This is the first part of a planned five-part series covering some of the basics of fortifications, from city walls to castles and field fortifications! We are going to discuss what fortifications were for and how their design changed in response both to different strategic and operational conditions and also to changing technology. Throughout this, we are going to stay mostly centered geographically on the broader Mediterranean world, though I will make occasionally connections to the ways in which fortification techniques were similar or different in other areas of the world. Naturally, with this chronological range, we are not going to cover everything or even most things in that period, but the aim here is by hitting the ‘high points,’ we can cover some of the major principles which determined why fortifications took the form that they did (and thus why they were assaulted in the ways that they were).
Though we’ll also discuss some of the earliest evidence for permanently fortified cities, this week we’re going to begin principally with a look at the problem of a fortified city from the perspective of the attacker as a way to set the foundation for the kinds of assaults that the designers of defensive systems are looking to defeat. In particular, we’re going to look at the evidence for the siege-assault toolkit employed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC), who enjoyed a well-earned reputation as one of the most effective siege-attackers of the ancient world, matched perhaps only by the Romans and Macedonians. We’re also going to discuss the strategic concerns that motivate the attacker since, as Clausewitz tells us (drink!) the political object fundamentally dictates (or ought to dictate) the conduct of war and that includes siege warfare.
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A View From Outside
Now the besieger’s side of the equation may seem like an odd place to start a primer on fortifications, but it actually makes a fair bit of sense, because the capabilities of a potential attacker is where most thinking about fortification begins. Siegecraft, both offensive and defensive, is a case of ‘antagonistic co-evolution,’ a form of evolution through opposition where each side of the relationship evolves new features in response to the other: neither offensive siege techniques nor fortifications evolve in isolation but rather in response to each other.
In many ways the choice of where to begin following that process of evolution is arbitrary. We could in theory start anywhere from the very distant past or only very recently, but in this case I think it makes sense to begin with the early Near Eastern iron age because of the nature of our evidence. While it is clear that siege warfare must have been an important part of not only bronze age warfare but even pre-bronze age warfare, sources for the details of its practice in that era are sparse (in part because, as we’ll see, siege warfare was a sort of job done by lower status soldiers who often didn’t figure much into artwork focused on royal self-representation and legitimacy-building).
But as we move into the iron age, the dominant power that emerges in the Near East is the (Neo-)Assyrian Empire, the rulers of which make a point of foregrounding their siegecraft as part of a broader program of discouraging revolt by stressing the fearsome abilities of the Assyrian army (which in turn had much of its strength in its professional infantry). Consequently, we have some very useful artistic depictions of the Assyrian army doing siege work and at the same time some incomplete but still very useful information about the structure of the army itself. Moreover, it is just as the Assyrian Empire’s day is coming to a close (collapse in 609) that the surviving source base begins to grow markedly more robust (particular, but not exclusively, in Greece), giving us dense descriptions of siege work (and even some manuals concerning it) in the following centuries, which we can in turn bring to the Assyrian evidence to better understand it. So this is a good place to start because it is the earliest point where we are really on firm ground in terms of understanding siegecraft in some detail. This does mean we are starting in medias res, with sophisticated states already using complex armies to assault fairly complex, sophisticated fortifications, which is worth keeping in mind.
That said, it should be noted that this is hardly beginning at the beginning. The earliest fortifications in most regions of the world were wooden and probably very simple (often just a palisade with perhaps an elevated watch-post), but by the late 8th century, well-defended sites (like walled cities) already sported sophisticated systems of stone walls and towers for defense. That caveat is in turn necessary because siegecraft didn’t evolve the same way everywhere: precisely because this is a system of antagonistic co-evolution it means that in places where either offensive or defensive methods (or technologies) took a different turn, one can end up with very different results down the line (something we’ll see especially with gunpowder).
We’ve gone over this before, but we should also cover the objectives the attacker generally has in a siege. In practice, we want to think about assaults fitting into two categories: the raid and the siege, with these as distinct kinds of attack with different objectives. The earliest fortifications were likely to have been primarily meant to defend against raids rather than sieges as very early (Mesolithic or Neolithic) warfare seems, in as best we can tell with the very limited evidence, to have been primarily focused on using raids to force enemies to vacate territory (by making it too dangerous for them to inhabit by inflicting losses).1 Raids are typically all about surprise (in part because the aim of the raid, either to steal goods or inflict casualties, can be done without any intention to stick around), so fortifications designed to resist them do not need to stop the enemy, merely slow them down long enough so that they can be detected and a response made ready. We’ll actually be discussing some of these sorts of defenses (used by armies on the march rather than permanent settlements) next time.
In contrast, the emergence of states focused on territorial control2 create a different set of strategic objectives which lead towards the siege as the offensive method of choice over the raid. States, with their need to control and administer territory (and the desire to get control of that territory with its farming population intact so that they can be forced to farm that land and then have their agricultural surplus extracted as taxes), aim to gain control of areas of agricultural production, in order to extract resources from them (both to enrich the elite and core of the state, but also to fund further military activity).
Thus, the goal in besieging a fortified settlement (be that, as would be likely in this early period, a fortified town or as later a castle) is generally to get control of the administrative center. Most of the economic activity prior to the industrial revolution is not in the city; rather the city’s value is that it is an economic and administrative hub. Controlling the city allows a state to control and extract from the countryside around the city, which is the real prize. Control here thus means setting up a stable civilian administration within the city which can in turn extract resources from the countryside; this may or may not require a permanent garrison of some sort, but it almost always requires the complete collapse of organized resistance in the city. Needless to say, setting up a stable civilian administration is not something one generally does by surprise, and so the siege has to aim for more durable control over the settlement. It also requires fairly complete control; if you control most of the town but, say, a group of defenders are still holding out in a citadel somewhere, that is going to make it very difficult to set up a stable administration which can extract resources.
Fortunately for potential defenders, a fortification system which can withstand a siege is almost always going to be sufficient to prevent a raid as well (because if you can’t beat it with months of preparatory work, you are certainly unlikely to be able to quickly and silently overcome it in just a few night hours except under extremely favorable conditions), though detection and observation are also very important in sieges. Nevertheless, we will actually see at various points fortification systems emerge from systems designed more to prevent the raid (or similar ‘surprise’ assaults) rather than the siege (which is almost never delivered by surprise), so keeping both potential attacking methods in mind – the pounce-and-flee raid and the assault-and-stay siege – is going to be important.
As we are going to see, even fairly basic fortifications are going to mean that a siege attacker must either bring a large army to the target, or plan to stay at the target for a long time, or both. In a real sense, until very recently, this is what ‘conventional’ agrarian armies were: siege delivery mechanisms. Operations in this context were mostly about resolving the difficult questions of how to get the siege (by which I mean the army that can execute the siege) to the fortified settlement (and administrative center) being targeted. Because siege-capable armies are either big or intend to stick around (or both), surprise is out of the window for these kinds of assaults, which in turn raises the possibility of being forced into a battle, either on the approach to the target or once you have laid siege to it.
It is that fact which then leads to all of the many considerations for how to win a battle, some of which we have discussed elsewhere. I do not want to get drawn off into the question of winning battles, but I do want to note here that the battle is, in this equation, a ‘second order’ concern: merely an event which enables (or prohibits) a siege. As we’ll see, sieges are quite unpleasant things, so if a defender can not have a siege by virtue of a battle, it almost always makes sense to try that (there are some exceptions, but as a rule one does not submit to a siege if there are other choices), but the key thing here is that battles are fundamentally secondary in importance to the siege: the goal of the battle is merely to enable or prevent the siege. The siege, and the capture or non-capture of the town (with its role as an administrative center for the agricultural hinterland around it) is what matters.
The Walls of Jericho
These strategic (and operational) considerations dictate some of the tactical realities of most sieges. The attacker’s army is generally going to be larger and stronger, typically a lot larger and stronger, because if the two sides were anywhere near parity with each other the defender would risk a battle rather than submit to a siege. Thus the main problem the attacker faces is access: if the attacker an get into the settlement, that will typically be sufficient to ensure victory.
The problem standing between that attacking army and access was, of course, walls (though as we will see, walls rarely stand alone as part of a defensive system). Even very early Neolithic settlements often show concerns for defense and signs of fortification. The oldest set of city walls belong to one of the oldest excavated cities (which should tell us how short the interval between the development of large population centers and the need to fortify those population centers was), Jericho in the West Bank. The site was inhabited beginning around 10,000 BC and the initial phase of construction on what appears to be a city wall reinforced with a defensive tower was c. 8000 BC. It is striking just how substantial the fortifications are, given how early they were constructed: initially the wall was a 3.6m stone perimeter wall, supported by a 8.5m tall tower, all in stone. That setup was eventually reinforced with a defensive ditch dug 2.7m deep and 8.2m wide cutting through the bedrock (that is a ditch even Roel Konijnendijk could be proud of!), by which point the main wall was enhanced to be some 1.5-2m thick and anywhere from 3.7-5.2m high. That is a serious wall and unlikely the first defensive system protecting the site; chances are there were older fortifications, perhaps in perishable materials, which do not survive. Simply put, no one starts by building a 4m by 2m stone wall reinforced by a massive stone tower and a huge ditch through the bedrock; clearly city walls is something people had already been thinking about for some time.
I want to stress just how deep into the past a site like Jericho is. At 8000 BC, Jericho’s wall and tower pre-date the earliest writing anywhere (the Kish tablet, c. 3200 BC) by c. 4,800 years. The tower of Jericho was more ancient to the Great Pyramid of Giza (c. 2600 BC), than the Great Pyramid is to us. In short, the problem of walled cities – and taking walled cities – was a very old problem, one which predated writing by thousands of years. By the time the arrival of writing allows us to see even a little more clearly, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant are already filled with walled cities, often with stunningly impressive stone or brick walls. Gilgamesh (r. 2900-2700 BC) brags about the walls of Uruk in the Epic of Gilgamesh (composed c. 2100) as enclosing more than three square miles and being made of superior baked bricks (rather than inferior mudbrick); there is evidence to suggest, by the by, that the historical GIlgamesh (or Bilgames) did build Uruk’s walls and that they would have lived up to the poem’s billing. Meanwhile, in Egypt, we have artwork like the Towns Palette, which appears to commemorate the successful sieges of a number of walled towns:
So a would-be agrarian conqueror in Egypt, Mesopotamia or the Levant, from well before the Bronze Age would have already had to contest with the problem of how to seize fortified towns. Of course depictions like these make it difficult to reconstruct siege tactics (the animals on the Towns Palette likely represent armies, rather than a strategy of “use a giant bird as a siege weapon”), so we’re going to jump ahead to the (Neo)Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC; note that we are jumping ahead thousands of years).
How exactly does an attacker take one of these places?
The Assyrian Siege Playbook
The first thing I want to note here is that we are working in the age before large, bespoke siege artillery. The catapult was a Greek invention and didn’t see widespread use until the fourth century BC; before that, while there were, as we’ll see, dedicated siege engines (like towers and rams), there was not dedicated siege artillery or indeed artillery of any sort. That’s actually convenient for us; popularmodern assumptions about siegecraft tend to place artillery front and center, but prior to the development of effective gunpowder artillery (in the 15th century AD) siege artillery was mostly a secondary supporting arm, not the primary tool; in most cases it typically enabled the traditional siegecraft toolkit to work more effectively and only less often did it open truly new options for attack or defense. Consequently, looking at the system before the catapult can be helpful because it gives us a chance to think about a ‘pure’ form of the system without the temptation to import all sorts of modern assumptions about what artillery should be doing.
