Byzantine Cities, Villages and Fortifications

The fortress town of Theodoro-Mangup in the 15th century, the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire to resist against the Ottomans until being conquered in 1475.

Gevele Castle is a ruined castle located on the summit of Mount Takkeli in Konya Province, Turkey. The site was used as a fortified site during the Hittites, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, Karamanid and Ottoman eras.

One of the most obvious effects of warfare is to be seen in the architectural heritage of a society, primarily in respect of fortifications and in shifts in settlement patterns and relationships between centres of consumption and areas of production. In the East Roman world such shifts are especially apparent during the seventh century and in the aftermath of the Persian and more particularly the Arab invasions. While these wars were in themselves neither the original stimulus for the transformation of urban life in the late Roman and early Byzantine period, nor the only factor affecting the evolution of fortified inhabited sites during the period from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, they were nevertheless a crucial factor in the form towns and fortresses took and in the pace of their evolution.

In fact, there had been a slow process of transformation in the pattern of late Roman urban society over the centuries preceding both the Persian wars and the Arab conquests which it will be worth very briefly summarizing here. During the Roman period cities—poleis or civitates—had held a key role in both social and economic relations, as well as in the imperial fiscal administration. They could function as market centres for their district or region or, where ports were concerned, as major foci of long-distance commerce. Some fulfilled all these roles, others remained merely administrative centres created by the state for its own fiscal administrative purposes. All cities were also self-governing districts with, originally, their own lands, and were made responsible by the Roman state for the return of taxes—indeed, where cities in their Mediterranean form did not exist, the Roman state created them, either establishing new foundations or amalgamating or changing the form of preexisting settlements, providing them with the corporate identity, institutional structure and legal personality of a civitas. All cities, with a few exceptions such as Rome and Constantinople, were dependent on their immediate hinterlands for their (usually highly localized) market and industrial functions, where these existed at all, as well as for the foodstuffs on which the urban populace lived. As the society of the empire evolved away from the relationships and conditions which gave rise to and maintained these urban structures, so the cities became the first key institution of the classical world to feel the effects of these changes.

The form which these changes took are complex, but mirror the effects of a growing tension between state, cities and private landowners to extract surpluses from the producers, and the failure of the cities to weather the contradictions between their municipal independence on the one hand, and on the other the demands of the state and the vested interests of the wealthier civic landowners. While many cities were able to maintain themselves and their fiscal role well into the first half of the seventh century in the east, it is clear already by the later fourth century that many did or could not. There were regional variations, but as a result, and over the period from the later fourth to the later fifth century (in the west until the empire disappears as well as in the east), the state had to intervene increasingly to ensure the extraction of revenues, so that the burden of fiscal accountability had been considerably reduced, if not removed entirely, during the reign of Anastasius (491–518). This may even have promoted the brief renaissance in urban fortunes which took place in some eastern cities in the sixth century, but it did not re-establish their traditional independence and fiscal responsibilities.

The physical structure of cities was transformed over the course of the later fifth and sixth centuries, and archaeological evidence has revealed an almost universal tendency for cities to lose by neglect many of the features familiar from their classical structure. Major public buildings fall into disrepair, systems of water supply are often abandoned (suggesting a drop-in population), rubbish is dumped in abandoned buildings, major thoroughfares and public spaces are built on, and so on. These changes may not necessarily have involved any substantial reduction in economic or exchange activity in cities, of course. On the other hand, the undoubted decline in the maintenance of public structures or amenities—baths, aqueducts, drains, street surfaces, walls—is suggestive of a major shift in the modes of urban living: of both the object of the investment of wealth, and of finance and administration in particular. And from the middle of the seventh well into the ninth century the only evidence for building activity associated with provincial urban contexts concerns fortification work and the construction or repair of churches or buildings associated with monastic centres.

By the early years of the seventh century all the evidence suggests that cities as corporate bodies were simply less well-off than they had been before about the middle of the sixth century. There may have been as much wealth circulating in urban environments as before, with the difference that the city as an institution had only very limited access to it, having lost their lands and the income from those lands. During the later sixth century in particular the local wealthy tended to invest their wealth in religious buildings or related objects (so that there was an evolving pattern of investment as much as there was a decline). In addition, the church was from the fourth century a competitor with the city for the consumption of resources. And however much their citizens might donate, individually or collectively, this can hardly have compensated for this loss. Indeed, such contributions became the main source of independent income for many cities. The archaeological data suggests a shrinkage of the occupied area of many cities during the sixth century, and even an increasing localization of exchange activity; but again, this does not have to mean a change in their role as local centres of such exchange.

