siege warfare

Battering Rams and Bores

a colour photo of
Wellburn’s Market on Pandora Avenue (est. 1911) is being torn down and redeveloped. The frames to support the original walls are kind of like half of Apollodorus’ A-frame battering ram. Photo by Sean Manning fall 2023

For the conference on city sieges in Innsbruck in October 2023, I have been reading or skimming all the ancient Greek and Roman manuals of siege warfare. This let me finally see another theory about how the Greeks got battering rams.

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Roman Engineers Didn’t Read Their Vitruvius

assorted earthenware pottery displayed on a sheet-glass shelf
Some Roman pottery in the Römermuseum Wien, photo by Sean Manning October 2023

Anyone who has looked at fortifications built by the Roman army of the early empire knows that they were stupid about towers. These forts are often generously provided with towers, but those towers don’t stick far enough out from the walls to provide flanking fire against anyone trying to climb them. They provide extra height for fighting and observing, and protection from the weather on cold wet nights, but they don’t let people shoot and throw things at anyone trying to get over the walls between the towers (or sitting at the base of the wall trying to dig into it and pry things out ). The basic idea of how to use projecting towers had been known since the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, and although the Greeks were slow learners by the time of Alexander the Great some of them had understood these principles and even written textbooks. Roman forts became more sophisticated in the fourth century CE as Roman urban society was struggling. I just realized that Vitruvius explained how to use towers tool in his first book on architecture!

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Like Experts against Ignorants

the stone-walled citadal of Aleppo on its steep hill
The citadel of Aleppo in 2010 care of Wikipedia Commons. Someone removed the moat. During the Syrian Civil War, the citadel of Aleppo fell again to a tyrant.

Unless you have the right kind of experience, its hard to understand what it was like for most people to go up against a really good army. Most soldiers before the 19th century did their first training as a group when they were gathered together with thousands of other soldiers to fight someone, and nobody could afford to keep that army together for long in friendly territory, so a lot of battles looked like a university soccer team versus Real Madrid. If team sports are not your thing, one of the chronicles of Timur the Lame gives us an idea of what coming up against one of these few good armies was like. The Syrians had left Aleppo to fight Timur in the open, and when the terrified remains of their army returned to the city some of the Mongols entered with them. At first the governors of Syria did not think that all was lost:

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A Carefully Worded Footnote

Trebuchet test at the University of Toronto Back Campus, 12 April 1991. Figure 1 in W. T. S. Tarver, “The Traction Trebuchet: A Reconstruction of an Early Medieval Siege Engine,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 36, No. 1. (January 1995) In the early middle ages, Europeans learned about a much simpler technology than the ancient catapult:... Continue reading: A Carefully Worded Footnote

How the Greeks Got Battering Rams

The hollow bronze head of a battering ram with a toothed striking surface and decorative rams' heads on the sides near the open back
This may have been part of the first battering ram deployed in Greece. It was made sometime in the 5th century BCE, around the time when later Greeks remembered battering rams were first deployed, and dedicated to Zeus at Olympia. Archaeological Museum, Olympia, object B2360 c/o

People who see the ancient Greeks as an especially progressive and technically advanced people have a lot to boast about, but they have to admit that their heroes were a bit backwards at siege engineering. We have pictures of battering rams from Egypt and Upper Mesopotamia dating back to the third millennium BCE, and Early Bronze Age texts which mention them from Ebla in Syria, and in the 18th century BCE petty kings like Zimri-Lim of Mari took them for granted and students in scribal colleges dutifully memorized the proper Sumerian names for all the parts, but they are absent from early Greek vase painting, absent from the Homeric epics, and absent from Greek traditions of their wars until the time of Pericles. That is about 2000 years later than the first evidence for battering rams from Syria and Egypt.

Greek stories about their early wars, and the archaeology of Iron Age Greece, make it clear that Greek soldiers were very eager to take and destroy walled cities, but apparently they were too impatient to sit outside a town for a few months while they built something the size and complexity of a small boat and pushed it through enemy fire against a wall or gate. People who admire the Greeks usually say a few words about the Assyrians as masters of siegecraft then slip into telling a triumphant story of Greek progress from humble beginnings.

Later Greeks and Romans did not know about the Mari letters or Old Kingdom tomb paintings, but they saw that their ancestors lacked the siege engines which were used in their own times, and they told two types of stories about How the Greeks Got Siege Engines.

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An Old Dilemma

Inside Urim there is death, outside it there is death. Inside it we are to be finished off by famine. Outside it we are to be finished off by Elamite weapons. In Urim the enemy oppresses us, oh, we are finished.

The Lament for Sumer and Urim, lines 389-402 (ETCSL 2.2.3)

Industrial Age

More than 140 civilians have been killed in less than a week while trying to flee western Mosul, according to military sources [among the besiegers], as the Iraqi army seeks to close in on fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the armed group’s last stronghold in Iraq.

According to the [besieging] military on Thursday, most of the fatalities were women and children.

“Mosul battle: At least 142 civilians killed in six days”
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The Paraskeuastikon of Peter the Son of Jack

A brick fortress with swallowtail battlements, a high tower, and double walls
Since I start this post by talking about an imaginary fortress designed by ignorant people, how about a real fortress designed by people skilled in the art: the Castelvecchio facing what was once outside the medieval town and is now part of the city centre, Verona. The low grey wall and the high red brick wall are separated by a ditch which was once wet.

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.

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Some Important New Books

Whitehead, David. Philo Mechanicus: On Sieges. Translated with introduction and commentary. Historia. Einzelschriften, 243. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. 510 p. € 84.00. ISBN 9783515113434. Technical military writing does not have much place in the work of ancient historians today, unless they can mine it for anecdotes (Onasander, Frontinus) or it is written by an... Continue reading: Some Important New Books

The Man from Arados

A relief map of the eastern Mediterranean showing Rhodes off the southwest coast of Turkey (ancient Caria) and Arados off the coast of Syria opposite Cyprus
Modified from a map by the Ancient World Mapping Center Version 1 date 22 November 2004

In the time of Antigonos the One-Eyed, an ingenious character named Kallias of Arados came to Rhodes and impressed the city fathers with his knowledge of all the latest engines for defending a city, and some which were so new that nobody had yet turned his sketches and models into a full-sized prototype. Kallias did such a good job of impressing them that they gave him an office in place of a Rhodian and funds to turn his ideas into reality. When Demetrius the Sacker of Cities arrived outside of the walls, Kallias executed his office until the Rhodians found out that his favourite machine, a crane for lifting siege towers as they approached the wall, would never work in full-size as well as it did on a model.

There are a lot of things which could be taken from this story, and a lot of details which could be imagined in turning this fable about the square-cube law back into the story about human beings which lies behind it. The detail which I want to point out is that Arados is an island off the Phoenician coast, whereas Rhodes is an island off Caria.
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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... Continue reading: The Work of Laying Siege
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