Sieges (2) Early Defences and Siegecraft

Sieges, Part 2, Early Defences and Siegecraft


“And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city...and they burnt it.”[15]

(Weapons and Warfare Illustration)

The fall of the walls of Jericho, ca 1400 BC.

The trumpets blew, and in 1400 BC the walls of Jericho that had been built over 9000 years before our present time, came tumbling down.  In the intervening years since Joshua besieged Jericho, little has changed in the apparent fact that whenever one group of people sets up a position from which they can defend themselves, another group will soon set to the task of defeating it.  Necessity being the mother of invention, as one chieftain, king or pharaoh developed a practicable plan of defense or assault; another would in turn attempt to devise a better one to overcome it.

As the means and methods to wage war developed and became more sophisticated, so too did the ideas and technology that had to be developed in order for civilizations to survive.  The technological battle continues to this day in a constant seesaw of change.  This change can perhaps best be described as a form of pendulum that swings on an erratic and often rapid centre-pin of new ideas.

Inventive ideas are something no one has a monopoly on, even though the results of these ideas have come to affect millions of lives touched by them.  It has also been observed that no matter how good an idea is, one cannot safely rely on it as a sole means of defense for too long, because a determined enemy willing to pay the price will quickly bring a better idea into play against it.  This book will examine the pendulum effect that ultimately renders the newest defensive or offensive idea obsolete in the shortest possible time.

To discuss the issues and events encompassed in this book, the evolution of fortifications and the weapons and methods of sieges used to conquer them will be examined concurrently.  Examples of particularly noteworthy sieges both successful and unsuccessful will be discussed in order to demonstrate the premise that, ultimately, no fortress can be considered impregnable.

(Engraving by P. Newark)

Medieval Castle under siege.[16]

Early Defences

The first military engineer was probably the cave-dweller who was faced with the problem of defending his lair against both wild beasts and his fellow-men.  He may have solved this by improving on an already existing natural obstacle, barricading the entrance or keeping it just high enough to be able to see over the top and yet still be able to throw missiles through a carefully sighted gap.  Other primitive societies would have built their houses in trees, or on piles surrounded by water, all of them either creating an obstacle or improving on a natural one.  Early defenders also quickly discovered the advantages of sighting their defensive positions on high ground, finding it easier to throw stones and debris downward upon an attacker, rather than upward.  Being in a high place also conferred an advantage of early-warning through observation of approaching intruders.[17]

As technology and invention progressed, advances in methods of siege and defence were also made.  A simple wall of earth, wood or stone could often adequately provide protection against the primitive weapons in use in ancient times.  Basic walls worked well until the invention of practical artillery beginning with catapults and leading into the age of gunpowder.  The Greek fortresses of Mycenae and Tiryns were in existence as far back as 1500 BC.  Their designs incorporated tortuous approaches and successive turns which forced an attacker to expose his unshielded right side.  Both the attacker and the defenders needed large numbers of trained soldiers to ensure a successful outcome, and thus the maintenance of large standing armies became the rule.  Over the years however, necessity demanded that the various forms of fixed defence works continue to be expanded and improved upon throughout the world.  In time the successful defence of a town, village, city fortification or fortress would often become crucial to the survival of an army or a nation.  The construction of walled defenses and fortifications became a science necessary to the preservation of the way of life for many of the earliest civilizations.  Fortification can therefore be defined as the deliberate erection of physical structures intended to provide a military advantage to a defender and to impede, or otherwise disadvantage, an attacker.[18]

By the Bronze Age there was unambiguous evidence of fortifications built exclusively for military purposes.  The first undisputed example of a fortified city was Urak in Mesopotamia dating from 2700 BC.  It enclosed a population of 3,000 to 5,000.   The fortress of Buhen built in the Sudan around 2200 BC was 180 yards square, surrounded by a mud-brick wall 15 feet thick and 30 feet high. The wall had firing bastions (an extension of a protective wall, usually found on the corners of a fortress) every 30 feet.  A moat surrounded the outer wall and was 26 feet across and 18 feet deep, with yet another steep glacis (a gently sloping bank, in particular one that slopes down from a fort, exposing attackers to the defenders' missiles), on the inner slope.  The gate complex was 45 feet high and stretched from the inner wall across the moat, allowing archers to control fire along parallel approaches. As impressive as this fortress was, it was dwarfed in size and complexity by fortifications of the Iron Age.  The Israelite fortress at Hazor, for example, had walls that ran 3,000 feet by 21,000 feet.  The city of Qatna had walls 4 miles long, and the Hittite capital of Boghazkoy had walls that ran for 6 miles.  The entire wall of Boghazkoy and its supporting strong points were made of solid rock and brick.  So important were fortifications to the ancient armies that the need to secure adequate wood and stone supplies led both Egypt and Assyria to occupy Lebanon for centuries.[19]

Siegecraft is arguably one of the oldest and most successful military tactics in continuous use in warfare, extending back perhaps beyond recorded time.  For example, in the period from 400 BC to 200 BC the Greeks made great progress in the use of the principles of tension and torsion, which they applied to the design and implementation of siege artillery.  Some of these ancient siege engines had a range of more than 500 yards and were extremely well constructed.  Archimedes designed a number of them and it has been documented that he took part in the defence of Syracuse in 212 BC.[20]

The Greeks also developed the idea of a “flanking tower,” which became an important element in the design of later fortifications.  Flanking walls permitted defenders to fire down on their attackers from more than one angle.  Sieges therefore began to be drawn out affairs as defensive installations became more difficult to overcome.[21]  Whole campaigns came to revolve around some of the most famous sieges, and this in turn caused many of them to be considered more important than battles.[22]

By its very nature, a siege involves an assault on an opposing force attempting to defend itself from behind a position of some strength.  For the purposes of this book then, when an attacking force conducts an assault against a place with a view to capturing it or compelling the occupants to surrender, then a state of siege can be said to exist.[23]

The basic methods of attacking a fortification remained essentially the same over the centuries, and include one or a combination of the following: scaling or climbing the obstacle; breaching the obstacle by battering or undermining its gates or walls; setting it on fire; starving out the garrison; making use of treachery, bribery and various methods of deception or trickery.

No fortress could be considered impregnable in view of the available means to defeat them, but from the beginning, fortresses have been designed as places of refuge with the expectation that adequate preparations will be made for defence against a possible siege.  An exception to this rule is the Roman villa, which was the castle’s predecessor.  It was unfortified because it depended entirely on Roman law and the Roman legions for its security and defence.[24]

Not all fortresses are made of walls and stone.  In the late 1990’s a proposal was made to assemble a so-called protective umbrella of an anti-missile Star Wars system known as SDI.  Although it was never implemented, due to the fall of the Soviet Union, Star Wars may be considered an example of modern thinking that still leans towards reliance on an all-encompassing defensive system.  At one point there were military and civilian planners who thought Star Wars would be “the last fortress,” needed for the defense of North America.[25]

As of 11 September 2001, Osama bin Laden and the terrorists of Al Qaeda have changed that perception by demonstrating that no matter how powerful a state may be, a new or unexpected method may be found to attack it.[26]  Technological change is bound to render any existing defensive system obsolete one day, so even Star Wars programs could not have been considered an ultimate safeguard.