Sieges were long, difficult affairs and so the first step in the Assyrian siege playbook was to try to capture cities without lengthy sieges wherever possible. Armies approaching a town would seek to get it to surrender in advance, both to avoid a siege and also to make its grain markets available to supply the army (this sort of pre-surrender was clearly a factor in Assyrian campaigns, but you can see it most clearly in our much fuller narratives of the campaigns of Alexander III).
Of course a town is only going to preemptively surrender in this way if they think there is little hope of actually outlasting a siege. Information in this context is limited: large armies move slowly, to the city likely knows that a large army is coming, but they probably do not know precisely how large, or what its capabilities are, or how long its supplies might last. What they do know is its reputation and here the Assyrians put in quite a lot of effort. The panels I have been showing from the Lachish reliefs, which were mounted in the king’s palace in his capital at Ninevah (and so there to be seen by visiting dignitaries and notables) represent only part of a strategy whereby the Assyrian Empire went out of its way to communicate its effective siege prowess to its neighbors and subjects. Assyrian inscriptions brag about successful sieges, the brutal punishments meted out to cities that resisted and the impressive size and power of the Assyrian army, particularly its professional infantry corps who, as we’ll see, do most of the actual work in a siege.. This effort is actually a huge help to historians, because (for reasons that will soon become clear) it renders visible parts of the Assyrian army that we normally wouldn’t hear much about in the sources.
Assuming that didn’t work, Assyrian armies would aim to breach the city’s defenses. Of course the major obstacles here are walls, which leave three real options: you can go over walls, under walls, or through walls. The through option was provided by battering rams. While in film and TV battering rams are generally depicted as only ever being deployed against gates, in ancient warfare they were often deployed against the wall itself (in part because gate houses tended to be very well defended precisely because the gate represented a vulnerable breach-point). The Romans, for instance, regarded the time before a ram had reached the walls of a settlement (murum aries attigit; “the ram touched the walls”) as the last point at which surrender could be offered (Caes. B.G. 2.32); that the ram is being deployed against the walls and not the gate is explicit in the phrasing.
That said, looking at Assyrian artwork, it is hard not to notice that rams are rarely shown battering the curtain wall (that is, the actual wall blocking ingress into the city; we’ll define this term in more detail later) itself nor gates but rather engaging towers. Most defensive towers, after all, are hollow (because you have internal stairways and fighting positions inside the tower) and so easier to knock over by percussive force. Collapsing a tower won’t create a breach, but as we’ll see a lot of what the attackers are doing here is trying to suppress the enemy’s ability to fire missiles (arrows, slings, javelins, rocks, etc.) from the walls; high projecting towers are ideal firing positions and removing a few might make an approach to the walls substantially safer. A ram could, given enough time, punch through a wall – apply hammer blows to a stone wall enough times and it will come down (and a ram has the advantage of being able to reliably strike the same point with precision, unlike a catapult or early cannon, as well as striking much faster than both, though with far less energy than a cannon), so ramming through a wall was possible, assuming you had the labor and coordination to both keep at it around the clock and guard the ram against missiles and sally attacks from the city.
You might also tunnel under the walls. We do have depictions of the Assyrians digging tunnels under enemy walls (though I don’t have any to hand), although it seems to be a less common motif. Generally such ‘mining’ or ‘sapping’ efforts aimed not to use the tunnel to enter the city (since the small tunnel would be a terrible bottleneck for the attackers) but rather to undermine the walls or towers by digging under them and then collapsing the tunnel. Of course that means the tunnel needs to run deeper than the foundation of the walls, which were often very deep. And once again, beginning a tunnel, perhaps 100 meters or more beyond the wall and then digging your tunnel down several meters and then over 100 meters demanded tremendous coordination of labor and also a not-at-all-trivial level of engineering know-how.
But the primary way the Assyrians would breach a fortification is escalade or going over the walls. Now in the movies, attacks by escalade are all about ladders or siege towers, with the latter rolling up to the wall and dropping big drawbridges that disgorge tons of attacking troops. Both of these things did happen, but their prominence is out of proportion to their use. Ladders absolutely could succeed against unprepared or overwhelmed defenders, but against a decent defense, they offered little chance of success when used alone: a soldier climbing a ladder is just far too vulnerable.
Siege towers could be used to deliver troops to the top of walls (a siege tower was used this way in the 1099 Siege of Jerusalem, although you will note in conjunction with many other siege engines), but their more common use was as elevated firing platforms. By having a siege tower as tall or taller than the towers on the walls, the attackers could use missile weapons (arrows, slings, javelins, etc) to fire down on defenders on the walls; the angles would leave those defenders without any kind of cover, allowing the attacker to quickly suppress and clear the wall of defenders. What seems to have been the standard Assyrian siege-tower was actually a combination engine which incorporated a ram on its lower level (to collapse the enemy tower) and a firing position for archers on the top (to suppress the walls). Such a tower doesn’t appear able to deliver troops to the top of the wall, but it is expertly designed to suppress the defenders along a long stretch of wall.
In Assyrian artwork, these towers are generally in turn supported by more missile fire from the ground. The Assyrians seem to have generally deployed these soldiers in pairs, with a shield-and-spear troops (called sab ariti, ‘shield bearers’ or nas asmare ‘spear men’) to cover the archers who could then fire from safety behind the shields they carried. Archers used like this must have been firing in a fairly high arc and thus have been less accurate and effective than archers firing from the towers, but one can easily imagine how large numbers of archers deployed like this firing at and over the wall could create a ‘beaten zone’ of fire which would force defenders to seek cover, which in turn would enable the other elements of the siege package to do their work near the wall in relative safety.
So if ladders are too dangerous and siege towers are mostly about suppression, how do you get over the wall? Well the answer is a mole or in more common English, a ramp: you build an earthwork ramp up to the wall which you can then attack over directly onto the wall and into the city. Building a ramp like this is a difficult and complex task: the attacker needs both to be able to organize the massive amounts of labor required to move that much earth and the engineering know-how to construct it (which often means wooden support-beams which need to then be protected from fire) and provide enough security to enable the soldiers hauling earth to do so close to the wall.
For the attacker, the coordination problem here is intense. There is a tremendous amount of construction that needs to get done here (also including constructing your own fortified camps and siege positions to keep you safe from sudden raids by the defenders or the appearance of a relieving army); almost none of these siege devices can be transported practically with the army (they’re too big and heavy), so they all have to be built on-site. That means first coordinating the construction of a fortified camp at the same time you are getting other soldiers working on gathering supplies for siege engines. Then it means building the towers at the same time as you have hundreds of soldiers working around the clock beginning construction on the mole (out of arrow-shot), while also foraging the countryside for supplies. Then, as the mole gets closer, you need to deploy the towers, direct arrow-fire from the towers and the ground to suppress the defenders all while conducting what would be a major and difficult engineering project (a wide, earthwork ramp many meters tall) even if people weren’t shooting at you.
Armies that could master that coordination – the Assyrians, Macedonians and Romans all had well-earned reputations for being very good at this – could in turn make their assault more likely to succeed by simultaneously presenting the defenders with many threats at once: rams, towers, ramps, archers, mining operations, ladders at the ready to threaten night attacks. Remember, the defender’s army is almost by definition smaller than the attacker’s force, so the attacker can potentially win by forcing the defender to spread their troops thin. And indeed, you can see in the illustrations here, especially the Lachish reliefs, how the Assyrians seem to do exactly this; we ought to be on our guard for artistic license here, but other ancient descriptions of sieges also show commanders deploying multiple vectors of attack at once to try to overwhelm defenders or confuse them as to the direct of the main assault (for example, this is the core of Scipio Africanus’ strategy in his successful storming of Carthago Nova in Spain in 209).
But what I want to stress here, because we’ll come back to it, is how this version of the attacker’s playbook assumes not merely a large army, but a very well coordinated army. There’s actually another wrinkle here with social status: your elites – the sort of military aristocrats who like to ride into battle on horses or chariots – are unlikely to want to spend their days digging ditches and making ramps, so your army needs to not only be large, but it needs to have large numbers of soldiers who you can order around. For the Assyrians, Macedonians and Romans, this was done by professional or semi-professional infantry, who had the experience to be able to master the complex tasks of siege-work while also not being of such a position that they might feel this kind of labor was ‘beneath them.’ We’ll come back a little later to how this ‘playbook’ changes for armies that do not have that kind of coordination.
The Food Problem
Of course the final option to win a siege was by blockade (note that this is the technical term for this tactic, even when performed on land): simply prevent anyone entering or leaving the city until starvation forces it to surrender. In theory this is the less risky method but there are complications to it which explain why the most effective ancient armies only rarely starved out enemy fortifications. In depictions of this method – I am thinking in particular of strategy games – one you lay siege to an enemy city, a timer starts which, if it runs to zero, results in the surrender of the city.
But in actual practice, there is almost always not only an invisible timer to the defenders, who have a fixed supply of food inside of their city, but also a timer for the attackers. Armies, after all, eat a lot of food and, as we’ve discussed, moving large amounts of supplies long distance overland is simply not feasible in most cases before the advent of railroads. To siege a large city, the attacking army must be large, but a large army requires more food. Now if the attackers are lucky, they can forage much of that food from the surrounding countryside, but since they are not moving, the available food will deplete rapidly (all the more so if the defenders had time to move the food and the farmers inside of the walls in time). Of course in a complex operational environment, the attacker may also be concerned that enemy armies allied to the city under attack might arrive at any time to disrupt the siege, either by forcing a battle or else by essentially laying siege to the siege, something we’ll talk about a bit more next time.
Consequently, while people generally imagine sieges as situations where the attacker merely needs to outlast the defender’s food supplies, it is often the reverse case: in a siege, the defender does not need to defeat the attacker, but merely outlast them. This is going to be important because fortifications are going to be built with this in mind: the goal is not necessarily to ‘hard stop’ the attacker, much less kill all of their troops, but merely to delay them, to draw out the siege process (particularly the preparations necessary for an assault) so long that a siege becomes impractical to sustain such that the attacking army retreats due to want of supply or a changing operational environment or, even better, doesn’t besiege the city at all, determining that the likely cost of a long and drawn out assault outweighs the benefits of campaigning elsewhere or not attacking at all.
And that’s where we’re going to pause for this week. Next time, we’ll jump forward and look at the evolution of Roman fortifications, from single-use fortified marching camps designed to resist raids to the stone-walled fortresses of the late empire.
- For more on this kind of warfare and its ‘pounce-and-flee’ methods, read A. Gat, War in Human Civilization (2006) and L. Keeley, War Before Civilization (1996). For how this kind of raiding could lead to changes in territorial control and resource exploitation, check out this talk by W. Lee
- Note that all elements of that are generally necessary here. Agriculture here is a necessary, but insufficient requirement. You can, for instance, still have raiding-oriented pounce-and-flee warfare with agriculture; the ‘cutting off’ way of war in Native North America provides a clear example of this, see W. Lee, “The Military Revolution of Native North America: Firearms, Forts and Politics” in Empires and Indigenes (2011). State organization also matters, but even then, situations where state-on-state warfare is not primarily about land (such as warfare in 15th/16th century West Africa, where the goal was typically to gain control of labor instead of land), the raid may end up being more important than the siege.
