The Medieval Art of War II

The pope was taken aback by the success of his proposal. No plans had been made for the prosecution of the crusade. Several important kings of Christendom happened to be excommunicated at the time. Urban placed the bishop of Le Puy in charge of the undertaking, and French nobles assumed military control. The church’s entire organization was set to the task of obtaining recruits, money, supplies, and transportation. In some regions, under the spell of compelling voices, enthusiasm was extreme. Reports the chronicler William of Malmesbury: “The Welshman left his hunting, the Scot his fellowship with vermin, the Dane his drinking party, the Norwegian his raw fish. Lands were deserted of their husbandmen, houses of their inhabitants; even whole cities migrated.” Proudly the dedicated wore their red crosses or exhibited scars in the form of the cross on their breasts.

The crusades began with grotesqueries, comic and horrible. A band of Germans followed a goose they held to be God-inspired. Peter the Hermit, a fanatic, filthy, barefoot French monk, short and swarthy, with a long, lean face that strangely resembled that of his own donkey, preached a private crusade – known as the Peasants’ Crusade – and promised his followers that God would guide them to the Holy City. In Germany, Walter the Penniless emulated Peter. Motley hordes of enthusiasts – having plucked Peter’s poor donkey totally hairless in their quest for souvenirs – marched through Germany and the Balkan lands, killing Jews by the thousands on their way, plundering and destroying. The Byzantine Emperor Alexius sent them with all haste into Asia Minor, where they supported themselves briefly by robbing Christian villagers. They were caught in two batches by the Turks, who gave the first group the choice of conversion to Islam or death and massacred the second group. Peter the Hermit, who was in Constantinople on business, was one of the few to escape the general doom.

The first proper crusade got under way in the autumn of 1096. Its armies followed several courses, by sea and land, to a rendezvous in Constantinople. The crusaders’ numbers are very uncertain; the total may have been as low as 30,000 or as high as 100,000. At any rate, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius was surprised by the multitude and was hard put to find food for them. He was also displeased by their character. He had asked for trained soldiers, but he received a vast and miscellaneous throng of undisciplined enthusiasts that included clergy, women, and children. Only the mounted knights made a good military show, and even they behaved with Frankish arrogance. One sat down comically on the emperor’s own throne. Alexius, swallowing his anger, offered money, food, and troops to escort the expedition across Asia Minor. In return, he asked an oath of allegiance for Byzantine territories the crusaders might recapture. This was given more than grudgingly. Mutual ill will and scorn were rife. Many high-hearted Franks vowed that the Byzantine allies were as much their enemies as were the Turks.

In the spring of 1097, Alexius hustled his troublesome guests out of the capital on their way through Asia Minor toward the Promised Land. It was a dreadful journey. The Asian uplands were dry and barren; the few local peasants fled before the invader, carrying with them their goats and sheep and tiny stocks of grain. Hunger and thirst assailed the marchers. Accustomed to the abundant water supply of their homelands, many had not even provided themselves with water canteens. Knights marched on foot, discarding armor; horses died of thirst, lack of forage, and disease; sheep, goats, and dogs were collected to pull the baggage train. A part of the army crossed the Anti-Taurus range in a flood of rain on a muddy path skirting precipices. Horses and pack animals, roped together, fell into the abyss. Continually the Turks attacked the column. Their bowmen, mounted on fast little horses, discharged a hail of arrows at a gallop and fled before a counterattack could be organized. Their devices were ambush, feigned retreat, and the annihilation of the enemy’s foraging parties. Such hit-and-run tactics, new to the Westerners, shocked their sense of military propriety.

The survivors came down to the Mediterranean at its northeastern corner and found some reinforcements that had come by ship. The fainthearts and the greedy revealed themselves. Stephen of Blois, brother-in-law of one English king and father of another, deserted; but when he got home, he was sent back, reportedly by his high-spirited wife. Peter the Hermit, who had joined up, fled for good. Baldwin of Boulogne managed to establish himself as ruler of the county of Edessa and was lost for a time to the great enterprise.

