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Dating the Army of the War Scroll

by Peter Fromm

There are two main theories about the dating of the "Rule of War" or War Scroll (WS) among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The older and more conventional theory of Yigael Yadin suggests that the WS is the product of the first century BC inhabitants of Qumran.1 Yadin argues that the dispositions in the WS suggest emulation of Republican Roman armies of the era of the First Triumvirate (late Republican legions).2 Russell Gmirkin, on the other hand, argues in "The War Scroll and Roman Weaponry Reconsidered," that Yadin's treatment of the dating was not as rigorous as his treatment of the weaponry itself, and he concludes that in fact the scroll should be dated to the earlier Maccabean era of the second century BC (the mid-Republican legions).3

Gmirkin appears to be right, but I think he has overlooked a critical factor in his article. Using the work of Nicholas Sekunda, I argue that Gmirkin is correct primarily because the WS identifies Greek-style infantry organized along Roman lines, and not the kind of Roman-style auxiliary or imitation legionary infantry common in the first century BC. I argue further that the WS is most likely a product of the two decades spanning the time from Judah Maccabeus' death in battle (160 BC) until Simon Maccabeus' assumption of the High Priesthood (141 BC). I argue this based on its message of eschatological purity in conjunction with its Greek-style panoplies that attempt to accommodate themselves to Roman organization, a hallmark of Rome's enemies during that period.

Gmirkin's Analysis

Gmirkin's method is to discuss key legionary qualities enumerated below in a series of comparisons among 1) pre-Marius, 2) post-Marius, and 3) War Scroll dispositions:
  • Conscription
  • Heavy infantry
  • Skirmishers
  • Cavalry
  • Reserves
  • Coordination of infantry and cavalry
  • Weapons
  • Legionary tactics
  • Miscellanea 4
Using the work of Polybius, Peter Connelly, Bezalel Bar-Kochva, and Nicholas Sekunda as guides, what one should look for in second-century BC (mid-Republican) Roman equipment and tactics are the following:
  1. A more open deployment based on a class-structured militia, theoretically not including much in the way of mercenaries.
  2. Distinct equipment reflecting Roman triarii and organizational distinctions of the Punic Wars.
  3. Maniple formations not including the cohort that appeared after the Marian Reforms.
If the WS instead seems to describe closer unit deployment in ten cohorts containing soldiers with common equipment across the formation, then that fact will better support Yadin's view of a first century provenance.

Conscription. In discussing conscription, Gmirkin focuses on the presence of light infantry, durations of service, and age of the troops. He says the WS matches what one finds in pre-Marian armies in terms of an age structure and lack of mercenaries for light troops. He also points out that duration of service in the WS closely approximates pre-Marian dispositions.

The weakness here is that the Jews probably would have been disinclined to hire many mercenaries anyway, at least until the time of Antigonus II Mattathias and Herod the Great. Their youngest infantry would have resembled the velites (Roman psiloi, or light infantry) regardless of era. His discussion of age differentiation is, I think, far from conclusive, but it works for Gmirkin's dating more than it does for Yadin.

Heavy infantry. The WS has no hint of the post-Marian cohort formation and breaks the Roman line into three divisions of maniples in a way strongly resembling the legions of the Punic Wars. This supports Gmirkin's view. However, the Jews could not field enough heavy infantry to make the cohort formation and tactics viable at any time in their history, so there is still room for doubt in this area. The vast majority of their armies seem to have been a kind of medium infantry and skirmishers much like Roman velites, the types much evident in Josephus' description of the Jewish army at Beth Horon in the 1st century AD.

Skirmishers. The WS supports Gmirkin's view over Yadin's because it details organic light infantry units, 1000 soldiers per "legion." Marian reforms abolished native light troops, and the WS seems to point to a corps of velites. With the proviso I stated above that the Jews would likely have fielded plenty of light infantry anyway, out of necessity, this disposition in the WS again sounds much like Punic-war era legions.

Cavalry. The cavalry in the WS appear far closer in stated proportions to those of Hellenistic armies than those of the Romans of any period. They are also detailed as organic units, like the skirmishers. Post-Marian cavalry formations were all nonorganic units of mercenaries. I think Yadin's view conclusively suffers on this score. However, Gmirkin's analysis also shows that the ratio of cavalry to infantry matches perfectly that of expectations imposed on Italian allies.5 This is significant because it shows the WS more closely emulating not the pre-Marian Roman legions, but the formations of Roman allies described by Polybius. This fact has broad implications for how the soldiers were outfitted and expected to fight.

Reserves. Gmirkin's discussion makes sense, and Yadin's appears naïve regarding the Roman deployments. Reserve deployment was standard for the Camillian legions of the Punic Wars as they were for Caesar's legions and later Imperial units. Gmirkin points out that the presence of reserve forces in the WS is not at all useful in dating it.

Coordination of infantry and cavalry. Yadin's view that combined-arms units that were "customary also with Hellenistic armies" reached their climax at the time of Julius Caesar makes some sense, as the post-Marian legions had developed highly competent cavalry, albeit mercenaries.6 Gmirkin would say this status disqualifies them because the WS seems to clearly imply native, organic cavalry. He also correctly points out that Yadin's model for combined arms use does not reflect the way late-Republican armies operated with light-armed cavalry. The Roman cavalry of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC was an adjunct to the infantry and not especially capable. The Romans mostly relied on Italian allies for cavalry in pre-Marian legions, using Gauls and other barbarians for good cavalry in Caesar's age. This "coordination" point is far from conclusive. To my mind, it once again raises the fact that the WS force looks more like an allied contingent, like those of Pergamum for instance, than it does a Roman one. According to Gmirkin, Yadin himself noticed this fact and realized his argument here was weak.7

Weapons. By my reckoning, Yadin's description of the WS shield fits more the size of a Greek thureos than it does that of a Roman scutum. That works heavily in favor of Gmirkin for reasons he doesn't seem to understand--the WS array, again, looks more Greek in equipment here than it does Roman. The thureos was a Greek shield used mostly before the Marian era, which supports Gmirkin's view.

Oddly, the fact that the WS supposedly describes the shield as "rectangular" points to the 1st century AD, not the second century BC as Gmirkin claims; however, I think shape description here is misleading and not relevant. Shields are described by different people in relative terms, and the idea that the WS shield is rectangular is an interpretation. Following Yadin, Gmirkin interprets Polybius' description of the Roman scutum in second century BC too as "rectangular."8 However, Polybius' description compares the oval, semi-rectangular scutum to the "circular target" of the velites.9 The WS shield was probably only "rectangular" too by comparison to round shields among the light troops. Again, the shape does not give Gmirkin's argument much help. The dimensions are what really matter.

Noteworthy in parsing such descriptions is that Polybius describes Hannibal's spearman as being armed with "pikes," but it is clear that these so-called "pikes" were thrusting spears like those of Greek hoplites, and not anything like the sarissa of the Macedonians. They were only pikes when compared to the Roman pilum, and Polybius was used to calling heavy infantry spears "pikes." One has to interpret Polybius' descriptions in light of how such equipment is employed, Polybius' own familiarity with later Greek and Roman arms, and unearthed artifacts themselves.

Gmirkin's discussions of sword suspension and javelins are inconclusive to my mind but do support his view. However, his discussion of greaves bends toward supporting Yadin; the WS does not mention them and first century legionnaires did not use them, but this is also inconclusive. As Gmirkin points out, greaves were not at all common during the second century BC. Even third century Greek and Roman armies made limited use of them. Among the Romans, primarily the richer, older triarii made use of them, as they were expected to form a phalanx if the battle went south.

Gmirkin's heavy discussion of javelins and the absence of any discussion of pila in the WS dispositions suggests to me that what the scroll is describing is not an army equipping like the Romans of any era. The described army looks much more like a Hellenistic force being designed to organize and fight in Roman-style tactics of the second century BC, but not necessarily equip that way. This will become clearer later as I bring Sekunda's work to bear on the discussion. (Note 23 also itemizes the WS heavy infantry panoply.)

Legionary tactics. The basic tactics of Roman infantry really did not change that much until the later fourth century AD, so I do not see this as much help for Gmirkin. Still, Yadin's description yields a date consistent with Gmirkin's dating more than his own, oddly enough. It discusses the tactical norms imposed during the wars with Carthage (third century BC). The cohort is what is relevant here along with the absence of the spear-armed triarii. The WS does not mention the triarii, and this works against Gmirkin's view to some small degree. However, it does not mention the cohort either, and this fact I think works heavily against Yadin's view.

Miscellanea. That the Jews would not have an eagle standard is to me obvious, no matter what era, and the WS makes no mention of it, only mentioning small unit standards consistent with pre-Marian legions. As to the rationing of food, in the WS, noncombatants provide a commissariat. The Jews were not the expeditionary army the Romans were, so one would not expect them to be like the Romans and carry their own rations as a matter of written regulation, regardless of era. Gmirkin thinks these points support his dating. To my mind, no conclusions can be drawn either way.

