The Horses Of Sybaris

Sybaris was an ancient city of Magna Graecia in southern Italy.  Its ruins are located in the modern Italian province of Calabria.  The historians tell us that it was founded around the year 720 B.C., and that it persisted as a community until around 440 B.C. 

The Roman writer Aelian, in his History of Animals (XVI.23), relates an instructive story about Sybaris.  He says that the city had acquired a reputation for luxurious and effeminate habits.  “Of other matters and pursuits,” he says, “they knew nothing, but spent their entire time in easy-going sloth and extravagance.”  The Sybarites would spare no expense in the matters of amusements and entertainment.  The city’s horses, he tells us, were even trained to “dance” to the sound of a certain kind of piped music played during festivals and banquets. 

Probably what Aelian means is that the horses were trained to perform routines with their legs and bodies when specific melodies and pipes were played.  Now Sybaris had a powerful rival, a neighboring city named Croton.  The two cities became involved in armed conflict.  Croton’s spies eventually discovered that the horses of Sybaris were habituated to respond to piped dance-music in a certain way. 

One of the Crotonian generals realized that this fact could be used against the people of Sybaris.  This general collected a number of pipes and pipe-players and, in secret, taught them how to play the Sybarite music that so enchanted their horses.  The Crotonians drilled and practiced playing this music so well that they could duplicate it precisely; they learned to exercise their lungs so that the notes could be heard from a long distance.

When the Crotonian army was ready, they approached the walls of Sybaris.  When the Sybarite army and cavalry were within hearing distance, the Crotonian general deployed his musical weapon.  When the horses of Sybaris heard the familiar notes, they could not be restrained.  Imagining that they were in the middle of a festival, they began to prance and preen uncontrollably.  They threw off their riders and acted as they pleased; the ranks of the Sybarite battle-line became thrown into disarray.  And it was at this moment that the Crotonian army struck, annihilating their confused and demoralized enemy. 

Croton’s victory in 510 B.C. was so decisive, in fact, that Sybaris never fully recovered.  We are told that the inhabitants made some feeble efforts to regain their independence, but these were to no avail.  Eventually the site was abandoned.  It is from the name of the city of Sybaris, that the English word sybarite is derived:  that is, a lover of voluptuary pleasures.  The lesson is not difficult to discern:  states that prefer amusements and pleasures in preference to the martial virtues will eventually be crushed.  But there is another message here as well.  Once an opponent learns how to replicate that which enchants you—that is, once he learns your “music”—he has acquired a powerful advantage.  In fact this little tale may be one of the first examples of a pre-war disruption operation.          

As it is with ancient city-states, so it is with modern states.  Nations that fail to take seriously the necessity of readiness, that prefer the allurements of pleasure to the sacrifices and hardships of the camp, that shame and denigrate the martial virtues:  these nations will suffer defeat at the hands of opponents who learn how to take advantage of these weaknesses.  It cannot be otherwise.  Rulers who fail to police their borders, who neglect or deliberately undermine military readiness, who place amusements and frivolities ahead of the hard tasks of national survival:  these are the most contemptible of all rulers.  And yet there are many of them today, blissfully unaware of the mortal dangers they are creating.  Or perhaps they are, in fact, fully aware of the dangers they are creating, but are too venal, weak, or corrupt to care.  The specters of infirm resolution, conscious neglect, dereliction of responsibility, and absurdly misplaced priorities stalk the land, seeking to carve permanent fiefdoms from the national consciousness.  Perhaps it is as Lucan says,

Never did such a swarm of vultures blanket the sky,

And never did more wings lash the air.

[Phars. VII.834-835.]

But a determined enemy has many ways to employ the art of subversion; and where the ground is fertile, his seed will take root.  Almost anything can be employed as a weapon, if the intended target has been lulled into an unsuspecting carelessness.  In the preceding example, the musical instruments were played to produce a particular outcome.  Yet, as our next example will show, these same instruments can be employed as weapons even if they are never actually played. 

The historian Polynaeus (Stratagems V.35) relates the following story about how the Cretan commander Nearchus made himself master of Telmessos, an ancient city on the Anatolian coast, in the state of Lycia.  Nearchus was one of Alexander the Great’s officers, and he lived from about 360 to 300 B.C.  With his small naval force, Nearchus approached Telmessos, which was ruled by an old acquaintance of his, Antipatridas.  Antipatridas sent messengers to Nearchus, and asked him what his business was there. 

Nearchus told the envoys that his intentions were benign, and that he was only interested in commercial opportunities.  He said he had some music-girls and slaves aboard whom he would gladly leave ashore at Telmessos as a good faith gift.  Antipatridas was pleased to hear this, thinking that he could make good use of them.  So the women and slaves were dutifully conducted into the city’s largest and most important fort, along with their musical instruments and assorted baggage. 

Inside the flutes and lyres, however, were concealed small, razor-sharp swords.  Once Antipatridas and his men had conducted Nearchus’s considerate “gift” into the fort, the women and slaves pulled the weapons out of the flutes and lyres.  A large number of the fort’s occupants were slain; and a signal was given to Nearchus, who was waiting in the harbor for this signal. 

He then entered the city and took possession of it. 



Read more on similar subjects in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: