Siege Warfare Through the Ages – Which Siege Tactics Are Right For You?

Since before 3500 BC people have been putting defensive walls around their settlements. As I’m sure you all know, these pesky walls and fortifications can be a real pain when you want to get inside somewhere for whatever reason. Maybe you’re at war with the occupants, maybe they have something of yours, like some loot that should clearly belong to you, or perhaps you just happen to have an army and feel like attacking something. Whatever your reasons for laying siege, that’s your business, and I’m not here to judge. No, my purpose today is to let you know which siege tactics and weapons you should be using to get you through those walls and to whatever goal lay within. So whichever period of time in which you happen to be conducting your siege, take a look below at the closest example and you should find the best methods available to you.

New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1077 BC)

Starting as early as we can with any real substance, with the New Kingdom of Egypt. As an Egyptian in this period you could expect to be fighting various different enemies, such as the Canaanites or the Hittites. Many of the enemy held towns that you come across may be fortified, so you should be prepared for a siege. As you will see throughout later periods, it is often the case that you are better off attempting to out-wait the enemy within, just as they try to wait for you to give up and go away. This basic but effective approach can be more seriously applied by preventing any movement into or out of the walls, and thus cutting the enemy of from any new supplies or means of escape. This was done at the siege of Megiddo in the 15th century BC when Pharaoh Thutmose III had a moat and wooden palisade constructed around the city, essentially giving the attackers their own wall to sit behind and wait for the enemy to surrender, except with the important difference being that they had the rest of the outside world behind their walls, rather than a small limited space with ever dwindling supplies. The defenders eventually surrendered after several months and were spared.

The siege of Dapur on a mural in Ramesses II’s temple in Thebes

If such a peaceful outcome doesn’t interest you so much, then there are other options that you have in this period. The Egyptians did use various constructions against fortifications, the most common and basic of which would have been large ladders to scale the walls in order to assault the defended positions atop. Usually an assault like this should be supported by archers, but keep an eye out for the large sails that your enemy may have flying above their walls, as these may render your arrows less effective against the occupants in the city. These tactics would have been used at the siege of Dapur in 1269 BC against the Hittite Empire during Ramesses II’s campaign to conquer Syria. As an attacker you should be able to defend your own troops from enemy arrow shot as well, as there are examples of mobile roofed structures and simple moving towers that you can use in an assault.

Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC)

Moving forward in time as we go, we come to some other good examples of early siege warfare with the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians, after years of war and conquest, had become a most powerful and successful empire, and had also learned a thing or two about how to conduct a siege in the process. During the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883 to 859 B.C.) the battering ram was developed into something more sophisticated than a simple wooden log. These Assyrian rams were heavy, five meters long, and protected by a roof and turret in which archers were placed. The ram was suspended from the roof by ropes so it could swing freely. The ramming end was covered by a metal plate, shaped into a blade that was driven into the bricks of the wall effectively.

An Assyrian siege engine ascends the ramp on the Siege of Lachish reliefs

Once you have a few, or preferably many, of these rams in place on the enemy’s walls and gates, you should then look to combine them with methods of topping the walls during the assault, as the Assyrians had found that a multi-faceted approach is a good idea. As usual it is always the standard to assault the walls with ladders, but there are also other methods for getting higher, most notably the use of great earthen ramps. These would be a huge engineering effort to construct, but they could only have to be built part way up the wall, and from there you could bring a ram up the ramp to demolish the wall at this height where it is usually thinner. This method was proven successful at the siege of Lachish in 701 BC when Assyrian King Sennacherib fought to subjugate the rebelling Kingdom of Judah.

Classical and Hellenistic Greece (510-31 BC)

Moving onto Greece, the later part of the Classical, and then the Hellenistic period of Greece saw a height of military innovation, which in turn gives you plenty of options for how to assault a fortification. In earlier Ancient Greece, siege was never much of a consideration. War at this time was a part-time seasonal affair that would take place when the common farmers had time off between sowing and harvest. It only really becomes more common once professional armies are taken up by the Greek states, allowing for the time it takes to conduct a siege. It also helps that after around 450 BC the Greeks could take some ideas from their Persian enemies, leading to tactics such as surrounding cities, building ramps, and the use of battering rams, similar to what the Assyrians were using some centuries earlier. However, the Greeks did start to develop their own methods eventually.