The main body camped before the enormous stronghold of Antioch, which barred all progress south toward Jerusalem. An epic eight-month-long siege ensued, enlivened by such bizarre interludes as the appearance of the Byzantine patriarch hanging from the battlements in a cage. Because of treachery within the walls, Antioch was finally taken in June 1098. The Christian army then moved cautiously toward Jerusalem. By any modern standards, it was a tiny force, numbering by then perhaps 12,000, including 1,200 or 1,300 cavalry. The invaders were shocked to find Canaan a stony, barren land. There is an old Eastern story that at the Creation the angels were transporting the entire world’s supply of stones in a sack, which burst as they flew over Palestine. No milk and honey flowed in the gray gullies, not even water. The blazing summer sun on the treeless plain came as a surprise. Men and horses suffered grievously from the lack of shade. The sun smote down on steel helmets, seeming to roast the soldiers’ dancing brains. Coats of mail blistered incautious fingers until the crusaders learned to cover them with a linen surcoat. Within the armor, complaining bodies longed to sweat, but in vain, for there was no water to produce sweat. The soldiers were afflicted with inaccessible itchings, with the abrasions of armor, with greedy flies and intimate insects.

By the best of luck or by divine direction, the Turks were at odds with the Arab caliphate in Baghdad, and the country was ill defended. The crusaders made their way south by valor and by threat and bribes to the Muslim garrisons. Finally on June 7, 1099, the army camped before the beetling walls of Jerusalem.

Eyewitness, Foucher de Chartres tells the story of the assault. “Engineers were ordered to build machines that could be moved up to the walls and, with God’s help, thus achieve the result of their hopes. . . . Once the engines were ready, that is the battering rams and the mining devices, they prepared for the assault. Among other contrivances, they fastened together a tower made of small pieces of wood, because large timber was lacking. At night, at a given order, they carried it piece by piece to the most favorable point of the city. And so, in the morning, after preparing the catapults and other contraptions, they very quickly set it up, fitted together, not far from the wall. Then a few daring soldiers at the sound of the trumpet mounted it, and from that position they immediately began to launch stones and arrows. In retaliation against them the Saracens proceeded to defend themselves similarly and with their slings hurled flaming brands soaked in oil and fat and fitted with small torches on the previously mentioned tower and the soldiers on it. Many therefore fighting in this manner on either side met ever-present death. . . . [The next day] the Franks entered the city at midday, on the day dedicated to Venus, with bugles blowing and all in an uproar and manfully attacking and crying ‘Help us, God!’ . . .”

Once the crusaders had taken control of the city, they began to massacre the inhabitants. “Some of our men,” wrote the twelfth-century chronicler Raymond of Agiles, “cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, when it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.

“Now that the city was taken it was worth all our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulcher. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang the ninth chant to the Lord. It was the ninth day . . . The ninth sermon, the ninth chant was demanded by all. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity and the humiliation of paganism; our faith was renewed. The Lord made this day, and we rejoiced and exulted in it, for on this day the Lord revealed Himself to His people and blessed them.”

Soon after the capture, most of the army went home, having fulfilled their vows. Godfrey of Bouillon, who had been chosen ruler of Jerusalem, was left with only 1,000 or 2,000 infantrymen and a few hundred knights to control a hostile land populated by Arabs, Jews, heretical Christians, and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. According to the great historian of the crusades Stephen Runciman, the massacre at Jerusalem is unforgotten. “It was this bloodthirsty proof of Christian fanaticism that re-created the fanaticism of Islam.”

The crusaders set about strengthening their hold on the country, constructing those gigantic, practically impregnable castles that still fill us with awe. Little by little they acclimated themselves, learning Arabic, adopting the sensible Oriental dress – burnoose and turban – and such congenial local institutions as the harem. They married Armenian and other local Christian women. Their children were brought up by Arab nurses and tutors. In Jerusalem and the coastal cities nobles and merchants lived in fine houses, with carpets, damask hangings, carved inlaid tables, dinner services of gold and silver. Their ladies were veiled against the enemy sun; they painted their faces and walked with a mincing gait. Before long a social class developed of the native-born, the Old Settlers, at home in the East. They had their good friends among the native gentry and would hunt, joust, and feast with them. They took their religion easily, with a tolerant smile for the excessive devotions of other Christians newly arrived in the East. They set aside chapels in their churches for Muslim worship, and the Muslims reciprocated by installing Christian chapels in their mosques. After all, when one can see the Holy Places any day, one gets used to them.