The survival of urban settlements during and after the Arab invasions—thus from the 640s until the 750s—owed much to the fact that they might occupy defensible sites, as well as be centres of military or ecclesiastical administration. But endemic warfare and insecurity, economic dislocation and social change meant that the great majority played a role peripheral to, and derived from, the economic and social life of the countryside, and reflected if anything the needs of state and church. The invasions of the seventh century dealt what was simply the final blow to an institution that was already in the process of long-term transformation.

Fortifications serve several purposes: to protect populations and/or soldiers and their supplies, equipment and armaments, to act as refuges for civilian populations in times of need, and to provide safe bases for soldiers from which to protect the surrounding countryside or a particular route or crossroads of strategic value, as well as to serve as a deterrent to hostile attack and as defended watch-posts to warn of invasion and perhaps to delay the enemy advance, or to function as bases from which raids or attacks against enemy installations might also be mounted. Each of these functions demands different sorts of defensive works, of course, depending upon size, location, availability of supplies of food and water, proximity to similar defensive structures, the possibilities of relief when attacked, and so forth. The Roman state had a long and sophisticated tradition of fortification, and this was inherited without a break by its medieval East Roman successor.

During the period from the third to the sixth century the Roman world saw a generalized tendency to provide settlements of all sizes with walls and some form of defensive perimeter where there had hitherto been no such defences, a reflection both of a real threat in those areas most affected by external attack, and a changing set of assumptions about what a “city” should look like. In many exposed areas a move from a lowland site to a more defensible situation nearby, or the re-use of older pre-Roman hilltop fortified sites takes place, and although there are a number of reasons for this gradual process in the late Roman period, it increases very dramatically during the later fourth and fifth centuries in the Balkans as a result of the constant threat from Germanic and steppe nomadic barbarians, and again during the seventh century in Anatolia in response to the effects of the Persian and then particularly the Arab invasions and raids. But the contrast between the late ancient polis and the middle Byzantine kastron should not be exaggerated: of the large number of settled sites which can clearly be differentiated from undefended rural settlements, only a small proportion bore the official or unofficial characteristics of a polis in the classical sense. A far larger number were characterized already in the fourth and fifth centuries, and especially in the sixth century, by features normally identified archaeologically and topographically as characteristic of defended centres of population with administrative and military functions, exactly the same, in fact, as the later Byzantine kastron. The transformations which occurred did not, except in a relatively small number of cases, involve a universal abandonment of formerly urban sites (poleis) in favour of hilltop fortified sites (kastra). Rather, it involved a change in the way populations were distributed between such sites, their extent and how they were occupied.

With a handful of exceptions, such as Nicaea, Constantinople and Thessaloniki, most of the major classical cities shrank during the seventh century to the size of their defended citadels, even though the “lower city” of such towns—the main late Roman inhabited area—may have been in many cases still the site of smaller communities. Archaeological surveys suggest that Ancyra shrank to a small citadel during the 650s and 660s, the fortress occupying an area of 350×150 metres, the occupied upper town in which it was situated occupying an area not much larger; Amorion, which supposedly had a vast perimeter wall, was defended successfully in 716 by 800 men against an attacking army more than ten times larger, the area of the kastron occupying some 450×300 metres. The latter survey has also shown that, while the classical/late Roman site was indeed very extensive, with an impressive wall and towers, the occupied medieval areas were thus similar to those of Ancyra. Amastris, mod. Amasra, offers similar evidence, as does Kotyaion, mod. Kütahya, and there are many more formerly major centres which underwent a similar transformation. In some Byzantine texts, mostly hagiographical, there occur descriptions of “cities” with populations inhabiting the lower town. Excavations at Amorion and several other sites show that while the very small fortress-citadel continued to be defended and occupied, discrete areas within the late Roman walls also continued to be inhabited, often centred around a church. In Amorion there were at least two and probably three such areas. Small but distinct communities thus continued to exist within the city walls, while the citadel or kastron—which kept the name of the ancient polis— provided a refuge in case of attack. Many cities of the seventh to ninth centuries survived because their inhabitants, living effectively in separate communities or villages within the walls, saw themselves as belonging to the polis itself. In some cases, the walls of the lower town area were maintained—irregularly, for the most part—in order to provide shelter for larger than usual concentrations of troops. This may have been the case at Amorion, for example. Together with the large number of much smaller garrison forts and outposts of a purely military nature (although sometimes associated with village settlements nearby or below them), such provincial kastra (which were also called, confusingly, poleis by their inhabitants and by many writers who mention them) and frontier fortresses, generally sited on rocky outcrops and prominences, often also the sites of pre-Roman fortresses, typified the East Roman provincial countryside well into the Seljuk period and beyond, and determined the pattern of development of urban centres when they were able to expand once more during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