The siege tower Helepolis

At around 400 BC the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily was in conflict with the Carthaginians. It was here that many Greek artisans and technicians were recruited to create new innovations of war. The first step was the gastrephetes meaning the ‘belly bow’ which was the first crossbow. From the basic mechanics of this weapon, it was possible to scale it up until it was too heavy to carry, and so was placed on a tripod and mounted on a swivel, with a winch to draw it. This was the first catapult (named katzapeltes, meaning ‘shield-piercer’) which was used at the siege of Motya in 197 BC to shoot as far as 300 yards at the Carthaginian fleet. Eventually this weapon was further developed into the oxybeles that used torsion by twisting sinew rather than the tension of a bow. In the following years the Greeks invented many variants of catapult, including lithobolos or ‘stone thrower’, and even a supposed repeating crossbow mechanism that shot bolts from a magazine called the polybolos. Various types and sizes of ballista were even used in the most famous example of a siege tower the Helepolis ‘the taker of cities’ which was used in the siege of Rhodes in 305-304 BC. This tower was supposedly over 40 meters tall and 20 meters wide and ran on 8 huge wheels. It had 3 walls to the front and sides which were all plated in iron to make it fireproof. It weighed 160 tons and had 2 or 3 ballistas on each of its several floors.

The Roman Empire (27 BC – 480 AD)

If you’re Greek or Roman, you’ll mostly be using the same sort of siege machines. Ever since the earlier Romans saw the power of Greek inventor Archimedes’ huge catapults, ship-lifting claws, and even sunlight death beams (apparently) in Syracuse (again) they clearly felt they should probably use some of these. They did make some improvements of their own to these weapons however, such as making them lighter and more manoeuvrable, or combining battering rams and boarding bridges into their siege towers. They also further developed on the torsion powered weapons of the Greeks, resulting in the Onager, which later became the standard use for the term ‘catapult’ which was a stone thrower with a vertical arm. These could be thrown in a great arc, and also use heavier projectiles, great for either going over, or smashing into a wall you wish wasn’t there.

A Roman carroballista (cart-mounted ballista) on Trajan’s Column

Aside from the weapons, the tactics used by the Romans were similar to what is seen before, but executed well. They would surround cities and blockade ports effectively, and then set up their own fortified camps out of range of the enemy and in elevated positions for observation. This helped the Romans defend themselves should they be attacked by enemy reinforcements coming from elsewhere, something easily missed when you’re so focussed on the enemy within. In an assault they would construct ramps and use ladders as usual, but they would also use moving barricades and shields made of wood or wicker to defend themselves, as well as using their own shields in the famous testudo formation as they advanced.

The Medieval Period (up to the 15th Century)

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 480 AD there was very little in the way of siege weapon development. The following Migration Period saw many smaller groups settle and have less need for sieges. Later in the Early Medieval period and Viking Age, there are some examples of sieges, but most of these just use what knowledge is left from contact with the Romans, for example with the Franks, as well as the Byzantines, who would have had the best ability and knowledge during this time. More northern peoples such as the Vikings or Saxons, would have avoided large sieges and aimed more for raiding actions. The Vikings did besiege some large cities however, such as Paris in 845 and again in 885, where they are said to have used ballistae and catapults, although it is unlikely. The Vikings mostly used their advanced ships to their advantage, where attacking Paris was ideal, as it is on a river island. They also attacked London at the end of their era, where they used their ships again to pull down towers, and pulled roofs off of buildings to put over the ships as cover from arrows.

15th Century depiction of a trebuchet

1066 is seen as the end of the Viking age, and shortly after this is when the Normans started to build many stone castles throughout England. During the 12th and 13th centuries, castles evolved into powerful fortresses capable of defying intensive assaults. At the same time, in order to combat strengthened castle defences, siegecraft developed. Sieges became far more common as the use of castles and fortified cities did too, and battles became rarer than in the past. The tried and true method of simply out-waiting the defenders still continues to be a solid choice in these cases, but then again, those defenders were probably expecting a siege and prepared for a long one too. So when it finally came to demolish those walls, something more powerful than a catapult of ballista was needed. The first weapon to be widely adopted was the mangonel. This weapon was essentially a larger swinging-arm catapult that was powered by the pulling force of a team of men. Shortly after this came the more famous trebuchet. This was a similar weapon that could be made very large, but was instead powered by a sophisticated counterweight mechanism. The trebuchet first appeared from the Byzantines, and was quickly adopted by the crusaders, which in turn spread its use throughout Europe. Although these weapons mostly launched stones of 50-100kg at a range around 300 meters, their main advantages over every other type of siege weapon before it was its accuracy and cycle rate, as there was no need for time consuming cranking or winding, but just resetting everything into place. Also, the key to bringing down a heavily fortified wall is to keep striking it in the same place, something a trebuchet could easily do after the first shot was correct. There were some huge trebuchets which supposedly launched stones of 800kg or even 1,500kg, but these would have been very difficult and incredibly slow to construct and use.

