Sieges in the Ancient Mediterranean

A new Companion published by Brill

This book, based on a workshop on fortifications and sieges, features a collection of papers that deal with siegecraft among the ancient Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

Written by Jason C. Morris on

The book under review, Brill’s Companion to Sieges in the Ancient Mediterranean (Brill, 2019), has its origins in a workshop entitled “Ancient Fortifications and Sieges” organized by Professor Anthony Spalinger at the University of Auckland in September 2013. The workshop, like the volume it spawned, was intended to establish the state of research on ancient siege warfare.

When Professor Spalinger was unable to see the results of the workshop through to publication, Jeremy Armstrong and Matthew Trundle took over. (Disclosure: Matthew Trundle was the deputy supervisor for my Master’s thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in 2009.)

Sadly, as the volume was entering its final stages in September of 2018, Matthew Trundle was diagnosed with acute lymphoid leukemia. After a valiant year-long struggle against the disease, he passed away peacefully on 12 July 2019, leaving Jeremy Armstrong as sole editor.

Sieges in the ancient Mediterranean

The book consists of an introduction, conclusion, and fourteen chapters. The chapters themselves can be divided into four subsections containing twelve essays that are bracketed by two chapters which stand alone as special topics. The four subsections include: siegecraft of the Neo-Assyrians in the ninth to seventh centuries BC, Egyptian siegecraft, sieges in the Greek world from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period, and siegecraft in the Roman Republic and Late Antiquity.

In what follows, I first discuss the two chapters that stand alone, and then consider the chapters under these four headings. I conclude the review with some observations on the volume as a whole.

The first of the two chapters that stand alone is written by Gwyn Davies, and it addresses the role of the environment in ancient sieges. The main thrust of his argument is that environmental, climatic, and topological conditions determined both the ease with which a siege could be prosecuted and the extent to which the general in command of a besieging force had to adapt in order to survive. In desert conditions far from water, for example, a commanding officer had to use logistical strategies to bring in both water for his men and raw materials such as wood for the construction of siege works. Weather and climate could also influence both the time of year at which a siege could be undertaken and its duration.

On the other hand, as Davies makes clear, topography often dictated the course of the siege works as well as the path of attack used to enter a fortified position. Many scholars, including some of the authors in this volume, overlook these considerations when discussing sieges, preferring to focus on leaders, tactics, and weapons. Davies’ chapter should be seen as a timely and well-written corrective.

The other essay that stands out as a unique study in this volume is the chapter written by Josh Levithan. His contribution, unlike most of the other essays, is not a historical study but rather a literary or metahistorical investigation focused on sieges as literary topoi. Levithan, in the course of his far-flung discussion, exemplifies a few salient aspects of the representations of siege warfare in the Graeco-Roman world, and then traces their influence on literature from the Iliad down to texts that stand at the dawn of modern literature, such as Orlando Furioso and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata.

Levithan’s exposition of these texts is interesting and learned, but the topic seems far too expansive to be covered in just thirty-four pages. As a consequence, one is left with the feeling that the chapter is only a prelude to a larger scholarly project.

Siegecraft in ancient Assyria

In between the chapter by Davies and that of Levithan are the twelve other essays, which comprise the four sections outlined above. The first of these sections comprises two chapters on Neo-Assyrian siegecraft by Luis Siddall and Davide Nadali. Both of these chapters describe the methods used by the Neo-Assyrian army to both blockade and storm fortified cities from the ninth to the end of the seventh century BC.

However, whereas Siddal’s chapter is mostly focused on the straight forward description of military tactics and practices, Nadali’s engages with the more complex issue of the historiography behind the palace relief sculptures that form the core of our knowledge about the Neo-Assyrian army.

It is worth noting here that many of the methods and practices discussed in these two chapters reappear in the chapters on Greek and Roman warfare written by Matthew Trundle, Brian Rose, Duncan Campbell, and Conor Whately.

Siegecraft in ancient Egypt

The following two chapters by Brett Heagren and Alan Lloyd deal with sieges in Pharaonic and Hellenistic Egypt respectively. While Lloyd’s chapter is focused on Egypt, its structure and subject matter have more in common with the chapter on Hellenistic sieges written by Thomas Rose than than it does with that of Heagren. I will therefore discuss the chapters by Lloyd and Rose together below.