196 thoughts on “Collections: Fortification, Part I: The Besieger’s Playbook”
At long last ! I was refreshing breathlessly waiting for my weekly fix of acoup…
Excellent post! Looking forward to this series! Hoping to find out whether Hadrian’s Wall was a practical defence or a way of collecting taxes.
Harking back to the WW1 stuff, I’ve just finished reading “The Hobbit” to my kid, and I think in some ways there are parallels to Tolkien’s WW1 experience in there as well as in LotR.
When the dwarves and Bilbo are sheltering in the tunnel near the back door while Smaug smashes up the landscape outside, that feels a lot like what it must have been like to be in a bunker or a dugout under artillery bombardment.
The Battle of Five armies, where in turn each side advances into the other’s territory, but then is driven back by counter-attacks, feels a lot like the description of actual trench warfare.
Another excellent series and I look forward to the next part. However, I noticed you wrote this: That setup was eventually reinforced with a defensive dutch dug 2.7m deep and 8.2m wide cutting through the bedrock
While Konijnendijk is indeed Dutch, I think you meant ditch there.
Another typo: “simultaneously preventing the defenders with many threats at once” -> “presenting”.
“if the attacker an get into the settlement”
an -> can
Little typo: “surprise it out of the window”
if the attacker an get into the settlement
How did sieges from less well organized statelike entities proceed? For instance, there are siege depictions in the Bible, and even ignoring things like the miraculous destruction of the walls in Jericho, you have quite a few depictions of sieges in the Bible, with the Israelites cast as the attackers in a lot of them. Making the same granting of artistic and historical license in the books, you do get claims of successful attacks on walled cities like Jebus or Abel and Beth-Macaah. (In the last two, you do have claims of a ramp and filling in a ditch/moat). I’ve certainly never read anything indicating that historical polities in ancient Israel and Jordan were particualrly well organized, especially not militarily. If you don’t have a well organized army like the Assyrians did, but instead something much more ad-hoc, how did a siege proceed?
Just re-read the passage I was thinking of (2 Samuel 20:15, if anyone cares) and I must have mis-remembered a detail. בְּאָבֵלָה בֵּית הַמַּעֲכָה is a single place name, not two nearby cities. So it’s only one siege with the ramp and the moat. That was the detail that I had remembered and what prompted the comment.
Does it mention a moat in the Hebrew? That’s neat, that detail isn’t present in my English translation.
The exact (Masoretic) Hebrew of that clause is
וַיִּשְׁפְּכוּ סֹלְלָה אֶל-הָעִיר,תַּעֲמֹד בַּחֵל
Breaking that down word by word, we get
וַיִּשְׁפְּכוּ And they poured/spilled
סֹלְלָה Modern Hebrew is pavement, but in a biblical context it always seems to be a ramp, and is used in a military context every time I can think of offhand.
אֶל-הָעִיר to the city.
תַּעֲמֹד Stood up.
בַּחֵל in the outer protection/fortification. Distinct from חוֹמָה, which is the usual word for something like a curtain wall. The later part of the sentence also mentions that this clause is followed by an attack on the חוֹמָה.
The idea that it is a ditch or a moat is an interpretation of mine, but one that I thought was fairly common, I’ve heard it from other people I’ve studied with. But I suppose could render a defensible translation that would imply that they took some sort of outer fortification and not actually a ditch or moat specifically. But combine the fact that they have the verb וַיִּשְׁפְּכוּ and opposed to something like בנו for a more general sort of building, combined with (at least as far as my admittedly total amateurish knowledge) understanding that fortifications with strongpoints outside the main wall did not exist in the Levant that far back, gives me the sense that they’re filling in a moat or a ditch of some sort.
But, I am a total amateur. An amateur that thinks he’s fairly knowledgeable, but still a total amateur. So take my interpretation with a grain of salt.
I looked it up on BibleGateway, and it looks like most English translations don’t mention a fortification other than the main wall, but some of them have the ramp built on top of a moat or trench. (And I suppose the ramp would have to cross the moat.)
I could definitely see the word for a ramp becoming the term for pavement in the modern day — your ramp needs to support a lot of heavily armed men charging up it, it’s gotta be a good walking surface rather than just a random pile of muddy earth. And I love the use of the term pouring/spilling for constructing it, since presumably it’s done primarily by pouring out basketfuls of dirt.
Not very important to the discussion, but in modern Hebrew the word סוללה still means levee, embankment or earthen ramp (mostly in the military context but not exclusively). The verb taken from the same root, ס.ל.ל., does mean to lay down pavement, with other assorted words derived accordingly.
From the same biblical source סוללה now also means electric battery, from סוללה חשמלית (electric battery). Wikipedia claims* this is due to interpretations of סוללה to mean an artillery attack, in which case the “pouring” is throwing. This gave an artillery battery the name סוללה as well, and the word for electric battery was chosen to match.
* and references a few specific scholars and texts. The modern dual meaning of artillery, battery and ramp is an issue I remember being bothered by in middle school.
It’s worse if you’re a child growing up in New York, where the Battery is the southernmost point of Manhattan (where once there was a gun battery to protect the harbor). Assuming you learn the words in the order of (a) the thing that powers electronic toys, (b) the area downtown, and (c) a group of cannons, it’s very confusing.
Another example is the successful attack on Jerusalem by Israel in 2 Chronicles 25:23.
I can think of two plausible answers to your question:
(1) These statelets were more organized than we often think. Overcoming fortified positions is a multiple thousand year old tradition in those parts, so the ability to do it effectively might be fairly common.
(2) Both sides are incompetent. The defenders might not have maintained or even manned their walls, making the siege much easier.
IIRC, archaeologists Finkelstein and Silberman argued that the Biblical conquests were more aspirational than historical; claiming the events had happened in the past so as to justify trying again in the future. Evidence included the political map resembling the time of writing more than the time of alleged occurrence.
That said, the outside history does seem to line up better as you move through time, so I’d imagine smaller/possibly less organized political entities like the Israel kingdom will get some attention in later posts.
For the earlier biblical sieges, it sounds like a mix of “they didn’t happen” with some possible “based on sieges with low tech methods on both sides” is an explanation.
Sure. All you have to do to knock down the walls of Jericho is march around it seven times, carrying the ark of the covenant and blowing trumpets.
Presumably sieges proceeded in much the same manner, just more slowly. It’s a lot of trouble to organize a group of people to build a large, broad ramp strong enough to withstand many hundreds or thousands of armored men running up it, but hauling the earth is a simple (if back-breaking) task. Doing so within range of the enemy walls was likely harrowing, but not particularly requiring a high degree of technical skill.
The Assyrians and Romans and Macedonians were very good at it and could likely pull of the siege tactics faster and with a smaller force than their contemporaries, but there’s no reason to think that a less well-organized state would be unable to deliver a siege.
i would imagine that a lot of Sieges would have involved actions much like some of the medieval ones. where the besiegers would offer bribes to defenders, either to directly open the gates, or to help sneak a small unit of men inside who could then attack a gate and open it.
i also suspect that some groups may well have attempted to get agents inside cities well before the city even knew that an army was heading their way, who could then either enable troops to get in covertly, or suborn some defenders to allow one of the scenarios i outlined above.
I’m really looking forward to your post on field fortifications/fortified camps. There are just so many fascinating methods, layouts and ideas throughout history.
“Needless to say, setting up a stable civilian administration is not something one generally does by surprise”
That sounds like an idea for a comedy sketch.
“(the animals on the Towns Palette likely represent armies, rather than a strategy of “use a giant bird as a siege weapon”)”
Ok, stop giving me ideas!
If you did have a giant bird, it’d probably help with getting over the walls!
The problem with using a roc in war is that they will eat all your elephants.
It looks like they are using a giant flying bird, a giant ostrich(?), a monkey, and a couple of snake heads(?) (Or maybe goat heads or something with horns) With just one bird, you can probably feed it captured animals, hunted animals, bits of livestock, war prisoners, and such. The snakes eat very little, the monkey and ostrich can be fed gran. With with such a variety, you can attack the defenders in multiple ways as the post describes.
It’s an excellent system. 🙂
Surely you can find them something to eat other than Gran?
Gran is obviously a typo, ostriches are not known for meat eating last I checked.
wiki: “The common ostrich’s diet consists mainly of plant matter, though it also eats invertebrates and small reptiles.”
Also: ” can run for a long time at a speed of 55 km/h (34 mph) with short bursts up to about 70 km/h (43 mph)”
Probably totems or standards of specific units. The Roman legions had distinctive emblems. Legio I had a boar, for instance.
I think it’s pretty clear that the other animals include a giant lion and a giant scorpion. Which I’d totally use if I were trying to take a city.
Most games seem to deal with this by having either rocs, or war elephants. Heroes of Might and Magic has rocs, but not elephants. Eador has war elephants, but not rocs. It would be interesting having both in DooM or Dungeon Keeper.
“Needless to say, setting up a stable civilian administration is not something one generally does by surprise”
That sounds like an idea for a comedy sketch.
Nobody expects the Spanish Administration!
Replacing one stable civilian administration by another through stealth is awesome (See: Terry Pratchett’s Interesting Times), but I don’t know how often it happened successfully.
Open coup d’etats happened often (see the blog after the Jan. 6th putsch), but by stealth I mostly know from fiction)
Have a look at the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik with aerial combat (via dragon) in the Napoleonic wars. I’m a bit dubious of some of the dragon-enabled military strategy, but it’s fun, and she spends the requisite time on the problem of feeding dragons in the field. Elephants are particularly good eating, apparently.
> capture cities without lengthy wherever possible
Without lengthy what?
> preventing the defenders with many threats at once
Presumably you mean “presenting”.
Funny, I live 20 minutes away from Lachis, I served 10 minutes away from it, did my basic training in the military 5 minutes away it (the base was even called after it) and one of my favorite songs just so happens to be about Lachis.
It always feels weird to me to read about Lachis in history books and then remember that “hey, I live next to it.”
Anyway, have some Mesopotamian metal about the Siege of Lachis. https://youtu.be/2ZcCqQPtNIM
Is it strange and different to live near such a depth of history? What’s it like to dig in your own garden and find BCE potsherds? To regard roman remains as recent?
What’s weird about Israel is that things are either very new (most things were built in the 30’s and 50’s) or very old (medieval and before). So seeing a new city that mostly looks like something from the southwestern US right next to some early bronze age ruin is actually quite hilarious at times.
Great post as always. I’m curious how far forward you want to go, because my knowledge of fortifications is most common in the WWII+ period.
It could be very interesting to look at fortifications from a modern viewpoint, especially in regards to what OGH has said before about modern armies mostly being designed to go around enemy hardpoints rather than through them. What does a fortification look like when you may have to force an enemy to besiege you in the first place? Or have modern systems of war rendered traditional fortifications practically obsolete?
“could in turn make their assault more likely to succeed by simultaneously preventing the defenders with many threats at once”
I think you meant to use “present” here.
“Naturally, with this chronological range” you didn’t actually specify a chronological range.
Thought that is not against what you wrote, but also not exactly contiguous:
In practice, the defender does not have to accept battle to avoid the siege. The attacking force must almost always drive off or defeat the defender to initiate the siege successfully. This is barring situations where the defending force is simply too small to do more than annoy.
