The Maccabean Army as portrayed in the War-Rule of

The Army of the Sons of Light

(This article was incorporated in a print version that was published in Slingshot, 228 (May 2003), pages 1-13)

This page last modified 25 April, 2002, save for the above citation

The Jewish uprising against the Seleucid kingdom of Antiochos Epiphanes, and the subsequent establishment of a Judaean state, came at a time of military change in the Hellenistic world. Roman power had become visibly triumphant, and emulation led Antiochos to rearm some of his troops in the Roman manner. While I am unconvinced by Nik Sekunda's arguments that this process extended to the whole army, nether-the-less, Roman influence was certainly in the ascendent.1 Given this, it is tempting to ask if the army of the newly established Judaean state also showed such Roman influences.

In 1947, the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Among them was the scroll catalogued as 1QM, sometimes referred to as the 'War Rule' (rather confusingly, since another Dead Sea Scroll is also called that), or somewhat more accurately, the scroll of the 'War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness'. This scroll describes an apocalyptic encounter between a heavenly inspired Jewish army, the Sons of Light, against a demonically inspired enemy, the Sons of Darkness, who are also called "the troops of the Kittim of Assyria" - ie. the Seleucids.2 Other fragmentary Dead Sea Scroll documents exist that appear to be closely related works to 1QM, the most important of which is labeled 4Q491. These give alternative readings of some passages that can be used to help interpret the text, which suffers from heavy damage in certain parts.

The scroll is a polemical work mixing fantastic elements, such as the angels described assisting the army, with more mundane details that would appear to be based on contemporary military practice. Indeed, it is exactly these details that have been used to try and establish the work's exact composition date.3

Although the scroll is not usually studied for its purely military aspects, the degree to which the work reflects contemporary military practice has however exercised the minds of some scholars. In an influential work Yadin saw it is terms of a late 1st century BC Roman practices,4 but recently Russell Gmirkin has pointed out the numerous flaws in this view, seeing the army in terms of a mid-2nd century BC Polybian Roman framework, with the scroll's core taking the aspect of an actual instruction manual issued to the Maccabean Jewish army.5

I will argue that while Gmirkin is right to dismiss Yadin's interpretation, and that the scroll's composition (or at least, the document that the surviving scrolls are derived from) is to be dated to the Maccabean revolt, the army portrayed in not modeled on a 2nd-century Roman army.6 Rather, it is a fairly accurate portrayal of a uniquely Judaean force, albeit overlaid with a mystical filter; neither totally Roman nor totally Hellenistic.

The command structure of the army is laid out in column 4, detailing divisions of 10 men, 50, 100, 1000, 10000, tribes (ie. 1/12th of the army), and 3 tribes (ie. 1/4 of the army). As units of ten men are not mentioned again in the text, and since it is improbable that over one tenth of the army were standard-bearers, it is likely that their inclusion here is simply to fit into the traditional Jewish decimal system of ordering things. Similarly, units of 10000 are not mentioned subsequently, and can be jettisoned for similar reasons. Tribes are mentioned in passing, but only in a suspect passage, which I will discuss more subsequently. The grouping of 3 tribes is termed a 'camp', and its leader is a 'chief of the camp'.7

The scroll talks about the army's command-in-chief's splendid shield, but his command role is not clearly identified. Rather, all units perform their manoeuvres and initiate combat sequences to the command of trumpet blowers as ordered by the army's priests. As a religiously-inspired document, it is possible that the role of the priests has been somewhat over-emphasised, but given our other sources for Jewish forces at this time, it does seem likely that religious officials were prominent in the role of officers. Indeed, the 1st century BC historian Diodoros went as far to say that is such a combination of religious and secular offices in the same men that has made the Jewish state so 'incredibly powerful'.

