In the present age of technology, imagining the role that such a simple element as dust played in ancient warfare can be difficult. But what we regard as a mere nuisance often helped decide victory or defeat on the battlefields and during the military campaigns of the classical era.

Ancient Rome’s greatest defeat arrived in a cloud of dust. Nearly half a millennium after the 216 b.c. Battle of Cannae, historian Lucius Annaeus Florus wrote: ‘The crafty general [Hannibal] in his observation of the open plain of that region, because of the severe sun there, and very much dust, and the wind always blowing from the east, prepared his battle line so that the Romans would have dust, sun and wind…directed against their faces while the battle raged. With the aid of the elements, Hannibal’s forces crushed their enemy.

Such a costly lesson was not to be forgotten. The first century a.d. military writer Sextus Julius Frontinus wrote of it in his Stratagems, and centuries later, in the only completely intact work to have survived on Roman military science, Flavius Vegetius Renatus reflected on the enduring importance of Hannibal’s lesson. In discussing preparation for battle, Vegetius remarked that even inexperienced generals usually know to pay attention to three things before deploying their battle lines: sun, dust, and wind. However, he added, the truly prudent commander also considers how these elements might come into play later in the day as the battle rages on. Therefore the lines should be so arranged as to keep sun, wind, and dust behind the troops and in the faces of the enemy.

Ancient literature contains many examples in which clouds of dust played a role. Dust was such a common feature of the battlefield that it often became a stock image for literary accounts of warfare. Homer’s Iliad frequently conjures the image of dust hanging heavy over the field of battle as the Greeks sought to capture Troy. Soldiers fleeing in panic raised clouds of dust, as did horses and chariots.

Rome’s greatest writer, Virgil, followed the Homeric model in his own epic nationalist tale, the Aeneid. Virgil wrote that as pious Aeneas and his fellow Trojan refugees engaged in the final conflict with the Latins, led by Turnus,

A cloud of blinding dust is rais’d around,
Labors beneath their feet the trembling

In ancient times, and indeed throughout most of military history, the foremost importance of dust was in locating the enemy. First-century a.d. poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus offered the following image of a cloud of dust warning Pompey the Great’s ally Domitius, at Corfinium, of the approach of Julius Caesar’s troops:

When from far the plain
Rolled up a dusty cloud, beneath whose veil
The sheen of armour glistening in the sun,
Revealed a marching host.

What literature preserved for the imagination, the ordinary foot soldier knew as a blinding, choking reality. Attention to the dust raised by troop movements, however, could mean the difference between victory and defeat — life and death. The historian par excellence of the Augustan age, Livy, offered compelling evidence. He recorded how in 306 b.c., Samnites were besieging a Roman army led by Counsel Publius Cornelius Arvina when they learned of the approach of a second enemy force, led by Counsel Quintus Marcius Tremulus. Briefly turning their backs on Cornelius, they decided to ambush the approaching troops:

Thirty thousand Samnites were killed, according to Livy, in a defeat that was to a large degree attributable to clouds of dust betraying their plans.

In addition to indicating the presence of the enemy, dust was used, albeit imperfectly, to calculate the size, nature, and movement of opposing forces. There has been some speculation that high, thin clouds of dust correlated with the presence of cavalry, while dense, lower clouds could be associated with infantry.

Of course, the tendency to interpret clouds of dust in predictable ways could be used to advantage by an enterprising commander. Livy recounted a notable incident from Rome’s 293 b.c. campaign against the Samnites. The Romans had divided their forces, with Papirius outside Aquilonia and Carvilius twenty miles away outside Cominium, and planned to launch coordinated attacks against the Samnite towns. Before engaging the enemy forces at Aquilonia, Papirius had a legate and three auxiliary cohorts lead his army’s mules along a hidden route to a nearby hill. During the subsequent fierce battle, on the Samnites’ flank appeared a cloud of dust as though an enormous column of men were in motion to attack, Livy wrote. It was, however, the auxiliaries, who were riding the mules while dragging leafy boughs behind the beasts. Confusion swept through the Samnite ranks, as well as through the Romans’, as it appeared that a massive army had raised the cloud of dust. Papirius did his best to reinforce that impression by shouting loudly, Cominium has fallen, my victorious colleague is coming on the field, do your best to win the victory before the glory of doing so falls to the other army! He then ordered his troops to open ranks, and the Roman cavalry swept through and routed the enemy.