The reason is that the defender can under most circumstances allow a brief siege situation if it permits re-positioning. They can, under that option, harass or strike the attacker/besieger. Because this would occur when the besieger is most vulnerable, that is, when their power of movement has been at least momentarily reduced and their attention is necessarily fixed, while their own supply lines usually remain open to attack. Under most circumstances, any significant army in the field can reasonably force the attacker into battle if desired.
Just idle thoughts anyway.
I would think that if they’re at the walls and the defender has declined to attack before they get there then that is accepting the siege. They may not be waiting long, but they’re still “sieging” the location. The defender is still going to be as active a participant in the affair as possible.
Given “re-position”, I took the idea to be that a defender *field army* can refrain from giving battle, swooping in to attack the siege from behind after the siege force has made themselves a fixed target.
Atarius is approaching Theoria; the Theorian main army is neither getting in the way of the Atarian army, nor sitting within the Theorian walls, but out in the hills somewhere. Atarius besieges Theoria, then the Theorian army attacks. Basically like having allies come lift the siege, except the ‘ally’ is your own army. Of course the Theorian army also has to be fed, so maybe it’d be more realistic if it was more the Theorian outskirts raising forces to relieve the city, a la Gondor if the various fiefs showed up *after* the army of Mordor did.
could in turn make their assault more likely to succeed by simultaneously preventing the defenders with many threats at once
I expect you mean “presenting” or “providing” or something similar.
“While in film and TV battering rams are generally depicted as only ever being deployed against gates, in ancient warfare they were often deployed against the wall itself (in part because gate houses tended to be very well defended precisely because the gate represented a vulnerable breach-point).”
I’m curious in the co-evolution process lead to a cycle where the gates became more fortified, which in turn made assaults on the gates less common, which in turn led gates becoming less fortified (or other parts of the wall becoming more fortified), and so on? Would it eventually lead to an equilibrium where attacking the gates was no more or less attractive than attacking any other part of the wall?
I suppose the equilibrium in reality is that attacking the wall BY RAMMING (because that is what the text speaks about) is always more advantageous than attacking the gate BY RAMMING. Because gates are very specific points in the defensive system and there are other methods available to the attacker than ramming them – so the defensive system around the gate have to be more robust, which leads to the fact that just ramming it is not as good ideas as ramming the wall. The equilibrium you speak about should be theoretically more general – that attacking the gate BY ANY MEANS AVAILABLE is no more or less attractive than attacking the wall BY ANY MEANS AVAILABLE.
Didn’t that equilibrium eventually arrive as “the means available is massive artillery, so you needn’t bother building gates *or* walls any more”? (Except now I’m thinking about the “fortification” defenses my city’s modern defense force employs, and they aren’t actually “none at all,” they’re bollards meant to stop vehicles so that attackers have to advance on foot, slowing them down enough that defensive reinforcements can be brought to bear.)
While the equilibrium-finding process suggested by Ben L is intriguing, I suspect that there’s enough momentum in the swings (so to speak) toward defending the gate that people wouldn’t *weaken* those defenses ever; and that the *nature* of the gate defenses is such that gate defensive mechanisms are essentially discontinuous jumps in gate-hardness: you can’t dial the gate defenses down by 3%, you either have protective towers with overlapping fields of fire or you don’t, sort of thing.
In any case, the potential gains from successful offensive war offer enough incentive that both sides will continue evolving rapidly. Even if the parameters are fixed, systems don’t necessarily evolve toward equilibrium; and that’s before you get into always adding new forms of attack to the mix.
The big exception to this rule is that, by the nature of the architecture of any given fortification, the gate area must be designed to (1) provide ground-level access through the wall and (2) be easily thrown open during peacetime.
Now, (2) is not a permanent condition! There is nothing stopping a besieged city from bricking up their own gates and relying on narrow sally ports for what little traffic and troop movement passes through the circuit of the walls until the besieger goes away. But (1) is permanent or nearly so, and (2) is still relevant under some conditions.
Thus, under conditions like “a surprise assault on a fortification that was not expecting attack” or “assaults on a field fortification whose defenders have not had time to elaborately double-fortify the gate,” attacking the gates can be more decisive than attacking the wall. Because it gives you a method that if you can pull it off gives you almost immediate access to the interior of the fortress with all your troops. But trying the same thing against an enemy who is prepared and who has scaled up the defenses around their gates? Bad idea.
“In contrast, the emergence of states focused on territorial control create a different set of strategic objectives which lead towards the siege as the offensive method of choice over the raid.”
I had not realized the importance of the difference between states focused on population control and states focused on territorial control until I read James C. Scott’s Against the Grain and The Art of Not Being Governed.
I am a bit surprised that you don’t characterize Assyria as a state focused on population control, considering the scale of their resettlement projects. I didn’t think that this transition occurred until the Achaemenid Empire. Scott doesn’t describe the transition in Against the Grain, but I realized that I already knew the story: Cyrus let the Jews rebuild Jerusalem.
Resettlement projects are a much more effective way to control land than to control populations. The populations you resettle still hate your guts, after all… but the ability to decide which population gets which land makes it easy to assert your own authority over land. And also easy to break up any group that might otherwise use the ‘home field advantage’ in warfare to disrupt your control.
In addition to the feast-versus-famine problem of the besiegers and likewise that of the besieged, you also had the disease aspect. A besieged city is not a healthy place to be in, nor is a besieger’s encampment. A lot of the usual disposal options are not there, and so the garbage builds up, and likewise the vermin, and likewise the chances of plague.
Very much so. The besiegers face the problem, in particular, of limited ability to manage sanitation.
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,/Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.
Herodotus claimed that that army was stopped by mice eating up their bow strings, thus disarming them.
Dysentery seems more likely.
I think we can agree of disease, angels, and mice, mice are probably the least likely explanation.
aye, the besieged can just throw all their trash and dung over the walls, adding to the problem for the besiegers
In contrast, the emergence of states focused on territorial control create a different set of strategic objectives which lead towards the siege as the offensive method of choice over the raid. States, with their need to control and administer territory (and the desire to get control of that territory with its farming population intact so that they can be forced to farm that land and then have their agricultural surplus extracted as taxes), aim to gain control of areas of agricultural production, in order to extract resources from them (both to enrich the elite and core of the state, but also to fund further military activity).
This makes me wonder about the sieges in which a city was only sacked, without intention of keeping it long term. It happen often enough that I would think this way of waging war also serves a strategic purpose.
I would put the advantages of a sack in several forms:
*It permits a successful attacker to gather material resources (money, food, etc.) to operate militarily or offset domestic production.
*It removes these resources, and usually a population of war captives or civilian victims of violence, from the defender’s population, weakening them overall.
*It increases the defender’s willing to negotiate or accede to terms,. or alternatively decreases their will to resist (i.e., Sherman’s March to the Sea).
*It may temporarily remove an area from the defender’s administration or communication.
*Finally, it accomplishes this without dispersing the attacker’s force, or forcing them onto the defensive.
A fiction book I read as a kid which played during the 100 years war had some knights essentially take a castle solely so they could sell it to the enemy, because of a lack of other income streams. I have no idea if that actually happened though
Hmmm — the problem with that (as a regular practice, may have happened occasionally) is that the other side was lacking in regular income streams too.
There were several occasions in which a band of soldiers seized a castle and made life miserable for the inhabitants around until paid to go away (with loot). Much of the war was about control of strong places, eating away at the other’s area of control (this was the side of the war the French generally won). The Vikings often followed the same pattern – land, fortify a camp, raid, get paid to go away. Sometimes then switch to the other side (see eg Thorkel the Tall in England – raider turned earl).
We’re about get a drink…
I think you’ll find your answer if you go back to Clausewitz. War is politics by other means. The political or military objective may not be achievable by taking a single target. If you occupy your prize you risk either being thrown on the defensive, or splitting your force to such a degree that other objectives become unachievable.
However, by sacking a city you can destroy much of its utility to your enemy, at least temporarily, while continuing your campaign.
To a first approximation, siege followed by a sack seems like a scaled-up version of raiding: march out, hit the weak spot for massive damage, grab the shiny stuff, march home. Better defences raise the minimum investment needed to make a credible attempt, but so long as the prize increases proportionately (which it would eventually have to, assuming that successfully defended cities somehow accumulate more portable wealth over time, regardless of the exact means) that fundamental “business plan” could stay the same.
I spotted only one typo:
surprise it out of the window
With incredible timing today, Jimmy Maher, writing as “The Analog Antiquarian”, writes on his site of the siege of Rhodes after Alexander’s death. This is long after Assyrian times that our host describes, but before the city had built the World-Wonder colossal statue.
Rhodes wanted to be neutral to the post-Alexander states, but Antigonus on the nearest coast would not accept that and sent his son Demetrius with a siege army and engines. The Rhodians, who had reputation for switching to whichever was the stronger side (Persians, Athenians, Spartans, Athenians again, Macedonians), unexpectedly refused and dug in. It’s a story of stalemate, ingenious engineers on both sides, and finally a face-saving solution.
One thing that impresses when you visit the few fortifications where one survives is how formidable an obstacle a good ditch is. The besiegers first job is to fill it in – under fire from the ramparts. This was often the slowest and most costly part of the attack.
So few survive because they decay quite quickly – the sides collapse, floods leave detritus and so on. Also, they are major obstacles to tourists. But a good many early Iron Age forts in northern Europe were basically rings of ditches with palisades.
“if the two sides were anywhere near parity with each other the defender would risk a battle rather than submit to a siege. ” I’m stopping to comment as I read this, so perhaps my question will be addressed later on, but I have to stop and say, “Really? Why, exactly?” A battle is always risky. isn’t the whole point of city fortifications to allow you (the defender) to retreat inside, with presumably prepared stores and supplies and defenses, and simply wait out an attacker? At little risk to yourself, he (the attacker) must submit to the perils of food shortages, disease, lack of resources, potentially hostile weather, and can’t even get at you to strike a blow, short of an assault that only plays to your strength. Just from playing old-school wargames on hex grids with cardboard counters, the one thing that always strikes you is that the Defender gets huge bonuses for making a stand in Cities,Castles, or other fortified areas. And these simulations are designed by creators who study military tactics and history, these aren’t cheesy fantasy videogame delusions.
If I’m wanting to defeat an invading army on the cheap, unless I have a tremendous superiority in troops and material and generalship, I’ll gladly withdraw within my walled city, watch the stymied attackers starve when their supplies dwindle, and wait for the relief army or other aid I’ve sent for. (Assuming this is an option — otherwise, just wait out the attacker, time and want will see to him.)
If you are the ruler of Lachish and the invaders are from Damascus, this is the sensible choice. If it’s the Assyrians (or the Romans or Macedonians) – not so much. At some periods besiegers have an advantage, as techniques have moved faster than fortifications can be updated. That said, most sieges fail, although the successful ones get the mentions.
What the wargames don’t generally consider are the economic costs and loss of prestige from being besieged.
While the invading army is besieging your city, you the ruler get no value from it as an administrative / trade / whatever centre. The invaders are raiding all the surrounding countryside for food and loot, and you are not doing anything to prevent them. In a pre-industrial society the invaders might be forced to retreat from disease and/or starvation in a month or two, but your own people are going to be devastated as well. Even if you as ruler don’t particularly care about the lives of peasants, you and your aristocrats do care if they can’t produce anything.
There’s also the question of whether your city is actually prepared for a siege. Our host mentioned in (I think) the Helm’s Deep series that human nature being what it is, fortifications don’t get maintained or civilian dwellings are built up around them, stores get used up and not replaced.
