Battles in the ancient world (part 7)

In this penultimate blog post in a series on types of battles fought in the ancient world, I turn my attention to sieges. In earlier blog posts, I discussed pitched battlesmeeting engagementssurprise attacksambushesskirmishes, and raids. As stated before, feel free to send me your comments using the form below, our Facebook Page, or via email.

The siege

Sometimes, the enemy would hole up in a well-defended place, such as a walled city. In those cases, the attackers would have no option but to lay siege. Sieges were a common feature in the ancient world and probably even more common than pitched battles. Fortifications were constructed from the Stone Age onwards. The minimal requirements for fortification works were a wall and a gate for access, but especially as time went on, fortifications became ever more refined, introducing towers, postern gates, ditches, and so forth. I have written on fortifications in Early Greece before.

The legendary Trojan War, so familiar from the Homeric epics, was technically a siege, even though the Greeks seldom stormed the walls themselves and most of the fighting took place on the Scamander plain. The Greeks also never tried to surround the city in order to prevent the Trojans from being resupplied. All in all, the Trojan War is not very characteristic of normal sieges in the ancient world.

The Assyrians were among the most ruthlessly imperialistic civilizations of the ancient world and elevated siege warfare to an art form. When King Sennacherib (r. 706–681 BC) launched a campaign to add the Kingdom of Judah to his empire, the inhabitants of Lachish resisted him. During the Siege of Lachish (701 BC), the Assyrians surrounded the city. Under the cover of Assyrian archers, the army began to build a huge siege mound. A siege engine of a type familiar from wall reliefs was pushed up the mound to assault the city’s walls, while other troops stormed the walls using siege ladders and rams. After several days of bloody fighting, the Assyrians captured the city and put its inhabitants to the sword. Sennacherib then pushed on and later managed to conquer Jerusalem. (For more on the Assyrians, see Ancient Warfare V.4.)

Not all sieges were successful, of course. The Milesian tyrant Aristagoras – with aid from the Persian king Darius the Great – attempted to besiege Paros in 499 BC. Exiled Naxian aristocrats had proposed the idea of the siege to Aristagoras and the tyrant in turn sought the aid of the local Persian satrap. They assembled an impressive force of 200 triremes, but the siege ended in failure. The Naxians had discovered that they were about to be attacked and had readied their defences. After four months, the besiegers had to withdraw. Aristagoras, fearing that the Persians would now remove him because of this humiliation, managed to incite other Greek cities in Asia Minor to rebel against the Achaemenid Empire, thus sparking the Ionian Revolt.

One of the most famous sieges was perhaps the Siege of Tyre (332 BC). Tyre, the largest and wealthiest of the Phoenician city-states, was located on an island just off the Levantine coast and actively resisted conquest by Alexander the Great. However, Alexander did not suffer defeat and ordered the construction of a kilometre-long causeway to connect the island to the mainland, which survives to this day. Supposedly, he personally led the final assault against the city once a weak point in the walls had been located and breached using battering rams. Alexander had been angered by the city’s protracted resistance: thousands of Tyre’s warriors were slain, others were crucified, and the remainder of the population was sold into slavery.

The main goal of the besiegers was to either starve the defenders into submission or to force a decisive battle. The decisive point in Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was the Siege of Alesia (52 BC), also discussed by Chuck Lyons in Ancient Warfare VI.6, pp. 28–34. The Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix had holed up with approximately 80,000 of his warrior in the fortified hilltop town of Alesia. Caesar ordered the construction of a double wall around the town. When a Gallic relief force arrived on the scene, the Gauls attacked the Romans from two sides. There were losses and successes for both the Gauls and the Romans. Eventually, Caesar managed to defeat the relief force and Vercingetorix was left no choice but to surrender.

One of the most remarkable sieges of the ancient world was perhaps the Siege of Masada (AD 72–73), also discussed by regular contributor Dr Duncan Campbell in Ancient Warfare IV.2, pp. 28–35. Rebel Jews had holed up in the fortified town of Masada and the Romans laid siege to them. The latter constructed a circumvallation wall around the town before beginning construction of a large siege ramp that was completed in AD 73. When they finally breached the walls, they found only a handful of survivors: the Jewish rebels had set fire to nearly all the buildings and nearly all of them had then committed mass suicide.

Fortifications could also be used to secure conquered territory. The forts constructed in Nubia by the ancient Egyptians during the Middle and Old Kingdom are good examples of this (see also the article by Sigrid van Roode in Ancient Warfare VII.1, pp. 20–25). Later, the Romans did more or less the same thing by constructing camps and forts on or near vulnerable borders, such as Hadrian’s Wall or the limes along the River Rhine (see also Edge of Empire by Jona Lendering and Arjen Bosman).

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