Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories

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3 – Battle of Callinicum (531)

This battle was another Pyrrhic victory for the Sassanid Empire and is noteworthy because it is one of the rare defeats suffered by legendary Byzantine general Belisarius. The two empires fought almost constantly in a conflict that ultimately destroyed the Sassanid’s in the 7th century and weakened the Byzantine Empire significantly. The empires broke their 20-year truce in 526 and went to war over the Christian kingdom of Iberia in the Caucasus Mountains.

After Belisarius brilliantly defeated the Persians at Dara in 530 despite being heavily outnumbered, the Sassanid’s elected to invade Syria as a means of turning the tide in the war. However, Belisarius responded quickly and forced the Persians into a battle in what is modern day Syria.

The two armies were evenly matched with approximately 20,000 men apiece, and both armies consisted mainly of cavalry. Incidentally, Belisarius didn’t want a major battle and hoped to drive away the enemy. His men demanded a conflict, so he acquiesced to quell any potential mutiny.

It was a fiercely contested battle as both sides fought to a stalemate for most of the day. Eventually, one of the Persian generals, Al-Mundhir III ibn, surprised the Byzantines with a fast infantry attack which overwhelmed the Ghassanid infantry section of Belisarius’ army. The Persians penned the enemy in near the river, but the Byzantine commander was able to avoid a massacre as his army inflicted heavy casualties on the Persians. Ultimately, Belisarius was able to retreat with a portion of his army.

While the Sassanid’s won a strategic victory of sorts, they suffered serious losses to the point where they couldn’t continue with their invasion of Syria. The Persian Emperor stripped the army’s main general (Azarethes) of command as he was displeased with the outcome of the battle and the conduct of his general. The war was the first in a series of mutually destructive wars between the two empires and also ended Belisarius’ first campaign against the Sassanid’s.

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