Antiochus' Anatolian Angst

In his book, Hellenistic Infantry Reform in the 160s BC, Nicholas Sekunda suggests that the Ptolemaic and Seleucid armies had undergone a thorough Romanization by the 160s BC.10 The image this conclusion creates in one's mind might be one of an armored infantryman with pilum, gladius, and mail cuirass. However, one also has to understand that "Romanized" at this stage means troops outfitted in weapons and shields that would simply better accommodate fighting with Roman formations, especially in terrain suited to manipular tactics. In the 160s, that would mean infantry equipped with Greek arms and armor that could best emulate Roman organization and deployment. My suggestion is that, per Sekunda, most of the infantry used in Hellenistic reform were probably equipped as thorakitai or thureohporoi.11

The first Seleucid war with Rome was from 192-188, and it was a nasty surprise for the Seleucid King's ambitions in the Mediterranean. The Battle of Magnesia in Anatolia showed Antiochus III that heavy infantry deployed more openly could beat his Macedonian style phalanx. While Pyrrhus had shown that the phalanx could take on a Roman formation, he had needed to alternate his pikes with more flexible formations when on questionable ground. Some authors even suggest that Pyrrhus taught the Romans to use maniples (though it seems likely the Samnite Italians developed the innovation). Iphicrates, in the fourth century BC, had long before shown the need for such troops in Greece's hilly terrain. Philip and Alexander had been careful to have a corps of hypaspists for such duties and also had their pike-armed phalanxes trained to fight without their pikes in conjunction with lightly armed pisloi. The point is the Greeks had long familiarity with breaking up the phalanx. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who took the crown after his older brother Seleucus IV was assassinated, had been a royal hostage in Rome. He probably realized he needed to be prepared to fight the Romans on ground of their choosing, as Pyrrhus did, so he moved in the direction of obtaining troops who could fight better on broken terrain and still stand against Rome's heavy legionnaires.

While Antiochus IV was busy Romanizing his army, the Jews revolted under the Maccabees. It was right around 165 BC that the Seleucids started to equip their Argyraspides in Roman style. Judah Maccabeus had made a treaty with Rome, and as Bar-Kochva points out, this treaty suggests that Maccabean infantry would have at the very least appreciated Roman equipment and tactics.12

Critically, Sekunda notes that I Maccabees 6.35 suggests the entire Seleucid army was armed and armored in Roman fashion by the time of the Battle of Beth-Zacharia in 164 BC.13 I find this highly likely, as a pike phalanx would not have done Antiochus much good in Judean terrain. His cavalry too would have needed infantry with it capable of supporting in such terrain, troops fitted out like thorakitai or as legionary heavy infantry.

If Sekunda is right, the standard Seleucid "phalanx," now Romanized, was likely all thorakitai. The medium infantry on the wings in combined arms with the cavalry was probably mostly thureophoroi working behind psiloi (archers, slingers, and javelin throwers). These dispositions sound remarkably like those in the WS. Such troops would have been armed with a sword, spear, and javelins, but not necessarily with pila. They would have carried an oval, semi-rectangular thureos and, very likely, not a scutum at this point. Sekunda has clearly shown this likelihood from the artifacts of that era, including Ptolemaic funerary stelae.14 These stelae depict troops equipped much like the troops that the WS describes-in other words they are Hellenistic, not fully Roman but "Romanized." My guess is that WS dispositions copy not the Romans but the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic troops that were "Romanizing." Both Hellenistic kingdoms were copying the Romans of that era as best they could, almost in a panic to achieve military parity.

Perhaps the Argyraspides regiment was the only one with a full Roman-style panoply of weapons. Sekunda's conclusions here differ from those of Bar-Kochva, who thinks only Roman equipment had been adopted but not Roman tactics and that only the Argyraspides were so armed and armored.15

Sekunda is right in breaking with this view, I think, especially in terms of discarding the phalanx tactical model and employing the heavy infantry we see on the stelae of Sidon.16 The archeological data backs him up, and the WS description backs him up. One has to see these thorakitai and thureophoroi as being "Romanized" in a relative sense, not as full-blown heavily armed "imitation legionnaires."

Further, it would not make practical military sense to try to deploy in a phalanx pike-block in the Judean terrain at Beth Zacharia. As far as the Maccabees are concerned, after their loss at Beth Zacharia (164) they probably fully adopted this "Romanized" approach to equipment and tactics. The equipment would have been familiar to some of them from Pergamum, as Bar-Kochva points out.17 Judah's infantry would have picked up weapons and armor too from the Seleucid infantry killed in prior battles, as II Maccabees confirms.18

The Jews would have adopted the tactics of the Romans almost by default in this fight with the Seleucids because of the terrain, and many of them would, by then, have understood the Roman system. The fact that Judah also had enjoyed good success on open ground against the Syrian Greeks suggests he employed the flexibility that manipular tactics afforded in both rough and open terrain.

