In a very rare display of joint effort the British North Americans managed to get this establishment into their possession in 1745.
Plan of Louisbourg, published at the conclusion of the French &
Indian War, from Bellin’s Petit Atlas Maritime. The map shows major
fortifications and includes a key locating 14 important points of interest.
Louisbourg was originally settled in 1713, and initially
called Havre à l’Anglois. Subsequently, the fishing port grew to become a major
commercial port and a strongly defended fortress. The fortifications eventually
surrounded the town. The walls were constructed mainly between 1720 and 1740.
By the mid-1740s Louisbourg, named for Louis XIV of France,
was one of the most extensive (and expensive) European fortifications
constructed in North America. It was supported by two smaller garrisons on Île
Royale located at present-day St. Peter’s and Englishtown. The Fortress of
Louisbourg suffered key weaknesses, since it was erected on low-lying ground
commanded by nearby hills and its design was directed mainly toward sea-based
assaults, leaving the land-facing defences relatively weak. A third weakness
was that it was a long way from France or Quebec, from which reinforcements
might be sent.
Louisbourg was first captured by New England based British
colonists in 1745, and was a major bargaining chip in the negotiations leading
to the 1748 treaty ending the War of the Austrian Succession. It was returned
to the French in exchange for border towns in what is today Belgium. It was
captured again in 1758 by British forces in the Seven Years’ War, after which
its fortifications were systematically destroyed by British engineers.
Even counting in the St Lawrence settlements, the people of
French Canada amounted to seventy thousand or less at the time of the Seven
Years War, which put them at a numerical disadvantage of something like twenty
to one compared with the British Americans to the south. Until almost the very
end, however, the Canadians maintained a clear superiority in mobility and
military prowess over the British – seemingly incredible assets which they owed
to a greater centralisation of control (despite notorious corruption in high
places), their skill at managing the canoe and the musket, the facility of
water transport, and their generally good relations with the Indians.
In contrast, the open but far more thickly-settled British
colonies of the eastern seaboard grew at the slow pace of self-sufficient
agricultural communities. They were boxed into the north by the nations of the
Iroquois confederation and their French associates, and to the west by the
Appalachians. There was little sign of common purpose among the British
colonies. Indeed, out of all the expeditions mounted by the British in the
earlier wars the only ones which bore lasting fruits were the enterprises which
wrested New Amsterdam (New York) from the Dutch in 1664, and gained Port Royal (Annapolis
Royal) and the mastery of Acadia in 1710. Louis XIV had to renounce Acadia (a
lightly settled coastal province) and the great island of Newfoundland at the
Peace of Utrecht in 1713.
Building a Fortress
The French appreciated that they would have to take fresh
measures to safeguard the seaward approaches to the St Lawrence. Already in
1706 an anonymous memorandum had urged the government to set up a fortified
colony on lIe Royale (Cape Breton Island), which formed the southern shore of
the entrance to the Gulf of St Lawrence:
establishment will concentrate all the fisheries in the hands of the French and
deny them to the English altogether; it will defend the colonies of Canada,
Newfoundland and Acadia against all the enterprises of the English … and ruin
their colony at Boston by excluding them from this great tract of land; it will
give refuge to our crippled vessels … it will promote Canadian trade and
facilitate the export of its grain and other produce; it will furnish the royal
arsenals with masts, yards, timbers and planks. (McLennan, 1957, 30-1)
The Conseil Royal decided in favour of the thing in 1715.
The first small band of settlers came ashore in the following year, and the
chief engineer of Canada, Jean-Francois du Verger de Verville began a series of
lengthy reconnaissances. In 1721 work finally began on the new fortress of Louisbourg.
The chosen site was on the east coast of the island at Havre al’Anglais, a
roadstead capable of sheltering an entire French fleet, which might then bottle
up any British ships that sailed into the St Lawrence. Verville planted the
town on a peninsula, and closed off the neck by a perimeter of two full
bastions, three curtains, and two half bastions – one on each of the seaward flanks.
A highly original feature of the design was the way the full bastion to the
right, looking from the town (Bastion du Roi) was formed into a miniature
citadel with gorge wall, barracks, governor’s lodging and chapel. The one
factor which the French left out of their calculations was the absence
ofanything which could be termed a ‘building season’. The fog and rain
prevented the mortar from drying out during the summer, and the imprisoned
water froze every winter, with devastating results to the masonry. Verville
disliked the Canadian climate intensely, and the Canadians still more, and he
spent every winter in the comfort of France. Thus Louisbourg absorbed immense
sums of money, without ever being in good repair, and Louis XV complained that
he almost expected to see the ramparts of this costly ‘Dunkirk of America’
rising above the horizon of France.
In a very rare display of joint effort the British North
Americans managed to get this establishment into their possession in 1745. The
canny and popular merchant William Pepperell gathered 4,000 troops from the New
England colonies (which was a considerable achievement in its own right) and
sailed to Cape Breton Island in the company of Commodore Warren and 1,000
marines. The many seamen and backwoodsmen proved to be an immense Lhelp in
building the siege batteries, though somebody complained that the force was ‘in
great want of good gunners that have a disposition to be sober in the daytime’
(ibid., 152). There were no engineers with the expedition at all (until two
officers arrived from Annapolis on 5 June), and the French were perplexed by
the very irregularity and unpredictability of the conduct of the siege.
Louisbourg fell on 17 June after six weeks of attack.
The new governor, Commodore Charles Knowles, had no very
high opinion of any kind of fortress as a prize: ‘Neither the coast of Acadia
nor any of the harbours in Newfoundland (except St Johns and Placentia) are
fortified, and these but triflingly, and yet we always be masters of the cod
fisheries for that year whether there be a Louisbourg or not’ (ibid., 175).
Indeed, the British government was not disinclined to listen to the instances
of the French, who at the peace conference at Aix in 1748 were determined to
regain Louisbourg at almost any price. The Comte de Maurepas, the minister of
marine, viewed the place as the guardian of both New France and the Grand Banks
fisheries, which latter were of great economic importance and a nursery of
seamen. Out of these considerations the French sacrificed Madras in far-off
India and the brilliant conquests of de Saxe in the Netherlands.
The British accordingly gave up Louisbourg. They partially
made up for the loss in 1749 when they built four forts and a barricade at
Halifax on the adjacent peninsula of Nova Scotia (Acadia). Within three years
Halifax had a population of four thousand, and the potential to become one of
the most important avenues of entry for British power to North America.
The task of modernizing the Verdun forts began in 1887 with
Fort Douaumont, whose prime position protected the approaches to the city from
the north and east and, in particular, from Metz. It was a gigantic task. The
earth covering was first removed and the masonry was strengthened with pillars
and concrete supports before being covered by a buffer of sand approximately
one metre thick. Then, using for the first time a ‘continuous pour’ process, a
thick layer of special concrete was poured on top of the sand. The eastern side
of the barracks, some of the artillery bunkers and the tunnel into the barracks
from the main entrance were covered with one and a half metres of concrete. The
western side of the barracks and the remaining artillery bunkers, which were
intended to form a strong ‘keep’ or redoubt for last ditch defence, received a
covering two and a half metres thick. After completion, the whole of the
concrete carapace was covered with a layer of earth between one and four metres
deep. In 1888 a thick layer of special concrete was also applied to the open
southern façade of the barracks. All in all, between April 1887 and November
1888 the work of strengthening Fort Douaumont required approximately 28,000
cubic metres of concrete and a team of some sixty construction workers.
To protect Fort Douaumont further, earth was banked up
around the lower floor of the barrack block, covering it completely and
effectively burying half the fort. The upper floor was now at ground level. To
make the ditch less vulnerable to bombardment, the scarp wall was replaced by a
sloping earth bank. To defend the ditch, strong, concrete galleries were
constructed in the counterscarp, facing the fort itself. Armed with revolver
guns and light cannon and later with searchlights, these galleries – single at
the northern corners but double at the apex of the fort – were designed to
sweep with enfilading fire any enemy who managed to penetrate into the ditch.
Connected to the barracks by long underground tunnels, the counterscarp
galleries could be reinforced regardless of enemy fire. The original gateway
was scrapped and a new entrance – an independent blockhouse protected by double
flanking galleries and a drawbridge – was constructed in the gorge (south) side
of the fort. From the blockhouse a tunnel ran under the rampart to an entrance
on the lower floor of the fort.
The armament of the fort
The original plan for the armament of Fort Douaumont had
provided for twenty guns mounted on the parapet but the revolution in high
explosives and artillery in the 1880s meant that henceforward guns had to be
protected if they were to remain operational at all times. As a first step, ten
of the guns were dispersed in batteries outside the fort but the introduction
of steel-reinforced concrete in 1897 made it possible to construct shell proof
gun positions in the fort itself.
The first protected guns at Fort Douaumont were installed in
1902-1903 in a new type of strong concrete bunker known, from the experimental
range on which it was first tested, as a Bourges Casemate (Casemate de
Bourges). Embedded in the southwest corner of the superstructure and shielded
from direct fire by a long wall forming a protective wing, this bunker was
strengthened with a layer of concrete almost two metres thick. It was armed
with two quick-firing 75mm field guns installed in two chambers placed in
echelon, whose embrasures allowed for fire in one direction only. The fixed
guns, which had a range of 5,500 metres, were sited so as to cover the
southwestern approach to the fort and to cover with flanking fire the defensive
works situated along the ridge between Fort Douaumont and the Ouvrage de
Froideterre. An observation post and magazines completed the installation.
The construction of the Bourges Casemate marked the
beginning of the period that turned Fort Douaumont into a modern, armoured fort
of enormous strength. Between 1902 and 1913, further armament was provided in
the form of guns housed in retractable steel turrets of very advanced design
which, by rotating through 360°, covered all the approaches to the fort. The
turrets were activated by a vertical movement that raised them into the firing
position and lowered them again once the gun had ceased firing. Raising the
turret exposed the gun embrasures and allowed the guns inside to fire. When
retracted, the guns were hidden from view and entirely protected by a steel
dome which, in the case of the bigger turrets, was strong enough to withstand
even direct hits by the heaviest shells. The turret was set in a reinforced
concrete unit that also housed the activating machinery, magazine, replacement
guns and range-finding equipment. Each one was coupled with an observation post
protected by a dome of steel twenty-five centimetres thick and connected to the
gun by speaking tube or telephone.
Four such turrets were installed in Fort Douaumont and
linked to the barracks by underground tunnels. Two lighter models housed twin
eight millimetre Hotchkiss machine guns that were mounted one above the other
and fired alternately to avoid overheating. Intended for the close defence of
the fort, the machine guns were installed at the northeast and northwest
corners of the superstructure where the visibility was best. On the eastern
side of the fort a short-barrelled 155mm gun capable of firing three rounds a minute
over a range of 7,500 metres protected the vital north and northeast fronts. An
armoured observation post at the entrance to the turret communicated with it
through a speaking tube while another some distance away communicated with the
gun crew by telephone. Twin short-barrelled 75mm guns housed in a similar
turret in the escarpment to the north completed the armament. The 75mm guns,
which together were capable of firing more than twenty two rounds a minute over
a range of 5,500 metres, were intended to sweep the intervals between the
forts. Their considerable firepower more than compensated for the dispersion of
the remainder of the fort’s artillery in external batteries. By 1913, all the
gun turrets, observation posts and the Bourges Casemate had been linked to the
barrack block by strong underground passages so that they could be accessed at
all times without going outside.
Mighty though it was, Fort Douaumont formed only one element
in a strong and extensive ‘centre of resistance’ which also included Douaumont
village, six ouvrages, five combat shelters, six concrete batteries, an
underground shelter for reserves, two ammunition depots and a whole series of
concrete infantry entrenchments. A revolving turret for twin 155s on the slopes
to the south of the fort and another for a 75mm gun on the ridge to the east
should have completed the defence but neither emplacement was complete when war
broke out. A machine gun was mounted in the observation post on the ridge,
while the incomplete 75mm gun turret became a shelter.
Access to the fort
Fort Douaumont was an immense structure, measuring almost
300 metres from north to south and 400 metres from east to west. It was
protected on all sides by an open glacis offering wide fields of fire in every
direction and surrounded by a belt of wire thirty metres deep, which was
attached to metal picket posts set in concrete. At the top of the glacis, a
line of stout spiked railings two and a half metres high ran along the
counterscarp. On the floor of the ditch – approximately six metres below the
top of the counterscarp – a further line of railings was set at an angle along
the base of the scarp. The outer wall of the ditch was strengthened by a facing
of masonry on three sides of the fort, but on the south side, where the inner
wall was strengthened and provided with flanking blockhouses, it consisted of
only a bank of earth.
The fort was accessed by means of a wagon road that led up
the glacis on the south side of the fort, passed a guard house and came down in
the ditch close to the main entrance or ‘peacetime gate’. The road then ran
across a drawbridge and entered a tunnel under the rampart. This led to the
‘wartime gate’, which allowed direct entry to the lower floor of the barracks.
At the end of the tunnel, two ramps provided access to the upper floor of the
barracks and to the covered wagon roads that passed through the barrack block
at each end. Emerging from the barracks on the north side, the wagon roads
became the Rue du Rempart, which served the adjoining artillery shelters and
ammunition depots. Access to the fort on foot was also possible by means of
steps cut into the rampart, which led to a footbridge spanning the gap between
the tunnel and the wartime gate. On the top of the rampart, two light steel
domes allowed for observation over the south side of the fort
The barrack block was a two storey building. The lower
floor, known as the ‘wartime barracks’, comprised the fort’s administrative
services, siege headquarters for the commandant and his staff, depots,
magazines and two groups of cisterns each holding 520 cubic metres of water.
The upper floor, or ‘peacetime barracks’, provided accommodation for the
garrison of 850, workshops, magazines and kitchens as well as a bakery and an
infirmary. Staircases or metal ladders linked the two floors and on each level
the barrack rooms opened onto a principal corridor. On the upper floor the
corridor ran throughout the whole length of the barracks and joined the covered
wagon roads at either end of the building.
One year before the outbreak of the war, Fort Douaumont was
complete. The strongest and most modern of all the forts around Verdun, it was
the cornerstone of the whole defensive system. Its construction, modernization
and armament had required a total of twenty eight years and had cost 6,100,000
As early as September 1914, Fort Douaumont’s 155mm gun was
in action against German positions to the north of the sector. The Germans soon
replied with a barrage of medium and heavy calibre shells that caused some
slight damage but left the fort’s vital organs unscathed. The operation was
observed by a prominent guest, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, who had been
invited by the commander of V Reserve Corps, General Erich von Gündell, to view
the shooting from his newly built observation tower, the ‘Gündell-Turm’. The
French were not impressed and the tower soon became a favourite target of French
In December 1914 the 155mm gun was again in action, this
time against the Jumelles d’Ornes, two hills that formed an important German
observation post to the northeast of the sector. That brought retaliation from
the Germans in February 1915 in the form of a ‘shooting match’ (Wettschiessen)
between two of their biggest guns – a 420mm Krupp mortar and a 380mm ‘Long Max’
naval gun – during which thirty four huge projectiles were hurled against the
fort and its immediate surroundings. Despite a great column of smoke which rose
above the glacis and at first led the Germans to believe that the fort had been
put out of action, only limited damage was done. On the eastern side of the
barracks where the concrete carapace was only one and a half metres thick,
three shells falling close together brought down the roof of the bakery and a
nearby corridor, while the blast from a fourth fissured the floor and walls of
the gallery leading to the 75mm turret. The guns, however, were unharmed. One
420mm shell striking the reinforced concrete collar of the 155mm turret left a
deep hole but only slightly affected the turret mechanism and repairs were
carried out within a day or two. Another fell without exploding close to the
Rue du Rempart, where it was defused and sent to Paris for exhibition.
The fact that such a shell had hit the concrete covering of
the fort and failed to explode probably encouraged the French High Command in
its comfortable belief that the most powerful of the forts around Verdun was
impregnable. Indeed, had the whole mighty system not been disarmed in the
second year of the war, that belief might well have proved correct.
The Roman Empire was involved in networks of trade,
diplomacy, and influence that, at their greatest extent, spanned Europe,
Africa, and Asia. In the north, a Roman glass cup was buried in a fourth-century
grave mound in Føre, Norway, above the Arctic Circle. In the east, a Roman
glass bowl was buried in a fifth-century tomb in the Nara Prefecture in Japan.
In the south, four Roman beads made of glass, silver, and gold were deposited
in a third-century context at a trading site at Mkukutu in Tanzania. While
these finds trace the outer edges of the reach of Roman trade goods, these
regions were too far from the empire to play much role in frontier society. It
is doubtful whether the nobles and merchants of Norway, Japan, and Tanzania who
received these objects had any conception of the Roman Empire or knew where the
luxury goods in their possession had been made.
Some knowledge of Rome reached China, where the Roman Empire
was called “Great Qin.” Chinese sources reflect some eclectic but not
inaccurate knowledge of Roman geography, government, and law. Romans had a
similarly vague knowledge of the Chinese, whom they called “Seres,” being aware
that their land was the source of silk and lay to the east beyond Parthia and
India, but contacts were neither direct nor regular enough to leave much trace
on the frontiers. The peoples, networks, and power centers that had a stronger
impact on the frontier were found closer to the territory that the Romans had
claimed as their own.
In North Africa, Roman administration covered the coastal
agricultural regions, but in the broad zone of marginal lands between the coast
and the Sahara desert there were numerous peoples, known to the Romans by such
names as Mauri, Gaetuli, and Garamantes, who lived partly in and partly beyond
the frontier region. Some of these peoples were dry-zone farmers who managed
large-scale irrigation works. Others lived as nomadic pastoralists. There has
been a long debate in the scholarship whether the settled and nomadic peoples
of Rome’s desert frontiers, in Africa and elsewhere, lived in a state of
cooperation or competition; the answer may well be both, depending on local
circumstances and the fortunes of their farms and herds.
South of Egypt, on the middle reaches of the Nile, was the
kingdom of Kush. In the aftermath of Octavian’s victory over Antony and
Cleopatra and the incorporation of Egypt into the empire, Roman and Kushite
forces clashed over control of the borderlands. After brief hostilities, Queen
Amanirenas of Kush sent ambassadors to make a treaty with Augustus, and the
peace held for most of the next few centuries. Occasional diplomatic missions
helped keep the peace. One of these, likely from the third century, appears to
be documented by a Latin inscription at Musawwarat es-Sufra in which one Acutus
from Rome formally presents his good wishes to an unnamed queen. Evidence for
the study of Greek in Kush may represent local officials keeping up the
necessary language skills to send their own ambassadors in return. Kush also
participated in the trade routes that connected the Mediterranean with the
Indian Ocean and central Africa. Concern for the security of trade may have
encouraged both states to keep relations stable.
The Arabian frontier, like North Africa, presented a mix of
settled kingdoms and nomadic peoples. The trade routes that passed through the
region brought in substantial wealth but also further complicated the
relationships between these societies. The Nabataean kingdom was a Roman client
state for the better part of two centuries. Its capital at Petra was adorned
with rock-cut temples in ornate Hellenistic style, and its kings were important
regional leaders. Trajan annexed the territory in 107 as the province of Arabia
Petraea, or “Rocky Arabia.” Other kingdoms and tribal alliances competed for
power and control of trade routes, sometimes allying with Rome and sometimes
raiding the frontier.
The largest and most powerful of Rome’s neighbors was the
Parthian Empire. The Parthian state, though a match for Rome in its ability to
muster forces for campaigning, was decentralized, prone to divisive court
intrigue, and contained numerous semi-autonomous subkingdoms. The
administration of this unruly empire was as unwieldy a task as the
administration of the Roman Empire with its restless provincials and ambitious
generals. It is no wonder that, in the first century CE, the two empires mostly
contrived to leave one another alone. Nevertheless, Parthia loomed large in the
Roman imagination. It remained the big prize, the enemy against whom flattering
writers and propagandistic artists could always imagine emperors leading the
good fight. Rome was equally significant to Parthian policy. The Parthian kings
positioned themselves as heirs to the Achaemenid dynasty and champions of the
Iranian peoples against western aggression.
The period of relative stability was broken by Trajan, who
invaded Mesopotamia and Armenia in 113. Although Trajan’s conquests were
quickly reversed by his successor Hadrian, Roman-Parthian relations remained
unsettled for the following century. Several emperors initiated or contemplated
military action against Parthia, and several Parthian kings pursued more
aggressive policies on their western frontier. No substantial changes to the
border were lasting, however, and diplomatic relations continued in between
bursts of conflict. The historian Herodian even reports that the emperor
Caracalla, in the early third century, proposed marrying a Parthian princess,
and that Caracalla’s successor, Macrinus, celebrated a peace treaty and hailed
the Parthian king Artabanus V as a loyal friend.
On the Black Sea steppes, a variety of nomadic and
seminomadic peoples continued to live in traditional ways while some peoples of
the region also developed settled kingdoms. Romans tended to describe the
region in vague terms that drew as much on the literary tradition going back to
Herodotus’ Scythians as they did on contemporary knowledge, but we should not
assume that life on the steppe was static. Literary sources name various
peoples in this region, including Sarmatians and Alans. In some cases, these
names seem to correspond to identifiable ethnic and political groups, but they
can also be unreliable, as the complexities of steppe identities were sometimes
lost on writers from sedentary cultures.
In the late second century, there is evidence of cultural
changes around the northern shores of the Black Sea and the lower Danube that may
reflect the arrival of migrating warrior bands from somewhere to the north and
west. These new peoples are reflected in a distinct archaeological pattern of
settlement types, pottery styles, and burial practices. These features are the
earliest evidence for a cultural pattern that would become more pronounced in
the third and fourth centuries CE, which modern archaeologists have termed the
Chernyakhov culture. It is generally believed that the Chernyakhov culture is
related to the people known as “Goths” in the literary sources, but how
consistent the Chernyakhov-Goth connection is and how early we can speak of a
Gothic presence in the region are matters of debate.
The Romans referred to the peoples who lived along the
middle to upper Danube and Rhine as “Germans” (barring a few exceptions, such
as the Dacians and Iazyges), but it is unlikely that the tribes and kingdoms of
this region felt any kind of shared identity. Many individual tribal names are
also known, but, as elsewhere, we cannot be confident that the Roman authors
who recorded those names were applying them accurately. Many cultures existed
in this region with different kinds of social and political organization. Some,
such as the Dacians and Marcomanni, appear to have reached an early stage of
state development, with power centralized in well-established royal families.
Other peoples, such as the Frisians, lived in small, egalitarian communities
with little in the way of formal power structures.
Farther to the north, away from the frontier zone but in
close contact with the Roman world, another major power was rising. At
Himlingøje in Denmark, a group of lavish burials filled with Roman luxuries
marks the center of a commercial and political network that established itself
in the late second century and spanned the Baltic Sea and southern Scandinavia.
The warrior nobles of Himlingøje fought as auxiliaries in the Roman army and
maintained strong trade and diplomatic connections to Rome after they returned
home. Through these connections they acquired Roman goods, which they then used
as prestigious gifts to expand their network of influence in the North. The
numerous ritual deposits they made in Danish bogs of the weapons and armor of
their defeated enemies show that they expanded their power in more aggressive
ways as well. While many of the peoples who lived closer to the Roman frontier
had unsettled histories with Rome, the rulers of Himlingøje appear to have
remained on good terms with the Romans throughout their history.
Rome also had staunch allies in Scotland with the Votadini
whose power center, a fortified hilltop site at Traprain Law, has yielded an
extraordinary wealth of Roman imports ranging from gold brooches to iron door
hinges. The precise boundaries of Votadinian power are uncertain, but other
peoples certainly lived beyond the British frontier, both in Scotland and
Ireland. Some of these peoples had large, settled societies, but others were
small and mobile.
The peoples who lived in and beyond the Roman frontier zone
varied widely in their ways of life, social organization, and political
structures. While some maintained long-term diplomatic ties with Rome, others
had volatile relations with the empire. This wide variety of frontier peoples
challenged Rome’s limited capacity for maintaining foreign relations and
managing the frontiers.
The frontier was always an area of special concern to the
emperors, even those with little direct experience of it. Imperial power
depended on the support of two groups: the army, which was mostly stationed on
the frontiers, and the people of Rome, who approved of victories over
barbarians. Although imperial activity on the frontier could be haphazard and
inconsistent, few emperors could afford to ignore the frontier entirely.
After the defeat of Varus, Augustus soured on expansion. He
initiated no more conquests, and his final advice to his successor Tiberius was
to keep the empire within its boundaries. The meaning of this counsel has long
been debated. It is unlikely he meant that the empire should never expand
again. The conquering ideal remained fixed in Roman ideology, and Augustus was
not shy of bragging about the conquests accomplished under his authority. More
likely it was personal advice to his successor not to embark on a new series of
foreign campaigns for political purposes.
On the whole, most of Augustus’ successors followed his
advice. On the grand scale, the frontier was mostly stable. There were only a
few large additions to the empire in the following centuries: the southern half
of Great Britain, parts of North Africa, Dacia, parts of Arabia, Armenia, and
Mesopotamia. The conquests of Mesopotamia and Armenia were brief
accomplishments of Trajan’s and Septimius Severus’ wars against Parthia and did
not long endure. Some of the expansions in Africa and Arabia came from
incorporating client kingdoms rather than conquering new lands. On the small
scale, however, the frontier was turbulent. Almost every emperor from Augustus
to Severus Alexander fought frontier campaigns or faced unrest in frontier
provinces. Most of these campaigns added little, if any, new territory to the
empire, but few emperors actually treated the frontier as a limit not to be
Emperors who felt insecure in their position used foreign
wars to prove their worth in the traditional expansionist mode. Claudius, who
came to power unexpectedly, initiated the conquest of Britain, which the
unloved Nero continued. Domitian, another surprise emperor, began his reign
with a campaign in Germany that even his fellow Romans criticized as
unwarranted. Trajan, though he grew to be one of the most beloved emperors,
came to power through obscure political machinations, which may help explain
his ambitious program of conquests in Dacia and Mesopotamia. Septimius Severus,
the victor of a civil war, spent much of his reign fighting in Mesopotamia,
North Africa, and Scotland. These campaigns not only showered military glory on
the emperors but also enriched the empire with plunder and slaves while keeping
potentially restless soldiers occupied.
Restless soldiers were no trifle. Revolt by troops who felt
ignored by the emperors was a recurrent threat to imperial stability. Sometimes
this discontent could be softened by letting the soldiers pillage across the
frontier. On other occasions, successful frontier generals could harness their
soldiers’ dissatisfaction in a bid for the throne. Vespasian and Septimius
Severus both came to power in this way, and many more attempted the feat
unsuccessfully or managed it only to be quickly ousted by a rival general.
While the Romans pushed the frontier, the frontier pushed
back. There were few major incursions on Roman territory in the first centuries
of the empire, but some threats demanded the emperor’s attention. Relations
with the Parthian Empire remained unresolved as both empires pressed for
greater influence along their mutual border, but neither could secure a lasting
victory over the other. Trajan, Severus, and Caracalla all led major campaigns
against Parthia, but their gains did not last. The Parthians backed Pescennius
Niger, a general in Syria who competed with Severus for power, but Pescennius’
bid for the throne failed.
Away from the Parthian front, the most serious threat to the
Roman frontier in this period developed along the Danube in the late second
century. Termed the Marcomannic Wars by modern scholarship, this diffuse and
protracted series of conflicts involved many of the peoples of the region,
chiefly the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges, and kept the emperor Marcus
Aurelius occupied from the early 160s to 180. Smaller-scale troubles rarely
claimed the attention of the emperors, but raiding, local resistance, and
discontent among the soldiers were constant nuisances in the frontier zone that
could flare up into more serious trouble if not kept in check.
Emperors undertook a variety of different policies toward
the frontier. In the early empire, rulers such as Augustus and Nero were
content to govern from a distance and entrust even major campaigns to
subordinates, but the rise of frontier generals as claimants to the throne
demonstrated that it was dangerous for an emperor to leave the frontier in
anyone else’s hands. There were those, such as Trajan and Severus, who threw
themselves into aggressive frontier campaigning. Others, notably Hadrian and
Marcus Aurelius, were led, either by temperament or circumstance, to focus on
consolidating and defending the territory claimed by their predecessors. Only a
few emperors such as Antoninus and Elagabalus largely ignored frontier
problems, being either fortunate enough to rule in a period of relative calm or
else too busy with their own concerns.
Because of the practicalities of governing a
continent-spanning state in an age when messages could take weeks and armies
months, if not years, to reach the frontier, an emperor’s ability to
effectively manage the frontier was limited. At the same time, as proven by
generals such as Vespasian and Severus, delegation of too much power was risky.
Wars against barbarians or restless provincials were potent propaganda tools,
and emperors were wary of letting anyone else get their hands on them. It was a
conventional charge against bad emperors that they did not trust their
subordinates, but even the most popular emperors understood the importance of
preserving personal control over frontier policy. After the Julio-Claudian age,
most emperors learned to keep frontier generals on a short leash.
Fort at Vindolanda, AD 105. The fort housed the First Tungrian cohort
and a Batavian cohort.
The effects of imperial neglect can be seen on the British
frontier. The archaeological evidence from Scotland shows a lively
cross-frontier exchange in the first and early second centuries. Roman goods
found their way into native hands, from fine enameled brooches and sets of
bronze tableware to hinges and horseshoes. While the Votadini enjoyed a
profitable alliance with the Romans, deposits of mixed Roman and non-Roman
scrap metal at several sites indicate that local smiths were also doing jobs
for the Roman soldiers stationed on the frontier. Even some modest farmsteads
had access to Roman goods. During this period of strong cross-border ties, many
emperors devoted at least some of their energies to Britain, and the frontier
was briefly advanced into Scotland in the mid-second century. Starting around
160, however, the Marcomannic Wars took imperial attention away from Britain
for several decades. Despite some frontier shakeups under Commodus, it was not
until 208 that another emperor, Severus, took an active interest in the
province. Roman artifacts in Scotland show a corresponding decline after 160.
Even casual exchanges, such as Scottish crafters working for frontier soldiers,
seem to have dried up. While we might have expected provincial commanders to
take up the slack and maintain regional ties when an emperor was busy
elsewhere, the Scottish evidence suggests that they did not—or, more to the
point, they were not permitted to.
The Roman emperors’ relationship to the frontier was
contradictory. They could have enormous effects on frontier societies, whether
by leading their soldiers out on campaign or by pulling them back and assigning
them to border control. When an emperor turned his attention to a frontier
area, it must have been akin to an earthquake or flood: an unpredictable,
irresistible event that could change local conditions for generations, but
whose aftereffects were mostly left to the locals to deal with. When they turned
their attention elsewhere, their subordinates were limited in what they could
do to compensate for their neglect. Most of the empire’s frontiers, most of the
time, were left to themselves, shaped largely by the actions of the peoples who
lived along them.
The Army on the
The most stable Roman presence on the frontier was the army.
While some frontiers were more fully militarized than others, all were marked
with fortresses and outposts where Roman soldiers were stationed to maintain
security and control. In regions with urbanized societies, such as Egypt and
Syria, the army’s influence was mostly limited to the hinterland zones. In
other areas, where local societies functioned on a smaller scale, such as
Britain and Arabia, the army’s effect on social and economic conditions was
more widespread. Across the Roman world, the peoples who lived at the fringes
of Roman power mostly knew Rome through its army, whose presence could be both
beneficial and disruptive.
Soldiers were usually well paid, since the emperors depended
on their loyalty. The regular provision of wages and supplies brought a steady
flow of cash and merchants into regions that in many cases had previously been
economically underdeveloped. The frontier army was a market for goods and
services from both inside and outside the empire. In the West, the pottery and
bronze industries of Gaul were stimulated by demand in the frontier regions.
The economic effect was less visible in the more developed East, but in
outlying regions such as the Egyptian oases, Roman forts provided a new market
for local goods. The reach of the frontier market extended well outside the
range of Roman authority. Peoples as far away as Himlingøje and Mecca increased
their leather and textile production to meet Roman demand.
The Roman army also offered employment to soldiers recruited
in and beyond the frontier zone. Barbarian auxiliaries were a vital part of the
Roman army for the same reasons that Greek mercenaries had been employed by
Egyptians and Persians: economically underdeveloped regions make prime
recruiting grounds for troops. After the revolt of Batavian soldiers serving
near their homeland in 69 CE, the Roman army began to station auxiliary units
away from the regions where they were recruited, so that future rebels would
not have the benefit of being surrounded by their own people. Once stationed in
their new locations, these units tended to recruit locally and lose their
original ethnic character over time, but troops were also relocated from one
part of the empire to another as military needs dictated. Because of this
reshuffling of personnel, we find, for example, a Pannonian soldier
commemorated with a funerary stela at Gordium in central Anatolia and offerings
to Syrian gods in the forts of Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain. Some of
these soldiers married local women and started families, creating new
communities with ties to both the army and the local peoples. Their sons were
often recruited into the Roman army a generation later. Other auxiliary
veterans returned home across the frontier and played a role in mediating trade
and diplomatic connections between Romans and non-Romans. Recruitment from
beyond the frontier fostered the growth of a distinct military society that was
neither entirely Roman nor native to the lands in which it developed.
The Roman army could also be disruptive. The militarization
of the frontier interfered with traditional trade routes and seasonal movements
of laborers and pastoralists. Tacitus noted that unimpeded border crossing was
a privilege reserved for few, such as the friendly Hermunduri tribe:
For them alone among
the Germans is there trade not only on the [Danube] riverbank but even deep in
the most magnificent colony of the province of Raetia. They cross here and
there without guards and while to other people we show only our arms and forts,
to them we have opened our homes and estates.
The portoria, a customs duty of 25 percent, was collected on
all goods entering the empire’s eastern provinces. On other frontiers the rates
may have been lower, but there were still fees. The eastern trade routes could
be highly profitable: the record of a loan contract from Egypt documents a
cargo of perfumes, ivory, fabrics, and other luxuries from India in the second
century CE valued at more than 9 million sestertii. (For comparison’s sake, by
the late second century, a fortune of 20 million sestertii could put one in the
lower echelons of the imperial aristocracy.) High customs fees and valuable cargoes
encouraged smuggling. The Romans began to station customs enforcers in client
kingdoms beyond the frontier to help monitor the traffic.
Simply knowing what was going on along the frontier was a
challenge in itself. Surveillance posts and patrols were obtrusive shows of
force, but more subtle forms of spying are hinted at by the historian Ammianus
Marcellinus’ mention of the arcani, or “hidden ones”: “Their duty was, by
hastening far and near, to keep our generals informed of disturbances among nearby
tribes.” A fragmentary tablet from Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern
Britain, with the text miles arcanus (“hidden soldier”) may relate to these
same spies, and another Vindolanda text possibly records a scrap of an
intelligence report on the locals’ fighting capabilities.
All this surveillance can only have been an aggravation to
those who lived along the frontier. Tacitus described a Germanic tribe
complaining that the Romans would not allow them to meet with their fellow
Germans who lived within the borders, “or else charge us a fee to meet unarmed,
practically naked, and under guard, which is even more insulting to men born to
arms.” The authority of frontier soldiers to stop, search, and tax travelers
was ripe for abuse. A merchant’s letter of complaint found at Vindolanda
suggests some of the misconduct soldiers indulged in. The beginning of the
letter is damaged, so the details are unclear, but it seems both the merchant
and his goods were threatened with violence, perhaps as part of a shakedown:
he beat me further
until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them
away. . . . I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man
from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with
rods like a criminal.
The letter further details how the mistreated merchant had
appealed up the chain of command as far as the provincial governor with no
If a merchant who could write good Latin and knew how to
work the system got so little satisfaction for his grievances, the ordinary
people who lived in the outer shadow of Rome’s frontier cannot have fared much
better. With no effective recourse against exploitation, peoples of the
frontier zone resorted to raiding and revolt, such as the Frisians, who were required
to pay a tribute of oxhides to Rome, even though they lived beyond the Rhine.
In 28 CE the Roman centurion assigned to oversee the tribe demanded hides of
higher quality than the Frisians could supply. When their appeals for relief
brought no results, the Frisians revolted, killing more than a thousand Roman
troops before they were subdued.
Acting both as agents of imperial power and on their own
motivations, Roman soldiers made up one of the main forces at work on frontier
society, but Rome was not the only force along the frontier. Many other
peoples, cultures, and political forces, both those local to the frontier zone
and those farther away, interacted with Rome, pursuing their own agendas and
putting their own pressures on those who lived at the edges of Roman power.