To swell the ranks of the crusaders, mostly pious fighting men of gentle birth, newcomers kept arriving from Europe. A young gentleman, inspired for whatever motive to take the cross, had first to raise his passage money, often by mortgaging his land or by ceding some feudal rights. He heard a farewell sermon in his village church and kissed his friends and kinsmen good-by, very likely for ever. Since the road across Asia Minor had become increasingly unsafe, he rode to Marseilles or Genoa and took passage with a shipmaster. He was assigned a space fixed at two feet by five in the ‘tween decks; his head was to lie between the feet of another pilgrim. He bargained for some of his food with the cargador, or chief steward, but he was advised to carry provisions of his own – salt meat, cheese, biscuit, dried fruits, and syrup of roses to check diarrhea.

For the devout young warrior willing to accept celibacy, a career opened in the military orders, which were the kingdom’s main defenders against the Saracens. The Knights Hospitalers had already been established before the conquest as an order of volunteers caring for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem. They took monastic vows and followed the Benedictine Rule, adopting as their symbol the white Maltese cross. After the conquest, they became the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, owing obedience to the pope alone. Their hostel in Jerusalem could lodge 1,000 pilgrims. Because they policed the pilgrim routes, their interests became more and more military. In later centuries, they transferred the site of their operation and were known as the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights of Malta. Today their successors constitute a powerful Roman Catholic order of distinguished key men, and in England, a Protestant offshoot, which still maintains a hospital in Jerusalem.

The Knights Templars, the valiant red-cross knights, were established in 1118, with their headquarters in the Dome of the Rock, which the crusaders believed to be Solomon’s Temple. Their first duty was to protect the road to Jerusalem. Soon both Hospitalers and Templars were involved in almost every fray between the crusaders and the Saracens, acting as a kind of volunteer police. The rulers of the Christian states had no control over them; they had their own castles, made their own policy, even signed their own treaties. Often they were as much at odds with other Christians as with the Muslims. Some went over to Islam, and others were influenced by Muslim mystical practices. The order in France was all but destroyed in the fourteenth century by Philip IV, eager to confiscate the Templars’ wealth. Today the Freemasons have inherited their name and ancient mysteries.

Another fighting monastic order was the Teutonic Knights, whose membership was restricted to Germans of noble birth. They abandoned the Holy Land in 1291 and transferred their activities to the lands of the eastern Baltic. There they spread the Gospel largely by exterminating the heathen Slavs and by replacing them with God-fearing Germans.

The active period of Christian conquest ended in 1144 with the recapture by the Turks of the Christian county of Edessa. Thereafter, the Westerners were generally on the defensive. The news of the fall of Edessa shocked Europe. The great Saint Bernard of Clairvaux quickly promoted a new crusade – the second. At Easter in 1146, a host of pilgrims gathered at Vézelay to hear Bernard preach. Half the crowd took the crusader’s vow; as material for making crosses gave out, the saint offered up his own gown and cowl to be cut to provide more material.

Inspired by Bernard, the French King Louis VII decided to lead his army to the Holy Land, and Louis’s mettlesome queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, determined to go along. Bernard went to Germany to recruit King Conrad III for the expedition. On their way to Constantinople, both the French and the German expeditions found themselves as welcome as a plague of locusts. The cities along the route closed their gates and would supply food only by letting it down from the walls in baskets, after cash payment. Therefore the crusaders – especially the Germans – burned and pillaged defenseless farms and villages, and even attacked a monastery. In Constantinople, the Germans were received more than coolly by the emperor, who had come to the conclusion that the crusades were a mere trick of Western imperialism.

Somehow the crusaders made their way across Asia Minor, suffering heavy losses on the way. Although the armies and their monarchs were bitterly hostile to each other, they united to attack Damascus; but the attack was unsuccessful, and in their retreat, the crusading armies were largely destroyed. The kings left the Holy Land in disgust, acknowledging that the crusade was a total fiasco. Only Queen Eleanor had made the best of things during the journey, carrying on a notorious affair with her youthful uncle, Raymond II, prince of Antioch.

The Muslims continued nibbling at the Christian holdings, and in 1187, they captured Jerusalem. Their great general, Saladin, refused to follow the Christian precedent of massacring the city’s inhabitants. He offered his captives for ransom, guaranteeing them safe passage to their own lines. The news of Jerusalem’s fall inspired yet a third crusade, led by Philip Augustus of France, Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, who was drowned on his way to the East.