There is in the development of late Roman fortification a move from passive, linear defences sufficient to repel relatively primitive, barbarian attackers, to more complex, active defensive arrangements, with large numbers of towers providing intersecting fields of fire and complex gate arrangements. Byzantine fortresses after the seventh century generally involved combinations of protruding towers, angled gates, sometimes including a tower-fortress integrated into an inner curtain wall. The notion of a central stronghold that could continue to resist the enemy after the curtain had fallen and the “lower” defences were taken can be traced back to the Hellenistic period at least in some Anatolian fortresses, and was reflected both in the reoccupation and refortification of many ancient citadels and acropoleis within, or attached to, cities of the Roman period as well as in the construction of tower-fortresses where a natural defensive height was not available (as at Nicaea, for example). The Norman and western keep represents the same idea, given added stimulus in respect of technique and materials, especially in the use of lime mortar, by the Crusaders’ experiences in the Balkans, Asia Minor and Syria-Palestine. With the recovery of the empire’s economic stability from the ninth century on, many urban centres recovered their fortunes, although their physical appearance was very different from that of their late antique predecessors. On the eastern frontier especially the empire constructed a number of major fortified centres serving chiefly as strategic centres and military bases, rather than centres of local population, fortresses which have only recently attracted the attention of archaeologists and architectural historians and which clearly had a major role in both frontier defence and internal security. Such fortifications closely reflected the strategic networks of the regions in which they were established, both in respect of communications and routes of ingress and egress, as well as—depending upon the region—of economic activity and the movement of resources. Fortifications were an integral element of every town and, the recovery of substantial areas in western Asia Minor during the first half of the twelfth century owes much to the policies of Alexios I, John II and Manuel I in utilizing fortress towns as solid bases which, regardless of the frequency or damage caused by the raids of the Turk nomads from the plateau to the east, could control the countryside and maintain imperial political and fiscal authority. Warfare—and the events of the seventh century in particular —had a lasting effect on the pattern and form of concentrated settlement in both the Balkans and Asia Minor, a pattern that was further inflected in Asia Minor especially by the Seljuk invasions and the warfare of the twelfth century and after.

The Medieval Art of War I

“What is the function of orderly knighthood?” wrote the twelfth-century English philosopher John of Salisbury. “To protect the Church, to fight against treachery, to reverence the priesthood, to fend off injustice from the poor, to make peace in your own province, to shed blood for your brethren, and if needs must, to lay down your life.” This was a splendid ideal, often put into practice during the Middle Ages. It lingers still in the army-officer tradition of France and Germany, in the public-school tradition of England. To medieval men, knighthood was more than a career; it was a spiritual and emotional substructure for an entire way of life.

The knight, the chevalier, was a man who owned a cheval, who served in the cavalry, and who guided his life by chivalry. His duty was to fight the enemies of his feudal lord. Said the fourteenth-century French chronicler Jean Froissart: “Gentle knights were born to fight, and war ennobles all who engage in it without fear or cowardice.

Fighting was the gentleman’s trade. He had been bred to it from babyhood, with all his education directed toward toughening his body and spirit. His school was a guardroom in a military post; his home a castle, perpetually prepared against assault. As a vassal he was frequently summoned to wars of lord against lord, to be paid for his services with booty taken in the capture of an enemy castle or with goods plundered from merchants on the roads. Or he might receive a summons from his king, who found profit in making war. “Only a successful war could temporarily fill royal coffers and re-endow the king with fresh territory,” writes the scholar Denys Hay. “Every spring an efficient king tried to lead his warriors on aggressive expeditions. With peace came poverty.”