A battle will be a cheaper and quicker way to get rid of the invaders. And if you lose, you have your Plan B of falling back into the fortified city.
It bears remembering (see Dr. Devereaux’s ‘Lonely Cities’ series and the series on grain production) that most of the population lives in the countryside.
By the time you withdraw into your fortified cities and castles, the enemy army has already occupied the territory where most of your region’s population lives. And probably holds at least temporary control over that population, minus the portion that has fled within your walls as refugees and is eating into your carefully hoarded supplies.
As alluded to in the post that references Game of Thrones, the defending ruler can lose a lot of legitimacy in a hurry in situations like this, and even if the enemy eventually goes away, the regional economy is in a shambles for the good and simple reason that (roughly) 90% of all economic activity happens in the area the enemy army was sitting on for months.
Because even an unsuccessful siege has costs. It more or less completely shuts down economic activity for the city and surrounding areas. Even if the enemy retreats there is a good chance of the harvest having been disrupted and thus you facing starvation anyhow.
Game of Thrones addressed this pretty well, I think:
Robert: Let’s say Viserys Targaryen lands with 40,000 Dothraki screamers at his back. We hole up in our castles. A wise move. Only a fool would meet the Dothraki in an open field. They leave us in our castles. They go from town to town, looting and burning, killing every man who can’t hide behind a stone wall, stealing all our crops and livestock, enslaving all our women and children. How long do the people of the Seven Kingdoms stand behind their absentee king, their cowardly king hiding behind high walls? When do the people decide that Viserys Targaryen is the rightful monarch after all?
I’m trying to leave replies but my browser or this website is not cooperating. Anyway, if this gets through, I am trying to say, “this is not a novel or TV dramatization, this is actual history” under discussion.
The divide between history or literature makes little difference as I think the quote addresses the question rather well. Allowing an invading army free reign across your countryside will incur a huge cost, almost certainly outweighing what it will cost to face them on open ground if you could do so.
I’m guessing that in real life an invading army is not going to be effective in devastating the countryside unless it disperses widely. If it disperses widely, it is vulnerable both to defeat in detail and to having its supplies taken/ destroyed.
Attackers with a massive mobility on a strategic scale (Vikings in their ships, Mongols with their cavalry and mobile supplies) are probably going to be effective, until the defenders develop countermeasures. But the Dothraki did not (unlike the Mongols) come with herds that would keep them supplied without dispersion (which I think our host covered in a previous post).
In short, I believe, the challenge is that effectively devastating the countryside takes more time and manpower than most attacking armies in the time period under consideration and carries greater risk than initially assumed.
I’ll note that ravaging the country is usually easier said than done, unless you’re willing to slaughter every person in the area as well. Would-be conquerors often refrained from such extreme measures, for the good and simple reason that this would have rendered the purpose of conquest impossible – a country stripped of its population produces nothing, and that population isn’t easily replaced.
Of course the Dothraki would probably regard reducing the Seven Kingdoms to empty grassland a plus.
The Dothraki make very little sense. They extort payment from cities but don’t spend it. They raid but do not loot, they have a trading center but do not trade. They have no subsistence strategy somehow supporting vast populations on nothing at all.
I mean the Hungarians fought off the mongols fairly successfully in the second mongol invasion of hunagary. Not in a pitched battle but by sheltering in stone castles, the mongols dispersed to ravage the countryside and local lords defeated them in detail.
In addition to all of the above, battle slows down the progress of the siege- the attacker has to defeat the defender in the field and force them back inside the fortifications before they can start the siege proper. Since the siege is often a race for the attacker to take the settlement before they run out of supplies/get attacked by a relieving army/have to leave to deal with a more urgent problem, anything that slows the siege down can help the defense win.
Hence, as our host noted, Denethor’s insistence on engaging the enemy before they reach the walls of Minas Tirith. That strategy was actually vindicated, as without the delays the Witch King might have taken the city a day earlier, before Theoden and Aragorn arrived.
it helped that in the book Minas Tirith had the outer fortified walls of the Rammas Echor, which gave the defenders an effective (if not ideal due to less than perfect upkeep) means to hold off the enemy. that basically forced the Witch king’s forces to have to fight two linked sieges.. one to beat the Rammas Echor, followed by moving their army inside said fortification onto the fields of the pelennor where they could besiege the city proper. (which worked in the witch king’s detriment, since the haste by which the mordor forces were being made to move saw the Rammas Echor defeated, then largely pulled down in order to move the troops and engines through.. which meant that the Witch king literally destroyed the best lines of countervallation they could have had, and in haste,didn’t erect even basic countervallation to replace it. which is what let the Rohirrim hit them from behind so easily (in fact the fact the Rammas Echor having huge gaps and little guard was specifically called out by their scouts.. Tolkien definitely knew his stuff)
the movie version where it is a charge of a small group of men across a big empty field at a bunch of heavily occupied ruins dozens of miles away was an idiotic action, no matter what. there was literally nothing that group of men could have done to even slow the advance of the Orcs, even without the nazgul and their mounts.
The Rammas is 10 leagues long, and 1 to 3 leagues from the city. I feel it was more of a speed bump than something you can usefully man with defenders, especially with Gondor’s reduced population. That said, Ingold says they’re just finishing repairing it, and some people do man it (their heads get thrown in later)
The Witch-king did raise defenses against the Rohirrim:
“‘Alas! he speaks all too shrewdly,’ said Théoden. ‘And our scouts say that they have cast trenches and stakes across the road. We cannot sweep them away in sudden onset.’”
But Ghan-buri-ghan leads them to behind those.
But also yes,
“‘Good tidings!’ cried Éomer. ‘Even in this gloom hope gleams again. Our Enemy’s devices oft serve us in his despite. The accursed darkness itself has been a cloak to us. And now, lusting to destroy Gondor and throw it down stone from stone, his orcs have taken away my greatest fear. The out-wall could have been held long against us. Now we can sweep through – if once we win so far.’ “
Remember the outcome of even a lost battle is often that you get to withdraw behind your walls. So the upside is “win the war (or campaign season) in one blow” and the downside is roughly the same as not having fought in the first place.
There’s also the fact that, once the siege starts, the attacker is also fortified. So in many situations, the best chance to “lift the siege” may in fact be before it begins, when the attacking army is still moving.
There are a lot of other considerations, including morale, but that cuts both ways. If the result of a loss is the destruction of your army and getting deposed from power by scared nobles, it’s a mistake. But sitting behind a wall, cut off from your vassals/tributaries/subordinates while the countryside is ravaged can also go sideways.
So a lot of generals end up looking brilliant by deciding *not* to fight that initial battle but it’s going to be situational. I think they look brilliant because it’s not a no-brainer.
Think of it as getting the defense-in-depth started early. Even if there’s no chance of truly defeating a given invading army on open ground, just slowing down their advance can buy your forces back near the walls precious time to haul in more provisions and catch up on neglected maintenance. While your own specialists are free to work with minimal distractions, any enemy sappers or engineers are sitting idle, and whatever losses they take in skirmishing far from the walls won’t be able to contribute later on where those expensive skills are actually relevant. Likewise for heavy equipment captured or destroyed. Anything your army eats while still out in the field doesn’t need to first be moved through the bottleneck of last-minute logistics at a defensible gatehouse, or pre-industrial food preservation, and simultaneously limits the attacker’s opportunity to forage.
Most of all, if the attacker’s reputation for military excellence is complete BS, better to kick over that paper tiger right away rather than handing them part of your territory uncontested.
Note Bret’s own analysis of the siege of Minas Tirith. Despite vastly outnumbered forces, Denethor did exactly that “defense-in-depth started early”, trying to hold the river crossings, and to harry the attack. Thus buying more time for outwall repairs, vassals/thematic forces reaching Minas Tirith, possible aid from Rohan (and elsewhere, as it happened), and whatever ‘entropy’ might realistically have happened (though Tolkien doesn’t show us low-level chaos and resource depletion in the Witch-king’s army.)
All that said, I think Tolkien did forget about ditches and moats. Or Gondor was too confident in their Gate to arrange for a drawbridge.
There definitely are ditches in Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s forces use them extensively both in the siege lines facing MInas Tirith, and in the force that was sent to keep Rohan away from the siege and got circumvented by the wose guides. There’s even one near the Hornburg. Now that you mention it, it is doubly odd that neither the Rammas Echtor or Minas Tirith itself has any sign of a ditch in front of it.
I didn’t mention them but yes, the *orcs* were digging trenches, between Minas Tirith and their own artillery. But nothing indicating a defensive moat right before the walls.
Granted the main wall is indestructible and the city is *seven* rising tiers with their own walls, so maybe someone thought a ditch was redundant.
“Gilgamesh (r. 2900-2700 BC)”
Wow, he must’ve eaten his vegetables and done his pushups.
Guess that’s that whole “demigod” status showing.
Bravo for saying what “control a city” means. Reporters in war zones love to use that phrase, but they never say what they mean by it. Usually, the images behind them make it dubious that the group has accomplished anything like “control”.
Would be interesting if you wrote about the Siege of Syracuse and Archimedes’ engines in a future installment of this series
Humankind has been fortifying their settlements literally forever. So much for the peaceful primitive matriarchy.
The ramp the Romans built to take Masada is still there.
The siege of Troy was a Bronze Age event but the account dates to the Iron age. The Greeks started by eliminating Troy’s near neighbors and allies before settling in on the beach but they weren’t particularly successful at preventing reinforcements from entering the city, or supplies if the so called siege really lasted ten years. Presumably the Greeks didn’t have the capability to engage in any of the siege tactics described. If we can believe Homer the war was a series of set battles between Trojan defenders and the Greek host. The defenders were driven back inside the walls on several occasions but no attempt was ever made to get over said walls.
Odd and interesting. Was the so called Trojan War actually a series of raids in force that reduced the defenders until the city fell? It did fall, numerous times according to the archaeology.
I’ve visited Masada — that is a seriously impressive ramp, even two millennia later. There are a bunch of Roman camp foundation outlines and the wall they built around the fortress still visible, too.
“Complains about matriarchal cultural theories”
“Describes questionable Trojna wr as an somewhat accurate story”
I hate ideologically based pseudo history that’s blatantly untrue.
I find the lack of siege tactics in the Illiad curious because historically based or not the people telling and listening to the story knew how sieges worked. So why does the story not follow the playbook?
The Mycenaean Greeks had a culture of seaborne raiding that was possibly difficult for later Greeks to understand. Maybe the Illiad is an example of misunderstanding the Mycenaean way of war?
We’ll get to the answer to this in two posts.
Oh good! Thank you!
“The attacker’s army is generally going to be larger and stronger, typically a lot larger and stronger, because if the two sides were anywhere near parity with each other the defender would risk a battle rather than submit to a siege.”
I am tempted to run this argument the other way around: What are the attackers chances of successfully attacking someone in a fortified position without the advantage of surprise if the army of the attacker is NOT a lot stronger than that of the defender?
And after all, the besieged army can always counter attack if it sees a chance.
I mentioned this in another comment and I expect to see it in a post, but the attacker in a long siege can end up nearly as well fortified as the defender. So if you are planning to counterattack, often best to do it before the siege begins.
Or after it failed, I suppose. Worked for the Rohirrim.
A small besieging army would need to be extremely well trained and experienced compared to a large defending army. The best example is a field army of 15 000 – 20 000 engaging a large militia of 30 000 – 40 000 and boxing them inside a city. The militia would oblige as it can hope to use fortifications and street fighting to its advantage.