Warring nations often have a pet enemy – in the First World War, Count von Luckner, in the second, General Rommel. To the crusaders, Saladin was such a gallant foe. When he attacked the castle of Kerak during the wedding feast of the heir to Transjordania, the groom’s mother sent out to him some dainties from the feast, with the reminder that he had carried her, as a child, in his arms. Saladin inquired in which tower the happy couple would lodge, and this he graciously spared while attacking the rest of the castle. He was fond of a joke. He planted a piece of the True Cross at the threshold of his tent, where everyone who came to see him must tread on it. He got some pilgrim monks drunk and put them to bed with wanton Muslim women, thus robbing them of all spiritual reward for their lifetime toils and trials. In a battle with Richard the Lion-Hearted, Saladin saw Richard’s horse fall, generously sent him a groom with two fresh horses – and lost the battle. And when Richard came down with fever, Saladin sent him peaches, pears, and snow from Mt. Hermon. Richard, not to be outdone in courtesy, proposed that his sister should marry Saladin’s brother, and that the pair should receive the city of Jerusalem as a wedding present. It would have been a happy solution.

Though Richard captured Acre in 1191 (with the aid of a great catapult known as Bad Neighbor, a stone thrower, God’s Own Sling, and a grappling ladder, The Cat), he could not regain Jerusalem. He had to be content with negotiating an agreement that opened the way to the Holy City to Christian pilgrims. The third crusade marked, on the whole, a moral failure. It ended in compromise with the Muslims and in dissension among the Christians. The popes lost control of their enterprise; they could not even save their champion, Richard the Lion-Hearted, from imprisonment when he was taken captive by the duke of Austria, who resented an insult he had received from Richard during the crusade. Idealism and self-sacrifice for a holy cause became less common, and most recruits who went to the Holy Land were primarily looking for quick returns. People accused the men collecting taxes to pay for a new crusade and even the pope himself of diverting the money to other purposes.

In 1198, the great Innocent III acceded to the papacy and promoted another expedition, the lamentable fourth crusade. Its agents made a contract with the Venetians for the transport to the Holy Land of about 30,000 men and 4,500 horses. However, by embarkation day, the expeditionaries had raised only about half the passage money. The Venetians, always businessmen, offered the crusaders an arrangement: If they would capture for Venice the rival commercial city of Zara in Dalmatia, which the Venetians described as a nest of pirates, they would be transported at a cheaper rate. Zara was efficiently taken, to the horror of Pope Innocent, for Zara was a Catholic city, and its Hungarian overlord was a vassal of the Apostolic See. Now that the precedent of a crusade against Christians was set, the leaders, at Venetian urging, espoused the cause of a deposed, imprisoned, blinded Byzantine emperor, Isaac Angelus. By restoring him to his throne, they would right a great wrong, return the East to communion with the Roman church, and receive from their Byzantine protégé men and money for a later conquest of Egypt. The pope was persuaded to look on the project with favor, and the ships of the fourth crusade set sail for Constantinople.

The noble city was taken by storm on April 12, 1204. The three-day spree that followed is memorable in the history of looting. The French and Flemish crusaders, drunk with powerful Greek wines, destroyed more than they carried off. They did not spare monasteries, churches, libraries. In Santa Sophia, they drank from the altar vessels while a prostitute sat on the patriarch’s throne and sang ribald French soldiers’ songs. The emperor, regarded as a wicked usurper, was taken to the top of a high marble column and pushed off, “because it was fitting that such a signal act of justice should be seen by everyone.”

Then the real booty, the Eastern Empire, was divided. Venice somehow received all the best morsels: certain islands of the Aegean and seaports on the Greek and

Asian mainlands. The Franks became dukes and princes of wide lands in Greece and in Macedonia, where one still sees the massive stumps of their castles. The papal legate accompanying the troops absolved all who had taken the cross from continuing on to the Holy Land to fulfill their vows. The fourth crusade brought no succor to Christian Palestine. On the contrary, a good many knights left the Holy Land for Constantinople, to share in the distribution of land and honors.

“There was never a greater crime against humanity than the fourth crusade,” says Stephen Runciman. It destroyed the treasures of the past and broke down the most advanced culture of Europe. Far from uniting Eastern and Western Christendom, it implanted in the Greeks a hostility toward the West that has never entirely disappeared, and it weakened the Byzantine defenses against the rising power of the Ottoman Turks, to whom they eventually succumbed.