The army is divided into 3 arms - infantry, cavalry and what are called towers in 1QM, but artillery in 4Q491. The equipment of only one sort of infantry is described in any detail. These men carry a shield 2.5 cubits long and 1.5 cubits wide (approximately 115 by 69 cm, but perhaps 105 by 63 cm depending upon the size of the cubit). This has in the past been interpreted as a Roman scutum, but its size is rather too small, much more like the thureoi depicted on many monuments of Hellenistic mercenaries. Each such infantryman carries a sword, 1.5 cubits long, and a spear, 7 cubits long (ca. 320 cm, or 10'8"). No armour is mentioned, no javelins are carried. Such infantrymen would appear to be nothing more or less than standard thureophoroi, save for the apparent lack of a helmet.8

According to 1QM - 5.3-4 and 5.16-17, the infantry are organised in divisions 1000 men across, and 7 ranks/lines deep. Evidently, each such formation comprises the infantry complement of one of the four "camps", since we are told (1QM - 9.4) that the total number of infantry in the army is 28000.9 Each division is divided into three lines, apparently separated, at least at deployment, by a 30 cubit gap. The first line ordered into battle is comprised of 2 ranks/lines of slingers.10 They are to deliver seven volleys before they are ordered to retire and take their station on each flank of the formation. The number 7 is rather symbolic and might not be taken literally, although there is nothing on the face of it improbable about it. The next line ordered forwards are 3 ranks/lines of javelinmen. The first rank is to hurl 7 javelins, then the second rank likewise, and then the third rank 7 more volleys, before they too are ordered to retire, though unlike the slingers they do not move to the flanks. Again, the number of volleys may be merely symbolic, but Roman velites are variously reported to have carried either 5 or 7 javelins so once again, the number is not itself implausible.

The final line, of older "men of the rule", comprises two ranks/lines of infantrymen, the first with shield and spear, the second with shield and sword.11 The description of the infantryman given above most probably applies to these men then, either the first or possibly both ranks. These men are to fight in close order (4Q491 - 13.7), and deliver the final blow to the enemy battle line. Once it has been routed, the trumpets sound the signal for all 7 ranks/lines to advance together to inflict as great a slaughter as possible.12

Two types of cavalry are mentioned. Each rank of infantry is to be accompanied by 50 cavalry "of the rule", mature men aged 40-50, equipped with a lance 8 cubits long (ca. 365 cm, or 12'), helmet, greaves, cuirasse and round shield. There is a lacuna in the text that has been filled in by some translators to read in whole "they, and their mounts, shall wear cuirasses, helmets and greaves", but its is hard to see why horses should be wearing greaves like their riders, and the words "mounts shall wear" should be probably be replaced by something else.13 The total number of these heavy cavalrymen is given as 1400, confirming the arrangement of 4 divisions, each with 7 ranks. The rest of the (presumably lighter) cavalry, who appear to be equipped with bows and javelins, are to be 200 strong for every 1000 infantry, marshaled in 7 lines on both flanks of each division. This should total 5600 such cavalry, but the text actually says 4600 are required. Presumably a copyist has made a mistake somewhere, and this has been incorporated into 1QM as it has survived, since it is noted that this totals 6000 cavalry in all, "500 per tribe" - this being the only mention of a tribe in the main body of text outside of column 4. It would thus appear that the cavalry total was originally envisaged as 7000 men.14

The (light) cavalry are to form up 7 deep on each flank of the infantry formation; the disposition of the heavier cavalry is not stated, but may be assumed to be similar given that they too are said to be one rank deep per infantry rank. The cavalry are probably intended to advance and retreat in time with the infantry lines, covering their flanks (1QM - 7.4-5, 4Q491 - 1.12), but it is not clear which cavalry are assigned this duty; they are also mentioned in passing in the pursuit of the routed foe. All-in-all, the function and role of the cavalry is decidedly under reported compared with that of the infantry.

