalia, Pompey's horsemen were unexpectedly driven from the field by the spirited attack of Caesar's pike-men. Pompey's legions were no match for Caesar's foot-soldiers. "After his infantry was thus routed, and when, from the cloud of dust which he saw, Pompey conjectured the fate of his cavalry, what thoughts passed through his mind it were difficult to say; but he was most like a man bereft of sense and crazed, who had utterly forgotten that he was Pompey the Great, and without a p286word to any one, he walked slowly off to his camp . . . ."6 The rout was on.

In that first Roman invasion of Britain, Caesar was forced to send out troops on daily foraging missions. On one occasion, the unsuspecting Seventh was ambushed by the Britons. "Then the outposts on duty before the gates of the camp reported to Caesar that a greater dust than usual was to be seen in that quarter to which the legion had marched."7 Caesar personally let out the rescue column, and the day was saved.

According to Herodotus (8.65), a cloud of celestial dust foretold the Greek victory at Salamis:

There was one Dicaeus, son of Theocydes, an exile from Athens who had attained to estimation among the Medes. This was the tale he told: At the time when the land of Attica was being laid waste by Xerxes' army, and no Athenians were therein, he, being with Demaratus the Lacedaemonian on the Thriasian plain, saw dust coming from Eleusis as it were raised by the feet of about thirty thousand men; and as they marvelled greatly what men they should be whence the dust came, immediately they heard a cry, which cry seemed to him to be the Iacchus-song of the mysteries. Demaratus, not being conversant with the rites of Eleusis, asked what this voice might be; and Dicaeus said, "Without doubt, Demaratus, some great harm will befall the king's host; for Attica being unpeopled, it is plain hereby that the voice we hear is of heaven's sending, and comes from Eleusis to the aid of the Athenians and their allies. And if the vision descend upon the Peloponnese,º the king himself and his army on land will be endangered; but if it turn towards the ships at Salamis, the king will be in peril of losing his fleet." . . . after the dust and the cry came a cloud, which rose aloft and floated away towards Salamis, to the Greek fleet. By this they understood, that Xerxes' ships must perish.

Dust and sand, carried on high winds, make a formidable and unpredictable element in military planning. Cambyses once sent fifty thousand men into the desert to wage war upon the Ammonians. "When the Persians were crossing the sand from the Oasis to attack them, and were about midway between their country and the Oasis, while they were breakfasting a great and violent south wind arose, which buried them in the masses of sand which it bore; and so they disappeared from sight."8

Natural dust is as effective a smoke-screen as any chemical fog laid down by modern ship or plane. The cavalry proved especially effective in these cover tactics. Antonius Primus states the case: ". . . now sixteen squadrons, charging in a body, by the very noise they make and the cloud of dust they raise, will overwhelm and bury the horsemen and horses of our foes . . . ."9

Antigonus, one of Alexander's heirs, once captured the baggage of Peucestas behind a screen of dust. ". . . the plain where they fought was vast, and its soil was neither deep nor trodden hard, but sandy and full of a dry and saline substance, which, loosened up by the trampling of so many horses and men during the battle, issued forth in a dust like lime, and this made the air all white and obscured the vision. Therefore it was easy for Antigonus to capture the enemy's baggage unobserved."10

At Vercellae, scene of one of his greatest triumphs over the Cimbri, Marius also ran into dust-difficulties. "After the attack had begun . . . an experience befell Marius which signified the divine displeasure, according to Sulla. For an immense cloud of dust was raised, as was to be expected, and the two armies were hidden from one another by it; so that Marius, when he first led his forces to the attack, missed the enemy, passed by their lines of battle, and moved aimlessly up and down the plains for some time."11 This all-pervasive dust served yet another positive purpose: "Moreover, the dust, by hiding the enemy, helped to encourage the Romans. For they could not see from afar the great numbers of the foe, but each one of them fell at a run upon the man just over against him, and fought him hand to hand, without having been terrified by the sight of the rest of the host."12

The use of dust to deceive the enemy is not uncommon in Classical annals. "When Ptolemy with a weak force was contending against Perdiccas's powerful army, he arranged for a few horsemen to drive along animals of all sorts, with brush fastened to their backs for them to trail behind them. He himself went ahead with the forces which he had. As a consequence, the dust raised by the animals produced the appearance of a mighty army p287following, and the enemy, terrified by this impression, were defeated."13

"When Papirius Cursor . . . in his consulship failed to win any advantage in his battle against the stubbornly resisting Samnites, he gave no intimation of his purpose to his men, but commanded Spurius Nautius to arrange to have a few auxiliary horsemen and grooms, mounted on mules and trailing branches over the ground, race down in great commotion from a hill running at an angle with the field. As soon as these came in sight, he proclaimed that his colleague was at hand . . . and urged his men to secure for themselves the glory of the present battle before he should arrive. At this the Romans rushed forward, kindling with confidence, while the enemy, disheartened at the sight of the dust, turned and fled."14

The deliberate employment of dust for "physical" advantage is recorded for a number of ancient generals. "Epaminondas, leader of the Thebans, when about to marshal his troops in battle array against the Spartans, ordered his cavalry to engage in manoeuvres along the front. Then, when he had filled the eyes of the enemy with clouds of dust and had caused them to expect an encounter with cavalry, he led his infantry around to one side . . . and thus, by a surprise attack, cut them to pieces."15