A few years later, the crusading spirit staged a travesty upon itself. Two twelve-year-old boys, Stephen in France and Nicholas in Germany, preached a children’s crusade, promising their followers that angels would guide them and that the seas would divide before them. Thousands of boy and girls joined the crusade, along with clerics, vagabonds, and prostitutes. Miracle stories allege that flocks of birds and swarms of butterflies accompanied the group as it headed southward over the mountains to the sea, which, however, did not divide to let them pass. Innocent III told a delegation to go home and grow up. A few of the Germans managed to reach Palestine, where they disappeared. The French party fell into the hands not of angels but of two of the worst scoundrels in history, Hugh the Iron and William of Posquères, Marseilles shipowners, who offered the young crusaders free transport to the Holy Land, but carried them instead to Bougie in North Africa and sold them as slaves to Arab dealers.

The melancholy tale of the later crusades can be briefly told. Unable to recapture Jerusalem, the strategists tried to seize Egypt, one of the great bases of Muslim power. In 1219, after a siege of a year and a half, an expedition took Damietta, on one of the mouths of the Nile. But the Christians were able to hold on to the city for only a few years. Again in 1249, Saint Louis invaded Egypt, hoping to retake it, but he was unsuccessful.

There were numerous attempts to recapture Jerusalem after it had fallen to the Saracens. The Emperor Frederick II’s rather comic expedition of 1228 resembled a goodwill tour rather than a crusade. The mood of the times had changed. It now suited almost everybody to maintain the status quo. The Muslims were threatened from the east by the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his equally formidable successors; they wanted no little wars in Palestine. The Christian Old Settlers had developed a thriving import-export trade in Oriental goods, with merchandise brought by camel caravan to the coastal cities to be shipped to Europe. They had enough of visiting zealots, who were eager to plunge into furious battle, commit a few atrocities, break the precarious peace, and then go home, leaving the Old Settlers holding the bag.

With want of enthusiasm, want of new recruits, want, indeed, of stout purpose, the remaining Christian principalities gradually crumbled. Antioch fell in 1268, the Hospitaler fortress of Krak des Chevaliers in 1271. In 1291, with the capture of the last great stronghold, Acre, the Muslims had regained all their possessions, and the great crusades ended, in failure.

Why? What went wrong? There was a failure of morale, clearly; there was also a failure in military organization and direction. The popes were no commanders in chief; the various allied armies were riven by dissension; there was no unity of command or strategy in the rival principalities of Palestine and Syria. The military means available were insufficient to maintain the conquest; with the distance from European bases so great, supply problems were insuperable. The armies were over-officered , for the crusades were regarded as a gentleman’s game, and poor men soon ceased to volunteer. And always there was the wastage caused by malaria, dysentery, and mysterious Oriental diseases.

As the historian Henri Pirenne has pointed out, the crusades did not correspond to any temporal aim. Europe had no need for Jerusalem and Syria. It needed, rather, a strong Eastern Empire to be a bulwark against the agressive Turks and Mongols; and this empire the crusaders destroyed with their own swords. In Spain, on the other hand, the crusading spirit was successful because it matched a political need.

It is easy enough for us to see that the early enthusiasm of the crusaders was based on illusion. Long before the forms and phraseology of the crusades were abandoned, disillusionment had set in. The character of the later recruits changed. Many went out to the East to escape paying their debts; judges gave criminals their choice of jail or taking the cross. After the defeat of Saint Louis in 1250, preachers of a crusade were publicly insulted. When mendicant monks asked alms, people would summon a beggar and give him a coin, not in the name of Christ, who did not protect his own, but in that of Mohammed, who had proved to be stronger. Around 1270, a former master general of the Dominican order wrote that few still believed in the spiritual merit promised by the crusades. A French monk addressed God directly: “He is a fool who follows you into battle.” The troubadours and the minnesingers mocked the church, and Walther von der Vogelweide called the pope the new Judas. There were counter-crusades in France and Germany. The dean and chapter of the cathedral at Passau preached a crusade against the papal legate; in Regensburg, anyone found wearing a crusader’s cross was condemned to death. A pacifist party arose, led by the Spiritual Franciscans. “Don’t kill the heathen; convert them!” was their cry. At first the crusades had strengthened the church, but eventually the papacy’s sponsorship of warfare came to undermine its spiritual authority.

The effects of the crusades on the lay world were mixed. Troublesome younger sons were packed off to the Holy Land so they could not disturb the peace at home. The rising middle class benefited by lending money to the crusaders and selling them supplies. Many a peasant and serf bought his freedom from his master, who needed cash for travel expenses, and discovered a new trade in the swelling cities.