Heagren’s chapter however deserves some special attention here. First, as far as I know, it is the only piece of scholarship published in the last half century to explicitly address the subject of sieges, or more properly, assault warfare, in Egyptian culture. Secondly, the chapter is incredibly well-written.

In his introduction, Heagren explains that assault warfare should be distinguished from a siege by the fact that a siege involves the investment of a military target wich may or may not involve direct military assault while assault warfare involves an attack on a fortified target.

At the opening of his chapter, Heagren outlines the different military options available to any ancient army for reducing a fortified position. He then describes in detail the historical development of the tactics employed by the Egyptians in this form of military activity from predynastic times down to the end of the twentieth dynasty. In doing so, he demonstrates that the Egyptians developed a traditional preference for a systematic attack plan that involved a field battle before a fortified stronghold, followed by a quick assault on the defences using ladders, picks, rams, and archers.

Heagren further argues that the Egyptians only laid siege to a fortified position in the rare instances where their armies were not able to take it by storm. It was the Egyptian preference for the quick assault rather than technological limitations that explains the limited presence of engineering works such as the siege ramp in Egyptian warfare.

While Heagren’s findings may not prove all that surprising to Egyptologists, he makes skilful use of the available source material, and his chapter will prove invaluable to students of military and ancient history.

Siegecraft in ancient Greece

Matthew Trundle opens the section on ancient Greece with a chapter that, while perhaps not groundbreaking in its conclusions, nonetheless forms a satisfying companion to his earlier work on Greek mercenaries (Trundle 2004). The chapter follows the military conditions that caused the Greeks to develop their own siege technology from the late sixth century BC through to the death of Alexander the Great.

Trundle opens the narrative by arguing that siege technology and siege machines were alien to the archaic Greek mindset. Rather, siege technology, along with fortified cities, were concepts that the Greeks adapted from the peoples of the Near East in reaction to piracy and Persian military activity at the end of the sixth century.

He further observes that the Greeks only seriously began to use siege machinery on a regular basis after the city of Syracuse engaged the Carthaginians in the last decade of the fifth century. Moreover, it was the Macedonians who truly ramped up the use of the technological developments introduced by both Greeks and Carthaginians as Philip and Alexander undertook their conquests.

Though this narrative may prove too simplistic for some, Trundle’s discussion will remain an important starting point for future discussions since, in spite of his illness, he has assembled a truly impressive bibliography that includes items published as recently as 2020.

While Trundle focuses almost exclusively on the military aspects involved in the development of siege warfare in the Hellenic world, Jennifer Martinez Morales, in another outstanding chapter, considers the role that women played during a siege, and the impact that sieges had on women and children.

Through a close reading of passages extracted from a range of sources, Martinez illustrates that women often suffered disproportionetly during a siege, and that they played a wide range of roles. There were quiet moments where women built wall fortifications or looked after and suffered alongside besieged soldiers with no chance of escape. There were also exciting moments where women saved entire cities by killing the commander of a besieging army with a few well flung roof tiles. Anyone who is interested in the role of women in ancient warfare at any period in antiquity will need to start with this essay.

Thomas Rose takes the narrative of siege warfare in the Greek world down to the end of the fourth century BC with a study of Demetrius Poliorcetes. Rose looks at both Demetrius’ tactics for attacking and defending cities alongside the besieger’s cult-like presence in the ancient world.

Valuable though Rose’s portrait of Demetrius may be, one can gain perspective and insight into it by reading Rose’s contribution in conjunction with the chapter by Alan Lloyd. As mentioned above, Lloyd focuses on the defence of Egypt in the fourth century. He considers what tactical decisions did or did not work in campaigns where sieges played a critical role by outlining the course of four different invasions that the Egyptians faced in the fourth century: the Persian invasion in the reign of Artaxerxes II in 374 BC; the Persian invasion by Artaxerxes III in 343 BC; Perdiccas’ invasion of Egypt in 321 BC; and the invasion of Egypt by Antigonus Monophalmus and Demetrius Poliorcetes in 306 BC.