It has very occasionally happened. In 1700, Charles XII commanding a Swedish relief army about 12,000 men attacked a Russian army of 37,000 which was ensconced in a fortified position (their primary siege camp on Narva, which itself held a Swedish garrison of about 2,000). The Russians were utterly defeated.
It can be difficult. Once you are behind the gate, it interferes with you deploying your forces.
A question on the “control agricoltural resources” thing: do you agree that with the thesis of “against the grain” that the cereals that became prominent in the Old World were chosen not necessarily looking at the kcal/acre ratio, but rather for how convenient it was for early states to tax them and ammass them in case of invasion? In particular plants with very short harvest windows were chosen to hinder the attackers ability to plunder during sieges?
I’d recommend Dr. Devereaux’s blog series on food production (focusing on the Mediterranean) here: https://acoup.blog/2020/07/24/collections-bread-how-did-they-make-it-part-i-farmers/
From my reading of that series, it’s more that, in an environment without effective pesticides or protection from weather, selecting for a longer harvest period was useless. Your grain was vulnerable in lots of ways out in the fields. (And in any case, given the total harvest period of a month or so, and the desire to use the land for a second planting of something else or for fallowing, having it tied up holding finished grain is a big waste of scarce capital.)
So, I’ve taken the plunge and bought Crusader Kings III. I’ve never played a Paradox game until now (Though I’m a long time Civ fan), but this blog got me enthused about trying one out. I’ve finished the tutorial and it’s pretty cool but there is A LOT going on. It seems there’s a lot a familiarity with these titles here; anyone got any got advice for a Paradox newbee?
Start small, a duke or maybe even a count. Ireland is a popular location for learning the game, since the island has a lot of small independent countries.
Thanks! Sounds like good advice. Any other thoughts? How much should one try to expand early? What should I focus on developing? What’s important in a marriage?
Mutual respect, shared values, and strong physical attraction.
In real life, that’s worked well. In Crusader Kings, other motives come into play…
Play to see what happens. Accept that some random event will probably scupper your plans. Laugh at your misfortune. Try again.
Don’t try to win. Just try to tell a story.
Thanks. There does seem to be a lot of craziness in the game. For one thing, my heirs keep dying. It’s been 3 generations of grandsons inheriting. 🤷♂️
This was not unheard of. When any random person can be struck down in their prime by things like wound infection or epidemic disease, with very limited medical treatment to save someone who gets unlucky, you see that happen more often.
Louis XIV, for instance, lived to the age of 76… and was succeeded on the throne of France by his five year old great-grandson. He’d outlived the boy’s father and grandfather.
Oh, I agree. Just funny to have it strike three generations in a row.
Thanks to everyone who offered advice. I just finished my first full play-through, which was Provence into Burgundy into the Empire of Burgundy, adding France and Sardinia, plus some of Italy to the kingdom. It ended up being very colorful, including perennial trouble from my French vassals, some crazy reversals of fortune, and an Emperor who got drunk and slept with his heir’s wife, only to find out he was sleeping with his own sister.
It was a blast and now I’m off to try and restore the Roman Empire as Byzantium.
There were some interesting accounts of sieges in The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. I particularly enjoyed the story of Lieutenant Eldred Pottinger’s contribution to the successful defence of Herat and also Cherniaev’s attack on Tashkent which featured a small attacking force, scaling ladders, felt wrapped gun carriage wheels, a feint attack, a sleeping sentry, a secret entrance….
Of course, the small elite force forcing an entrance via secret tunnel crops up a lot in films, but also seems to feature in David’s assault on Jerusalem.
I read about an English king who had a castle in France. There was no toilet in the castle’s chapel because the only possible outlet for toilet would be into the moat, and an enemy might climb up through the shaft into the toilet. The king insisted that they build a toilet anyway, and that’s how France got the castle back.
They were incapable of building a shaft small enough that the enemy wouldn’t fit?
That was Chateau Gaillard – a castle on the Seine guarding the entrance to Normandy. Built by Richard I, taken by the French in John’s reign. The besiegers got through the first line of defence, and some enterprising French noticed that a garde-robe had a hole big enough to enter…
I happen to know a small tower which outlies a mediaeval castle in France (La Tour des Anglais, Cause de Clerans, Dordogne 24). The tower dates from around 1300-1400. There is a latrine built into an alcove, now non-functional but evidently for the purpose. Once we found a 16th century shoe there, whoops.
I hoped to see a photo of the Masada mole when you were talking about those. Since it was abandoned when mostly finished (when the defenders committed collective suicide) I find it really illustrates intuitively the relationship between the mole construction process and the defenders at the walls.
Masada is generally quite cool because it’s a substantial enough siege to leave lots of stuff behind, which mostly lay undisturbed because it’s basically in the middle of nowhere. (The site was a Herodian royal vacation home, hence big fortifications with no town and far from major roads.) In addition to the mole, at its you can also see the outlines of the Roman besiegers’ camp, with its walls and gridded streets.
“particular, but not exclusively, in Greece”: sc. “particularly.”
Thanks again for these series. One of the largest takeaways I get from them is how the descriptions of how things actually were makes so much more sense than how they’re depicted in media. For example, the usage of ladders in castle sieges (with 40’+ walls) always looked like suicide to me (at least for the first half a dozen waves until the defenders can be overwhelmed), but it makes a lot more sense if they’re used in surprise or in areas where the defenders are being pressed too thin to adequately defend all of the attack points. But I guess it makes for exciting viewing/reading. Note, the protagonists are almost always the defenders in these situations!
There’s a reason why such attacks were generally known as a “forlorn hope,” still.
Re: Protagonists being defenders
As I understand it, in the 16th and 17th century Ottoman sieges at Rhodes, Malta, Vienna and on Crete lasted long enough that defenders provided sensational accounts which were written up and became a genre of their own, them holding out against the heathen hordes. It’s really hard to read about a lot of these without assuming that Tolkien was drawing on them heavily when he wrote up Helm’s Deep and Gondor.
I think there might be a more basic reason. There’s a natural tension between having your heroes doing impressive, heroic things, and keeping the dramatic tension going. If they aren’t successful enough, they aren’t as interesting to follow. If they’re too successful, there isn’t anything that can provide tension by threatening them.
A simple solution, at least for a while, is to put the heroes in some sort of situation where the odds are overwhelmingly against them, to the point where even if they have individual victories, the tension is maintained since the enemies have plenty of reserves or whatever else to keep tension going. That naturally leads to them being the defenders if you’re angling for a military adventure.
I think you’re absolutely correct, but I still think it’s a flaw in a lot of historical/fantasy/military fiction that the narrative possibilities in taking the besieger’s perspective have been so neglected. As the article points out, in reality the attackers were often in straits just as desperate as the defenders, and this could make for some really exciting stories e.g. can the heroes manage to devise a way of cracking the enemy’s impregnable fortress before they are undone by the ticking time bomb of dwindling supplies, pestilence raging through the camp, and hostile relief forces marching to destroy them? Unfortunately, it seems like most writers don’t look beyond the trope dictating that whichever side is outnumbered must automatically be composed of heroic underdogs. I’d be intrigued to hear if anyone has any good examples of fictional sieges in which the protagonists are outside the walls rather than inside.
As a side point, the way in which screened depictions of pre-modern battle scenes are dominated by siege-assaults is quite notable. For example, among the major episode-long battle sequences of the GoT series there are three attempted stormings (Blackwater, Castle Black, Winterfell – note the heroes are always defenders) and only one field engagement (Battle of the Bastards). Meanwhile, the LoTR films devote much more screen time to siege-assaults compared to both the coverage these events receive in the books and the coverage given to the Battle of Morannon, whilst Kingdom of Heaven lavishly details the storming of Jerusalem whilst relegating the decisive Battle of Hattin to offscreen. I suppose the fact that films inspired by medieval warfare are dominated by castle-storming rather than field battles might help convey the greater importance of sieges which Brett mentions. However, it also creates the misleading impression that sieges mainly consisted of the attackers turning up and immediately throwing their entire army at the walls, rather than the lengthy cat-and-mouse games that actually characterised the vast majority of historical sieges.
If we’re looking for the reasons behind these patterns, I suspect it’s partly based on the tropes mentioned above, but also on practical film-making considerations. Films with limited runtimes are naturally likely to skip over the slow-burn preparation work of real siegecraft in favour of maximum sword-swinging action. Plus, it’s cheaper and more convenient to film a handful of actors defending a narrow stretch of wall than to marshal the thousands of extras needed for a convincing field battle, and it’s easier to create a clear visual language of what’s going on and who’s winning (e.g. first the enemy was climbing the walls, then they were in the courtyard, now they’re assaulting the keep) than conveying this from a mass of struggling bodies on a nondescript hillside. So there are perhaps good reasons for the imbalance; still, it’s worth keeping an eye on ways in which this distorts popular perceptions of how warfare actually worked, and cheats us of more varied stories to boot.
“I’d be intrigued to hear if anyone has any good examples of fictional sieges in which the protagonists are outside the walls rather than inside.”
GoT: Daenerys’s capture of Mereen.
I’d posit it’s easier to sympathize with defenders than attackers. The former are just protecting themselves, the latter are out to kill and loot. Especially if attacking a city rater than a fortress.
Tolkien does have the seven year siege of the first Barad-dur; no actual writing about it but could have been a case of desperate good guys as the siege force.
“… examples of fictional sieges in which the protagonists are outside the walls rather than inside.”
Barbara Hambly’s The Dark Hand of Magic is a version of this scenario. The two protagonists are called to the siege of a city because the mercenary company they used to run — part of the besieging forces — is having problems they hope their former commander (now a partially self-trained wizard) can solve. Aside from the presence of magic — which shows up mostly in the form of hexes that amplify the problems besieging forces have to deal with (disease, spoiled food, breakdown of equipment) — it comes across as fairly realistic and gritty. (And the consequences of a successful siege for the city dwellers are not glossed over.)
“I’d be intrigued to hear if anyone has any good examples of fictional sieges in which the protagonists are outside the walls rather than inside.”
Zelazny’s Amber series has two, one towards the end of the first book and another (much smaller one) early on in the second. In fact it’s the only one I can think of offhand where the protagonists attack in the sieges but never defend in them. And there’s also for me the obligatory Thomas Covenant reference. The 3rd book of the 2nd series has the protagonists attacking a fortified city, but it’s more a small band of super-powered people, not a conventional army, looking to break in.
To Mindstalko: There’s also the attack on Isengard. But when your attacking force is a bunch of ambulatory trees, a lot of the stresses on being outside the walls simply don’t apply.
Thanks all for some interesting examples, might have to check out the Hambly and Zelazny ones. Of the ones I’m familiar with, it’s probably telling that they are either narrated only in fleeting retrospective summary (Barad Dur, Isengard) or swiftly resolved via a convenient underground passage (Meereen).
Mindstalko, I think you’re right that we tend to instinctively associate being on the defensive with being good (hence why our war ministries have all been renamed defence ministries). Nonetheless, even if you want a strict black-and-white morality in your fiction, it’s fairly trivial to think up reasons why the good guys might undertake a siege (e.g. to liberate a city under oppressive occupation, to capture the dark lord’s fortress where he’s building his superweapon, to force the evil empire to withdraw its invasion force by threatening its capital etc etc). And if you want to bring a touch of realism and shades of moral grey into the picture, the fate of the besieged civilian population throws up lots of fascinating dilemmas for your protagonists.