The crusades coincided more or less with the West’s rediscovery of the East. Traders, of whom the best known is Marco Polo, found their way to the Mongol Empire in the Far East and organized a great international business, both overland and seaborne. Eastern products became common in the West – rice, sugar, sesame, lemons, melons, apricots, spinach, and artichokes. The spice trade boomed; the West learned to appreciate cloves and ginger and to delight in exotic perfumes. Eastern materials had a mighty vogue – muslins, cottons, satins, damasks, rugs, and tapestries; and new colors and dyes – indigo, carmine, and lilac. The West adopted Arabic numerals in place of the impossible Roman system. Even the rosary is said to have come to Christian Europe by way of Syria.

The crusades stimulated Europe’s economy. Trade became big business as the new devices of banking and credit, developed during the period, came into common use. Europe’s imagination was also stimulated, for the crusaders gave rise to a rich vernacular literature, epic poems, histories, memoirs. And the heroic ideal, however abused, possessed the Western imagination and still lives there as the great example of self-sacrifice for a holy cause.

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The Military Afterlife of The Castle

Depiction of artillery in an illustration of the Siege of Orleans of 1429 ( Martial d’Auvergne, 1493)

The rounded walls of the 14th century Sarzana Castle showed adaption to gunpowder.

At the end of the Middle Ages, castles began to lose their military function, but not their psychological impact as a symbol of authority. Gunpowder and cannons supported armies of mercenary troops, and the garrison forts built to house them adopted the crenellated walls of private aristocratic castles. By the sixteenth century, professional soldiers lived in barracks, a few officers and the governor had finer quarters, and kings and nobles merely directed the operations from distant palaces where battlements had become purely symbolic decoration. The Battle of Crecy between France and England in 1346 is traditionally considered to be the first use of cannons on the battlefield. At first the noise and smoke created by the explosion terrified horses and men, and wreaked more havoc than the projectiles. Early cannons could be more dangerous for the gunners than for the enemy, but military engineers rapidly developed the weapons’ power and accuracy. A castle’s high walls and towers made easy targets for gunners whose power and accuracy reduced once formidable medieval buildings to rubble. Mining became more successful because the attackers could put explosives under the walls.

Changing Castle Design

With cannons, siege warfare and castle design had to change. Stone-throwing machines were still very effective, but the prestige attached to cannons because of their novelty and their enormous expense made them the ultimate royal armament. These early cannons could be fired only ten or twenty times an hour and had to be cleaned after every shot and regularly cooled. They were effective only at about fifty yards. Cannons required massive earthworks to absorb the shock of firing.

Mons Meg, the six-ton cannon still to be seen in Edinburgh castle, was cast in 1449 in Flanders for the duke of Burgundy, who presented it to the Scottish king in 1457. Mons Meg could fire gunstones that weighed 330 pounds nearly two miles, but the cannon was so heavy it took 100 men to move it and then they could move it only at a speed of three miles a day. The Scottish kings used Mons Meg as a siege weapon for the next hundred years, as much for the impressive explosion it produced as for its actual usefulness. After about 1540 the cannon was only used to fire ceremonial salutes from Edinburgh castle walls. In 1681 the barrel burst and could not be repaired.

To counter the new offensive weapons, architects created a new system of defense in depth by using low, broad ramparts that were wide enough to endure firing from the enemy and at the same time support their own cannons and teams of gunners. Extremely thick masonry walls were expensive and slow to build, so wide and low earthen ramparts faced with stone became common. Since guns shoot horizontally, the land around the castle walls was cleared to form a space called the glacis. As we have seen at the castle of Angers, existing towers were cut down to the same height as the walls and turned into firing platforms. This redesign of the towers did not “slight” the castle, but rather made it more effective in the new age of artillery warfare.

