The Paraskeuastikon of Peter the Son of Jack
In December I re-watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A younger self would have used this post to have a good rant about all of the aspects of Jackson’s battles and sieges which just would not work. Tolkien was vague about many things, but he was a combat veteran who knew his classics, and both showed. However, I now realize that if someone with hundreds of millions of dollars at their command can’t be bothered to read a handful of Ospreys, let alone Aeneas Tacticus and Philon of Byzantium and the Old Norse King’s Mirror, or hire an underemployed doctor of ancient history and listen to what they say, there is no point in lecturing to them. Some people just don’t care how they really did it or want to engage with sources (although Jackson did let people who understood material culture and fight direction do their stuff). But watching these films reminds me of one thing which might be right.
The ancient Greeks called something having to do with preparations to defend a town a παρασκευαστικόν paraskeuastikon, and wrote books on the subject, one of which survives. In Peter Jackson’s contribution to the genre, reinforcing gates with extra layers of timber or angled props plays an important role. This appears in the fight in the Chamber of Records in Moria, in the siege of Helm’s Deep, and possibly at the scene set at one of the upper gateways of Minas Tirith. It certainly feels like it would help, and Peter Connolly’s book on Pompeii shows a plaster cast of a door where the lock and bar had been reinforced with a long prop stretching down to the ground. But I can’t think of any reference to this technique in an ancient or medieval source on siegecraft, and that makes me suspicious. The number of things which seem plausible to modern people in chairs, but did not impress hard-handed people in the ancient world, is vast.
Ancient defenders seem to have worried about two main threats to a gate: fire and rams. Both could be defended against by arranging the gate to allow as many defenders as possible to shoot, throw, and drop things on approaching enemies. Fire could be countered by covering the gate with iron, bronze, or raw hides, by fitting a ditch and drawbridge in front of the gate so there was nowhere for fire-setters to stand and place their bundles of fuel, and by building outlets to allow defenders above to splash water on the area in front of the gate. Rams could be countered by building a steep, narrow, and crooked entryway (so that there was no way to haul a ram into position and work it), by lowering bundles stuffed with soft material to absorb the force of the blow, by lowering nooses or pincers to catch the head of the ram as it struck and lift it out of the way, or by dropping heavy stones on the head of the ram to break it off.
It was a recognized technique to add superstructures to the walls and towers opposite to approaching mounds and towers. The walls of Dura Europos were reinforced by earth berms on the inside and outside before the Persians arrived in the 3rd century CE (famously burying a church and a synagogue and so preserving their wall paintings). It was also common to wall up excess doorways and cut others where they were needed. An aggressive siege kept both sides busy at construction work. But I don’t know any ancient or medieval source for reinforcing a gate with props or extra layers of timber.
Do my learned readers know of any? Does this technique appear in other modern visions of an ancient or medieval siege? Quite a few things in modern depictions of sieges and siege engines can be traced back to books published before the First World War.
Further Reading: Translations of Aeneas Tacticus and the Old Norse King’s Mirror are online; Vegetius also discusses the topic from an academic perspective. I am not aware of any online edition of Philon’s manual, but am told that his book on preparations is translated in A.W. Lawrence’s Greek Aims in Fortification. A fun film which gets its poliorcetics and parasceuatics right is 1612 (released in 2007, directed by Vladimir Khotinenko). L. Sprague de Camp was also careful about these details in his novels like The Clocks of Iraz and The Bronze God of Rhodes.
Some useful keywords for learning why rebutting nonsense is not always an effective response are the backfire effect and availability bias. Or as reenactors like to put it, just assume that whatever you see on the screen is wrong!
Edit 2023-02-10: converted to block editor
Even modern police stations have sally ports. If you completely wall yourself in you remove any threat of attacking on the flank. Given all the approach defenses, and back up defenses at a gatehouse, if the attacker got to the point they were beating on the actual wood gate, you’d probably just let it ride. there is a portcullis and tunnel with murder holes behind it in any case. I seem to recall in a book on English castels that some of them disposed of the gate and simply went with a portcullis.
Obviously, giant ogres and orcs outside the wall might influence your tactics.
The way that they abandoned the citadel as soon as the gate failed (rather than barricading that narrow passage overlooked from both sides and dropping things on any orc who dared to enter it) would be a good topic for a rant! But Peter Jackson clearly is not as keen to know “how did they do it it back in the day” as I am, and with a billion people with OPINIONS on his films I doubt he is interested in mine.