By reading these accounts against Rose’s chapter on Demetrius, it is possible to see that siege warfare was endemic in the fourth century BC, and winning depended upon a superior understanding of logistics, backed by support from technical professionals. Demetrius understood these principles better than most, but he built on a century-long tradition of siegecraft that permiated the Near East and Mediterranean basin.

It is therefore regrettable that neither Rose nor Lloyd directly engage with Serafina Cuomo’s contention that the fourth century was a period in which there was a shift in the way of doing war from one centred on the heroic actions of the Hoplite warrior to one that depended on the specialized knowledge of technical experts (Cuomo 2007, pp. 41-76).

Siegecraft in the Roman world

The section on sieges in the Roman world opens with two essays that should be taken together, since they both deal with siegecraft at Rome in the fifth century BC and the siege of Veii. Jeremy Armstrong contributes the first of these two chapters, and it is one of the more interesting and problematic essays in the volume.

Armstrong argues that society at Rome from the seventh century BC to the middle of the fifth was organized around family clans who were focused on herding and trade. As a consequence, Roman warfare, and perhaps all warfare in the Italian peninsula in this period, was concentrated on small-scale cattle raiding and skirmishing.

He further argues that these social conditions meant that the Romans did not feel the need to provide their community with a full set of circuit walls until the start of the fourth century BC. He concludes that siegecraft only came to Rome with social changes in the mid fifth century that caused the Romans to slowly transition to a more agrarian economy that facilitated territorial imperialism by a large citizen army.

I find most of Armstrong’s arguments to be persuasive. However, I am not convinced by Armstrong’s argument that Rome was defended only by a series of separate hilltop fortifications, with few defensive lines in low-lying areas other than an agger protecting the eastern approach across the Esquiline Plateau.

Armstrong, in making his case for this particular theory, seems to pick and choose the texts he is willing to accept as evidence without fully engaging in a detailed discussion of the historiography behind each passage. Also, Armstrong, like other scholars who maintain this theory, seems to depend far too much upon an absence of evidence for fortifications in the low-lying areas between Rome’s hills (Bernard 2012; Ziolkowski 2016).

While I agree that Rome did not have a continuous circuit wall in the fifth century, I do not think that there is enough archaeological evidence for anyone to say what the nature or extent of Rome’s early fortifications might have been like before the fourth century BC.

An important point in considering the role of siege warfare by the Romans of the fifth century is that of manpower and the Romans’ willingness to deploy it for an extended period. As Heagren points out in his chapter, proper siege warfare, which involved surrounding and blockading a site in addition to possible assaults against a city’s fortifications, was often the most demanding of all military activities, requiring a significant investment of time and force.

James Crooks, in his chapter, considers one particular aspect of this problem by exploring the Roman’s use of voluntarii, or troops enlisted through irregular systems of voluntary enlistment during the third Veientine War. Crook argues that theywere soldiers who were recruited outside the regular delectus, or call to arms, who may have completed their required period of service to the state or who were normally not liable to service in the legions.

They offered to serve in times of need or when a normal levy was not possible. He further argues that the development of voluntarii in the second half of the fifth century may have been directly linked to the introduction of pay for the Roman troops. While not strictly speaking focused on the subject of siegecraft, Crooks’ chapter will prove to be of interest to historians working on the siege of Veii.

The final two articles in the section on Roman siegecraft, by Duncan Campbell and Conor Wately, cover the period from the first century BC through to the end of the seventh century AD in two microcosmic snapshots. Campbell’s article focuses on Caesar’s use of siegecraft, and his presentation of this type of military operation in his war commentaries.

Like the chapter by Thomas Rose, Campbell’s chapter is a valuable and detailed study of what one military commander contributed to the development of siegecraft. However, much of Campbell’s presentation is concerned with a sharp critique of Josh Levithan’s theory of the siege progression (Levithan 2013, pp. 47-79). Campbell demonstrates that none of Caesar’s sieges strictly follow the pseudo-mechanical progression that Levithan has outlined for Roman sieges.