The Age of Gunpowder

If you really, truly want to knock down walls, then ignore everything I just said, and get a cannon. Cannons only became viable in the later medieval and renaissance periods, after years of experimentation since the 13th century. Once they stopped trying to use gunpowder to shoot ballista bolts, bundles of arrows, and stones and finally settled on the idea of the cannonball, the previously impregnable castles of Europe were rendered obsolete. The greatest advantage of cannons over other siege weapons is the ability to fire a heavier projectile, further and faster than previous weapons. They could also fire in a straight line, so that they could destroy the bases of high walls. Thus, old fashioned walls that are high and relatively thin were excellent targets, and over time easily demolished. In 1453, the great walls of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, were broken through in just six weeks by the 62 cannons of Mehmed II’s army. However, new fortifications, designed to withstand gunpowder weapons, were soon constructed throughout Europe. In the early 15th century, Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti theorized methods of building fortifications capable of withstanding the new guns. He proposed that walls be “built in uneven lines, like the teeth of a saw”. He proposed star shaped fortresses with low, thick walls. Fortresses built in this style throughout the 16th century did not become fully obsolete until the 19th century, and were still in use throughout World War I.

 The Siege of Orléans in 1429 featuring cannons

With everything thrown into an entirely new state of being by the ever increasing power and efficiency of cannons, and the fortifications to match them, the attackers would now need to prepare for the siege thoroughly. There has always been a need to encircle the enemy and defend your own lines from those within as well as reinforcements from without, but now that so much of your army would consist of vulnerable artillery positions, you would need to think harder about your own defences. So lines of trenches would now be built by the attackers, first starting out of range of the defending artillery, parallel to the walls, and then another line is dug towards the walls in a zig-zag to prevent those using it from being exposed, until finally the forward line would be dug from there in artillery range parallel to the wall again. You can then place your artillery in that forward position, and build other defences around it, and prepare for the long siege ahead. As has been the case forever, it is still in the 17th century mostly about waiting the enemy out, whether you are the attacker or defender. And now that sieges had become so prevalent, and so long, they had become very expensive, and a single siege could take up an entire campaign. Battles arose through clashes between besiegers and relieving armies, but the principle of war was now a slow, grinding victory by the greater economic power. The relatively rare attempts at forcing pitched battles were almost always expensive failures.

Plan of Geneva fortifications in 1841

Eventually, in the 19th century, after hundreds of years of siege warfare settling into a rut, things started to change in a few ways. Advances in artillery made previously impregnable defences useless. For example, the walls of Vienna that had held off the Turks in the mid-17th century were no obstacle to Napoleon in the early 19th. This was starting to lead to a decline in sieges taking place, but when railways were introduced, they made it possible to move and supply of larger armies. It also reintroduced siege warfare, as armies seeking to use railway lines in enemy territory were forced to capture fortresses which blocked these lines. Furthermore, the apparent effectiveness of additional field defences along with improvements to firearms technology made it easier for the defenders again. This then led to the adoption of tactics that would make the defenders surrender by bombarding the civilian population within a fortress, rather than the defences.

By the 20th century, city walls had become ineffective to modern artillery, which could destroy them, or bypass them from miles away. This brings us to WW1, which introduced trench warfare on a mass scale, and essentially a form of siege as it progressed. During the war, many methods and tactics for assaulting enemy lines with special troops developed, but overall the war was dominated by artillery. By WW2 and subsequently, the form of siege was mostly in the form of large forces encircling and bombarding cities into submission before assault. However, the continuing development of armoured vehicles and aircraft meant that mobility was far more important than ever before, and the introduction of long range bombing, and eventually inter-continental missiles make it virtually impossible to defend a position indefinitely without the surrender of either side.


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