Strong Walls

Sieges, although a very old concept and idea, are still a topic of current concern.  On 5 February 1994 during the 22 month long siege of Sarajevo, a series of mortar rounds were dropped in the city marketplace, killing 69 people and wounding 170 more.  I passed by the site of this attack in the fall of 1997, and the shell craters are filled in  but marked with red paint or wax to leave a continuing reminder of the siege.[27]  The attacks by terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 (now universally known as “9/11”) re-ignited Western thinking on how to create a “Fortress America.”  The concept has gone into high-gear actuality with the inception of United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) which officially stood up at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on 1 October 2002.  USNORTHCOM currently works in close concert with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) which operates from Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station (CMAFS), also in Colorado Springs.  Cheyenne Mountain itself was once considered an impregnable “fortress,” and it would appear that it may have had its usefulness extended well beyond the nuclear age through the age of counter-terrorism.  In the end, however it too will one day be overcome by time and technology.

The successful taking of a fortress or systems of defense-works was often due to its defenders being “outthought” long before they were “outfought.”  As noted, bribery, treachery, deception and assorted trickery was often brought into play when assaults failed.  There were instances of armed men being smuggled into a castle hidden in fodder carts before actual hostilities had begun.  Once through the gate, they would leap out and overpower the guard and so let in their comrades.  Forgery was also tried.  The Krak des Chevaliers, the largest of the Crusader castles, was besieged twelve times without success by the Saracens and continued to hold out when all the other castles had been taken.[28]  In 1271 however, the surviving Hospitaller Knights were shown a letter purporting to have come from the Grand Master of his Order, commanding him to surrender, as he could not be relieved.  The Castellan accepted this, and surrendered to Sultan Baibar, only to find out later that the letter was a fake.[29]

(Bernard Gagnon Photo)

Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers, Northwest Syria.


The Krak des Chevaliers has a tall and clearly defined talus, which is an architectural feature of a number of late medieval castles, especially prevalent in crusader constructions.  It consists of a battered (sloping) face at the base of a fortified wall.  The slope acts as an effective defensive measure in two ways.  First, conventional siege equipment is less effective against a wall with a talus.  Scaling ladders may be unable to reach the top of the walls and are also more easily broken due to the bending stresses caused by the angle they are forced to adopt.  Siege towers cannot approach closer than the base of the talus, and their gangplank may be unable to cover the horizontal span of the talus, rendering them useless.  Furthermore, defenders are able to drop rocks over the walls, which will shatter on the talus, spraying a hail of shrapnel into any attackers massed at the base of the wall.

Bribery was also often successful.  In 1097, the Crusaders besieged Antioch for six months without success.  Bohemond, who was one of their leaders, however, managed to persuade the Muslim commander on one of the towers of the city to admit a troop of his men.  They were let in at night, and made themselves masters of the wall, whereby the city capitulated.[30]

In the days following the age of the caveman, defenders often had to rely on natural obstacles such as thorn hedges.  Eventually, stronger defenses were required, such as ditches and banks of earth.  The first really solid obstacle designed to keep invaders out was undoubtedly the “wall.”  The basic problem faced by besieging forces for all the centuries between ancient civilizations and the Middle Ages and onwards then, was to get over, under or through the protective walls held by a determined defender.[31]

Small numbers of professional soldiers and mercenaries fighting from behind the parapet of a high wall could and often did hold off larger numbers of assailants indefinitely.  As long as both sides in a siege relied upon conventional weapons, the advantage generally lay with the defenders if they had a good wall in front of them.  There were many ways for attackers to deal with a wall.  They could go over it, using scaling ladders and tall towers; they could go through it using battering rams; or they could go under it by tunneling or mining.  [32]

Ditches could be filled with fascines (a bundle of rods, sticks, or plastic pipes bound together, used in construction or military operations for filling in marshy ground or other obstacles and for strengthening the sides of embankments, ditches, or trenches).  Fascine bundles were used in military defences for revetting (shoring up) trenches or ramparts, especially around artillery batteries, or filling in ditches from earlier military actions.  They were also used as a visual obstruction, providing cover for sappers and engineers.  Military fascine bridges were used on a regular basis by the Romans to cross obstacles. Subsequently, the use of fascines by military engineers continued almost wherever armies were deployed.

(Alan Wilson Photo)

British First World War Mk. IV (Male) Tank with a fascine.  Built in 1917 by William Foster & Co Ltd, this Mk. IV was part of a batch of 101 tanks numbered from 2300 to 2400.   It is one of seven survivors from the 1,220 Mk. IV tanks built and is preserved in operational condition, although it is not run to avoid damage from wear and tear. It is currently on display at The Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset, UK.

(Clarinetlover Photo)

Replica catapult on display in the town hall of Mercato San Severino, Italy.

In the early stages of a siege against a castle, the attackers would surround and assault the walls with scaling ladders, and the moat could be filled in.  Catapults and battering rams would be brought forward and used to open a breach in the wall, which would give the attacker access to the first enclave.  All attempts would be made to make a breach sufficiently wide to permit the maximum number of combatants to gain access to the fortress.  During a longer siege, trenches and tunnels would undermine the base of the walls and towers, while the defenders would dig counter-saps or attempt to plug the gaps with stockades and abbatis of wood.  In response, the attackers would fill the tunnels with piles of burning firewood, which in turn weakened the walls causing them to collapse.  If all these efforts to reduce the defense systems of the castle failed, then the option of starving the garrison out was employed.  Castles could never hold sufficient provisions to keep large numbers of villagers from the surrounding area supplied, and rationing would have been required, leaving the defenders unable to hold out for long periods.[33]

A 13th century CE illustration showing a medieval siege in France. From the Maciejowski Bible ca. 1240 CE. (Pierpont Morgan Library)

Starvation as a siege method often required a considerable length of time, something medieval siege armies rarely had available to them.  If the Castellan of the besieged castle had done his job well, he would have ensured adequate water and provisions had been stored for all the defenders and livestock present.  The attacker in turn had to ensure he had sufficient men to completely cordon off and blockade the defending garrison.  He also had to have enough funds to pay his men and sufficient resources to provision them well.  If he did not, he could find himself in the position of being forced to raise a siege because of the starvation of his attacking force.  In dangerous country, it was difficult to keep an army together, as the larger the force, the farther out foraging parties had to scavenge to gather supplies, which in turn meant there were fewer men to work in the blockading forces.  In many instances, the besieging army simply melted away long before the defending forces could be forced to capitulate.[34]

A slow siege that could be sustained by an attacker could force a garrison to surrender to keep its occupants from starving to death.  For this reason, castles that were most at risk of being besieged were usually well stocked with food.  Food storage was a serious problem, however, as most provisions had only a short shelf-life and had to be frequently renewed.  This gave the attacker the incentive to allow sufficient time for the slow process of starvation to compel the surrender of the castle.  The besieged, however, could often count on the timely arrival of a relieving force, provided messengers could be sent to them before the castle was completely cut off by the attacker.  For this reason, a set of “rules” was worked out and was generally adhered to.  The outcome of a siege under these rules became somewhat of a gamble for both sides, with the “game” being governed by these strict rules.  In the siege of Dolforwyn, in England, the garrison “gave eight hostages, the best after the constable, as a guarantee that they will surrender the castle on the Thursday after the close of Easter unless they are relieved by Llywelyn, and if relieved, the hostages are to be returned to them.”  The choice of date by which the castle should be relieved or surrendered was crucial and represented the gamble in the negotiation.  Whenever a castle was yielded the garrison was usually allowed to march away.  Only when it was taken by assault do we find evidence of wholesale slaughter.[35]

Early field fortifications were often simple obstacles erected shortly before a battle for temporary use while the battle was being fought.  Industrious and frightened defenders eventually began to refine their simple pits or ditches by adding sharpened stakes and complicated gateways.  The prehistoric earthworks found in England for example, at such places as Maiden Castle in Sussex, and Old Sarum, near Salisbury dating back to 3600 BC, show ingenious arrangements of obstacles in which an attacker could be trapped and exterminated.[36]

(Joris van Rooden Photo)

A large section of the Servian Wall, near the Termini Train Station, Rome, Italy.