Between Rome and a
A series of inscriptions from Volubilis in the foothills of
the Atlas Mountains on the Atlantic coast of North Africa records eleven
occasions over the first and second centuries CE when Roman officials held
negotiations with the Baquates, a collection of seminomadic tribes. To judge
from the inscriptions, the negotiations seem to have come to a satisfactory end
on each occasion. These inscriptions testify to the possibility of peaceful
coexistence among those who lived at the fringes of the Roman world, but the
fact that these negotiations had to be repeated over and over again also
indicates that, in the long term, frontier relations remained unstable.
What was true at Volubilis was true of the frontier as a
whole. While a tranquil coexistence was sometimes possible, and large-scale
hostilities were relatively rare in the empire’s first two and a half
centuries, the frontier was never quite settled. The disquiet of the frontier
arose partly from the nature of the societies along it, but also from the way
it was caught between worlds. The society of the frontier was constantly being
pushed and pulled by many different forces, both Roman and non-Roman. These
tensions were felt both inside and outside the demarcated boundaries of Roman
control. The conflict between different forces with different agendas
destabilized local societies.
Many of the peoples who lived in and around the Roman
frontiers are conventionally described as “tribes.” This vague word is applied
to various kinds of small-scale societies with no formal government that are
held together by networks of extended family ties and personal relationships.
Where Roman authors such as Caesar and Tacitus imagined stable ethnic groups
with names and defining traits, we should instead see most of the Roman
frontier zone inhabited by loose and changeable conglomerations of people who
were ready to form, dissolve, and re-form alliances as their interests shifted.
Trying to cope with these unstable groups was a challenge for the limited
resources of Roman foreign policy. The brutality in many of Rome’s interactions
with these peoples only sowed further disruption.
There were other societies at the edges of the Roman world
that were larger, more stable, and better able to deal with Rome on an equal
footing, including Kush, Parthia, and Himlingøje. For much of the first few
centuries of the Roman Empire, these peoples enjoyed relatively peaceful
relations with Rome. Their stability and organization made it easier for them
to pursue consistent long-term policies toward Rome and to rebuff Roman efforts
to meddle in their spheres of influence, but the existence of smaller, less
well organized states and peoples in between these major players also helped
stabilize relations. Kush had ongoing conflicts with the same desert raiders
that harassed the Roman southern frontier. Rome and Parthia managed to keep the
peace for more than a century in part because they were able to limit their
conflicts mostly to competition over influence in Armenia. Relations in the
North were helped because, during the Marcomannic Wars, the rulers of
Himlingøje were at war with the same peoples the Romans were fighting.
Caught in between these larger forces, the “tribal” peoples
of the frontier did what was necessary to survive. Sometimes they were able to
make a profitable peace with Rome and their other powerful neighbors. Sometimes
they were pushed into open war. Much of the time, they got by in a state of
uneasy cooperation, taking chances to profit from trade or military service
when they could get them, indulging in petty raiding and customs evasion when
they could get away with it, and suffering the abuses of bored soldiers when
they had to.
Good fences may make good neighbors, but what is good for
the neighbors is not always good for the fence. Earlier conceptions of the
Roman frontier often imagined the peoples just beyond the Roman borders as an
outer wall of client states, held in place by Roman diplomacy and intimidation
as a bulwark against uncertain threats from the unknown lands of the far
distance. When significant new threats to the security of Roman military and
political authority arose in the third century, however, they did not come from
the far-off reaches of Scandinavia or central Asia but from the frontier zone
itself. The peoples that Rome had been bribing, intimidating, patrolling, and
generally meddling with for centuries finally began to push back in more
effective ways. In the third century, peoples all around the edges of the Roman
world—in Scotland, Germany, the Black Sea steppes, Arabia, and North
Africa—began to succeed at what Arminius had attempted in the first decade CE:
to create large, stable alliances that could stand up to Roman power.
2. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon to Kish Wall (conjectural)
Babylonian Line 2
3. Habl es-Sakhar (Nebuchadnezzar’s Sippar to Opis Wall,
Line 3 (uncertain)
5. Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu)
6. Umm Raus Wall (site of Macepracta Wall(?), Artaxerxes’
Mesopotamia and the
Rivers Tigris and the Euphrates
Egypt shows that the conjunction of irrigated lands and
nomads produced linear barriers – even if the evidence might seem elusive and
inconclusive. Therefore, might also then Mesopotamia, with the similarly
intensely irrigated Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, produce evidence of walls in
the presence of nomads?
In Mesopotamia, the area of irrigated lands runs along the
flood plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates up to, and somewhat beyond, the
convergence points of the rivers between ancient Babylon and modern Baghdad.
Above that point the alluvial plain peters out and the land becomes too hilly
to allow for intense irrigation. From the north-east flows the Diyala River
which passes through the Zagros Mountains to join the Tigris, linking the high
Persian plateau to Mesopotamia. Around the river was especially valued
irrigated land. The area of convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates constituted
a constricted land corridor. Local nomads and semi-nomads would have been
expected to press particularly hard on the rich and productive irrigated lands
As in Egypt, civilisation, sustained by the irrigated lands
of Mesopotamia, came early, in the fourth millennia BC, with the Sumerians.
Again, as with Egypt, there is evidence of climate change. In the last century
of the third millennium BC the stream flow of the Euphrates and the Tigris was
very low, according to analysis of sediments in the Persian Gulf. The end of
the Akkadian era, due to defeat by the hated Gutian peoples from the
mountainous east in the twenty-second century BC, coincided with a few decades
of intense drought which was followed by two to three centuries of dry weather.
Ur revived and under Ur-Nammu defeated the Gutians and established the third
dynasty of Ur, commonly abbreviated to Ur III, in 2112 BC. The Sumerians
initiated a short period of cultural renaissance in a time of constant conflict
with the semi-nomadic Martu – more familiar as the biblical Amorites.
Indeed, Ur III may have faced two reasonably distinct
threats. From the north-west there was the Martu whose aim may in part have
been to gain sustenance for their herds in times of drought. The direction of
the threat that they posed would have been through the relatively flat lands
between and to both sides of the convergence point of the Euphrates and the
Tigris. To the north-east were the Elamites and Shimashki confederation in the
highlands to the east of the Tigris. Their lines of attack would have been more
focused down river valleys – perhaps the Diyala River flowing through the
Zagros Mountains to the Tigris.
In this early period there is only textual evidence for
linear barriers, based on letters that remarkably survive from the third
dynasty of Ur. These writings between Sumerian kings and their often
disobedient generals and officials, are called the Royal Correspondence of Ur
(abbreviated to the RCU). Much of the correspondence in the twenty-two or so
surviving letters was about defence against the Martu. There was also
information about linear barriers in the year names of Sumerian king lists
(Mesopotamian kings named each year of their reigns after some major event).
The Sumerian kings
Shulgi (2094–2047 BC), Shu-Sin (2037–2029 BC) and Ibbi-Sin (2028–2004 BC) were
mentioned in the context of three walls:
bad-mada/Wall of the Land – The Wall of the Land is known
only from one reference in the king lists: ‘Year 37: Nanna (the god) and Shulgi
the king built the Wall of the land.’10 Shulgi was on the throne for
forty-seven years so the wall belongs to the last quarter of his long reign.
This was a time of increasing pressure on central and southern Mesopotamia from
bad-igi-hur-sag-ga/Wall Facing the Highlands – In the RCU
there are several references to bad-igi-hur-sag-ga – both during Shulgi’s reign
and that of his successors, Shu-Sin and Ibbi-Sin. The bad-igi-hur-sag-ga has
been variously translated as the Wall, Fortress, or the Fortification facing
the highlands or mountains – making it uncertain whether this was a continuous
linear barrier. If, however, Shulgi really did build a long wall then he has
the distinction of being the first known builder of such a barrier. This
obstacle possibly faced a threat coming down the Diyala River as it faced the
Highlands, presumably the Zagros Mountains.
Muriq Tidnim/Fender off of the Tidnim – There are three
references to Muriq Tidnim, or fender (off) of the Tidnim and Shu-Sin. First,
the king lists of his fourth regnal year said: ‘Shu-Sin the king of Ur built
the amurru (Amorite) wall (called) ‘Muriq Tidnim/holding back the Tidanum’’
Second, there is an inscription in a temple built for the god Shara: ‘For Shara
Shu-Sin built the Eshagepada, his (Shara’s) beloved temple, for his (Shu-Sin’s)
life when he built the Martu wall Muriq Tidnim (and) turned back the paths of
the Martu to their land.’ Third, the most informative reference to the Muriq
Tidnim is in a letter from Sharrum-bani, an official of Shu-Sin. ‘You sent me a
message ordering me to work on the construction of the great fortification
Muriq Tidnim … announcing: “The Martu have invaded the land.” You instructed me
to build the fortification, so as to cut off their route; also, that no
breaches of the Tigris or the Euphrates should cover the fields with water …
from the bank of the Ab-gal watercourse to the province of Zimudar. When I was
constructing this fortification to the length of 26 danna, and had reached the
area between the two mountain ranges, I was informed of the Martu camping
within the mountain ranges because of my building work.’
In this letter, the construction is described as ‘great’.
Whatever the uncertainties about Shulgi’s earlier edifices, it is difficult not
to interpret this passage as describing a major continuous linear barrier. In
the west the Ab-gal canal is associated with an earlier western course of the
Euphrates and to the east the province of Zimudar is identified as being on the
east side of Tigris in the region of the Diyala river. A danna is about two
hours march so 26 dannas may be over 150 kilometres. Therefore, the edifice
appeared to extend from the Euphrates to the other side of the Tigris because
its length was much greater than the distance between the two rivers. The
instructions to build the walls specifically cite stopping the semi-nomadic
Martu from overwhelming the fields by a breach between the Tigris and the
Euphrates, showing that irrigated land was perceived as particularly
Analysis – Ur III
In the hillier east controlling access down the Diyala river
area there may have been a single fortification, the bad-igi-hur-sag-ga or the
Wall/Fortress facing the Highlands, first built by Shulgi, which might or might
not have been part of another system bad-mada (the Wall of the Land) built in
the flatter west. During the reign of Shu-Sin it seems more likely that a linear
barrier called Muriq Tidnim was built from new, or it consisted of earlier
lines that were linked and much reinforced including Shulgi’s Wall of the land.
This is all speculation but there is good if circumstantial literary evidence
that Ur III’s strategy for defence against the Martu involved the construction
of what would be the first recorded long continuous non-aquatic linear
There does seem to be a fairly general academic acceptance
that under Shulgi and Shu-Sin long walls were built and their purpose was to
keep out nomads. For example: ‘Even as early as year 35 of Shulgi, the (nomad)
problem was becoming so grave that Shulgi constructed a wall to keep them
(pastoral and semi-nomadic Amorites) out, and Shu-Sin built another barrier,
called “fender off of Tidnim,” 200 kilometres long, stretching between the
Tigris and the Euphrates across the northern edge of the alluvial plain.’ Also:
‘Yet despite Shulgi’s talents, within a few years of his death in 2047 BC his
Empire, too, imploded. In the 2030s raiding became such a problem that Ur built
a hundred-mile wall to keep the Amorites out.’
Looking at later Mesopotamia, after the fall of Ur III, how
did it defend itself in times of necessity? What emerges is three intense periods
of barrier building: firstly, that already discussed, during the short lived Ur
III period; secondly, in the neo-Babylonian period associated with
Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BC; and thirdly, later in the fourth
century, aquatic linear barriers were built by the Sasanians. There are also a
number of major but little studied walls, discussed below, north of the Tigris
and Euphrates convergence point, which are not clearly dated.
After Ur III fell to the Elamites and the Shimaskhi
confederation, the so-called Amorite dynasty of Isin completed its breakaway.
Given that lower Mesopotamia had fallen to peoples from outside the region
there was no reason for a barrier between the north and southern Mesopotamia.
Also, Martu or Amorite semi-nomads were becoming increasingly sedentarised.
Subsequently, the Babylonians of the era of Hammurabi were able to project
their power well to the north of Babylon. The Assyrians, coming from the north,
had no need for walls around 700 BC to defend Babylon in this region as they
controlled the regions to its north and south.
The neo-Babylonians recovered control of their city in the
sixth century BC and made it the capital of the region. The second period of
major barrier building materialised in this later Babylonian period, associated
with Nebuchadnezzar and textually with Queens Semiramis and Nitocris.