"So Hannibal . . . came by night to Cannae, and since he knew the place well as one fit for ambuscades as well as for a pitched battle, he encamped there. And first he plowed up the whole site, which had a sandy subsoil, in order that a cloud of dust might be raised in the conflict, since the wind generally springs up in summer about noon; and he contrived to have it behind his back."16 "This wind came down like a fiery hurricane, and raised a huge cloud of dust from the exposed and sandy plains and drove it over the Carthaginian lines hard into the faces of the Romans, who turned away to avoid it . . ."17 and ". . . deprived at once of sight and voice, they perished amid utter confusion, preserving no semblance of Rome."18

And as if this disaster in the dust at Cannae were not enough, Crassus lost his army to the Parthians under distressingly similar circumstances. ". . . the Parthians stationed their mail-clad horsemen in front of the Romans, and then with the rest of their cavalry in loose array rode round them, tearing up the surface of the ground, and raising from the depths great heaps of sand which fell in limitless showers of dust; so that the Romans could neither see clearly nor speak plainly, but, being crowded into a narrow compass and falling upon one, were shot, and died no easy nor even speedy death."19

Epaminondas, Hannibal, Marius — the list of military dust-men includes many famous Classical generals. For sheer ingenuity in the employment of dust to military advantage, however, these distinguished gentlemen must yield first place to Quintus Sertorius, Marius's general in Spain, famous for his combat adroitness.

But of all his military exploits that which he performed in dealing with the people called Characitani is admired as much as any. They are a people beyond the river Tagonius, and they do not dwell in cities or villages, but on a large and lofty hill containing caves and hollows in the cliffs which look toward the north. The whole country at the base of the hill abounds in white clay and a soil that is porous and crumbly it is not firm enough to bear the tread of man, and spreads far about if only stirred, like unslaked lime or ashes. These Barbarians, then, whenever they were afraid of war, would hide themselves in their caves, take all their plunder in with them, and keep quiet, for they could not be taken by force; and at the time of which I speak, when Sertorius had retired before Metellus and encamped at the base of their hill, they thought scornfully of him as a vanquished man, and he, either out of anger, or because he did not wish to be thought a fugitive, at break of day rode up to the place and inspected it. There was no attacking it anywhere, but as he was wandering about to no purpose and indulging in empty threats, he saw that dust from the soil which I have described was being carried up against the Barbarians in great quantities by the wind. For the caves, as I have said, faced the north, and the wind which blows from that quarter (some call it Caecias) is the most prevalent and the strongest of winds in that country. . . . So, reflecting on these things and getting information about them from the natives of the country, Sertorius ordered his soldiers to take some of the loose and ashy soil that I have described, carry it directly opposite the hill, and make a heap of it there. This the barbarians conjectured to be a mound raised for assaulting them, and jeered at their enemy. On that day, then, the soldiers of Sertorius worked until night, and were then led back to camp. But when the next day came, at first a gentle p288breeze arose, stirring up the lightest portions of the gathered soil and scattering them like chaff; then, when Caecias was blowing strong with the mounting of the sun and covering the hills with dust, the soldiers came and stirred up the mound of earth to the bottom and broke up the lumps, while some actually drove their horses back and forth through it, throwing up the loosened earth and giving it to the wind to carry. Then the wind caught up all the earth thus broken and threw it up against the dwellings of the Barbarians, which opened so as to admit Caecias. And the Barbarians, since their caves had no other inlet for air than that against which the wind was dashing, were quickly blinded, and quickly choked, too, as they tried to inhale an air that was harsh and mingled with great quantities of dust. Therefore, after holding out with difficulty for two days, on the third day they surrendered, thereby adding not so much to the power as to the fame of Sertorius, since by his skill he had subdued what could not be taken by arms."20

And so military dust serves as yet another link between the Classic past and the un‑Classic present; and that newest of bogies, atomic dust, is merely the latest development in the military application of this not-so-humble substance.

Edward Echols

Trinity College, Dublin


(p297) The Author's Notes:

1 H. A. De Weerd, "The Rommel Legend," Infantry Journal 52 (1943) 22.

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2 "Destruction of an Army," Infantry Journal 51 (1942) 47.

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3 Desmond Young, Rommel the Desert Fox (New York, 1950) 115.

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4 Xen. An. 1.8.8. All translations quoted are from the editions of the Loeb Classical Library.

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5 App. BCiv. 2.8.55.

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6 Plut. Pomp. 72.1. Cf. Plut. Sull. 19.2.

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7 Caes. B. Gall. 4.32.

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8 Hdt. 3.26. Cf. Hdt. 4.173.

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9 Tac. Hist. 3.2.

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10 Plut. Eum. 16.6.

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11 Plut. Mar. 26.3.

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12 Plut. Mar. 26.5.

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13 Frontin. Str. 4.7.20.

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14 Frontin. Str. 2.4.1.

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15 Frontin. Str. 2.2.12.

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16 Cass. Dio 15 (Zonaras 9.1).

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17 Plut. Fab. 16.1.

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18 Cass. Dio 15 (Zonaras 9.1).

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19 Plut. Crass. 25.4‑5. Cf.  Cass. Dio 40.23.4.

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20 Plut. Sert. 17.1‑7.


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