So again, I think there are understandable reasons why certain kinds of military scenarios tend to dominate on page and screen, but I still wish there were a few more writers willing to try something new instead of repeating the ‘hold the walls until the cavalry arrives’ plot for the umpteenth time.
Oh hey, I get to plug A Practical Guide to Evil again. It has field battles, offensive sieges, and defensive sieges, and does a generally good job of explaining the strategic stakes – “we need to take this stronghold because it controls the road to our main objective” or “we need to stop this army on the field before it sieges this important city.”
One common trick it uses is to put the siege on a ticking clock – “We need to storm this castle before the Big Bad inside completes her evil ritual” or similar – which justifies launching a hasty assault, and means that you can focus more on the heroes leading the charge than on the battlefield as a whole. You can also break the siege into small-scale objectives like “we need to take this bastion so the army can push ahead” to give the main characters something to do while giving the audience a sense of how the siege as a whole is progressing.
It also does the “can our heroes find a way to crack the impenetrable walls?” thing a couple of times, since the main characters all have powers that can be used creatively to solve problems like that.
“The Deed of Paksenarrion” by Elizabeth Moon, and specifically the first book “Sheepfarmer’s daughter”. I haven’t read it since high school, but as I remember it the titular character enlists in a mercenary company and in the latter part of the first book they partake in an offensive campaign that involves (amongst other things) storming and plundering a fortified city.
Tried to think of scenarios where protagonists were offensive besiegers and just kept turning up defenders!
Ba Sing Se in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the historical siege of Jinyang in “The Snow of Jinyang” (https://clarkesworldmagazine.com/zhang_06_16)—coming from a quite distinct literary tradition but emphasizing all the traditional siege elements, the gratutitously titular SIXTEEN WAYS TO DEFEND A WALLED CITY—people love to write the besieged!
Because of the moral dimension (mentioned in other comments) there may be more siege-side stories in ethically grey/grimdark/etc. fiction, whether tongue in cheek or played more straight (both mentioned above). But even there I also see a real emphasis on stories of sneak attacks, etc. E.g. the titular gambit in NINEFOX GAMBIT seeks to invade a (captured? rebellious?) fortress—but through stratagem, rather than siegecraft.
And, of course, the most famous single example has got to be the Illiad—but, again, the siege is resolved there with a trick.
Also, Bernard Cornwell’s “The Archer’s Tale” has a good story about a siege in the very earliest days or artillery. The besiegers bring up a cannon which only be fired once every three or four hours, because the shot needs to be packed in clay which needs to set. But the cannon does in the end destroy the gate and the fortress falls. I don’t remember if the besiegers are actually the good guys, but the story is certainly told from their point of view.
In the Game of Thrones books, we see the Battle of the Blackwater from both sides (Tyrion on defense, Ser Davos on offense, both protagonists).
We also see King Stannis attempt to seize Winterfell from the Boltons, which will be an example if he actually manages to get his army to the castle (this is the end of the most recent book).
Seconding Beleester’s recommendation of Practical Guide to Evil. In particular, the latter half of book one and first half of book seven both present scenarios where the POV characters need to overcome multiple, distinct fortified positions, within a complex set of strategic constraints, both material and political.
The Black Company has a few examples – with a some focus on the logistical and operational challenges of a long siege.
The Dungeon Samurai by Kit Sun Cheah has attackers on a position, but though it goes in-depth on issues of mining and farming, it does so in a distinctly fantasy universe.
So the sieges are pretty different than Total War.
Yes, Total War does drop a few balls when it comes to sieges. It does get some things that are often unfairly criticized right though: some versions have sapping and allow battering the walls down, artillery is mostly secondary (at least in medieval and pre-medieval versions), siege towers at least offer suppression (although they are still mostly used for escalade) and assaulting with ladders against well-manned walls is mostly suicide.
But the thing that had always bugged be the most by far – kudos to Dr. Devereaux for addressing it again – is the total lack of consideration of logistical problems (as in, food and attrition) for the attacker. AFAIK, no version of TW solved this in a satisfactory manner. Funnily enough, the game that addresses this most realistically (that I know of) is not even a strategy game – it’s Mount and Blade! If you get involved in a siege, you damn well better bring a ****load of supplies.
And concerning TW, come to think of it, it even doesn’t present the defender’s situation realistically. Like, you can siege out a city even if it obviously has an alternative supply line that the attackers can’t get to (like a city on a river crossing or a coastal city with an unbesieged port).
Great piece, I’m looking forward to the rest, expecting originality like the Great War series. Simplistic thought — castles work, that’s why there are thousands of them. Gunpowder spelled the end
Of castles and mere knights as political powers in the realm, yes.
Fortresses continued to be built until at least the 1940s, albeit on different lines and much greater expense. They were considered sufficiently formidable that operational plans were built on the premise of bypassing them (Schlieffen and Manstein), special weapons were commissioned (German super-heavy guns in both World Wars) and special stratagems evolved (paratroopers at Eben Emael) to deal with them.
And this is at the very tail end, before modern air power rendered them (mostly) obsolete.
A lot of castles were defended very effectively in the 17th century (which is why so many English and French castles are ruined – Cromwell and Richelieu spent a lot of gunpowder blowing them up to ensure they would not be used again). Turns out if you run an earthwork up before the gate and clear out the ditch, a small force can hold out a long time.
Part of the trick, I think, is that while by the 1600s the technology exists to reliably breach a medieval castle with artillery, the kind of heavy artillery capable of reliably shattering large stone walls was too cumbersome and expensive to be common.
If I’m not mistaken…
The royal siege train could smash down any one castle in the kingdom, but there were so very, very many of them, and said royal siege train can only move between them at the speed of oxcart, with a very ponderous establishment of support personnel. With so many medieval castles still in existence as relatively recent construction, any large-scale uprising of nobles (or other revolt that managed to occupy a lot of castles) could have dozens and dozens of positions that required siege artillery to reduce… with the central government decidedly not having dozens of artillery units capable of reducing them all simultaneously.
By the 1700s, not only have a lot of the castles been blown up or otherwise emptied, but there are just plain more cannons per capita, and there’s a wider variety of acceptably lightweight but powerful guns capable of taking down a stone fortification.
Are you going to talk about what happened to the people inside cities that fell, and why? You assert in this article that cities were besieged in order to take them so that they could operate as political, operational, and economic centers. But my reading of wars like the Peloponnesian was that the fate of people inside the walls was enslavement or execution.
So, who was left after the scourge to do the work an administrative or economic center would require? Was that war an exception to a more general rule?
The ancient city was in many ways a parasitic growth. It was a center of resource extraction, while all the production was in the countryside. It did have its artisans working at handicrafts, but the administration and religion were, in the end, non-productive. If you enslaved all scribes and priests, you could ship them to work menial jobs (or, in case of Assyrians, non-menial jobs as foreign occupiers) somewhere else, and bring your own people in their place, without affecting the social system or efficiency of production too much. It is just the end address of extraction that changes.
This works much worse in modern cities, which have actually productive functions. You can, sort of, take a steel mill, and replace its workers and even most engineers, but you can’t do the same for a university, a financial center or a semiconductor factory.
“The ancient city was in many ways a parasitic growth.”
The first counterexample that comes to mind is Athens. It existed long before its empire did, so who was it exploiting? Who did it exploit after its empire fell? Many early civilizations consisted entirely of independent city states, and as I recall many cultivators lived inside the city and walked to their fields. So I would be very cautious about declaring ancient cities to have been usually parasitic. Sometimes perhaps. That does not mean always, or even often.
There were a lot fewer cities to be parasitic in the Western Roman Empire than in the East, but it was the Western Empire that fell. The city-ridden Eastern Empire carried on just fine.
Like all poleis, Athens controlled a good chunk of land around it, specifically Attica. Which even the Spartans never disputed Athens ought to have, although AIUI, some of the neighbours had certain quibbles where exactly the boundary should be.
In terms of food, most cities depended on such a hinterland. In terms of population, all of them did; mortality in the cities tended to be rather higher than in the country, and birth rates usually fell well short of replacement. AIUI, cities remained mortality sinks until well into the 19th century CE.
I feel calling a city parasitic ignores the fact that all the best and most cultivated land is directly around the city, it was supported by towns further out but unless you were rome you couldn’t really afford to import huge quantities of food.
Also calling cities parasitic ignores the commercial importance of artisans and guilds entirely, they were about as replaceable as the guys working in a semiconductor factory. Hell what makes a modern city fragile is not the people in it but the massive amount of infrastructure needed, to the point where damaging one water treatment plant can cost perhaps a billion to repair.
And lets not forget that medieval weapons were a lot less destructive so the infrastructure in the city, and important institutions wouldn’t necessarily be easily lost.
The cities were utterly necessary for states to exist. However, from the point of view of peasant living in subsistence agriculture, the city produced very little: mainly metal tools, unless these were manufactured by local smiths. The flow of resources was from the farm towards the city, and the return was pretty meagre.
Of course, a city was necessary for any kind of orderly state or higher civilisation to exist, but for subsistence farmer, those were a burden, not a boon. It was not before the rise of commercial or semi-commercial agriculture that urban centers became necessary for the well-being of the majority of population.
That rather depends on where your peasant was living. An Athenian peasant would likely be living in Athens. An Aztec one would likely be living in Tenochtitlan, or some other city. OTOH, an Egyptian one would likely not be living in any city.
I’m not entirely sure the state requires cities. It helps, certainly, but states seems to be able to manage centered around rural estates or similar.
Cities were administrative and trade centers, not manufacturing centers. The countryside relied on local smiths for metal tools.
In response to ad98832376, many Athenian peasants lived far enough from the city that showing up for elections was a burden.
Bullseye is quite right of course; I should have phrased my point more clearly. Not every Athenian who tilled the soil lived in Athens, but many of the people who did live within the walls of Athens tilled the soil. So even if everyone but farmers was a parasite, not everyone within the city was a parasite.
The fact that so many early civilizations were made of rival city-states (Sumer, Greece, Maya, Mexica, etc) should show that not every city was based on parasitism.
I think the use of the word “parasitic” has an unfortunate effect on the discussion here, because it’s polarizing and implies that the presence of the cities is in some sense objectively bad and useless. That’s a whole separate debate.
The original question of interest was “Why did armies so often sack a city? If cities were administrative centers, who would be left to carry on that work after a typical sack?” Which I do think is a relevant question, and deserves to have possible answers considered.
1) First, regardless of whether ancient cities were parasitic in some precisely construed sense, it must be understood that they were usually not the residence of the majority of the population, and certainly not where the majority of labor was performed. Even if everyone inside the city walls was killed or sold into slavery in a sack, there would be a large population in the lands around the city, including many with blood or business ties to the population of the city itself. If they found it desirable, people from this population could move into and re-inflate the ‘deflated’ population of the city itself. In this sense a sack would be little different than an outbreak of pestilence, in that either might kill a double-digit percentage of the population, only for new influx from the surrounding rural land to repopulate the city in the following decade or two. Cities are under no obligation to stay destroyed.
2) Second, we have to ask ourselves, if the city is a trade administrative center for the surrounding hinterland, on whose behalf is this administration taking place? If the entire civilization is a collection of city-states, then each city is administering its own territory, and the chief beneficiaries a local elite that lives in the city or in mansions in the hinterland.