Nebuchadnezzar II ruled for forty-three years from 604 to 562 BC. The Medes’
conquest of Lydia made Nebuchadnezzar suspicious of their intentions and this
led him to strengthen his northern border. Behind the Medes loomed the
Persians. This was clearly seen, rightly as it turned out, as a real,
unpredictable threat – and one that prompted the construction of a
comprehensive linear barrier system. Notwithstanding this attempt, in 539 BC
Cyrus the Great led the Medes and the Persians into Babylonia which was
absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire.
Linear barriers –
There were three lines of barriers at and above Babylon
looked at here, starting in the south and going to the north.
Babylon to Kish –
Two walls of Nebuchadnezzar (604–562 BC) are known from a
clay cylinder, dated to 590 BC when relations between the Babylonians and the
Medes had deteriorated. (These compose Line 1 and Line 2 in this and the next
Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from near Babylon to Kish – This
cylinder is inscribed: ‘In the district of Babylon from the chau(s)sée on the
Euphrates bank to Kish, 4 2/3 bēru long, I heaped up on the level of the ground
an earth-wall and surrounded the City with mighty waters. That no crack should
appear in it, I plastered its slope with asphalt and bricks.’ A bēru is the
distance which could be travelled in two hours so is variable according to
terrain. At five kilometres an hour this barrier would be about 47 kilometres
long. The problem is that this is considerably longer than the distance between
Babylon and Kish – which is little more than 10 kilometres – unless the barrier
followed a particularly circuitous route. Also, it would seem a fairly
pointless military exercise building a barrier from Babylon to Kish leaving the
flood plain open to the east from Kish to the Tigris. Using up the surplus kilometres
would take the wall further east to Kar-Nargal, near an earlier channel of the
Tigris, hence blocking the land corridor between the Euphrates and the Tigris.
No physical evidence of this wall has been identified.
Opis to Sippar – Line
The second line ran between the cities of Sippar, above
Babylon on the Euphrates, and Opis on the Tigris, the precise position of which
has been lost. A number of walls are associated with this location in texts and
there is a surviving wall called Habl-es-Sakhar.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from Sippar to Opis – Nebuchadnezzar’s
inscribed cylinder described the second wall as follows: ‘To strengthen the
fortification of Babylon, I continued, and from Opis upstream to the middle of
Sippar, from Tigris bank to Euphrates bank, 5 bēru, I heaped up a mighty
earth-wall and surrounded the city for 20 bēru like the fullness of the sea.
That the pressure of the water should not harm the dike, I plastered its slope
with asphalt and bricks.’ This Opis to Sippar wall would have been about 50
kilometres long. Both the Babylon to Kish and the Opis to Sippar walls were
water-proofed by asphalt so they must have been built in proximity to water –
possibly water-courses like canals or in flatlands prone to flooding or
Wall of Semiramis – The geographer Strabo, citing
Eratosthenes, when describing Mesopotamia, said the Tigris, ‘goes to Opis, and
to the wall of Semiramis, as it is called.’ Therefore, this wall was in the
region of the Tigris and the Euphrates’ convergence point. (Herodotus mentioned
Semiramis’ works but did not specify a wall. Rather he described levees which
Wall of Nitrocris – Herodotus also described a Babylonian
queen called Nitocris – possibly the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and the mother of
the Book of Daniel’s King Belshazzar brought down by Cyrus – whose
constructions in Babylon were mainly connected with diverting the Euphrates.
Nitocris built works in the entrance of the country (which is clearly a
description of a land corridor) against the threat of the Medes. ‘Nitocris …
observing the great power and restless enterprise of the Medes, … and expecting
to be attacked in her turn, made all possible exertions to increase the
defences of her empire.’
Wall of Media – In the Anabasis, Xenophon described how he
led the 10,000 Greeks back from Mesopotamia. In it he encountered the Wall of
Media twice. Here what is described is the second occasion when Xenophon
actually crossed the wall itself following the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC.
‘They reached the so called Wall of Media and passed within it. It was built of
baked bricks, laid in asphalt, and was twenty feet wide and a hundred feet
high; its length was said to be twenty parasangs, and it is not far distant
from Babylon.’ Assuming that a parasang is the same as a bēru or a danna, that
is a two hours march, then the wall was about 100 kilometres long.
Habl-es-Sakhar – There is a surviving wall in the vicinity
of Sippar. In 1867 one Captain Bewsher described the ruins of a wall then
called Habl-es-Sakhar – which translates from the Arabic as a line of stones or
bricks. ‘The ruins of this wall may now be traced for about 10½ miles and are
about 6 feet above the level of the soil. It was irregularly built, the longest
side running E.S.E. for 5½ miles; it then turns to N.N.E. for another mile and
a half. An extensive swamp to the northward has done much towards reducing the
wall.… There is a considerable quantity of bitumen scattered about, and it was
probably made of bricks set in bitumen. I can see nothing in Xenophon which
would show this was not the wall the Greeks passed, for what he says of its
length was merely what was told him.’ The description of the ‘baked bricks laid
upon bitumen’ is like Nebuchadnezzar’s description of his wall between Opis and
Sippar: plastered with asphalt and bricks.
In 1983 a joint team of Belgian and British Archaeological
Expeditions to Iraq investigated the ruins of Habl-es-Sakhar. This confirmed
that Habl-es-Sakhar was built by Nebuchadnezzar, for bricks marked with his
name were found during its excavation. The team reported that Habl-es-Sakhar is
the name of ‘a levee 30 metres wide and 1 metre high which could be followed
for about 15 kilometres. A trench across the levee to the north of the site of
Sippar revealed baked brick walls (largely robbed) on either side of an earth
embankment. The earth core was about 3.2m wide and the brick walls about 1.75m
in width. Between the brick courses was a skin of bitumen. On the bottom of
each brick was a stamp of Nebuchadnezzar. If the wall extended to the ancient
line of the Tigris it would have been nearly 40k long.’
The wall stood astride the northern approaches to Babylon
itself. The wall’s function appeared primarily to have been military as it was
not well situated to protect land against the flooding of the Euphrates which
lay to the south. It is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Habl-es-Sakhar is
Nebuchadnezzar’s wall and Xenophon’s Wall of Media due to the location north of
Sippar, the details of the construction, and the stamped bricks set in bitumen.
This is rather satisfying because a surviving wall has been matched up with
Umm Raus to Samarra –
A third line of walls runs from Samarra on the Tigris to
Ramadi on the Euphrates which delineated the upper limits of the alluvial plain
where intense irrigation was possible. Here the fertile plain is not continuous
between the Tigris and the Euphrates but the regions close to the rivers fit
the description of valued irrigated land. As the rivers have diverged already
significantly in the area of the third uppermost line, compared to the lower
two lines, a wall that extended the whole distance would have had to have been
much longer. Central sections might also have been purposeless as there was little
valued, highly irrigated, land to protect and attackers would not have wanted
to stray too far into less fertile land. This area is the site of two walls
described in ancient texts and three surviving linear barriers.
Trench of Artaxerxes – In the Anabasis Xenophon described
the march along the Euphrates, at the point where canals began, thereby
indicating intense irrigation: ‘Cyrus … expected the king to give battle the
same day, for in the middle of this day’s march a deep sunk trench was reached,
thirty feet broad, and eighteen feet deep.… The trench itself had been
constructed by the great king upon hearing of Cyrus’s approach, to serve as a
line of defence.’ The trench does not appear to have survived but the site
might have been reused to build later walls – the first being the Wall of
Macepracta, discussed next, and second the surviving wall at Umm Raus.
Wall of Macepracta – Ammianus Marcellinus, describing the
assault in AD 362 by the apostate Emperor Julian on the Sasasian Empire of
Shapur II, wrote: ‘our soldiers came to the village of Macepracta, where the
half-destroyed traces of walls were seen; these in early times had a wide
extent, it was said, and protected Assyria from hostile inroads.’
There is a surviving belt of linear barriers which extends –
with long gaps – between the Euphrates and the Tigris. The three walls mark the
line where the fertile Babylonian plain peters out. There is the rampart
starting at Umm-Raus which extends east from the Euphrates; El-Mutabbaq is a
burnt brick wall with towers running west from the Tigris; and between them is
a dyke named Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu). Their dating is very uncertain.
Wall at Umm Raus – The wall, running east from the
Euphrates, has been described: ‘From Umm Raus we see the wall running inland
for a distance of about 7 miles, with rounded bastions at intervals for 2½
miles.… The wall appeared to be about 35–45 ft broad, with bastions projecting
about 20ft. to 25ft., set at a distance of about 190 feet axis to axis. At its
highest point the mound made by the wall is about 7 to 8 feet high. From the
air it can be seen that there are about forty buttresses in all.’
The line may follow that of Artaxerxes’ trench. It is not a
brick wall but an earth rampart. It was ‘never defensible, perhaps never
finished’. Also: ‘This wall must have been designed … to protect the suddenly
broadening area of fertile irrigated land to its south from raids and
infiltration; large armies entering Iraq by the Euphrates would not have found
it a serious obstacle.’
Again, there is the explicit mention of defending irrigated
land. The Umm Raus rampart must date between 401 BC, as it is not mentioned by
Xenophon, and AD 363, when a ruined wall was described at Macepracta by
El-Mutabbaq – The modern name, El-Mutabbaq, means built in
layers or courses of bricks. This is a massive rampart lying at the boundary of
the irrigatel alluvium of the widening Tigris valley south of Samarra and the
desert to the north-west. It is about forty kilometres long and ‘has traces of
turrets and moat on the north-west side and follows … the natural contours of
the land. The rampart was four to six metres high, thirty metres wide at the
bottom.’ It is, ‘a mud-brick wall three and a half bricks wide behind which is
10.5m of gravel-packing held in by a small mud-wall. The gravel packing was
compartmented by mud-brick cross walls. There are projecting towers at regular
intervals and a ditch about 20 to 30m. wide which is now about 2m. deep.’
The following description shows El-Mutabbaq as being
designed to protect valued land against a nomad threat: ‘Herzfeld (a German
explorer and historian) attributed construction to the threat of the Bedouin
invading the fertile area along the Tigris by the river Dujail.’ These walls
were seen as intended to stop nomads thereby affirming their ineffectiveness
against great armies: ‘Cross-country walls of this type are notoriously
inefficient at stopping great armies; this particular example could be
outflanked without any difficulty at all. A stronger objection to any theory
that it was designed to stop a great army is that it blocks the one route into
southern Mesopotamia which, because of natural obstacles north of Samarra,
invading armies have preferred never to use.’ The walls were intended to defend
irrigated land: ‘El-Mutabbaq was more probably intended to help protect the
irrigated land from unwanted settlers and raiding parties coming from the
desert.’ There is no consensus as to the builder although they are described as
Sasanian. Basically, these linear barriers do not seem to have been examined
since the 1960s and remain effectively undated.
Sadd Nimrud – A dyke called Sadd Nimrud or El-Jalu, which is
about forty kilometres long, that lies to the west of El-Muttabaq. This linear
barrier does not extend the full distance between El-Muttabaq and the Wall at
Umm Raus: ‘The fortification in the central area peters out in the direction of
Falluja – perhaps as a considerable gap did not need to be defended – as armies
could not advance far into the desert away from water.’ No date, other than
this possibly being pre-Islamic, has been suggested.
Analysis – three
lines at the Euphrates and Tigris convergence point
These three barriers between the Tigris and the Euphrates
present a very baffling picture. They follow roughly the line where intense
irrigation ceases. Rather than being a single response, however, they seem to
be three discrete AD hoc reactions to separate threats to irrigated lands near
the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. They can lay claim to being among the longest
and oldest walls outside China, excepting certain Roman and Sasanian walls, yet
there appears to have been no very detailed study of them. The attribution is
generally vague – with comparisons made to features on Sumerian to Sasanian
walls, in other words millennia apart. Generally commentators do regard them as
forming part of a local response to the need to protect valued irrigated land
in the immediate vicinity, rather than as having any strategic purpose to block
routes into central and southern Mesopotamia.
In the early fourth century AD a semi-nomadic people, the
Lakhmid Arabs, who were originally from the Yemen, emerged as a serious threat
to Sasanian Mesopotamia.
Khandaq-i-Shapur – Arab tradition associates Shapur II (AD
309–379) with a defensive dyke that reputedly ran west of the Euphrates, from
Hit to Basra. This barrier is looked at again later when Sasanian barriers are
discussed. It is clear however that the linear barrier was built to hinder the
nomadic Arab people from the desert. Although this Khandaq is much later than
the Egyptian Walls of the Ruler, it throws an interesting perspective on it.