When Rome was captured by the Gauls in 390 BC, a wall was built around it, known as the “Wall of Servius Tullius.”  Constantine the Great who reigned from 288-337 AD, built the fortress of Deutz 307 AD, and a bridgehead over the Rhine at Cologne.  (Constantine is said to have seen the symbol of the cross in the sky just before a battle, and the words, “In this sign, conquer,” in  312 AD).  In 330 AD Constantine founded the new city of Constantinople, giving it his own name.  Constantinople was itself developed on the site of the old Hellenistic town of Byzantium.  The fortifications built by the emperor made Constantinople impregnable for many years.

Temporary wooden fortifications were also developed at an early date.  When William the Conqueror’s Norman soldiers landed in England in 1066, they brought with them prefabricated defense towers which they immediately erected on the beach.[37]

From such early fortifications eventually evolved the concept of constructing long defensive lines consisting of ditches backed by earthen walls.  These required great managerial and organizational skills and resources, and the ability to put thousands of men to work in a coordinated fashion.  The Chinese, Sumerian, Hellenic and Roman Empires all invested heavily in the erection of continuous barriers.  Even the most powerful of these systems however, were far from impenetrable.[38]

Sculpture of a Roman watchtower and beacon on the lower Danube frontier, ca 113 AD.

(Ekem Photo)

Roman fortress reconstruction, Saalburg Main Gate (Porta Praetoria), Germany.

(Mediatus Photo)

Roman castle of Iciniacum near Theilenhofen in Bavaria Germany.

The Romans tried to solve their frontier problems by constructing linear defenses consisting of individual forts connected by continuous stretches of ditch and rampart.  The Limes Germanicus for example, ran from the Rhine near Koblenz to the Danube near Regensburg, a distance of some 300 miles, and consisted of isolated forts connected by walls, only part of which were stone.  The greatest lengths of the Limes, however, consisted of earthen ramparts surmounted by wooden palisades and fronted by a ditch.

Hadrian’s Roman Wall in England dates from the earlier period of 120 AD and runs for 73 miles, mostly following high ground that slopes steeply away in front.  Sixteen main forts held the Roman garrisons, and every mile there was a smaller work in the form of a rectangular tower.  The weakness in this type of defense is that the attacker can choose the time and place of his attack, which means that the whole length of the line has to be permanently and equally strongly garrisoned.  Once an attack has begun, the threatened sector has to be swiftly reinforced with reserves, thereby leaving another area unprotected.  The Romans either did not take this factor into account, or chose not to build strongpoints behind their lines.  Once an invader had broken through, he could easily devastate the countryside behind the wall.  This also applied if the attacker was able to outflank the wall, which is what happened in 1940 to France’s Maginot Line, when the Germans found a way around it through the Ardennes forest.[39]

(Florival fr Photo)

Musée Mémorial de la Ligne Maginot du Rhin, Maginot Line Casemate, south of Strasbourg, France.

The Casemate de Marckolsheim Sud is a pre-Second World War fortified position near the Rhine river in eastern France.  The casemate was part of an extension of the Maginot Line fortifications along France's border with Germany.  As a unit of the Fortified Sector of Colmar, the casemate was part of French defences during the German assault of 15–18 June 1940, Operation Kleiner Bär.  It has been preserved and is part of a museum focusing on the Rhine section of the Maginot Line.  The museum is located at the eastern edge of the town of Marckolsheim.

The Great Wall of China, built and expanded on between the 3rd century BC and the 15th century, was primarily put up as a means of protection for the rich interior of China against the attacks of the numerous invaders who sought its riches.  It is also an astonishing achievement for human labor, measuring over 6000 km in length and crossing 21 points of longitude.[40]

Siege of Sharuhen, ca. 1530 BC

Warfare and conflict in the Middle East is vastly ancient in terms of its continued longevity.  Following the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt in the second half of the 16th century BCE, they fled to Sharuhen and fortified it.  Sharuhen was an ancient town in the Negev Desert or perhaps in Gaza.  The armies of Pharaoh Ahmose I seized and razed the town after a three-year siege.

The destruction of Sharuhen was merely the first stage of a new policy of pre-emptive warfare waged by the Egyptians.  Because the Egyptians of the 17th Dynasty felt deeply humiliated by the 15th and 16th Dynasty rule of the Hyksos (ca. 1650 BCE-ca. 1540 BCE), the Theban dynasty launched an ambitious war, led by Sequenere Tao, against the foreign king, Apepi, to reclaim lost territory.  Though his own campaign to expel the Hyksos from Egypt failed, and he himself was killed in battle, his son, Kamose, launched an attack on the Hyksos capital of Avaris.  It was his much younger brother, Ahmose I, however, who finally succeeded in recapturing Avaris, razing it, and expelling the Hyksos rulers from Egypt altogether.

The profound insult of the foreign rule to the honour and integrity of Egypt could be corrected, and its recurrence prevented, only by extending Egypt's hegemony over the Asiatics to the north and east of Egypt.  Ahmose I engaged in a retaliative three-year siege of Sharuhen, thereby launching an aggressive policy of pre-emptive warfare.  His success was continued by his successor but one, Thutmose I, who extended Egyptian influence as far as the Mitanni kingdom in the north and Mesopotamia in the east, thereby creating what was to become the most extensive empire in the ancient world.

Map of Egyptian military campaigns, including the possible location of Sharuhen.

Sharuhen is mentioned in the bible in Joshua 19:6 in the description of the allotment of the Tribe of Simeon.  (Donald B. Redford, The Wars in Syria and Palestine of Thutmose III, Brill, Laden, Boston, 2003)

Siege of Megiddo, ca. 1457 BC

The Battle of Megiddo (15th century BC) was fought between Egyptian forces under the command of Pharaoh Thutmose III and a large rebellious coalition of Canaanite vassal states led by the king of Kadesh.  It is the first battle to have been recorded in what is accepted as relatively reliable detail.  Megiddo is also the first recorded use of the composite bow and the first body count.  All details of the battle come from Egyptian sources, primarily the hieroglyphic writings on the Hall of Annals in the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, Thebes (now Luxor), by the military scribe Tjaneni.

The ancient Egyptian account gives the date of the battle as the 21st day of the first month of the third season, of Year 23 of the reign of Thutmose III.  It has been claimed that this was 16 April 1457 BC according to the Middle Chronology, although other publications place the battle in 1482 BC or 1479 BC.  The Battle of Megiddo was an Egyptian victory and resulted in a rout of the Canaanite forces, which fled to safety in the city of Megiddo.  Their action resulted in the subsequent lengthy Siege of Megiddo.  By reestablishing Egyptian dominance in the levant, Thutmose III began a reign in which the Egyptian Empire reached its greatest expanse.

