Unless you have the right kind of experience, its hard to understand what it was like for most people to go up against a really good army. Most soldiers before the 19th century did their first training as a group when they were gathered together with thousands of other soldiers to fight someone, and nobody could afford to keep that army together for long in friendly territory, so a lot of battles looked like a university soccer team versus Real Madrid. If team sports are not your thing, one of the chronicles of Timur the Lame gives us an idea of what coming up against one of these few good armies was like. The Syrians had left Aleppo to fight Timur in the open, and when the terrified remains of their army returned to the city some of the Mongols entered with them. At first the governors of Syria did not think that all was lost:Continue reading
In the early middle ages, Europeans learned about a much simpler technology than the ancient catapult: the trebuchet powered by teams of men and women pulling ropes. This weapon was not so long-ranged or accurate but it had no delicate skeins of rope or expensive metal parts so it suited conditions in a poor and small-scale world. After it entered European history at the Slav and Avar siege of Thessalonike in 597, it quickly became the most popular siege engine in Europe (although it is possible that a few engineers remembered how to make engines powered by giant bows or skeins of rope for long-ranged, accurate shooting). These ‘traction trebuchets’ have not been as often reproduced as ancient catapults, but there have been a few attempts:
In the summer of 1988, after frustrating winter-long attempts to build an arrow-shooting torsion ballista, and having been inspired by Randall Rogers at the Twenty-third International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (hereafter Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo), I constructed a simple traction trebuchet which could throw a fist-sized rock 120 m. [Several larger versions followed culminating in one which the university authorities did not approve of]. In August, it was tested at Cooper’s Lake Campground in Pennsylvania, where a large field beside an archery range was available and where volunteers could be mustered for the trials.
– W. T. S. Tarver, “The Traction Trebuchet: A Reconstruction of an Early Medieval Siege Engine,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 36, No. 1. (January 1995), p. 147 n. 52
I am sure that there were volunteers at Cooper’s Lake in August at any time between 1972 and 2019, and there will be again in 2021!
People who see the ancient Greeks as an especially progressive and technically advanced people have a lot to boast about, but they have to admit that their heroes were a bit backwards at siege engineering. We have pictures of battering rams from Egypt and Upper Mesopotamia dating back to the third millennium BCE, and Early Bronze Age texts which mention them from Ebla in Syria, and in the 18th century BCE petty kings like Zimri-Lim of Mari took them for granted and students in scribal colleges dutifully memorized the proper Sumerian names for all the parts, but they are absent from early Greek vase painting, absent from the Homeric epics, and absent from Greek traditions of their wars until the time of Pericles. That is about 2000 years later than the first evidence for battering rams from Syria and Egypt.
Greek stories about their early wars, and the archaeology of Iron Age Greece, make it clear that Greek soldiers were very eager to take and destroy walled cities, but apparently they were too impatient to sit outside a town for a few months while they built something the size and complexity of a small boat and pushed it through enemy fire against a wall or gate. People who admire the Greeks usually say a few words about the Assyrians as masters of siegecraft then slip into telling a triumphant story of Greek progress from humble beginnings.
Later Greeks and Romans did not know about the Mari letters or Old Kingdom tomb paintings, but they saw that their ancestors lacked the siege engines which were used in their own times, and they told two types of stories about How the Greeks Got Siege Engines.
Inside Urim there is death, outside it there is death. Inside it we are to be finished off by famine. Outside it we are to be finished off by Elamite weapons. In Urim the enemy oppresses us, oh, we are finished.
– The Lament for Sumer and Urim, lines 389-402 (ETCSL 2.2.3)
More than 140 civilians have been killed in less than a week while trying to flee western Mosul, according to military sources [among the besiegers], as the Iraqi army seeks to close in on fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the armed group’s last stronghold in Iraq.
According to the [besieging] military on Thursday, most of the fatalities were women and children.
– “Mosul battle: At least 142 civilians killed in six days” http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/mosul-battle-120-civilians-killed-days-170601113018034.html
Blindfolded, tied up men with dislocated shoulders dangling painfully from ceilings. Teenage boys, hands tied behind their backs screaming for mercy, only for a soldier to execute them in cold blood. Ashen-faced women clutching onto their terrified children after they had just been raped. These are just some of the scenes taking place in Iraq.
Ali Arkady, the Kurdish photojournalist who documented the abuses of Iraqi government troops, said he had originally set out to cover the soldiers’ heroism in the fight against ISIL. But after witnessing their crimes, his conclusion was that these men were “not heroes, but monsters”.
Arkady said he witnessed Iraqi soldiers – not Shia militias – perpetrating a wide array of abuses including abductions, torture, and rape. Not only did Shia soldiers rape one of their Sunni allied tribal fighters, but in one particularly horrifying instance, interior ministry fighters were gloating about raping a particularly beautiful girl. Their comrades, apparently jealous, vowed to pay the already violated and scarred girl a visit themselves.