Worth noting is that the Seleucids appear to have been the only ones to produce viable "imitation legionnaires." The Numidians, Bosporans, Pontic armies, and the Armenians notably tried to do this too with some degree of success. I doubt the Jews could have done such a conversion much beyond a few maniples of their best infantry, and they probably did so slowly, as the availability of weaponry dropped on the field became available. II Maccabees as much as says this.19

Copying the Wicked One

My conclusion is that the WS conveys an ideal derived from the Romans indirectly, one that clearly fits into the military milieu of the developing Maccabean army in combat with a fully Romanized Seleucid army. The urgency of arming in Romanized fashion was highest around the 160s BC, a time that would inspire the war between the "sons of light and the sons of darkness." Rabbinical sources call Antiochus IV "the wicked," a name that fits perfectly with the WS milieu.20 I think the WS probably is indeed a 2nd-century product spawned by the Jews who fought in Seleucid armies against the Romans before the revolt, then turned, and fought against a Romanized version of their former overlords. They saw the Ptolemaic armies and the Seleucids imitating the Romans, and, sandwiched between them, they kept up with the fashion as best they could, seeing that the phalanx was bankrupt.

Gmirkin's argument is really intent on dismantling Yadin's doubtful conclusions more than making his own case. He appears to know the Roman army superficially, as evinced by his idea that pre-Marian legionnaires carried "rectangular" shields. However, Gmirkin also says "if the Maccabean army fought with Hellenistic weaponry and battle formations, this strongly argues against a Maccabean background for the War Scroll."21 I disagree. I think deploying in "Roman style" was an ideal, not very much a reality, so it reflected what they wished they could do and provided a goal to attain to current military trends.

I base that on the way the Jews still fought in the 1st century AD. They did not have the ability to attain the Roman military ideal. Most of Herod the Great's troops were fitted out as Roman auxillia, the norms expected of Rome's allies. His heavy infantry too seemed to be more like a Hellenistic thorakitai than like Roman legionnaires (though some of the more advanced auxillia cohortes under Herod were probably indistinguishable from Roman legionnaires).22 The heavy infantry panoply described by the WS itself cannot be used to date the scroll conclusively, but it does support a Greek-style interpretation if one thinks of the thorakitai class of heavy Seleucid infantry.23 Hence, Gmirkin's argument in "The War Scroll and Roman Weaponry Reconsidered" appears sound, but I would emphasize that the Jews could only copy the Romans by imitating their Seleucid overlords to the degree they could actually afford to do so. This fact and the heavy infantry description in the WS itself suggest a second-century BC provenance and Greek-style panoply using Roman allied organization.

Peter Fromm (5-16-2012)
Supervisory Editor, Military Review
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Fromm was an assistant professor of philosophy and English for six years at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He studied Chinese philosophy at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. He also studied at the International Christian University in Tokyo and worked in Japan for the U.S. Government for 12 years. He is a retired Army officer.

Reader Comments


1. War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, Wikipedia.
2. Russell Gmirkin. "The War Scroll and Roman Weaponry Reconsidered," Dead Sea Discoveries, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jul., 1996), pp. 89-129 (Published by: BRILL. Article Stable: jstor.org).
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Polybius. The Rise Of The Roman Empire, (New York: Penguin, 1979), 324.
6. Gmirkin, 105, 111.
7. Ibid, 110-112.
8. Ibid, 119.
9. Polybius, 320.
10. Nicholas Sekunda. Hellenistic Infantry Reform in the 160s BC (Gdansk, Poland: Gdansk University, 2006) 116.
11. Nicholas Sekunda. Seleucid and Ptolomaic Reformed Armies 168-145 BC, (Yorkshire, UK: Montvert Publications, 1995).
12. Bezalel Bar-Kochva. The Seleucid Army: Organization and Tactics in the Great Campaigns, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976) 198.
13. Sekunda, Hellenistic Infantry Reform, 99.
14. Sekunda, Seleucid and Ptolomaic Reformed Armies, plates 67-71.
15. Sekunda, Hellenistic Infantry Reform, 15.
16. Ibid, 99. See also, Bar-Kochva, "Judas Maccabaeus: The Jewish Struggle Against the Seleucids"(1989), 330.
17. Bar-Kochva, The Seleucid Army, 198.
18. II Maccabees, 8:27.
19. Ibid, 8:27-31.
20. Antiochus IV Epiphanes (accessed 16 May 2012).
21. Gmirkin, 127.
22. Samuel Rocca. The Army of Herod the Great, (UK: Osprey Publishing, 2009).
23. War Scroll, Column V. The scroll describes a "seven-cubit" spear with a "half-cubit" tip, "one-and-one-half-cubit" sword "four fingers" thick with two blood grooves on each side, and a bronze shield, apparently oval or "rectangular" in having a length differing from its width. There is no mention of javelins or darts for the heavy infantry and nothing resembling a pilum, which would have made it conclusively "Roman style," were it there.

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