Firstly, there is neat symmetry. In the face of a threat from nomadic Asiatics,
the response to both the east and the west of the Arabian Desert was to build a
moat or canal. Secondly, the historian Yāqūt, writing later in the Islamic period,
said that Anushirvan (531–579) who rebuilt Shapur’s earlier work, ‘built on it
(the moat) towers and pavilions and he joined it together with fortified
points.’ Therefore, this was a continuous fortified aquatic linear barrier. The
fact that such a barrier was constructed by the Sasanians perhaps meant that
Egypt’s early Walls of the Ruler were also a continuous aquatic barrier,
strengthened by forts.
Over the next few years the Duke of Parma consolidated the line between the loyal south and the rebellious north, and set about reducing the northern strongholds by means of a long succession of sieges, a process that culminated in the thirteen-month-long Siege of Antwerp – one of the most fascinating operations of the Eighty Years War. Parma’s plans involved cutting the city off from the north by building a bridge across the Scheldt. To many this was the strategy of a lunatic. That a river half a mile wide could be bridged while there were so many rebels around to prevent its construction was one reason for the scepticism. The other reason was that some years previously, when Antwerp was still in Spanish hands, William the Silent had attempted to build a bridge, only to see his creation swept away with the coming of winter and the pounding of ice floes. Nevertheless, William remained one of the few people to take Parma’s threat seriously, and he proposed a drastic course of action to frustrate Parma’s plans.
William’s plan involved the almost total inundation of the area. Downstream from Antwerp, the Scheldt was confined within its banks by a complex system of dykes, the most important of which extended along its edges towards the sea in parallel lines. On the right bank this barrier became the mighty Blauwgaren dyke, which was met at right angles by the equally formidable Kowenstyn dyke. Not far from where they joined, the Dutch had a strong fortress called Lillo. If the Blauwgaren dyke was pierced, it would take the Kowenstyn dyke with it and would cause such an extensive flood that Antwerp would become a city with a harbour on the sea. It would then be almost impossible to starve out.
Had William the Silent’s orders been carried out immediately, then Antwerp might indeed have been safe, but a fateful and time-wasting debate took place, and just a few weeks later William was assassinated. The idea of a massive flood was certainly not well received. In an echo of Alkmaar, it was pointed out that twelve thousand head of cattle grazed upon the fields protected by the two dykes. If Parma was intent upon starving Antwerp’s citizens, then surely there was no better way of helping him than by the Dutch destroying such a huge food supply.
The tiny village of Kallo, which lay about nine miles from Antwerp, became the construction site for Parma’s bridge, but the scheme was such a huge undertaking that by the autumn of 1584 little seemed to have been achieved. Antwerp continued to be supplied by flotillas of craft, which exchanged fire with Parma’s forts as they boldly made their way upstream. The Antwerp authorities then made an astounding blunder. It transpired that grain bought in Holland could be sold for four times its original price in beleaguered Antwerp, a mark-up that was attractive enough to make Spanish cannon fire an acceptable hazard. But the city fathers then set a fixed price for supplies brought in, and simultaneously regulated the accumulation of grain in private warehouses. Seeing their profit wiped out, the ships’ captains stopped the traffic stone dead. Even Parma could not have created such an effective blockade!
At the same time, the inundation urged by William the Silent had actually begun, albeit in a much-reduced fashion. Yet, ironically, the opening of the sluices on the Flanders side actually made Parma’s communications that much easier, because the flooded countryside now enabled him to give Antwerp a wide berth. By the time it was finally decreed that the dykes of Blauwagaren and Kowenstyn should be cut there were strong Spanish garrisons in place to prevent this happening. The Kowenstyn in particular now resembled a long, bastioned city wall bristling with cannon and pikes.
Meanwhile, the bridge grew slowly. On the Flemish side a fort called Santa Maria was erected, while on the Brabant side opposite developed one named in honour of King Philip II of Spain. From each of these two points a framework of heavy timbers spread slowly towards the middle of the river. The roadway was twelve feet wide, defended by solid blockhouses. Numerous skirmishers attacked the workmen in order to prevent the two halves meeting, but skirmishes is all that these attacks were. In spite of entreaties from Antwerp the vacuum of power since the death of William the Silent prevented any concerted attack from occurring.
Parma was also suffering from a lack of money. His army had not been paid for two years, and he was not yet in a position to promise early payment from loot. A botched attempt by the rebels to capture s’Hertogenbosch, Parma’s main supply centre for the siege, served only to increase the commander’s determination to complete his bridge, against which the wintry weather was now providing the only real challenge. The ocean tides drove blocks of ice against the piers, which stood firm, but in the centre portion of the construction the current was too strong to allow pile-driving, so here the bridge had to be carried on the top of boats. There were thirty-two of them altogether, anchored and bound firmly to each other and armed with cannon.
Parma’s bridge was completed on 25 February 1585. It was twice as long as Julius Caesar’s celebrated Rhine bridge, and had been built under the most adverse weather conditions. As an added precaution, on each side of the bridge there was anchored a long heavy raft floating upon empty barrels, the constituent timbers lashed together and supported by ships’ masts, and protected with iron spikes that made the construction look like the front rank of a pike square. An entire army could both sit on the bridge and walk across it, and, to impress the citizens of Antwerp, Parma’s soldiers proceeded to do both.
So that they should be under no illusions as to the strength and size of the edifice, a captured Dutch spy, who expected to be hanged, was instead given a guided tour of the bridge and sent safely back to relate in wide-eyed wonder what he had seen. `Tell them further’, said Parma to the astonished secret agent, `that the siege will never be abandoned, and that this bridge will be my sepulchre or my pathway into Antwerp.’
The Dutch ship Fin de la Guerre (“End of War”) during the Siege of Antwerp in 1585.
The first marine application of mine warfare occurred in 1585 at the city of Antwerp. Fighting for their independence from Spain, the Dutch were under siege by Spanish forces, who had built a fortified bridge across the Scheldt River to prevent supplies from entering the city. Frederigo Gianibelli sent a small ship loaded with gunpowder down the river, with a time fuse. The ship detonated directly beneath the bridge, destroying it and the Spanish soldiers guarding it.
The Diabolical Machine
The besieged citizens of Antwerp, however, still possessed one possible winning card. In their city lived a sympathetic Italian engineer by the name of Frederigo Gianibelli, and in a similar display of enthusiasm to that with which Parma had built his bridge, so did this Gianibelli determine to destroy it using exploding ships. His proposal to the city authorities involved the construction of a fleet, but by the time his project was approved the parsimonious city fathers had reduced the fleet to two ships, which disgusted Gianibelli, even though each of the vessels, to be optimistically named Hope and Fortune, was enormous. The two ships were nothing less than artificial volcanoes. In the hold of each was a chamber of marble, along their entire length, built upon a brick foundation. This chamber was filled with gunpowder under a stone roof, on top of which was a `cone’ – also of marble – packed with millstones, cannonballs, lumps of stone, chain-shot, iron hooks, ploughshares and anything else that could be requisitioned in Antwerp to cause injury when blown up. On top of all of this were piles of wood that gave the vessels the appearance of conventional fireships. The one difference between the two ships lay in the means of ignition of the volcanoes within. On the Fortune this was to be done by means of a slow match. On the Hope the business would be done by clockwork and flint, rather like an enormous wheel-lock pistol. The progress of these infernal floating mines was to be preceded on the ebb tide by thirty-two smaller vessels laden with combustible materials, which would keep the defenders of the bridge busy until the two great ships reached Parma’s masterpiece and utterly destroyed it.
The date for the attack was to be dusk on 5 April 1585, and the enterprise was placed into the hands of Admiral Jacob Jacobzoon. He began badly, sending all the thirty-two vanguard ships down the Scheldt almost all at once rather than in the steady progression previously agreed upon. On each bank, and from every dyke and fortress, the Spanish troops gathered in their thousands to gaze at the burning flotilla that was turning the night back into day with its ruddy glow. Some of the boats hit the forward barges of the bridge and stuck on the spikes, where they burned themselves out ineffectively. Others struck the banks or ran aground. Some simply sank into the river as their own fires consumed them.
To the guardians of the bridge the attack seemed to be having no effect, but behind these minor vessels there now loomed the two great ones. They meandered somewhat aimlessly with the tide and the current, because their pilots had long since abandoned them. There was a moment of concern for the Spanish when the Fortune swung towards the side of the river, completely missing the forward protective raft. It eventually ground itself while, unknown to the Spanish defenders, the slow match burned through. There was a small explosion, and some minor damage, but so slight was the effect that Parma sent a boarding party to examine the interior of the ship.
They did not stay long, because the Hope had now followed its sister downstream. Its precision in finding its target could not have been better if it had been guided until the very last moment, because it managed to hit the bridge next to the blockhouse where the middle pontoons began. However, as Parma had confidently expected, the bridge had been so strongly built that the impact alone caused it no damage. Expecting it to be another fireship, Spanish boarders leapt on to the deck, and with excited whoops of laughter promptly extinguished the decoy fire. With some sixth sense, an ensign rushed up to his commander and begged him to leave the scene. So earnest were the man’s pleas that Parma reluctantly withdrew to the Fort of Santa Maria. This saved his life, for at that very moment the Hope exploded.
Not only did the ship vanish, so did much of the bridge, the banks, the dykes, the fortresses, and for a brief moment even the waters of the Scheldt, as possibly the largest man-made explosion in history up to that date lit up the night sky. The facts and statistics of the act took months to establish, and still have the power to cause amazement. The entire centre section of the bridge disintegrated. More than a thousand Spanish soldiers died instantly, and their bodies were never found. Houses nearby collapsed as if hit by an earthquake, and the pressure wave blew people off their feet. From the sky there began to fall the cannonballs and stones that had been crammed into the ship, accompanied by the mortal remains of its immediate victims. Slabs of granite were later found buried deep in the ground having travelled six miles from the scene of the explosion.
The personal tales were also quite remarkable. One Marquis Richebourg, who had been in command on the bridge, simply disappeared. His body was located several days later, its progress through the air having been arrested by one of the chains Parma had strung across the river. Seigneur de Billy’s body was not located until months afterwards when his golden locket and an unpleasant stain on one of the surviving bridge supports provided identification. The fortunate Duke of Parma was merely knocked unconscious by a flying stake. One captain was blown out of one boat and landed safely in another. A certain Captain Tucci was blown vertically into the air in his full armour and dumped in the river, where he still retained the presence of mind to remove his cuirass and swim to safety. Another young officer was blown completely across the river and landed safely after a flight of half a mile.
The original plan was that immediately after the expected explosion Admiral Jacobzoon should launch a signal rocket that would send boatloads of armed Dutchmen pouring on to the scene. Instead, he was totally stupefied by the explosion and gave no order. No rocket was fired and no one advanced. During the hiatus Parma regained consciousness, and by displaying leadership skills of unbelievable quality he managed to marshal his men to begin to repair the damage. Even though the Dutch advance was expected at any moment, it never came. By daybreak, even Parma began to believe the unbelievable – that the Dutch rebels, having set off the largest explosion since the introduction of gunpowder to Europe and blown a hole in his bridge, were now going to let him mend it. Yet this is precisely what happened.
The battle for the Kowenstyn dyke
The Kowenstyn Dyke
With the initiative lost it took the defenders of Antwerp a full month to mount another attack on Parma’s besieging army. The new attack was not against his damaged bridge but on the mighty Kowenstyn dyke. As the target was an earthen dam explosives would not have been effective, so the goal of breaking the great barrier would be made by men capturing the dyke with pike and musket and then cutting it with pick and shovel. It was a low-tech solution, and it was likely to be a very bloody one.
Following a successful landing a fierce `push of pike’ began on top of the Kowenstyn dyke. The rebels could well have been shoved back into the water had it not been for the arrival of the other half of their army downstream from Antwerp. For once in this campaign a co-ordinated effort had actually worked, and three thousand men now occupied this small section of the dyke. Among them was an eighteen-year-old youth called Maurice of Nassau, the son and heir of William the Silent, who was experiencing his first real taste of combat in what was to become a renowned military career. While two walls of soldiers shot, cut and speared their enemies, the sappers began two very different but complementary operations: to reinforce the dyke with trenches and mounds, and also to cut a hole through it. At last a loud cheer went up as the salt water rushed in a torrent through the newly created gap. A few moments later a Zeeland barge sailed through.