3) Alternatively, if we’re looking at the rise of a major empire, much of the administration is done with an eye to controlling the flow of resources from the city level to the state level, and with an eye to imposing regularity, “legibility,” and order on the countryside.
So, suppose a city is conquered. If the conqueror is a city-state, they will often lack the administrative apparatus to govern the other city at a distance. So their choices are:
A) To sack the city and effectively destroy it as a rival power center. This enables the conqueror to ‘peel off’ a strip of hinterland formerly belonging to the rival, but does not necessarily entail full control over that entire hinterland area. The remaining area may be similarly peeled off by other city-states, or may devolve into a lower-level system in which the controlling “city-“states are effectively glorified small towns, or where local power revolves around individual magnates. It’s not the problem of the conquering city-state. Also, the conqueror enriches itself from the sack.
B) To install friendly local rulers, who will run the city in a way generally compatible with the conquerors’ interests, but who aren’t running it as an extension of the conqueror’s own state. They’re still to a large part local rulers who are seeking to enrich and comfort themselves. Greek city-states did this to other Greek city-states a lot, for instance.
On the other hand, an empire that’s expanding has a third option:
C) Depopulate the city to decapitate local elites and resistance, then send in one’s own administrators and create new elites by raising them up to control reappropriated land. The empire will, in relative terms, control the new population more fully than it would have controlled the old one- and again, the imperial treasury is fatter for the profits of the sack.
Options (A) and (C) can and do involve “sacking” a city, that is, depopulating and looting it to the ground. Even (B) is compatible with a LOT of looting.
“a country stripped of its population produces nothing, and that population isn’t easily replaced.”
Unless your army is a bunch of landless men happy to settle down on empty land.
But they have to get women from somewhere.
If I remember rightly, in the medieval period was much more usual to murder men than women during raids etc (and this was codified in the Pax Dei), perhaps partly with this kind of thought process in mind. A woman could not be an enemy combatant, but her death was more demographically damaging to the territory, so the cost-benefit of killing her was very different to killing an able-bodied male.
There were Germanic tribes where a woman’s wergild was higher than a man’s.
I bet they phrased it very differently though. I guess something along the lines “it’s cowardly to kill a woman, my warband will laugh at me”, and rarely pondered why.
Japanese women were known to defend their villages while men were out at war. The weapon of choice was naginata – a polearm. Those, and bows, were the best ways to counter women’s physical disadvantage.
Popular culture often presents female heroes with bows. This is quite misleading, because a warbow requires great strength to pull. In fantasy, bows are often called the finesse weapons, and contrasted with crossbows which are supposedly about brute strength. It’s quite the opposite.
In my opinion modern times are the most friendly to female soldiers. Guns and vehicles are the best equalizer.
In Le Morte d’Arthur, except for Merlin himself, all the people who work magic are women. And there are a lot of them.
“Tried to think of scenarios where protagonists were offensive besiegers and just kept turning up defenders!”
There are examples of protagonists on the attack, but it tends to be a rapid assault rather than a drawn out siege. Also from “Avatar”, the Day of Black Sun, attacking the Fire Nation capital. Star Wars, attacking the Death Star.
Most of the Quenta Silmarillion’s time period involves the Noldor ‘besieging’ Angband, but that’s not at all like a normal siege. More them keeping a “do not pass” line, and it doesn’t seem to threaten Angband’s utterly mysterious food supplies.
Interesting question that. Mordor was sustained by slave farms in Nurnen. Morgoth certainly controlled enough territory to have same. Or maybe his forces lived on fungus grown in farm tunnels??
The Elven besiegers quickly became distracted by the joys of building elaborate cities. Elves have problems with focus.
Melkor was powerful enough that I could buy him simply sustaining his forces by sheer angelic Will, or shaping raw stuff into food. Or maybe goats and potatoes? It was cold up there, but maybe not too cold.
The elves also had feasibility problems; they couldn’t take Angband, or even fully encircle it. Stalemate for a long time, until Morgoth had the dragons and “rivers of fire” to overwhelm the Siege.
You know what goes well with a 5 part series about fortifications? A 5 part video series “How To Build A 13th Century Castle”.
“Peter Ginn, Tom Pinfold and Ruth Goodman arrive at Guédelon, in the Burgundy region of France, to join the world’s biggest archaeological experiment – a 25 year project to build a medieval castle from scratch, using only the tools and materials available in the 13th century.”
Screw you. You just cost me 5hr of my life I’ll never get back.
Fascinating topic – a siege, or keeping a siege, is very much an economic and political enterprise besides being a military enterprise.
For the attackers’ playbook, I wonder how often in the (Western) history that **water** had been used for siege. Diking a river to create a huge lake around the besieged city and forcing it to surrender (or outright flooding it and destroy the walls) was relatively common in East Asian military history.
Rivers were the railways of East Asia, so much fighting was for the cities that controlled them. Flat land, rammed earth walls and lots of labour available, plus good hydraulic engineering skills. Also worked in the Netherlands – although generally to the advantage of the besieged (break the dykes and watch them drown).
Yeah, and the Dutch Waterline is such an interesting piece of defense system.
There was one case where an attacker dammed a river and marched his army in on the riverbed.
There’s the siege of Leiden, also Antwerp, and of course if you accept fantasy there’s always Isengard.
In siege of Breda (Netherlands), sluices of the city were used to flood the surrounding area and hinder the attackers. You can watch the siege of Breda on youtube, on the SandRhoman History channel.
I don’t get it – why all these fortifications and villages end up underground? Does wind really bring so much dust that it can bury a ruined structure before it falls apart completely or someone steals the material to reuse it? Is there a detailed description of the process? I don’t even know what to type in search engine. This is especially puzzling when you hear that various archeological excavation sites are gradually disintegrated by erosion. Is it because the climate was very different back then?
Ditches catch wind-blown dust. Walls slump into them if not maintained. Road surfaces build up over time (eg in Kathmandu the streets are about half a metre above the door sills of the older houses – after about 400 years or so). Then in the Middle East most houses are built of mud brick. Every 50 years or so the timbers are removed, the walls pushed in and the site flattened, and a new house built. After 2000 years the town is sitting on a sizeable mound.
For dinosaurs, ‘stratigraphy’ is the study of how geological layers are formed and can be dated, ‘taphonomy’ is the study of how dead plants and creatures become fossils. A quick Wikipedia skim suggests that archeologists use the same names. I’m not at all an expert, but maybe these can get you started?
There’s a certain amount of survivor bias in that.
If a farmer is willing to walk to the fields, 3 km is a bit over a 30 minute commute. 3 km radius gives an area of 27 km2. At 100 people/km2 local farming density, that could be 2700 people living in a ‘town’ on local food production.
Large scale density is usually lower, but “one acre per person” seems a common subsistence farming thing, and *that* would give you 250 people/km2.
I think classical Attica was about 100 people/km2, 250,000 people in 2500 km2, though they had fishing and grain imports.
Even at 30 people/km2, you could have a town? large village? of 900 people.
I dunno whether farmers would want to live so far from fields in practice.
There was a Chinese-inspired Japanese-authored fantasy (Twelve Kingdoms) that had a system of small summer hamlets, and peasants moving to the big walled town for the winter, so you’d get something like a part-time urbanized population, but those were rice farmers with I think little livestock to take care of.
Attica was too big (50 km across, roughly) for everyone to be ‘commuting’ from Athens to fields on a daily basis even if that’s a thing; still, there are ways that people working the land could be part of a nearby city rather than just exploited by it.
There are also intermediate conditions.
Hypothetically, a farm in the more remote corners of Attica might be owned by an Athenian citizen, and be the residence of his family… But with the bulk of the labor, as measured by man-hours of essential tasks performed, being done by the women and children of the citizen’s own family. Additional labor might come from one or more slaves or noncitizen sharecroppers, remembering that the sharecroppers might be residents of a farm village instead of a standalone farmhouse, but the village they actually live in, importantly, isn’t Athens.
To make certain things clear, the Athenian owner of the farm may well perform labor himself, especially at harvest time or in emergencies, or he may work at tasks that he doesn’t see as being particularly demeaning or unpleasant, or he may have stubborn principles along these lines, as some farmers do. The Athenian’s farm may not be large enough to support one man, let alone an entire family, in total economic idleness, the way a Spartan citizen’s farm is supposed to. Again, it is quite likely that he is working on that farm, at least some of the time, and that the people who work there may not be slaves, as the workers on a Spartan citizen’s farm generally are.
But only the Athenian owner of the farm, who is a citizen, and his sons who have come of age and are likewise, have the privilege of participating in Athenian democracy and government.
The Athenian owner still may have a day-long hike up hill and down dale to get from his farm to the city, such that he complains rather understandably about how inconvenient it is for him to participate in Athenian democracy. But his wife or his aging mother, who spin and do chores, do not participate at all. And his slave(s), who do many tasks on the farm and likewise spin in the case of the enslaved women, do not. Nor do any of the well-known “metic” class of Athens, who are noncitizen residents, participate in the democracy.
Now if we look at this plot of land that this Athenian citizen owns…
Is this land “just exploited by” Athens? Or is it the case that “people working the land are part of a nearby city?”
Neither, or perhaps both, or perhaps something much more nuanced and stranger.
Will Part 2 come put today?
Bret, here we are (a week late) with a few proofreading points for you, if you’re still interested:
make occasionally connections > occasionally make
system which can withstand > system that
if the attacker an get into > can get into
one which predated writing > one that predated
the historical GIlgamesh > Gilgamesh
popularmodern assumptions> popular[space]modern
slowly, to the city> so the city
actual work in a siege.. > [delete extraneous period]
complications to it which explain > that explain
games – one you lay > once you lay
*Am I missing some kind of style guide that does not make a distinction between the use of which and that? My understanding has always been that the pronoun which ought to be reserved for nonessential clauses, which are separated by a comma.
This was a great post, but I’m surprised you only mentioned voluntary surrender or siege as options for taking a city.
What about surprise (e.g. sending a soldier up a garderobe chute (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Chateau_Gaillard – I vaguely remember it occurring during the 2nd Punic war as well) or by betrayal, with a defender opening the gates?
Those seem to be much preferable alternative to a direct siege, when available.
Coming back to this much later, but the limits of these approaches is that they work very well when they work at all, and very badly when they fail.
For instance, suppose you do manage to wiggle a soldier up into the castle by fair means or foul. That single soldier has a certain chance of doing some damage… but they are still only one person. They can only accomplish so much if the enemy is alert and has guards on duty covering key locations. Furthermore, the time required to get into the castle may involve exhausting manual labor, or you may be utterly defeated by relatively mundane means (such as a few iron bars hammered crosswise into the stonework of the garderobe shaft, not even a grillwork but enough to make it impossible for something the size of a human being to pass through. The infiltrator may be in no condition to accomplish much after making the climb, et cetera… and said infiltrator faces almost certain grisly death at the hands of the defenders if he is captured.
Or suppose you try treachery. Well, you need someone who figures out how to negotiate with your forces while going completely undetected among their own forces. Someone who actually [i]has[/i] the power to, say, leave one of the castle gates open, even though opening the gates may involve heavy machinery and will [i]definitely[/i] not a be a move accepted by the other occupants of the castle. What happens if they get caught? Again, almost certain grisly death for your agent.
Which in turn makes it hard to find agents like that.
I have published an excerpt of this on my blog (with linked attribution).
“Different Fortifications Against Raids Versus Sieges”