(Alma E. Guinness Photo)

Model of the Fortress of Megiddo, 1457 BC.

(Avram Graicer Photo)

Aerial view of Tel Megiddo, northern Israel.

Pharaoh Thutmose III began a reign in which the Egyptian Empire reached its greatest expanse by reinforcing the long-standing Egyptian presence in the Levant.  After waiting impatiently for the end of his regency by the Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut, he immediately responded to a revolt of local rulers near Kadesh in the vicinity of modern-day Syria.  As Egyptian buffer provinces in the land of the Amurru along the border with the Hittites attempted to change their vassalage, Thutmose III dealt with the threat personally.  The Canaanites are thought to have been allied with the Mitanni and Amurru from the region of the two rivers between the headwaters of the Orontes and the Jordan.  The driving and main force behind this revolt was the King of Kadesh.  The powerful fortress of Kadesh offered protection to him and the city.  The King of Megiddo, with an equally strong fortress, joined the alliance.  The importance of Megiddo was its geographical location along the southwestern edge of the Jezreel Valley just beyond the Mount Carmel ridge and the Mediterranean Sea.  From this location, Megiddo controlled the Via Maris, the main trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The Egyptian inscriptions of the campaign on the Temple of Karnak come from a daily journal kept by the scribe Tjaneni during the campaign.  In the Egyptian account, Thutmose III gathered an army of chariots and infantry that numbered between ten and twenty thousand men.  As the Egyptians mustered their forces, the king of Kadesh gathered many tribal chieftains from Syria, Aram and Canaan around him, estimated at between ten and fifteen thousand, entered Megiddo and set his forces at the waters of Taanach.  He expected that his enemy would come by way of Dothaim - Taanach, the main route from the Mediterranean lowlands into the Valley of Kishon, and from Egypt to Mesopotamia.  The army assembled at the border fortress of Tjaru (called Sile in Greek) and arrived ten days later at the loyal city of Gaza.  After one day's rest, the armuy left for the city of Yehem, which was reached after 11 days. H ere, Thutmose sent out scouts.  To continue north, they had to pass the Mount Carmel ridge.  Behind it lay the city and fortress of Megiddo, where the revolting forces had gathered.  There were three possible routes from Yehem to Megiddo.  Both the northern route, via Zefti and Yokneam, and the southern route, by way of Taanach, gave safe access to the Jezreel Valley.  The middle route, via Aruna (modern Wadi Ara), was more direct but risky; it followed a narrow ravine, and the troops could only travel single-file.  If the enemy waited at the end of the ravine, the Egyptians would risk being cut down piecemeal.  The army leaders pleaded with him not to take the difficult road but to take either of the two easier roads.  Instead, with information from the scouts, Thutmose III decided to take the direct path to Megiddo.  He believed that if his generals advised him to take the easy route, then his enemy would assume he would do so, so he decided to do the unexpected.

The King of Kadesh had left large infantry detachments guarding the two more likely paths, and virtually ignored Aruna, the narrow mountain pass coming in from the south.  Ignoring the danger of spreading out his army in the mountains where leading elements might be subject to enemy ambush in narrow mountain passes, and his main force still far behind in Aruna, unable to come to their aid, Thutmose took the direct route through Wadi Ara.  To reduce the risk, Thutmose himself led his men through Aruna.  With his infantry and the light cavalry of mounted bowmen, known as haibrw or the horsemen going by the side of the mountains, to take out any scouts that might be posted and leaving the road to the main force of chariots, he moved in quickly.  With the city lightly guarded by the enemy, Thutmose led a quick assault, scattered the rebels and entered the valley unopposed. Now, the Egyptian army had a clear path to Megiddo, with large parts of the rebel army far away to the north and south.

Thutmose seized the opportunity.  He set up camp at the end of the day, but during the night arrayed his forces close to the enemy; the next morning, they attacked.  It cannot be established if the surprised King of Kadesh had managed to fully prepare for battle.  Even if he did, it did not do him much good.  Though his forces were on high ground adjacent to the fortress, the Egyptian line was arranged in a concave formation, consisting of three wings, that threatened both Caanite flanks.  Both the Egyptians and the Caananites are estimated to have had around 1,000 chariots and 10,000 infantry.  The Pharaoh led the attack from the center.  The combination of position and numbers, superior maneuverability of their left wing along with an early, bold attack, broke the enemy's will; their line immediately collapsed.  Those near the city fled into it, closing the gates behind them.

The Egyptian soldiers fell to plundering the enemy camp.  During the plunder they captured 924 chariots and 200 suits of armor. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, during this confusion, the scattered Caananite forces, including the kings of Kadesh and Megiddo, were able to rejoin the defenders inside the city.  Those inside lowered tied-together clothing to the men and chariots and pulled them up over the walls. Thus, the opportunity of a quick capture of the city following the battle was lost.

The city was besieged for seven months and the King of Kadesh escaped.  Tuthmoses built a moat and a wooden palisade, eventually forcing its occupants to surrender.  At Karnak it is recorded that the victorious army took home 340 prisoners, 2,041 mares, 191 foals, 6 stallions, 924 chariots, 200 suits of armor, 502 bows, 1,929 cattle, 22,500 sheep, and the royal armour, chariot and tent-poles of the King of Megiddo.  The city and citizens were spared.  A number of other cities in the Jezreel Valley were conquered and Egyptian authority in the area was restored.

Egypt's realm was expanded by this campaign.  Thutmose III required from the defeated kings that they each send a son to the Egyptian court.  There, they received an Egyptian education.  When they returned to their homelands, they governed with Egyptian sympathies. Nevertheless, the victory at Megiddo was only the beginning of the pacification of the Levant.  Only after several further campaigns, conducted almost annually, was the unrest cooled.  One unanticipated result came in the form of the word Armageddon, which took its root from Megiddo's name.  (Cline, Eric H. The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age. University of Michigan Press, May 2002)

Jericho, 7000 BC

The first town to encircle itself with a complete belt of permanent stone fortifications is thought to have been Jericho, about 7000 BC.[41]  The Sumerian cities of Mesopotamia, like Ur and Lagash, whose foundations date back to 3500 BC, were impressive structures with crenellated walls and imposing towered gateways rising high above the irrigated flood plain of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.[42]  A Sumerian wall was built covering some 50 miles between these two rivers about this same time, and enough of it still stood more than 3000 years later, to pose difficulties for Alexander the Great (336-323 BC).  The Greek fortresses of Mycenae and Tiryns date back to 1500 BC, but the earliest detailed references about them occur in the period 1300-1200 BC.[43]


The taking of the walls of Jericho, 1400 BC.

The absolute masters of rapid siege assault were the Assyrian armies of the 8th century BC.  Their technique was to co-ordinate several different types of assault on the walls at the same time but in different places.  Battering rams supported by siege towers were brought into position at several points along the wall.  At the same time scaling ladders with lever crews were deployed at other points.  Sappers and tunnelers worked to gain entry from beneath by weakening and collapsing a section of the foundation.  At the appropriate time, scaling ladders were used to mount attacks over the wall at several points in an effort to force the defender to disperse his forces.  The idea was to quickly mass more soldiers at the point of entry than the defender could bring to bear.  As a rule of thumb, a city could mount about 25 percent of its population to defend against attack.  Thus, a city of 30,000 could muster fewer than 8,000 men to defend against an attacking force that typically exceeded 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers.  The advantage almost always rested with the besieging army.[44]

A wheeled siege engine is depicted in this 9th century BC bas-relief of an Assyrian attack, found in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC), at Nimrud.