While dust clouds often betrayed enemy movements, they could also be important in finding a battle already underway. Thucydides, in his fifth century b.c. account of the Peloponnesian War, observed how the Corinthians stationed at Cenchreae correctly interpreted the dust clouds they saw as indicating the place of battle. As a result they hurried to the rescue of their comrades there.

Similarly, Caesar, during his first British expedition, was alerted to his troops’ peril by a cloud of dust. After he had sent a legion out from his camp to forage for corn, guards reported to him the presence of a large cloud of dust in the direction that the legion had headed. According to the great commander’s own account: Caesar guessed the truth — that the natives had hatched a new scheme. He set out with troops toward the dust cloud and found the legion hard-pressed by Britons, who broke off their attacks upon his arrival.

Once battle was joined, the resulting dust could prove a serious obstacle to both armies. Livy recounted the 426 b.c. Battle of Fidenae between the Romans and the Etruscans during which dust and smoke caused widespread confusion. The Romans had been enjoying the better of the fight at Fidenae when suddenly Etruscan reinforcements armed with firebrands, and all waving blazing torches sallied forth. Soon both sides were so armed. In the swirl and clash of men and horses a great cloud of dust and smoke nearly blinded both sides.

In the arid Middle East, swirling dust and sand complicated matters for both sides during the Jewish Revolt of a.d. 66-73. The Galilean general-turned-historian Flavius Josephus recorded how thick dust complicated Roman operations in the siege and conquest of Gamala. Later, during the battles at Jerusalem, Josephus described how the armies also were now mixed one among another, and the dust that was raised so far hindered them from seeing one another, and the noise that was made so far hindered them from hearing one another, that neither side could discern an enemy from a friend.

For the side losing an engagement, dust could still save the day. Diodorus Siculus, writing his universal history in the late first century b.c., attributed to the Persian general Darius the strategic use of dust to rescue his army. During his war against Alexander the Great in 331-330 b.c., Darius’ force was routed. As the Persian cavalry retreated in panic, with Alexander’s soldiers in close pursuit, the dust clouds became so thick that the victors found it impossible to tell in which direction their foes were fleeing. Diodorus thought that Darius had cleverly used the cover of the dust not to retreat, but rather to swing around and bring his troops to the safety of towns behind the Macedonian lines. Though the historian was probably factually wrong in his account, there is no doubt that on occasion troops fled to safety under the cover of a battle-driven dusty haze.

At the 48 b.c. Battle of Pharsalus, dust revealed to Pompey the Great that his cause was lost. Although outnumbered, Caesar thoroughly outgeneraled his rival. Encamped in a favorable position with a force much larger than Caesar’s, Pompey had elected to offer battle. Caesar naturally accepted. Pompey relied on his superiority in number of cavalry to prevail against Caesar’s right wing. Initially, Pompey’s seven thousand cavalrymen were successful, routing Caesar’s one thousand horsemen. But then the six cohorts that Caesar had placed in reserve on his flank swung into action, surprising Pompey’s cavalry. Thanks to that timely maneuver, the fortunes of battle were stunningly reversed.

The second-century Greek biographer Plutarch tried to imagine Pompey’s reaction as his cavalry’s early-battle flank attack failed. In his Life of Pompey, he recounted that when Pompey, by the dust flying in the air, conjectured the fate of his horse, it was very hard to say what his thoughts or intentions were, but looking like one distracted and beside himself, and without any recollection or reflection that he was Pompey the Great, he retired slowly towards his camp, without speaking a word to any man…. Caesar’s rival escaped to Egypt where he was murdered. His fate, like that of many a leader before him, had been written in the dust.

This article was written by Gregory G. Bolich and originally published in the Autumn 2004 edition of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!