– “Iraq Deserves Heroes, but Has Only Monsters,” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/06/iraq-deserves-heroes-monsters-170601083337240.html
But those who were blockaded at Alesia , the day being past, on which they had expected auxiliaries from their countrymen, and all their corn being consumed …, convened an assembly and deliberated on the exigency of their situation. … When different opinions were expressed, they determined that those who, owing to age or ill health, were unserviceable for war, should depart from the town … The Mandubii, who had admitted them into the town, are compelled to go forth with their wives and children. When these came to the Roman fortifications, weeping, they begged of the soldiers by every entreaty to receive them as slaves and relieve them with food. But Caesar, placing guards on the rampart, forbade them to be admitted.
I believe that Richard the Lion Heart responded the same way to this gambit, but my books on medieval history are still in the old country.
Further Reading: Steve Muhlberger, “The Toronto Morality Play”
In December I re-watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A younger self would have used this post to have a good rant about all of the aspects of Jackson’s battles and sieges which just would not work. Tolkien was vague about many things, but he was a combat veteran who knew his classics, and both showed. However, I now realize that if someone with hundreds of millions of dollars at their command can’t be bothered to read a handful of Ospreys, let alone Aeneas Tacticus and Philon of Byzantium and the Old Norse King’s Mirror, or hire an underemployed doctor of ancient history and listen to what they say, there is no point in lecturing to them. Some people just don’t care how they really did it or want to engage with sources (although Jackson did let people who understood material culture and fight direction do their stuff). But watching these films reminds me of one thing which might be right.
Whitehead, David. Philo Mechanicus: On Sieges. Translated with introduction and commentary. Historia. Einzelschriften, 243. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. 510 p. € 84.00. ISBN 9783515113434.
Technical military writing does not have much place in the work of ancient historians today, unless they can mine it for anecdotes (Onasander, Frontinus) or it is written by an accepted ‘literary’ author (Xenophon). Sieges and catapults are usually left to a small community of archaeologists who measure gateways or publish papers on ‘in-swinging’ and ‘out-swinging’ catapults. But after the fourth century BCE, every serious Greek or Roman soldier had at least a general idea of how to conduct or resist a siege and the tools involved. In the military reform after Chaeronaea, all Athenian citizens were required to learn to use catapults and defend the border forts as part of their period of military service.
Willekes, Carolyn. The horse in the ancient world: from Bucephalus to the Hippodrome. Library of classical studies, 10. London: I. B. Tauris, 2016. 304 p. $95.00. ISBN 9781784533663.
If you want a book on ancient horses by an experienced rider who is not caught up in upper-class horse politics about Thoroughbreds and Arabians, this should be it.
Heckel, Waldemar. Alexander’s marshals: a study of the Makedonian aristocracy and the politics of military leadership. Second edition (first edition 1993). London; New York: Routledge, 2016. xxvi, 372 p. $160.00. ISBN 9781138934696.
Rathmann, Michael. Diodor und seine Bibliotheke: Weltgeschichte aus der Provinz. KLIO. Beihefte. Neue Folge, 27. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. ix, 431 p. $140.00. ISBN 9783110478358.
Diodorus is also another very important author who is not always treated as seriously as he deserves. Plucking details off his shelves, and casually attributing them to the author who is presumed to have been his main source for that section, can beg some important questions. In my master’s thesis, I cite some of the researchers who I think have a better approach to his work.
Have you heard of any new books on ancient history which you would like to read?
From BMCR. Hoc libros non vidi.
In the time of Antigonos the One-Eyed, an ingenious character named Kallias of Arados came to Rhodes and impressed the city fathers with his knowledge of all the latest engines for defending a city, and some which were so new that nobody had yet turned his sketches and models into a full-sized prototype. Kallias did such a good job of impressing them that they gave him an office in place of a Rhodian and funds to turn his ideas into reality. When Demetrius the Sacker of Cities arrived outside of the walls, Kallias executed his office until the Rhodians found out that his favourite machine, a crane for lifting siege towers as they approached the wall, would never work in full-size as well as it did on a model.
There are a lot of things which could be taken from this story, and a lot of details which could be imagined in turning this fable about the square-cube law back into the story about human beings which lies behind it. The detail which I want to point out is that Arados is an island off the Phoenician coast, whereas Rhodes is an island off Caria.
Stories about capturing animals from a town, attaching fire to them, and releasing them to burn it to the ground are common. Sometimes these appear in stories about clever old kings which should be read with a grain of salt, but other times they appear in sober technical manuals. The only version from ancient Southwest Asia which I know is the story of Samson and the foxes (Judges 15), but a book attributed to one of Chandragupta’s ministers has another one in the chapter entitled THE WORK OF LAYING SIEGE.
Getting hawks, crows, pheasants, kites, parrots, sarikas, owls and pigeons, with nests in the fort, caught, he should release them in the enemy’s fort with fire-mixtures tied to the tails. Or, from the camp stationed at a distance, he should set fire to the enemy’s fort with human fire, being guarded by bows with flags raised aloft. Continue reading