The third arm is the most confusing of all. The small 4Q493 fragment talks about the officer-priests standing towards the rear (where they might not be tainted by the impure blood of the slain enemies) beside what appear to be catapults and ballistae, while in the corresponding section of 1QM, the following confused passage occurs:

"Rule for changing the order of the battle formations. In order to arrange the position against [...] a pincer and towers, convex line and towers, and as it draws a little forward, then the columns and the flanks [...] sides of the battle line to crush the enemy. The shields of the towers shall be three cubits long, and their spears eight cubits long. When the towers go out from the battle line one hundred shields on a side, for each tower will be surrounded on the three front sides, three hundred shields in all. There shall be two gates to a tower, one on the right and the other on the left".
I interpret this to be a confused account of siege towers being placed at the junctions between the army's divisions. The Maccabeans are known to have used various kinds of siege weapons, and may well have made use of captured siege towers.15 According to Josephus, an improbable 100 siege towers were used by the Seleucids in one attack on Jerusalem,16 so these were certainly available, and if they were like other Hellenistic helepoli, might well have carried artillery pieces. As to the use of towers on the battlefield, one need look no further than one of the most popular authors of the era, Xenophon. In his widely-read Cyropaedia, he attributes to Cyrus, a great hero in the Jewish tradition, beloved of God, the use of moveable towers against the Lydians. It is I believe significant that the defenders of Alexandria using huge moveable towers against Caesar in 47 BC - Alexandria had a huge Jewish quarter, so the usage of such towers may well have been an established part of the Jewish war canon by then.17

What then are we to make of the shields of the towers? Perhaps these are the armoured plates protecting the towers. They protect only three sides of each tower, exactly as we would expect of a siege tower - the rear faces away from the city wall and need not be encumbered by heavy protective contrivances. The 'spears' could well be the length of the bolts hurled by their artillery (stone-throwers were easily converted into spear-throwers for anti-personnel use by simply using a different sort of sling). The gates would seem to refer to the gaps between each tower and the divisions it is stationed between - elsewhere in the scroll the word gate is used to mean the gaps between divisions (since it is through these 'gates' that the other lines of men advance and retreat), and the same is probably true here. Such towers could help protect the exposed flanks of the central divisions if the wings were moving to outflank the enemy in a pincer movement.

Since it appears that each division is accompanied by cavalry, rather than it being massed on the two wings as would be expected, it must be asked if each division really is a separate entity, or whether they are perhaps merely duplicates of a single division comprising the entire army. An army of over 30000 men is after all quite a large force, especially for a small state like Judea, and perhaps 7000 infantry and 1750 cavalry would be more reasonable. However, it should be pointed out that the scroll envisages the army to be formed from a national mobilisation, rather than a select levy, and other sources imply Jewish armies of the period really could muster well over 20000 men.18 Judea was after all a heavily populated region, and the uprising was popular with the masses. The total numbers of men given are therefore not entirely incredible. The extremely high proportion of cavalry however, some 20% of the army, looks rather suspicious for such a large force. The Seleucids, once they had lost Media to the Parthians, are never recorded as having more than 3000 horsemen in any battle, and it might be thought that the much smaller Judaean state would have had problems putting even this many in the field, let alone twice this number.

In any case, it may be doubted that the entire army was trained as well as the scrolls seem to suggest. We need not believe that every volley of javelins was thrown according to trumpeted instructions; this might just be a polemic advertising the discipline of God's chosen people. I would guess that the 'real' army that the scroll was derived from included a trained core equivalent to one division - over 8000 men, and that it was accompanied by a mass of untrained men of variable quality who would likely not form part of the main battle line, perhaps up to three times this number.19 These men, at least the better equipped and motivated, might well provide the ambushing parties mentioned in some parts of the scrolls, but would be mostly useful only as foragers, campguards, servants and as labourers for siege actions. If the army really was comprised of something like 30000 trained men, its frontage in any case would seem be too excessive for its relatively thin depth.

The army as depicted in the Scrolls is thus quite unique. It bears precious little resemblance to a Hellenistic army based on pike phalanxes, but neither is it Roman. It is true that the use of multiple battle lines is advocated, but contemporary Roman armies usually fought in four lines, not three, and even standard Hellenistic armies usually fought in two lines, so multiple line deployments are only to be expected. Certainly there is nothing Roman in the equipment of the infantry - there is a complete lack of body armour, and nothing remotely comparable to the pilum is attested. The emphasis is on showering the enemy with light missile weapons, and only at the very last instant are any sword-strokes envisaged, and even then only by a select few. The equipment of the heavy cavalry at least appears quite Roman, but this may just be coincidental - Roman cavalry after all was not widely held to be particularly worthy of emulation, and the majority of the horse would appear to be modeled on local Arabo-Aramean patterns.