Strong walls and a good defensive position built high on a rocky hill were in use up through the Middle Ages.  Living rock is very hard for an enemy to mine, and placing the fortification on high ground gives the defender the gravitational advantage of being able to throw rocks, heavy stones and spears down on the attackers putting them at a severe disadvantage.[45]

As recorded at Jericho however, high walls alone were rarely sufficient to keep out an attacker.  Bribery and trickery were often extremely useful tools in a besieger’s method-book.  Bold men willing to risk all on a slim chance abound in medieval stories and songs.  There are many instances of armed men being smuggled into a castle hidden in fodder carts, often well before hostilities began.  Once through the gates, they would leap out and overpower the guards, open the doors and let in their comrades.[46]

It is at the siege of Troy (1194-1184 BC) that the idea of deception is first recorded as having been a successful means of overcoming an impregnable fortress.

Siege of Troy ca. 1200 BC

In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of  Troy by the Achaeans (Greeks) after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, King of Sparta.  The war is one of the most important events in Greek mythology and has been narrated through many works of Greek literature, most notably Homer's Iliad.  The Iliad relates four days in the tenth year of the decade-long siege of Troy; the Odyssey describes the journey home of Odysseus, one of the war's heroes.  Other parts of the war are described in a cycle of epic poems, which have survived through fragments.  Eratosthenes gives a dating of the war as 1194–1184 BC, which roughly corresponds with archaeological evidence of a catastrophic burning of Troy.

From the beginning of the Trojan War, the Greek army failed to take into account that one of the most elementary rules of siegecraft is the requirement for the use of siege engines and sapping techniques to break into a walled fortress such as the one they besieged at Troy, sited on a hill in present day Northwest Turkey.[47]

The battle therefore took on a curious pattern whereby the Trojans, supposedly under siege, staged numerous attacks against the besieger’s lines.  On one occasion they even reached the Greek ships, setting many of them on fire before successfully withdrawing to their apparently impregnable fortress.  According to Homer’s Iliad, it took ten years of war for the Greeks to fight their way up to the walls of Troy.  The problem remained of how to get inside.

Mykonos vase depicting the Trojan Horse.

A man named Odysseus worked out an ingenious scheme of building a huge wooden horse and equipping it with a small commando force hidden inside.  When the horse had been constructed and manned, the main Greek force carried out a successful deception plan by sailing away from Troy.  The Trojans believed that their enemies had abandoned the siege and were going back to their own country.  The Greeks however, had only sailed just beyond the nearest headland, and were in fact anchored nearby.  They had left behind a man named Sinon, who must have been quite an actor, because he was able to convince the Trojans that he was a deserter.  More importantly, he also convinced them to tow the wooden horse into Troy.

Under the cover of darkness, the task force emerged from the horse and opened a gate in the wall.  The rest of the Greek army had meanwhile stealthily returned and had taken up a position just outside the city walls.  Achieving complete surprise, the Greeks stormed into Troy and after fierce house-to-house fighting, burning and looting as they advanced, they forced the Trojans to surrender.  The victorious Greeks captured Helen, the woman who started it all by eloping with the Trojan prince, Paris.  The Greeks then sacked Troy, killed its king, enslaved its women, and then sailed home with their prisoners.[48]

Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector's body around Troy, from a panoramic fresco of the Achilleion by Franz Matsch.

Later defensive works would require more direct methods of overcoming a defenders wall than a wooden horse.  Philip II of Macedon used siege engines and the services of Greek engineers to great effect in his assaults on the cities of Perinthus and Byzantium, and his son, Alexander the Great was also reputedly a master of siegecraft.[49]  He demonstrated his skill in this area at the siege of Tyre.[50]

Earliest Siegecraft  

The use of siegecraft and machines to defeat fortresses and defensive positions predates recorded time.  They were known to the men of the Old Testament, such as King Uzziah of Judah who “made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal.”[56]

Over the years many ingenious siege devices would be invented.  Archimedes is known to have designed and manufactured a giant missile-launcher that could throw an 1800-lb boulder for the defense of Syracuse in 215 BC.[57]  Other machines were used to fling Greek fire, balls of lead, quick-lime, red-hot sand, boiling water, iron-tipped poles, and huge lumps of baked clay that disintegrated on contact and could not be fired back by the enemy.[58]

Greek Fire, ca 672

Greek fire was an incendiary weapon used by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire that was first developed c. 672.  The Byzantines typically used it in naval battles to great effect, as it could continue burning while floating on water.  It provided a technological advantage and was responsible for many key Byzantine military victories, most notably the salvation of Constantinople from two Arab sieges, thus securing the Empire's survival.

The impression made by Greek fire on the western European Crusaders was such that the name was applied to any sort of incendiary weapon, including those used by Arabs, the Chinese, and the Mongols.  However, these were different mixtures and not the same formula as the Byzantine Greek fire, which was a closely guarded state secret.  Byzantines also used pressurized nozzles or siph?ns to project the liquid onto the enemy.

The composition of Greek fire remains a matter of speculation and debate, with various proposals including combinations of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, calcium phosphide, sulfur or niter.

(Harper's engraving)

Engraving of a 13th century catapult throwing Greek fire.

The Catapult, painting by Sir Edward Poynter.

Roman soldiers manning a siege engine for an attack on the walls of Carthage, during the siege which ended in the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.  The image is from a painting by Sir E. Poynter showing a torsion powered arrow shooting catapult crewed by roman soldiers and sheltered under a protective shed.  This torsion catapult, powered by a twisted skein of rope, or horse hair, is a cross between Archimedes spring engine and a Roman mangonel or onager.   The soldier standing at the top of frame is setting the missile, while the rest of the crew draws down the arm.  When released, the arm, complete with fist, strikes the missile and sends it off on a ballistic path toward the enemy.  The famous command of Cato the Elder, "Delenda est Carthago" (quoted in Pultarch's "Life of Cato") is carved in the wood of the huge catapult.

Because of their nature and size, solid foundations were needed to support siege engines.  The vibration of a torsion device could do as much damage to walls and towers as all the efforts of an attacker combined.  Three basic forms of siege artillery came into early use.  They were collectively known as “petrarri”, or “stone-throwers.”  The mangonel was an early form of mortar, which used torsion as a source of launching power.  Two stout posts were mounted on a firm chassis, and joined together with skeins of rope.  A beam with a hollowed-out spoon-shaped depression at the throwing end would be placed in-between the two posts.  The missile, usually a stone or in some cases a fire-pot would be inserted in the scoop; the rope would be twisted by a windlass to create torsion, and the ammunition would be released on command.  This would cause the beam to snap forward sharply, propelling its load in a high-arcing trajectory towards the intended target.  Dead animals, the heads of prisoners and other items could also be launched.  These weapons were not very accurate, but could be effective when bombarding the interior structures of a castle, spreading alarm and confusion.[59]


The second type of siege engine used tension as the propelling power for its missiles.  These were known as “ballista,” and they were similar to a large crossbow, working on the same principle.  Like the mangonel, the ballista originated with the Greeks, and it was in use at the siege of Rome in 537 AD.  Procopius described them in use as “machines, which have the general shape of a bow, but in the middle is a hollow piece of horn fixed loosely to the bow, and lying over a straight stock.[60]  When intending to fire at the enemy, you pull back the short strong cord that joins the arms of the bow, and place in the horn a bolt, four times as thick as the ordinary arrow, but furnished with wooden projections exactly reproducing the shape of the feathers.  Men standing on either side of the weapon draw back the cord with winches.  When they let it go, the horn rushes forward and discharges the bolt.”  Procopius later wrote that he saw a mailed Goth impaled against a tree by a bolt from a ballista.  In another case a monk named Abbo described a ballista’’ in use at the siege of Paris in 885-886 AD.[61]  He saw a bolt go through three Danes all at once, leaving them like a “chicken on a spit.” Abbot Ebolus, a skilled member of the church militant who had fired the bolt, called down to his comrades and told them they should pick the Danes up and take them to the kitchen.  The ballista had a flat trajectory and was reasonably accurate, as it could be aimed by traversing its carriage.  Its primary use was as an anti-personnel weapon, although a few versions were used to throw stones.[62]

Roman Ballista.  