War was also the gentleman’s joy. Peacetime life in a grim castle could be very dull, for the typical noble had almost no cultural resources and few diversions besides hunting. Battle was the climax of his career as it was often the end. The noble troubadour Bertrand de Born speaks for his class: “I tell you that I have no such joy in eating, drinking, or sleeping as when I hear the cry from both sides: ‘Up and at ‘em!’, or as when I hear riderless horses whinny under the trees, and groans of ‘Help me! Help me!’, and when I see both great and small fall in the ditches and on the grass, and see the dead transfixed by spear-shafts! Barons, mortgage your castles, domains, cities, but never give up war!” (It is true that Dante, in the Inferno, saw the bellicose Bertrand de Born in hell, carrying his severed head before him as a lantern.)

As Europe became more stable, central governments more efficient, and the interests of commerce more powerful, the warlike ideal faded. The military organization of society yielded to a civil structure based on legality. In the late Middle Ages, knights found themselves out-of-date; war fell more and more into the hands of base ruffian mercenaries, sappers and miners, and artillerymen. The military traditions of the noble knight remained, but were transformed into the pageantry of which we read in Froissart. Commercialism altered the noble caste; around 1300, Philip the Fair of France openly sold knighthoods to rich burghers, who thereby gained exemption from taxes as well as social elevation. In our time, the chevalier has become a Knight of Pythias, or Columbus, or the Temple, who solemnly girds on sword and armor to march past his own drugstore.

The knight was originally the companion of his lord or king, formally admitted to fellowship with him. Around the year 1200, the church took over the dubbing of the knight and imposed its ritual and obligations on the ceremony, making it almost a sacrament. The candidate took a symbolic bath, donned clean white clothes and a red robe, and stood or knelt for ten hours in nightlong silence before the altar, on which his weapons and armor lay. At dawn, mass was said in front of an audience of knights and ladies. His sponsors presented him to his feudal lord and gave him his arms, with a prayer and a blessing said over each piece of equipment. An essential part of the ceremony was the fastening of the spurs; our phrase “he has won his spurs” preserves a memory of the moment. An elder knight struck the candidate’s neck or cheek a hard blow with the flat of the hand or the side of his sword. This was the only blow a knight must always endure and never return. The initiate took an oath to devote his sword to good causes, to defend the church against its enemies, to protect widows, orphans, and the poor, and to pursue evildoers. The ceremony ended with a display of horsemanship, martial games, and mock duels. It was all very impressive; the more earnest knights never forgot their vigils or belied their vows. It was also a very expensive undertaking, so much so that by the fourteenth century, many eligible gentlemen preferred to remain squires.

The knight was bound to serve his master in his wars, though in the early period of feudalism for only forty days a year. Wars were, then, necessarily brief – raids rather than actual wars. Few pitched battles occurred unless one party sent a challenge to fight at a set time and place. The commander’s purpose was not to defeat the enemy but rather to harm him by burning his villages, massacring his peasants, destroying his source of income, while he raged impotently but securely in his castle. “When two nobles quarrel,” wrote a contemporary, “the poor man’s thatch goes up in flames.” A chanson de geste of the period happily describes such an invasion: “They start to march. The scouts and the incendiaries lead; after them come the foragers who are to gather the spoils and carry them in the great baggage train. The tumult begins. The peasants, having just come out to the fields, turn back, uttering loud cries; the shepherds gather their flocks and drive them toward the neighboring woods in the hope of saving them. The incendiaries set the villages on fire, and the foragers visit and sack them. The distracted inhabitants are burnt or led apart with their hands tied to be held for ransom. Everywhere alarm bells ring, fear spreads from side to side and becomes general. On all sides one sees helmets shining, pennons floating, and horsemen covering the plain. Here hands are laid on money; there cattle, donkeys, and flocks are seized. The smoke spreads, the flames rise, the peasants and the shepherds in consternation flee in all directions . . . In the cities, in the towns, and on the small farms, wind-mills no longer turn, chimneys no longer smoke, the cocks have ceased their crowing and the dogs their barking. Grass grows in the houses and between the flag-stones of the churches, for the priests have abandoned the services of God, and the crucifixes lie broken on the ground. The pilgrim might go six days without finding anyone to give him a loaf of bread or a drop of wine. Freemen have no more business with their neighbors; briars and thorns grow where villages stood of old.”

With the coming of large-scale wars, such as William’s conquest of England, and with the crusades, the rudiments of strategy began. Military thinkers reflected on the role of cavalry and infantry, the choice of terrain, the use of archers, and the handling of reserve units.

The supreme cavalry tactic was the charge at full gallop against a defensive position. Terrified peasants would break and run before the oncoming menace of iron men on wild beasts. Nevertheless, the charge had its dangers for the attackers; in broken or swampy terrain it was ineffective, and a concealed ditch could bring it to naught. Stouthearted defenders could protect their position with rows of sharpened stakes planted at an angle between them and the enemy. In the face of such an obstacle, the most intrepid steed will refuse. If the defense possessed a well-drilled corps of bowmen, these would greet the charging knights with a hail of arrows or bolts. But they had only a few moments. The effective limit of an arrow was only about 150 yards, and good armor would deflect all but direct hits. A sensible archer aimed at the horse, for a knight once dismounted was at a serious disadvantage.

Once the cavalry charge was over, the battle became a series of hand-to-hand engagements. As the armies engaged, the archers retired, leaving the battle to the knights. The issue was decided by the number killed and wounded on either side; the side with fewer casualties held the field. The number of knights killed in battle was remarkably small, however; prisoners of distinction were held for ransom. There was even a curious traffic in captives, who were bought and sold by merchants on speculation. Non-ransomable prisoners were stripped of their precious armor, and then they were often finished off with a dagger to save the cost of maintaining them.

The medieval army, until the thirteenth century, consisted almost entirely of combatants, with very few of its men concerned with the auxiliary services and supplies. Medical services hardly existed, and soldiers had to forage for themselves, for the army was expected to live off the country. Usually about a third of the troops were mounted knights, although the proportion varied greatly with circumstances. Some of the infantry were professional soldiers, but most were peasants impressed for the campaign. They wore whatever armor they could provide, usually heavy leather jerkins reinforced with iron rings, and they carried shields, bows and arrows, swords, spears, axes, or clubs.

The knight’s equipment represented a compromise between offensive and defensive demands, or between the need for mobility and the need for self-protection. For offensive purposes, the queen of weapons was the sword. The knight, who had received it from the altar after a night of prayer, could regard it with holy awe as the symbol of his own life and honor. Certain swords are celebrated in legend, Arthur’s Excalibur, Roland’s Durendal. The pommel of the sword was often hollowed, to contain relics; to take an oath one clasped one’s hand on the sword hilt, and heaven took note. To suit individual tastes, there was much variation in the sword blade, grip, and guard. The most popular model had a tapering blade three inches wide at the hilt and thirty-two or thirty-three inches long. It was equally effective for cutting or thrusting. The steel blades were made of layered strips of iron, laboriously forged and tempered. Much learned discussion dealt with the relative merits of blades from Toledo, Saragossa, Damascus, Solingen, and Milan. Two-handed swords had their vogue, but the soldier who used one had to be very strong. Since neither arm was free to carry a shield, he was likely to be undone by an agile adversary while he was preparing his blow. These swords were best used for judicial beheading.

The lance or spear was the traditional weapon of the horseman, and it lingers to our own times as a symbol of the mounted knight. In 1939, the Polish cavalry, with ridiculous gallantry, carried lances into battle against German tanks. With a ten-foot steel-pointed spear, a charging knight could overthrow a mounted enemy or reach over a shield wall and pin his victim. But his spear was nearly useless after the first clash; the knight had to throw it away and take to the sword or battle-axe, which could deal cruel blows even through armor, often driving the links of chain mail into the wound, where they would fester and cause gangrene. Some knights carried a mace, or club, the most primitive of weapons, made all the more fearsome by the addition of deadly spikes. The mace was the badge in battle of William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and it was also, as the scholar William Stearns Davis points out, “the favorite of martial bishops, abbots, and other churchmen, who thus evaded the letter of the canon forbidding clerics to ‘smite with the edge of the sword,’ or to ‘shed blood.’ The mace merely smote your foe senseless or dashed out his brains, without piercing his lungs or breast!” By one of history’s pretty ironies, the mace survives as a sanctified relic, borne before the president at college commencements by the most ornate member of the faculty.

Arming a knight was a slow process. In time, as the weight and complexity of armor increased, the chevalier was unable to prepare himself for conflict unaided. He had to sit down while a squire or squires pulled on his steel-mailed hose, and stand while they fitted the various pieces, fastening them with a multitude of straps and buckles. First came an undershirt, made of felted hair or quilted cotton, to bear the coat of mail, or hauberk. This was an actual shirt, usually extending to mid-thigh or even below the knee and composed of steel links riveted together. If well made, it could be very pliable and springy and could even be cut and tailored like cloth. A superb hauberk in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is composed of over 200,000 links and weighs only about nineteen pounds. Cruder coats of mail could weigh two or three times as much. Despite its strength, the hauberk did not fully protect the wearer against a mighty blow. It was also subject to rust; as a result very few early hauberks have survived to our own time. One method of derusting was to put the coat of mail with sand and vinegar into a leather bag and then toss it about. Our museums have adapted this technique for cleaning hauberks by making powered tumbling boxes.