It is to the great credit of the Spanish commanders on the scene that they did not immediately panic; they stayed calm, even though their leader was some distance away. They were also sensible enough to realise that a breach sufficient to allow a Zeeland barge through was by no means sufficient to permit the passage of an entire fleet, and if the dyke could somehow be recaptured then the rupture might even be repaired. Five attacks followed along the dyke in a manner that demonstrated beyond all doubt why the Spanish were regarded as the finest infantry in Europe. The last assault was successful, and it was not long before intelligence arrived in Antwerp that the wild celebrations currently taking place were somewhat premature.
The failure plunged Antwerp into despair and forced its rulers back to the negotiating table. They sought three reassurances from Parma: that religious freedom would be granted, that troops would not be stationed in the city, and that the hated citadel would not be rebuilt. Knowing that King Philip II would accept none of these `exorbitant ideas’, as Parma termed them, he reminded the citizens of Antwerp of the stranglehold he still had on their city. But he had other cards to play, and drew their attentions to the role of Antwerp as the `great opulent and commercial city’ that it had been in the past and could be again. What cause, what real cause, did rich Antwerp have with the heretical Sea Beggars of Holland and Zeeland? Surely the loyal south was more to their liking?
Parma’s own fears lay with the winter that was fast approaching. It turned out to be so severe that Parma’s bridge would have been unlikely to survive, but by the time winter came a settlement had already been reached. A minor concession regarding the troops to be stationed in Antwerp proved sufficient for all parties to be satisfied, and Antwerp capitulated with honour on 17 August 1585 without a shot having been fired at the city itself. There was no massacre, no sack, no pillage and Parma’s soldiers were paid not by loot but in hard cash. The noble Duke of Parma had achieved his objectives, and, unknown to him at the time, he had actually achieved something quite remarkable. By detaching the fate of Antwerp and the lands to the south from the United Provinces of The Netherlands he had effectively created a recognisable and workable border. In 1648, as part of the Treaty of Westphalia, this border was to be given both recognition and reality, confirming that Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, had invented Belgium.
When General George McClellan persuaded Lincoln (against the latter’s judgement) to leave only 75 000 men guarding Washington from behind fortresses and land more than 100 000 men on the Yorktown Peninsula on 22nd March 1862 to strike at Richmond by sea, he sowed the seeds of failure by keeping secret from the President the fact that he was leaving only 50 000 to guard the capital. For when Lincoln discovered the deceit, he withheld 25 000 men from McClellan. By then the General was enmeshed in what amounted to almost constant and costly siege warfare against a series of well-entrenched lines of resistance, dug across his predicable line of advance through the ten-mile neck of the peninsula, but guarded by only 60 000 enemy troops under General Joseph Johnston.
The campaign developed a pattern hitherto unknown in warfare. Excepting sieges of fortified cities, combat in the past had been of short duration, major battles rarely lasting for more than a day. The Peninsula campaign, commencing with the Battle of Kernstown on 23rd March as part of General Jackson’s diversionary activities in the Shenandoah Valley, and ending in the withdrawal of Federal forces from the Peninsula in August, consisted of almost ceaseless fighting. Including the siege of Yorktown from 4th April to 4th May, there were no less than six major battles in the Valley and nine in the Peninsula, connected by continual skirmishing and one major raid by a cavalry division. Moreover, the Peninsula fighting coincided with a major campaign in the west, on either side of the Mississippi, where the struggle to control that jugular vein of the Confederacy culminated in the bloody Battle of Shiloh on the 6th and 7th April; the capture of New Orleans by a Federal fleet of 17 warships under Admiral David Farragut on 25th April; and the fall of Memphis to Federal river gunboats on 6th June. Losses were colossal – 14 000 Federal and 11 000 Confederate troops at Shiloh alone. Exhaustion became endemic, halting operations.
Although these heavy losses could partly be ascribed to errors of raw troops, as well as to poor staff work, the underlying reasons were improved technology which had redoubled firepower, and crippling deficiencies in communication which technology had not yet solved. When McClellan advanced from Yorktown in the direction of Richmond, his progress was slowed by an out-numbered Confederate rearguard which gave ground only grudgingly on a wide front. This was possible because no longer did men need to be packed into tight ranks in order to generate sufficient volume of fire to maintain their position against assault. Reciprocally, the thinning out of ranks made them less vulnerable to incoming fire. Such gams were ameliorated further when men took to lying down to shoot or, better still, made a point of firing from trenches or behind cover instead of standing up in the open, as so recently in the past decade. Not that either army was yet able to apply the full devastating potential of modern weapons. Many old, muzzle-loading rifles were still in service, but a sound of the future ripped forth at the Battle of Fair Oaks when on 31st May, within sight of Richmond, a battery of hand-operated Williams machine-guns chimed in to support the first Confederate counter¬ stroke – a battle which was to save their capital city though it failed, with losses of over 6000 men, to drive McClellan back.
As had been shown in the Crimea and at Solferino, head-on assaults against a well emplaced enemy of equal calibre were no longer profitable operations of war. Even less viable was cavalry against modern artillery and rifle fire. The only chance of making a worthwhile mounted contribution was to ride through gaps in the enemy lines, both for reconnaissance and for raids, into the wide-open spaces of the enemy rear. In a country the size of America, and with relatively small forces engaged, there would always be gaps and nobody was better at exploiting these than General JEB Stuart, as he demonstrated between 12th and 15th June when he rode right round McClellan’s army, creating havoc in the rear and returning to Lee (given command in the field after Fair Oaks) with invaluable information about Federal dispositions.
Trench Warfare – The Lines of Petersburg
When Grant deluded Lee as to his true intentions after the Wilderness Campaign, managing suddenly to appear in mid-June with massed forces at Petersburg instead of further north as expected, the thinly defended city lay at his mercy. But war weariness and a conditioned caution held back the Federal troops who now approached all entrenchments warily as a matter of course. One quick determined rush by a Corps on 15th June 1864 might well have broken through. Three days later an army of 65 000 was insufficient to overcome the 40 000 men Lee had rushed to the spot by rail. Faced at first by an improvised line, the initial Federal assault failed from lack of co-ordination. Detachments advanced independently, inadequately supported by artillery, and were pinned to the ground by fire of only moderate intensity. By the time a set-piece attack could be launched on the 18th, the volume of defensive fire was annihilating, compelling Grant to call a halt and commence probing the city’s southern flank with a view to isolating it. Keeping pace with each Federal sidestep to their left, the Confederates extended their entrenchment to their right, always in time to meet each assault while fiercely contesting Grant’s further attempts to cut the line to Richmond or the one running westward from Petersburg. Assault was usually of the battering-ram sort – a blasting of the selected point of attack by artillery and mortars (the latter, with their plunging fire, being particularly suitable for striking at the deeper enemy emplacements) followed by a massed infantry charge.
Historians accuse those in charge of a succession of failed set-piece attacks with bungling. To some extent they are right, although they tend to overlook that the dimensions and ferocity of modern war had produced a complex problem beyond the knowledge and technology of the day to solve. `In war’, said a Prussian officer called Hindenburg, many years later, `only simple plans work’. In 1864 simplicity could not be adopted. Even if every plan had been perfectly devised, staff work impeccable, communication arrangements fault¬ less and every order executed implicitly, the weather, or the enemy could be expected to disrupt them. But nothing could be perfect in this form of warfare, with masses of men and numerous weapon systems somehow to be coordinated. Humanity failed in all its unpredictability. That way chaos and slaughter were assured.
The attack on the Redoubt at Petersburg on 30th July demonstrated in utter confusion the inability of commanders to make human courage prevail over material factors and human frailty. As a powerful augmentation of the, by now, conventional artillery concentration of fire, a mine containing four tons of black powder was to be exploded beneath the redoubt and its defenders. Placed in a cross shaft at the end of a 511-foot tunnel which a regiment of coal miners secretly dug, it was blown at dawn without warning to the enemy. General Ambrose Burnside, whose four divisions of infantry were to exploit the explosion, seems to have relied too much upon the shock effect of the mine; beyond doubt the measures he took to ensure that the troops not only occupied the crater but pressed on rapidly beyond, were ambiguous and unambitious. As for the troops, so staggered were they by the enormity of the explosion, the air pressure of its blast and the scene of carnage which met their eyes when they poured into the crater, that they lost all sense of purpose and stayed there all morning, poking about among the grisly ruins of dismembered men and equipment. On the Federal side leadership came to naught while among the Confederates initial shock was gradually overcome and a counter-stroke launched in the afternoon. Artillery sealed off the flanks of the 500-yard breach in the defences, as infantry rushed to the lip of the crater where they fired volleys into the disorganized mob below. The Federals were flung back with the loss of 3793 men. That day the Confederates lost 1182, including those blown up.
For the rest of the summer and into the fall, Grant strove fitfully to break the deadlock in front of Richmond and Petersburg, creating for the logistic support of his troops a comprehensive conglomeration of base depots, camps and railway spurs leading to within artillery range of the enemy. Facing the Confederate capital the entrenched front was some 37 miles long, manned by 90 000 well-provisioned Federal troops on one side, and 60 000 deprived but fanatically determined Confederates on the other. Try as he would to smash through, Grant was defeated. Likewise, Lee was rebuffed when in March 1865, a last sortie took Fort Stedman but got no further than its ramparts before it was stopped by a Federal counterattack. In a four-hour battle, the attackers lost twice as many men as the defenders – 4000 to 2000.
Had Grant’s exploits comprised the sole Federal effort in 1864 they could well have led to his and President Lincoln’s downfall in an election year. The disgruntled General McClellan was campaigning for the Democratic candidacy with a call for an end to the war. He might have won if General William Sherman, taking advantage of the dram of Confederate strength to the east, had not struck the decisive blow in the west.
The fortress resisted five Imperial sieges in the Thirty Years’ War, under the command of Konrad Widerholt between 1634 and 1648. The effect was that Württemberg remained Protestant, while most of the surrounding areas returned to catholicism in the Counterreformation.
The mountaintop fortress of Hohentweil under attack in October 1641.
1643 illustration of Festung Hohentwiel (Hohentwiel Fortress), near modern Singen, Germany.
The only feasible way from Alsace for an army is around the southern end of the Black Forest where the route divided. One branch ran north east to the upper reaches of the Danube around the Württemberg enclave of Tuttlingen and thence to Bavaria. This route was overlooked by the duke’s impregnable castle of Hohentwiel perched on an extinct volcano 263 metres above the surrounding plain. The other branch ran east through the towns of Überlingen, Lindau and Radolfzell along the northern shore of Lake Constance to the Bregenzer Klause, the pass giving access to the Tirol and Valtellina. The area between the lake, the Danube and the Bavarian frontier was studded with walled imperial cities, notably Ravensburg, Kempten, Memmingen, Ulm and Augsburg. The emperor was rarely able to devote significant resources to defending these positions, despite a strategic importance that grew with French intervention in 1635. Defence was left largely to local militia, especially in Villingen and the imperial city of Rottweil which guarded the back door from Württemberg through the Black Forest to Breisach.
Sweden Loses Southern Germany
Against this the Habsburg loss of 2,000 seemed slight and enabled them to claim a major triumph. Following a long succession of defeats, Nördlingen appeared to be vindication for Wallenstein’s murder and cemented the influence of Gallas and Piccolomini by associating them with victory. As at Breitenfeld, the scale was magnified by the demoralization of the enemy army. News of the defeat reached Frankfurt on 12 September along with a flood of refugees. The remaining Heilbronn delegates fled the next day. Oxenstierna tried to improvise a new line of defence along the Main to contain the defeat to the south. No one cooperated. Johann Georg failed to launch the requested diversionary attack against Bohemia, while Duke Georg refused to move south to hold the middle section of the river. Wilhelm of Weimar abandoned Franconia and fell back with 4,000 men to his base at Erfurt, exposing the upper Main to Piccolomini and Isolano who approached with 13,000 troops from Nördlingen and north-west Bohemia. Piccolomini took Schweinfurt, while Isolano destroyed the Suhl arms workshops that had supplied most of the Swedes’ small arms and munitions since 1631. Isolano and 6,000 Croats then swept down the Main in November, rampaging into the Hessian possession of Hersfeld.