In spite of that fact, I think that Campbell may unduly dismiss Levithan’s concept. While Levithan shows a lack of appreciation for the role of technology in ancient siegecraft, his concept of the siege progression may still be a valuable theoretical tool that could be applied to the analysis of ancient sieges. It is perhaps with that end in mind that Campbell provides detailed tables that include a full list of primary references for the sieges undertaken by Caesar, and which classify them according to the methods used to prosecute them at the end of the chapter.

Conor Whately’s chapter focuses on the history and historiography of the Ostrogothic siege of Rome in AD 537. In the chapter, he subjects three aspects of Procopius’ narrative, the size of the Ostrogothic army, the prevalent presence of graphic battle wounds, and the role of siege machines to a rigorous historiographic analysis.

After a detailed discussion of these points, Wately concludes that Procopius, in spite of his naritive excesses, is a reliable source for both sieges in Late Antiquity in general, and for the siege of Rome in particular. Those working on warfare in Late Antiquity and the Byzantine period will find the chapter a welcome and well-written addition to the literature.

Closing thoughts

As this summary makes clear, the individual contributions to this volume are generally of a high quality and make a serious contribution to the scholarly discussion. Anyone working on the history of sieges or ancient warfare more generally will want to have this book on their shelves.

However, the volume as a whole does have three minor problems. First, several of the chapters heavily utilise iconographic and archaeological evidence in their discussion. There are, however, very few illustrations of the artifacts and pieces of art under discussion. Fortunately for scholars who wish to engage with the arguments of the individual contributors, each chapter is provided with ample footnotes and references directing the reader to other literature where photographs and drawings are provided.

Secondly, while there is a final concluding chapter that attempts to draw the threads of the individual contributions together into a whole and place them into their historical context, there is almost no direct engagement between the authors of the individual chapters. This is rather inexplicable since there were six years between the conference and Trundle’s illness, and seven years between the conference and the volume’s final publication. I can only assume that the change in leadership which took place mid way through had a disruptive impact on organisation and communications amongst the contributors.

Third, in considering the wider picture of siege warfare and its history, there is also the problem that this volume does not cover all periods in antiquity equally. The Roman imperial period for example is not covered at all. Moreover, Armstrong and Trundle chose to include two chapters on the Neo-Assyrians without devoting any space to siege warfare in the Akkadian period.

This is curious since there is good reason to think that the Akkadians developed many of the methods and tactics used by the Neo-Assyrians, which, according to Trundle, influenced the Greeks and presumably the Romans (Foster 2016, pp. 10-13; Trundle, this volume, pp. 135-136).

Perhaps this can be excused on the grounds that the Akkadians did not have a Mediterranean coastline for most of their history, and thus fall outside the geographic limits set by the volume’s subject matter. Even so, the absence of any discussion of the Akkadians means that tracing this sort of social and technological development requires the reader to go beyond the volume under review.

In spite of these shortcomings, Armstrong and Trundle need to be congratulated on producing a volume that achieves its original objective. In this series of thirteen chapters are presented the current state of research into sieges in the ancient world. The chapters are presented in a more or less logical order and seem to be well edited. The volume is a solid piece of work, and as a former student, I can take pride in reading and reviewing it. I am only sorry that Matthew Trundle’s passing means that there will be no further work from his hand.

I can therefore only conclude by echoing the words that Jeremy Armstrong uses to conclude his preface: Matthew Trundle was a dedicated scholar, a generous and thoughtful mentor, and a brilliant teacher who brought the ancient world alive for countless students. Above all, Matthew was an incredibly gregarious soul who brightened the lives of all those who knew him. He will be sorely missed by many around the world.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • S. Bernard, “Continuing the debate on Rome’s earliest circuit walls”, Papers of the British School at Rome 80 (2012), pp. 1-44.
  • S. Cuomo, Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity (2007).
  • B.R. Foster, The Age of Agade: Inventing Empire in Ancient Mesopotamia (2016).
  • J. Levithan, Roman Siege Warfare (2013).
  • M. Trundle, Greek Mercenaries: From the Late Archaic Period to Alexander (2004).
  • A. Ziolkowski, “The Servian enceinte: should the debate continue?”, Palamedes 11 (2016), pp. 151-170.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.