Much of the information ascribed to 'commentators' comes from the archives of the on-line Dead Sea Scrolls discussion group, the Orion list.

1. The uprising occurred just 4 years after the Macedonian kingdom had been conquered by the Romans, and only a year after Antiochos had paraded his army at Daphnae, including a 5000-strong unit outfitted in the Roman manner. See here, note 15 for some comments on Sekunda's thesis. Return

2. Debate has in the past raged as to both the identification of the Kittim, usually identified with either the Seleucids or the Romans, and the date at which the scroll was composed. Both rely on internal evidence - particularly the equipment and tactics of the forces described. Most such efforts have been of fairly limited utility however, since they have been in my opinion confounded by either poor understanding of the text, Roman and Hellenistic military practices, or both. A Roman identification and date now however looks completely untenable and has thus fallen out of favour in academic circles. Return

3. The most convincing argument for a date is to be found in R.Gmirkin's "Historical Allusions in the War Scroll", Dead Sea Discoveries, 5 (1998) 172-214. Gmirkin argues for a composition in the second quarter of 163 BC. I would agree with this date, except to note that this is the 'original composition' date. The existence of several similar, but still significantly differing versions of the scroll, leads me to conclude that copyists made various interpretations and corrections as they saw them - changes that have in at least one case led to a noticeable error. Gmirkin opined that the scroll was to be distributed around the Jewish army as soon as it was made, in which case many copies would have been required, and hastily required at that. Return

4. Y.Yadin, "The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness", Oxford, 1962. Return

5. R.Gmirkin, "The War Scroll and Roman Weaponry Reconsidered", Dead Sea Discoveries, 3 (1996) 89-129. Return

6. The great fault of most interpretations of the military aspects of the scroll to date have been their self-imposed limitation allowing of only two possible interpretations: a Roman model, or a Hellenistic model as depicted in the tactical manuals of Arrian, Aelian and Asklepiodotos. Further possibilities need to be examined - such as a Hellenistic model based not on pike phalanxes, but on the other common Hellenistic line-of battle infantryman - the thureophoros, or even a uniquely Jewish model. Return

7. Gmirkin's paper fails to consider this 4-way splitting of the army - perhaps because his Roman model of four lines in depth requires 7 blocks of infantry across, and dividing an army laterally down the ranks into four separate commands rather than vertically through the files would appear very odd indeed. Return

8. 1QM - 3.4 says that every man should be equipped like this, but since the slingers, javelinmen and cavalry are all clearly different, this description must only refer to only one line of infantry. The lack of a helmet is somewhat surprising given their close-combat role. It might be thought that the author assumed a helmet was so obvious a piece of equipment it didn't need mentioning, and this would be my preferred interpretation. However, troops from this general area, from Palmyra, are depicted without helmets despite being armoured in mail (albeit several hundred years later), and significantly a helmet is included in the list of equipment for the heavy cavalry. Fighting without helmets may have been entirely normal. With regards to the lack of javelins, in Slingshot 202 (January 1999, page 33), Steven Neate said of these men that the "practicalities of how a soldier holds seven javelins, a spear and a thureos leave me a trifle baffled". Hopefully he will be less baffled now! Return

9. The words used here for rank or lines are somewhat obscure, as are the words translated as divisions, units etc. The most highly regarded English translation currently available is by F.G.Martinez (The Dead Sea Scrolls - A New Translation, 1999). Gmirkin interpreted the 7 'ranks', 'lines', 'divisions' or 'units' to refer to 7 blocks arranged side by side, each 7 deep, arranged 4 ranks deep for 28 ranks in total. However, it is difficult to see how such an arrangement can satisfy 1QM - 9.4-5 which says at the end of the battle, the 'rank' that is currently fighting is to be rejoined by the 6 that have already fought in order to pursue the routing enemy. In his scheme this would only possible if the units fought one at a time across the face of the enemy battle line, and incredible procedure. Return