The main imperial army moved west, bypassing Ulm to enter Stuttgart on 19 September. Duke Eberhard III fled to Switzerland and the last Württemberg fort surrendered in November. Only the isolated Hohentwiel on the upper Danube held out. While the Imperialists made themselves at home, the Spanish continued westwards and the Bavarians, now under the command of Werth, captured Heidelberg on 19 November, though its castle remained defiant. Riding ahead, Werth’s cavalry harried the remnants of Bernhard’s army as it fled to Frankfurt. The commanders of Sweden’s Rhine army refused to join him, on the ground this would spread demoralization to their own troops. Birkenfeld abandoned Heilbronn and retreated to the Kehl bridgehead opposite Strasbourg. His hopes of replacing Bernhard were dashed by Oxenstierna, who felt there was no realistic alternative to the defeated general. The death of Count Salm-Kyrburg to plague on 16 October enabled Bernhard to incorporate the former Alsatian units into his command.
Leaving Werth and Duke Charles to complete the conquest of the Lower Palatinate, Fernando continued his march down the Rhine, crossing at Cologne on 16 October to reach Brussels nineteen days later. Meanwhile, Philipp Count Mansfeld collected the Westphalians at Andernach, allegedly accompanied by a hundred coach-loads of Catholic lords and clergy eager to recover their property. As Philipp marched south, it looked as if Bernhard would be crushed between his hammer and Gallas’s anvil.
The situation mirrored that of 1631, only this time Protestant areas were the ones affected as government collapsed in the wake of the headlong flight of Sweden’s German collaborators. Suffering was also more general because the plague hindered the harvest, causing widespread hardship. There were signs that Emperor Ferdinand had learned the lessons of 1629 as efforts were made to restrain over-zealous Catholics. He intervened to stop Bishop Hatzfeldt punishing the Franconian knights for collaborating with the Swedes and the Jesuits were refused permission to take over Württemberg’s university at Tübingen. Political considerations undoubtedly influenced this, since Vienna did not want to jeopardize promising negotiations with Saxony. Archduke Ferdinand’s presence was another moderating factor. However, it often proved impossible to stop officers and administrators exploiting the situation, either to enrich themselves or to find cash for the perennially underpaid imperial army. Catholic government resumed relatively quickly in Würzburg despite the Swedish garrison holding out on the Marienberg and in Königshofen until January and December 1635 respectively.
Oxenstierna worked feverishly to salvage what he could of the situation, reconvening the Heilbronn League congress at Worms on 2 December. Though some members were willing to fight on, most sought a way out through Saxon mediation. Saxon and Darmstadt envoys agreed draft peace terms, known as the Pirna Note, on 24 November. Oxenstierna tried to stem desertion by publishing what he could discover of the terms, notably the suggestion of 1627 as a new normative year that would secure many of the Catholic gains.
The horrendous losses of the 1638 Rhine campaign were a major factor behind this decline. Bernhard of Weimar was determined to achieve the objective set the year before and establish a firm foothold for France east of the river. This time he prepared thoroughly. Since he had wintered in Mömpelgard and the bishopric of Basel, he was already close to the stretch of the Rhine along the Swiss frontier to Lake Constance. This route offered an alternative to the previous year’s attempt to punch directly across the Black Forest. Though he had been joined in person by Rohan, who had escaped from the Valtellina, he still had few troops. Savelli’s Imperialists held Rheinfelden with 500 men, with other garrisons in Waldshut, Freiburg and Philippsburg and Reinach’s regiment in Breisach. These posts would have to be taken if the river was to be secured. He also needed a base beyond the Black Forest to tap the richer resources of Württemberg and the Danube valley.
Fortunately, Bernhard had an excellent spy network and knew how weak his opponents were. He also had the services of Colonel Erlach, a veteran of Dutch service who had been wounded at White Mountain and subsequently served Mansfeld and Sweden until 1627. Since then he had commanded the militia of his homeland, the Protestant canton of Bern. He joined Bernhard’s army in September 1637, although he did not leave Bernese service until the following May. His contacts with the canton’s patriciate ensured a good flow of supplies to Bernhard’s army.
Erlach also opened negotiations with Major Widerhold, a Hessian who was the Württemberg militia’s drill instructor and commandant of the Hohentwiel, the duchy’s only fortress still holding out against the emperor. Though he has now faded from the local popular consciousness, Widerhold occupied a prominent place in Swabian patriotic folklore into the twentieth century. He exemplifies the partisan leaders who played an increasingly important role as the rapid escalation of the conflict left numerous isolated garrisons scattered across the Empire. These sustained themselves by raiding and acted as potential bases should friendly forces return to their area. The Swedes in Benfeld, Ruischenberg’s Imperialists in Wolfenbüttel and Ramsay’s Bernhardines in Hanau are three examples encountered already. Others included the Hessians in Lippstadt under the Huguenot refugee Baron St André and his subordinate, Jacques Mercier from Mömpelgard, known as Little Jacob, who rose through the ranks of Hungarian, Bohemian, Russian and Dutch service. Both were contemporary celebrities incorporated by Grimmelshausen into his novel. A counterpart in Habsburg service was the Swiss patrician Franz Peter König, ennobled in 1624 as von Mohr, who distinguished himself in skirmishes around Lake Constance in the early 1630s. As these background sketches indicate, such men generally came from relatively humble backgrounds and made reputations and fortunes through daring exploits. They never rose to command armies and were often difficult to control. König was dismissed after becoming embroiled in a feud with the highly disagreeable Wolfgang Rudolf von Ossa, Habsburg military commissioner for south-west Germany.
Widerhold acted nominally in the name of Duke Eberhard III of Württemberg, but pursued his own agenda. Mixing terror with benevolence, he spared the immediate vicinity of the Hohentwiel and concentrated on longer-range raids against Catholic communities, forcing 56 villages, monasteries and hamlets to provision his garrison that rose to 1,058 men and 61 guns by the end of 1638. He was well-supplied with intelligence from friendly villagers who often participated in his plundering expeditions. He returned the favour on his death, leaving a large endowment for the local poor. His exploits became legendary. Once he caught the bishop of Konstanz out hunting and stole his horse and silver, and later he netted 20,000 talers by capturing the local imperial war chest in Bahlingen.
Blockaded since Nördlingen, Widerhold agreed to remain neutral after February 1636 because of renewed talks to include Württemberg in the Prague amnesty. Ferdinand III made surrender a condition for restoring Eberhard III in 1637, but Widerhold ignored ducal orders to comply and declared for Bernhard in February 1638. He remained a constant thorn in the Habsburg side, not least by raiding the Tirolean enclaves, and did not submit to ducal authority until 1650.
By draining other regions of their troops, Ferdinand III managed to collect 44,000 men in Bohemia by January 1640. Of these, only 12,400 were available as a field army under Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, reinforced by 4,100 under Hatzfeldt who had wintered in Franconia. Piccolomini was down to 13,000 in Westphalia, while the Saxons mustered 6,648, or only a quarter of their strength five years earlier. The Brandenburgers had effectively been knocked out. The Bavarians still totalled about 17,000 men, most of whom were on the Upper Rhine where there were perhaps 10,000 in total, including a few Imperialists. The rest were in winter quarters around Donauwörth and Ingolstadt. As these figures suggest, it was now very difficult to launch major operations in more than one region at a time.
His enemies were in a similar position. Banér was reduced to 10,000 effectives, while the other Swedish commanders had only enough men to hold their current positions. Banér had little choice but to evacuate Bohemia in March and fall back the way he had come the previous year to join Königsmarck at Erfurt. The units left to hold Saxony were defeated at Plauen on 20 April 1640, forcing the garrison in Chemnitz to surrender while most of the others abandoned their positions.
The challenge over the coming two years was for France and Sweden to establish a viable framework for military and political cooperation that had to include the Hessians and Guelphs, while Ferdinand pinned his hopes on frustrating this with one last effort to rally all Germans behind the Prague settlement. The emperor’s preference for negotiation was cruelly exploited by the Guelphs and Hessians who had used the winter to gather their strength and now declared their hand in May 1640. Duke Georg did this openly by sending troops to Banér, counting on Swedish help to prevent an invasion of Hildesheim. He nominally mustered 20,000, but in fact had 6,000 at Göttingen and garrisons along the Weser, plus a field force of 4,500 under Klitzing. Amalie Elisabeth acknowledged her French alliance in March, but still promised to respect the truce in Westphalia. With French agreement, Melander moved the 4,000-strong Hessian field force east to the Eichsfeld in May to reinforce Banér. Richelieu summoned de Longueville from Italy, hoping that he possessed sufficient personal authority as a duke to master the 8,000-strong Bernhardine field army. This moved back down the Rhine to join the allied concentration.
The emperor was obliged to match these moves. He still hoped to win over the Hessians and so accepted Amalie Elisabeth’s assurances. Nonetheless, Wahl, the new Cologne commander, was authorized to recover the positions her troops had seized over the last two years in breach of the truce. Hessian garrisons also became bolder, now raiding Paderborn. Piccolomini followed Melander east and joined Leopold Wilhelm at Saalfeld, south of Erfurt, on 5 May. They entrenched to block the way into Franconia. After a two-week stand-off, Banér fell back north-west into Lower Saxony, alarming the Guelphs who feared he would abandon them. Once they had promised another 5,000 men, he marched south again to Göttingen and Kassel. Leopold Wilhelm shadowed him, moving through Hersfeld to entrench again at Fritzlar in August. It was cold all year, the summer was wet and miserable and food proved hard to find. Banér’s second wife died and de Longueville fell ill, relinquishing command to Guébriant again. The Bavarian field army arrived from Ingolstadt, bringing Leopold Wilhelm back up to 25,000 men. After another four-week stand-off, Banér withdrew, allowing the archduke to advance north down the Weser to join Wahl’s 4,000 field troops. Together, they took Höxter in October, but the men were exhausted and ill-disciplined. The weather grew windy and even colder. Leopold Wilhelm retreated south to winter at Ingolstadt. Banér left 7,000 to blockade Wolfenbüttel, while the rest of his army made themselves comfortable at the expense of the Guelphs’ villagers.
Seemingly uneventful, this campaign completely shifted the war’s focus to northern Germany, transplanting the ‘little war’ of outposts from Westphalia to the Upper Rhine instead. Under Erlach’s direction, the Bernhardine garrisons operated from Breisach and the Forest Towns in conjunction with Widerhold in the Hohentwiel. The Bavarians retaliated from Philippsburg, Heidelberg and Offenburg, while the Imperialists sortied from Konstanz and Villingen. Neither side managed to spare more than 3,000 men from their fortresses, severely restricting what they could achieve. Erlach helped disrupt plans to besiege the Hohentwiel in 1640 by sending cavalry to collect the Swabian harvest. Claudia scraped together another expedition against Widerhold in 1641, but heavy snow and lack of food forced this to be abandoned in January 1642. Erlach and Widerhold scored the only success, briefly combining the following January to take Überlingen by surprise.
The Freiburg Campaign
The situation appeared promising for the emperor at the beginning of 1644. Sweden’s decision to attack Denmark at the end of the previous year removed the threat to the Habsburg hereditary lands. The forces there were reduced to 11,000 men under the rehabilitated Field Marshal Götz, allowing Ferdinand to mass 21,500 under Gallas who marched down the Elbe to help the Danes. Buoyed by their success at Tuttlingen the previous year, Mercy’s Bavarians totalled 19,640, or twice the size of France’s Army of Germany despite Mazarin spending 2 million livres to rebuild it during the winter. This was the first time since 1637 that the emperor and his allies began the year with an army large enough to go on the offensive on the Upper Rhine.
General Turenne had been recalled to command in Alsace, but his forces were too weak to fulfil Mazarin’s expectations of conquering land beyond the Black Forest. Mercy attacked instead, retaking Überlingen on 10 May, eliminating the last French gain from 1643. Having been repulsed from the Hohentwiel, he left 1,000 men to blockade Widerhold’s garrison and crossed the Black Forest to recover the areas lost in the 1638 campaign. Turenne was forced to abandon his own advance through the Forest Towns, double back into Alsace and re-cross to save Breisach. Duke Charles broke off another of his periodic negotiations and renewed raiding into Lorraine. Mazarin was obliged to redirect d’Enghien from covering Champagne to retrieve the situation on the Rhine. Despite dashing 33km a day, d’Enghien arrived too late to save Freiburg, which had surrendered to the Bavarians after a prolonged bombardment on 29 July.