The early Roman ballistae were made of wood, and held together with iron plates around the frames and iron nails in the stand.  The main stand had a slider on the top, into which were loaded the bolts or stone 'shot'.  Attached to this, at the back, was a pair of winches and a claw, used to ratchet the bowstring back to the armed firing position.  A slider passed through the field frames of the weapon, in which were located the torsion springs (rope made of animal sinew, which were twisted around the bow arms, which in turn were attached to the bowstring.  Drawing the bowstring back with the winches twisted the already taut springs, storing the energy to fire the projectiles.

The ballista was a highly accurate weapon (there are many accounts right from its early history of single soldiers being picked off by the operators), but some design aspects meant it could compromise its accuracy for range.  The lightweight bolts could not gain the high momentum of the stones over the same distance as those thrown by the later onagers, trebuchets or mangonels; these could be as heavy as 90–135 kg (200-300 pounds).  The Romans continued the development of the ballista, and it became a highly prized and valued weapon in the army of the Roman Empire.  It was used, just before the start of the empire, by Julius Caesar during his conquest of Gaul and on both of his expeditions to Britain.

Roman Ballista.

In Gaul, the stronghold of Alesia came under a Roman siege in 52 BC, and was surrounded by Roman fortifications.  As was standard siege technique at the time, ballistae were placed up in the towers with other soldiers armed with either bows or strings.

(Vissarion Photo)

A Roman one talent ballista (26 kg weight projectile).  The heaviest versions could shoot up to three talents (78 kg), possibly much more.

Medieval Ballista.


The Middle Ages saw the innovation of the third type of siege engine, known as the trébuchet.  The trébuchet was a giant sling, which was worked by dropping a counter weight on the end of a throwing beam.  It would classed as a howitzer in present-day artillery terms, but its accuracy was greater than the mangonel, as its range could be adjusted by moving the weight along the arm.[63]


The trebuchet is the only major siege engine that was invented during the Middle Ages.  It relied on a counterpoise and was simpler in design and construction than most others. Prince Louis of France is credited with bringing it to England in 1216.  Various engines were constructed in the king’s North Wales castles of Deganwy and Dyserth, where four “switches” were built for catapults and mangonels.  It was usual to drag these machines around the country as need arose.[64]

Siege Towers

Siege towers came into use early in the wars, enabling attackers to fight on the same level as their opponents.  Many of the larger ones were equipped with one of the missile throwing devices described in the preceding paragraphs, and most of them had drawbridges so that the soldiers manning them would have easy access to the ramparts and battlements.  Some of them were mounted on great wheels of solid oak, consisted of several stories, and rose to a height of 150.’  The largest siege tower recorded was one Richard I had constructed tall enough to overlook the walls of Acre in 1191.[65]

Siege of Lisbon, 1147

The siege of Lisbon in 1147, painting by Roque Gameiro.

The Siege of Lisbon, from 1 July to 25 October 1147, brought the city of Lisbon under definitive Portuguese control and expelled its Moorish overlords.  The Siege of Lisbon was one of the few Christian victories of the Second Crusade.  It was "the only success of the universal operation undertaken by the pilgrim army", i.e., the Second Crusade, according to the near contemporary historian Helmold, although others have questioned whether it was really part of that crusade.  It is seen as a pivotal battle of the wider Reconquista.

The Fall of Edessa in 1144 led to a call for a new crusade by Pope Eugene III in 1145 and 1146.  In the spring of 1147, the Pope authorized the crusade in the Iberian peninsula.  He also authorized Alfonso VII of León and Castile to equate his campaigns against the Moors with the rest of the Second Crusade.  In May 1147, a contingent of crusaders left from Dartmouth in England.  They had intended to sail directly to the Holy Land, but weather forced the ships to stop on the Portuguese coast, at the northern city of Porto on 16 June 1147.  There they were convinced to meet with King Alfonso I of Portugal.

The crusaders agreed to help the King attack Lisbon, with a solemn agreement that offered to the crusaders the pillage of the city's goods and the ransom money for expected prisoners.  The siege began on 1 July 1147.  The city of Lisbon at the time of arrival consisted of sixty thousand families, including the refugees who had fled Christian onslaught from neighbouring cities of Santarémand others.  Also reported by the De expugnatione Lyxbonensi is that the citadel was holding 154,000 men, not counting women and children; after 17 weeks of siege the inhabitants were despoiled and the city cleansed.

After four months, the Moorish rulers agreed to surrender on 24 October, primarily because of hunger within the city.  Most of the crusaders settled in the newly captured city, but some of the crusaders set sail and continued to the Holy Land.  Lisbon eventually became the capital city of the Kingdom of Portugal, in 1255.  Runciman, Steven.  A History of the Crusades, vol. II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100–1187.  (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1952).

Sieges of Samos, 440 BC, Delium, 424 BC, and Motya, 397 BC

In 440 BC, Artemon used siege towers in the siege of Samos, but failed to take the city.  In 424 BC the Boetians may have used a primitive flame-thrower which consisted of a hollow wooden tube that held a cauldron of burning sulphur, charcoal, and pitch at one end, against the wooden walls of Delium.  In 397 BC, Dionysisus successfully used siege towers and rudimentary catapults in the attack on Motya.[66]

Siege engines

Most siege engines were capable of throwing a stone of 300-lbs or more a distance of at least 500’.  Stones of this weight have been excavated at Kenilworth Castle, England, where they were probably used in the siege of 1266.  Siege engines were heavy and clumsy.   The historian Kendall claimed that the seven trébuchets used at Berkhamsted in England, called for fifty-six long-carts for their transport.  Generally, it the majority of large siege engines were constructed at the site, as they were when the Welsh attacked the castles of Mold and Dyserth.  Wooden towers were sometimes pushed close to the walls, which were then assaulted by foot soldiers gathered on their upper levels.  The Justice of Chester was in 1244 ordered to have four good strong wooden towers built in the forest of the Wirral and to have two such towers made as close as possible to the border to carry wherever the king may wish in Wales.[67]

Engraving of Medieval siege towers in action.