10. The text is fragmentary, so that two ranks are not actually specified in any of the surviving texts. However, since 5 out of the 7 ranks in total are later accounted for by other troops, the slingers should comprise the remaining 2 ranks. However, given the position of a large lacuna in 1QM, it can not be ruled out that of these two ranks, only the second is of slingers and the first is instead of archers. Certainly infantry archers are mentioned in other sources describing Jewish forces. Return

11. 1QM does not define which infantry are considered to be "of the rule" and which are not, but 4Q491 - 1.17 says that it is those of the third line that are. Most previous commentators have assumed all the infantry of 1QM are "men of the rule", and then asked why virtually the entire army should be so old (40-50), seemingly unaware of 4Q491 - 1.17. The age groups of the other infantry lines are not given, contra Gmirkin who seems to have confused the younger cavalry with the infantry. Gmirkin is aware of 4Q491 - 1.17, but still has the same problem, because of his interpretation that the men of the rule comprise the majority, not the minority, of the army. See note 12 below.Return

12. Gmirkin's thesis called for these 7 ranks to be only the first line of a 4 line formation, equivalent to Roman velites, with the remaining 3 lines being 'heavy infantry'. Unfortunately, he does not then propose how the spearmen or swordsmen are to skirmish, given their lack of missile weapons, nor say why 3/4 of his infantrymen, the 'heavy infantry', are never mentioned, let alone described, at any single point in the text. Nor does he explain why the text fails to mention the swordsmen and spearmen withdrawing, unlike the other 'skirmishers', or why the final clash is always reported immediately after these very men have been ordered forward, and not some time afterwards. (His interpretation of 4Q491 - 1.17 would also require in this one instance there be no swordsmen or spearmen line at all). Nor does he address the age distribution problem noted above. Return

13. It has been thought by some commentators that horse armour might be an indication of Seleucid or Parthian influence. However, no horsemen riding armoured horses in the area carried shields until hundreds of years later, under the Sassanians, so it seems unsafe to postulate horse armour here. The use of a long spear however was not mutually exclusive of a cavalry shield - as can be seen by the Roman cavalry portrayed on a bronze plate from Pergamon, charging a Macedonian phalanx while equipped with large round shields and wielding their lances under-arm. A small picture of this item can be seen in M.M.Markle's "A Shield Monument from Veria", Mediterranean Archaeology, 7 (1994), 83-87. Return

14. As far as I am aware, no commentator has noticed the discrepancy in the number of cavalry said to be required as a whole and the number the internal details of the organisation appear to require. Like that of the older men, the text describing the armament of the younger cavalrymen is also fragmentary. Bows and javelins are mentioned, but it is not certain whether it should read bows and javelins, bows or javelins, or something else. Given neighbouring Arabic and Aramean horsemen, a mixture of bows and javelins seems more likely than a combination of the two. Return

15. For instance at one siege of Jerusalem the Maccabees set up machines opposite any spot the Seleucids threatened with their own; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 12.377. Return

16. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 13.237. Return

17. Caesar/Hirtius, De Bello Alexandrino, 2. The towers were some 10 stories tall. Return

18. B. Bar-Kochva in his 'The Seleucid Army' (Cambridge, 1976) concludes that while figures in Josephus claiming Jewish armies could number upto 50000 strong are obviously exaggerated, half this figure might not be beyond the realms of possibility. Most Judaean armies were in fact considerably smaller than this though - typically ranging from 3000 to 14000 strong. Return

19. A single division of nearly 8000 men would fit in well with the known size of most reported Judaean armies; with any extra men probably being untrained levies. Jospehus several times refers to armies of 'picked men' which a core of such trained forces would seem to tie in with well. Somewhat later, around the turn of the century, Alexander Yannai is said to have commanded 1000 horse, 10000 infantry and also 8000 mercenaries (the first Judaean leader to do so) in a civil war. He had the upper hand in the war, so it is likely his enemies had a somewhat fewer troops than this, implying a total cavalry pool of something under 2000 men. This lends credence to the figure of 1750 horsemen for one division if one division is to be understood to be the entire regular army. Return

This page last modified 25 April, 2002

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