Batteries and Bastions

Between 1450 and 1530 Italian military engineers, architects, and theoreticians rethought castle design. To be most effective, guns were placed in batteries so that several cannons fired together at the same spot. Low, solid, D-shaped towers together with masses of masonry angled out from the walls served as supports for artillery and as observation platforms. This new form of military architecture was called the bastion system. At first the bastions had a pentagonal plan: two sides form a point facing toward the enemy, two sides slope back toward the wall, and the fifth side adjoins the wall. Protective ears protruded at the angles. A curtain wall joined two bastions so an enemy approaching the curtain wall came under fire from the flanking bastions, and each bastion protected its neighbor as well as the wall. The units could be repeated around a castle or city. The developed gun platforms were called a bolwerk in Dutch, and a boulevard in France. They were built as ramparts all around the castle or town often as a second line beyond the old walls. In the nineteenth century, when city walls and ramparts were removed and the space was turned into tree-lined avenues, the avenues continued to be called boulevards. Today one can trace the line of these defenses on a city map by following modern boulevards.

The Emerging Fortress

Based on geometry as much as local conditions, the design of bastioned fortresses became the province of specialists whose plans might be based on theory rather than topography. Italians devised wholly “rational” plans for fortresses and cities in which geometric figures, especially stars formed by lines of fire, determined the plan of glacis, wide moat, and ramparts. But the development of printing in Germany and soon throughout Europe meant that Italian theories and designs spread rapidly and relatively cheaply. The plans, beautiful as designs and drawings in themselves, were often too fanciful or expensive to be built.

The sixteenth century was an age of wide-ranging and talented theorists. Men we usually think of as painters and sculptors also designed fortifications. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) worked in Milan from 1482 to 1498 for the ruling Sforza family on military and engineering projects. Leonardo also designed guns, crossbows, armored vehicles, submarines, a parachute, and a flying machine and made plans for fortresses. From 1502 to 1504 Leonardo worked in Florence as a military adviser, then returned to Milan to advise on castles from 1508 to 1513. From 1517 until his death in 1519 he lived in France in the service of Francois I. Another Italian, Francesco de Giorgio (1439-1502) wrote a treatise on military engineering with improved fortress designs, published in 1480. From 1480 to 1486 he served the Duke of Urbino, designing the fortifications of Urbino. By 1494 de Giorgio was working for the king of Naples and Sicily designing the fortifications in Naples. Even Michelangelo (1475-1564) was the military adviser to the city of Florence in 1529, and in 1547 he designed the Vatican defenses.

The leading architectural writers and theoreticians, like Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), devised an ideal symmetrical plan for forts and cities. The Italians eventually settled on the five-point star as the ideal shape. The streets radiated out from a central command post or headquarters (or city center with market hall and church) with streets leading to gates or the bastions. Streets in concentric circles completed the internal division. The ideal plan did not allow for individual variations; consequently, it never developed successful cities, but it could be found in army installations. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Italian designs spread through Europe and the European colonies.

The French architect and military engineer Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, who built major fortresses on the French borders for Louis XIV, became the most skillful designer of fortresses using the bastion system. The first forts in the Americas-Louisburg in Nova Scotia, Canada, or Fort Augustine in Florida-are simple “provincial” examples of the Vauban fort. Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where The Star Spangled Banner was written, is a characteristic example of the bastion scheme with its central plan, wide earthen ramparts, bastions, and casemates. The Pentagon repeats the Renaissance five-sided, pentagonal plan with a central court, radiating street-like halls and concentric corridors. The castle design recommended by Leonardo da Vinci and Alberti has become the American headquarters and symbol of military power.

Fortress of Louisbourg

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:

The proposed 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.

Fort Douaumont is modernized

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 gold francs.

War

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 gunners.

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 World beyond Rome I

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.

Emperors and 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 crossed.

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.

The World beyond Rome II

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 Frontier

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 luck.

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 Hard Place

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.

Mesopotamian linear barriers

Sumerian

1. Muriq Tidnim (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 1

2. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon to Kish Wall (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 2

3. Habl es-Sakhar (Nebuchadnezzar’s Sippar to Opis Wall, Median Wall)

Line 3 (uncertain)

4. El-Mutabbaq

5. Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu)

6. Umm Raus Wall (site of Macepracta Wall(?), Artaxerxes’ Trench(?))

Sasanian

Khandaq-i-Shapur

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 of Mesopotamia.

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.

Mesopotamian linear barriers

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 the Martu.

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 vulnerable.

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 barriers.

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.’

Later Mesopotamia

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 – survey

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 – Line 1

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 section.)

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 2

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 swamping.

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 controlled flooding.)

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 literary text.

Umm Raus to Samarra – Line 3

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 Ammianus Marcellinus.

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.

Sasanian aquatic barriers

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.

The Siege of Antwerp

Parma’s bridge across the Scheldt at Antwerp

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.