As assault methods developed in sophistication, it was found that the wall-walk of a fortress or castle could be gained with the use of a device called a “belfry.”  This was a massive wheeled tower, generally higher than the wall being attacked.  The moat or ditch would be filled in with rubble and the belfry would then be pushed across it and pressed up against the curtain wall.  The belfry’s had a wooden framework construction with ladders inside which led up to the fighting level.  It could be rigged with a drawbridge or a ramp equipped with hooks, which could be dropped onto the castle’s parapet when the assault was ready to be launched.  The belfry could have a crenellated roof built above the ramp occupied by archers who kept up a steady covering fire on the defenders to keep them from dislodging the ramp.  The whole structure would be covered with wet hides to make it as fireproof as possible.  The belfry could also house a battering ram at its base level, which could simultaneously work away at dislodging masonry.

Medieval Siege Tower.

The siege tower was not necessarily used to conduct a direct assault on the walls.  In some cased they were built close to the castle under siege as a form of counter-castle.  In this case, they were used to guard the attacking force’s camp or to sweep a field of fire with the use of crossbows from the roof.  Some of these structures were built strong enough to mount stone-throwing engines from the top deck.  These counter-castles were sometimes referred to as “malvoisins,” meaning “bad neighbours.”

Medieval Siege engines.

Belfries suffered from the disadvantage of weight, and they were vulnerable to fire.  They had to be built on site by competent workmen, who also had to ensure that the ditch was filled with adequate materials solid enough to bear the weight of the siege engine as it was rolled forward.  There are many reports of the use of belfries.  In 1096, Anna Comnena recorded the building of a belfry by Raymond of Saint-Gilles for the siege of Nicaea, describing it as, “a wooden tower, circular in shape” covered inside and out “with leather hides and filled in the center with intertwined wickerwork.[68]

Bohemond of Taranto mounts the rampart of Antioch, engraving by Gustave Doré.

During the siege of Dyrrachium in 1108, Bohemond built a four-sided tower on a wooden base that was high enough to dominate the towers of the city.  It was pushed forward on rollers by soldiers who levered it up, in effect making it self-propelled.  The many stories of the belfry had coverings with embrasures (an opening with sides flaring outward in a wall or parapet of a fortification) and openings all around from which volleys of arrows could be fired.[69]

As the towers were being assembled, battering rams were also being constructed and moved into place.  Early versions used a hefty tree trunk with a metal head mounted on its end.  Variations included a bore, wherein the tree was tipped with a metal spike.  To protect the crew operating the battering ram, a covering penthouse or cat was constructed.  The cat was essentially a long shed mounted on rollers or wheels and equipped with heavy roof timers from which the ram could be slung on chains.  The team of ram-operators could consist of up to 100 men swinging the ram against the targeted wall or gate. The penthouse had a sharply pitched roof designed to deflect projectiles, and had to be fireproofed with wet hides or metal plates.  It had similar requirements to the belfry, in that the cat had to be used on a firm base such as a well-filled ditch.  In some cases, the wheels were removed to give the ram a more solid foundation for the swinging movement.[70]

The process of sapping in the 17th century, engraving.

Penthouses and cats were also used to shelter miners and sappers.  Joinville describes similar structures built by the engineers of St. Louis to shelter troops who were making a causeway across the Nile River in 1249.  They were protected at each end by wooden towers, which served as gatehouses.  Siege buildings could also be floated into place if the water routes provided adequate access.  In 1218, as the warriors in the Fifth Crusade were besieging Damietta at the mouth of the Nile, they were held up by a tower in the middle of the river.  A Crusader priest named Oliver Paderborn designed a floating belfry, which was mounted on boats and floated down onto the tower, which it succeeded in overcoming.[71]

Engraving of a Counter Ram in operation.

Defenders could make use of a counter-ram, a device which was dropped on a battering ram as it was about to hit so as to avoid repetitive impact at the same point.  They could retaliate with their own catapults, throwing rocks down on the attackers from their towers and walls.  Arrows and fire could also be thrown against the assaulting moving towers and battering rams.  When the attackers dug tunnels the besieged defenders dug counter tunnels through which they tried to penetrate the first tunnel to repel the attacking diggers known as “sappers.”[72]

Rams in operation.

Roman Siege Tactics

A professional army with regular soldiers is the mainstay of most modern armies.  Between 405 and 396 BC, Rome began regular payments to its troops inaugurating the concept of a regular career service.  The Roman legion owed much of its success to its effective use of missile throwing machines such as the ballista, mounted on a carriage drawn by mules and served by ten men from the century to which the weapon belonged.[73]  They were used not only to defend the entrenchments of camps, but were placed in the field in the rear of the heavy armed infantry.  Each legion had 55 of these engines, as well as 10 onagri, one for each cohort.  The onagri were drawn on ready-armed carriages by oxen and were primarily used to defend the camp works by throwing stones with a sling-like device, while the ballista threw darts.[74]

The Romans conducted attacks under the cover of their shields in an assault formation known as a “tortoise.” From a woodcut in the 1585 edition of Vegetius’ book “De Re Militari,” published in Antwerp.

Roman advances in the design, mobility, and firepower of artillery produced the largest, longest-ranged, and most rapid-firing artillery pieces of the ancient world.  Roman catapults were much larger than the old Greek models and were powered by torsion devices and springs made of sinew kept supple when stored in special canisters of oil.  As Josephus recorded in his account of the siege of Jerusalem, the largest of these artillery pieces, the onager, (called the “wild ass” because of its kick), could hurl a 100 pound stone over 400 yards.  Vegetius noted that each legion had 10 onagri, one per cohort, organic to its organization.  Smaller versions of these machines, such as the scorpion and ballista were compact enough to be transported by horse or mule.  These machines could fire a 7-10-lb stone over 300 yards.  Caesar required that each legion carry 30 of these small machines, giving the legion a mobile, organic artillery capability. Smaller machines fired iron-tipped bolts.  Designed much like the later crossbow but mounted on small platforms or legs, these machines, which required a two-man crew, could be used as rapid-fire field guns against enemy formations.  They fired a 26-inch bolt over a range of almost 300 yards.  Larger versions mounted on a wheeled frame were called carroballistae and required a 10-man crew.  These machines could fire perhaps three to four bolts a minute and they were used to lay down a barrage of fire against enemy troop concentrations.  They were the world’s first rapid-fire field artillery guns.

Roman Onager in action.  The onager was a post-classical Roman siege engine, which derived its name from the kicking action of the machine, similar to that of an onager (wild ass).  It is a type of catapult that uses torsional pressure, generally from twisted rope, to store energy for the shot.  The onager consisted of a frame placed on the ground to whose front end a vertical frame of solid timber was rigidly fixed; through the vertical frame ran an axle, which had a single stout spoke.  On the extremity of the spoke was a sling used to launch a projectile.  In action the spoke was forced down, against the tension of twisted ropes or other springs, by a windlass, and then suddenly released. The spoke thus kicked the crosspiece of the vertical frame, and the projectile at its extreme end was shot forward.

The onagers of the Roman Empire were mainly used for besieging forts or settlements. They would often be loaded with large stones or rocks that could be covered with a flammable substance and set alight.  In the Middle Ages (recorded from around 1200 A.D.) a less powerful version of the onager was used that employed a fixed bowl rather than a sling, so that many small projectiles could be thrown, as opposed to a single large one.  This engine was sometimes called the mangonel although the same name may have been used for a variety of siege engines.

