The Work of Laying Siege
Written by
Categories: Ancient, Uncategorized

The Work of Laying Siege

Stories about capturing animals from a town, attaching fire to them, and releasing them to burn it to the ground are common. Sometimes these appear in stories about clever old kings which should be read with a grain of salt, but other times they appear in sober technical manuals. The only version from ancient Southwest Asia which I know is the story of Samson and the foxes (Judges 15), but a book attributed to one of Chandragupta’s ministers has another one in the chapter entitled THE WORK OF LAYING SIEGE.

Getting hawks, crows, pheasants, kites, parrots, sarikas, owls and pigeons, with nests in the fort, caught, he should release them in the enemy’s fort with fire-mixtures tied to the tails. Or, from the camp stationed at a distance, he should set fire to the enemy’s fort with human fire, being guarded by bows with flags raised aloft.

And secret agents, serving as guards inside the fort, should place a fire-mixture in the tails of ichneumons, monkeys, cats and dogs, and let them loose in stores of reeds, fortifications, and houses. Placing fire in the interior of dried fish or in dried meat, they should have it carried in through birds by offering it to crows. Balls of sarala, devadaru, stinking-grass, bdellium, pine-resin, sola resin and lac and the dung of donkeys, camels and goats and sheep are (good) retainers of fire. The powder of the priyala, the soot of avalguja, wax and the dung of horses, donkeys, camels, and bullocks make a fire-mixture which can be thrown (into the fort). Or, the powder of all metals, of the colour of fire, or the powder of kumbhi, lead, and tin, mixed with the flowers of paribhadraka and palasa, the soot of kesa, oil, wax and pine-resin makes a fire-mixture, one that kills the trusting. An arrow smeared with it covered with hemp and the bark of trapusa, is a (means of) setting on fire. However, when fighting is possible, he should not at all make use of fire. For, fire is unreliable and is a divine calamity, the destroyer of innumerable creatures, grains, animals, money, forest produce and goods. And a kingdom, with stores exhausted, even if obtained, leads only to loss. Thus ends (the topic of) laying siege (to a fort).

From R.P. Kangle trans., The Kautiliya Arthasastra Part II: An English Translation with Critical and Explanatory Notes Second Edition (Motlilal Banarsidass: Delhi, 1972) book 13 chapter 4 sections 14-24 THE WORK OF LAYING SIEGE

The Kautiliya Arthasastra is full of other advice on how to cripple or destroy your enemies by clever tricks, spies, and wonder-workers. Incendiary devices were common and effective in many different times and places, and the technical details required to make them work are often lost or mingled with nonsense. I can’t find anyone who actually saw this stratagem in use before 1943, but I still wonder. I can’t say that my studies lead me to conclude that some things are so grotesque and impractical that nobody would ever try them in war.

Further Reading: Mitch Fraas, “A Rocket Cat? Early Modern Explosives Treatises at Penn” Unique at Penn Blog, Jack Couffer, Bat Bombs: World War II’s Other Secret Weapon (University of Texas Press, 2008) (I thank comedian Dave Berry for the column which lead me to the later)

Edit 2022-04-23: fixed formatting broken when WordPress introduced

paypal logo
patreon logo

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.