The emergence of siegecraft as a basic requirement of Iron Age armies represented a major innovation in warfare.  Without the ability rapidly to reduce cities and fortified strong points, no army on the march in hostile territory could hope to force a strategic decision with any rapidity.  The very idea of empire would have been militarily unthinkable in much the same way as it was for the classical Greek armies which had no siegecraft capability.  The search for more efficient ways to destroy fortifications produced, perhaps somewhat by accident, the new combat arm of artillery.  While Alexander was the first to use it, the Romans gave birth to the idea of using artillery as antipersonnel weapons.  Both siege engines and artillery represent the birth of a major new idea in the technology of war, an idea that came to further fruition with introduction of gunpowder a thousand years later.[75]

In 156 BC the Romans had decreed that the inhabitants of the city of Carthage were to move to a site 10 miles from the sea, a condition equivalent to a death sentence.  The Carthaginians made their living from the sea, and if they moved inland they would be left defenceless against attacks from the Numidians.  If they abandoned Carthage, they would die either way.  The Romans delayed out of a belief that they could capture Carthage at will.  This underestimation of one’s enemy would prove to be a recurrent theme in most of the battles discussed in this book.

Roman Javelin catapult.

The Roman delay gave the Carthaginian inhabitants the time they needed to reinforce the city walls and defenses, and to manufacture shields, swords and javelins in enormous quantities.  The ladies of Carthage even cut their hair to be twisted into bowstrings.

Catapult drawing from the Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century.

The Roman siege was long and difficult, and they were only able to make a breach in the Carthaginian walls after suffering heavy losses, and even then were driven off.  Swamp fever added to the attrition of the Roman soldiers.  The Carthaginians fought hard, and when the wind was right they sent fireships into the Roman fleet.  To compound the problem, there were 23 miles of fortifications in place.  The Romans were therefore unable to guard access to all points, and thus the Carthaginians had no difficulties with resupply.

The arrival of a seasoned Roman commander named Scipio changed the face of the costly siege.  He rejuvenated his troops, and then set about building an earthwork barrier to sever the Carthaginian leader Hasdrubal’s link with the interior.  Scipio then had a massive mole constructed to block the outer mouth of the city harbor, thereby completing the encirclement and creating a strong blockade of the city.  Rather than sustain heavy losses that might jeopardize the assault, Scipio had every building that stood between his army and the citadel burned to the ground.  The rubble was then cleared away to allow the free deployment of his forces.

After seven days of fighting, 50,000 Carthaginians surrendered.  Their lives were spared, but the remaining 900 fought to the death.  In spite of the victory, Scipio saw the pendulum in mid swing, and predicted that what had happened to Carthage would one day happen to Rome.[76]

So it would come to pass, but when Rome’s greatest enemy, the Gothic King Alaric invaded Italy he didn’t need a secret weapon to enter the heavily fortified city.   The Romans had treated their slaves so badly that the slaves themselves opened the gates on the night of 23 August 410 AD, allowing the Barbarians to enter.[77]  Treachery could be a very effective siege breaker.

Celts and Gauls

The Romans had a long history of battles with the Celts and Gauls.  The Celts had their origins in the Danube region of Eastern Europe and gradually migrated towards France, Spain, the British Isles and Italy.  In 387 BC they engaged and defeated a large body of Roman soldiers.  Eventually they settled in all the countries of Europe they had overrun, but the greatest concentration of Celtic settlements was in Gaul, which is now modern France.  In this same era, the Romans had gradually occupied and imposed their form of government on the Mediterranean coast of Gaul.  Between 58 BC and 51 BC, Caesar conquered all of Gaul in a series of battles against the Helveti (58 BC), the Belgii (57 BC), in Brittany and Aquitaine (56 BC).  He pursued the Germans and crossed the Rhine and later invaded England (55 BC).  In 52 BC he engaged and defeated Vercingetorix, the leader of the Gauls at Alesia in present day France.[78]

Caesar’s engineers built “siege terraces” consisting of logs piled in layers enclosing a core of earth and rubble, to defeat the armies of Gaul.  Wooden towers several stories high were erected on the terrace, and artillery and snipers placed in them.  Unfortunately for Caesar, the Gauls under the leadership of Vercingetorix were ingenious at making the Roman terraces fall in by undermining, as demonstrated at the siege of Avaricum in 52 BC.  The Gauls were expert at this because of their extensive experience in mining iron, and were thoroughly familiar with the techniques of working underground.  The Gauls were also skilled at constructing their own walls complete with towers, furnished with platforms and protected by hides.  Caesar was forced to out-build them with his own towers and siegeworks in order to win the battle of Avaricum.[79]

In order to defeat the Gauls during the battle at Alesia, Caesar’s Roman legions had to build a line of fortifications ten miles long around it, with outer walls facing both ways to keep out a relieving army.  In effect, to conduct the siege, Caesar had to make a fortress of his own.[80]

After the Romans had captured Gaul, they turned their attention to Germany.  Caesar dealt with a great number of opponents who made use of a great variety of tactics.  Of all their opponents however, the chroniclers from Tacitus onwards describe the fierce bravery of the Germans and their military effectiveness.  The German forces were essentially comprised of men related to one another by ties of blood within a village and organized into a group or tribe known as a “hundred.”  They did not drill or train as the Roman legions did, but their inner cohesion, based on the certainty of being able to rely on those around them, was superior to that shown by the Romans.  When it was defeated, a Roman force usually scattered.  A Germanic force in similar straits usually remained intact because it was an organic body.[81]

Although the Romans considered the Germanic tribes to be little more than a rabble, their fighting methods were very efficient.  Tacitus described the fighting methods used by the Germans as the use of tactical bodies of men which were as deep as they were wide, with the front, rear and both flanks being equally strong, and consisting of 400 men, 20 deep and 20 wide, or 10,000 men, 100 deep and 100 wide.  The most exposed positions of such a formation were the warriors at the flanks of the first line, because they would be threatened by their opponent from the front as well as from the side.  This square was the basic tactical formation of the Germans as the phalanx was the original tactical formation of the Romans.[82]  In the attack, the phalanx had the advantage of bringing more weapons to bear than the square and had greater manoeuvrability for its wings.  The weakness of the Roman Phalanx was the vulnerability of its flanks, particularly when attacked by cavalry, and cavalry was one of the German’s strengths.  To show equal strength in all directions, the Germans preferred deep formations.[83]

The initial attempts to make inroads into Germany by the Roman Commander Drusus ended in failure and he was forced to withdraw.  In his second incursion he used the waterways and built a canal from the Rhine to the Ysel, which gave him access to the North Sea coast via the Zuider Zee.  He also used the Lippe River which was navigable in the spring up to its source.  He moved along the Lippe upwards into Westphalia, and at the point where the river was no longer navigable he built a Castle at Aliso.  When the Romans attempted to use the castle as a base to establish their supremacy, three of their legions and their auxiliary forces under their commander, Governor P. Quinctilius Varius, were annihilated by the Germans in the Teutoberger Forest in 9 AD.[84]

This came about because Publius Quintilius Varus had been directed to hold the frontier in Westphalia area.  Marching between two rivers (Ems and Weser) which limited maneuver and mobility, his troops were picked off by Germans over several days.  By the end all 20,000 were gone and Varus committed suicide to avoid capture.  News of the massacre prompted Rome to decide the Rhine River could be their eastern border instead of the Elbe River.  The Britons continued to put up a spirited defense as well, and in 60 AD, Boudicca burned Roman London.  Under the Roman Governor Paulinus, however, the final outcome was more successful for the Roman Legions.[85]

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