Defensive armor steadily became more elaborate, with coifs to cover the neck and head, elbow pieces, knee guards, and greaves. Because the face remained vulnerable, helmets increased in weight and covered more and more of the face until they came to resemble cylindrical pots with slits for the eyes. As usual, security was gained at a cost. The knight had to bandage his head, for if he took a fall, he might easily sustain a brain concussion. William Marshal, a famous English champion who lived at the end of the twelfth century, won a tournament, and afterward could not be found to receive the prize. He was finally discovered at a blacksmith’s, with his head on the anvil and the smith hammering his battered helmet in an effort to remove it without killing the wearer. In a hot fight on a hot day, the sun beat down on the helmet; perspiration could not be wiped away, one could not hear orders or messages or utter comprehensible commands, and if the helmet was knocked askew, one was blind. There are many examples of death from heat stroke or from drowning after a fall into even a little stream. At Agincourt, many French knights fell into the deep trampled mud and suffocated. Moreover, the pot helmet concealed one’s identity; hence knights painted bearings on their helmets and shields. Thus, heraldry began.

In the fourteenth century, the hauberk yielded to plate armor, which was fitted to the figure and often magnificently decorated. A full suit of plate armor weighs sixty pounds or more. Just the helmet and cuirass of one French knight at Agincourt weighed ninety pounds. If properly articulated and well oiled, plate armor permitted much freedom of movement. A famous fifteenth-century French athlete could turn a somersault wearing all his armor but his helmet and could climb the under side of a scaling ladder using only his hands. But no matter how well equipped, the armored knight was still vulnerable. A base villein could stab his horse, a pikeman could hook him in the armpit and bring him down, and once dismounted, he was in a sorry state. He moved clumsily. His buttocks and crotch were unprotected to permit him to hold his seat in the saddle. If he fell on his back, he had to struggle like a turtle to right himself. A light-footed adversary could readily lift his visor, stab him in the eyes, and finish him off.

The shield was generally made of stout wooden boards, nailed together, bound by casein glue, and covered with heavy hide surrounded by a metal rim. Often it had a metal boss in the center to deflect the opponent’s sword blade. Foot soldiers carried round shields, but knights usually bore kite-shaped shields, which protected the legs.

To carry the steel-clad knight into battle or tourney, a heavy, powerful horse was needed. Such chargers were rare and costly in days when fodder was scarce and animals usually thin and small. Horse farmers bred them deliberately for size and strength. The Arabian strain was popular, and a white stallion was the most prized of all. Riding a mare was considered unknightly. To sustain the clash of battle, the horse needed long and careful training. His rider, cumbered with sword, shield, and spear, usually dropped the reins and guided his mount by spurring, leg pressures, and weight shifting.

The great weapon of infantry – and of Mongol and Turkish cavalry – was the bow and arrow. The short bow is very ancient, the property of most primitive peoples the world over. As we see in the Bayeux tapestry, it was drawn to the breast, not the ear; at short range it could be lethal. The six-foot longbow, shooting a three-foot “clothyard” shaft, was apparently a Welsh invention of the twelfth century; it became the favorite weapon of the English. Only a tall, strong man with long training could use it effectively. There is a knack: The bow-string is kept steady with the right hand and the body’s weight is pressed against the bow, held in the left hand one pushes instead of pulling, using the strength of the body more than that of the arm. At short range, the steel-headed arrow could penetrate any ordinary armor. A good archer could aim and deliver five shots a minute.

At the end of the twelfth century, with the general adoption of the crossbow as a weapon, the age of mechanized warfare began. The crossbow is a short instrument of steel or laminated wood, mounted on a stock. One draws it usually by setting its head upon the ground and turning a crank against a ratchet. A catch holds the drawn bow until one is ready to trigger the short, thick arrow, called the bolt or quarrel, which has great penetration at short range. The church deplored the use of this inhuman weapon, and many considered it to be unknightly. While a good longbowman could beat a crossbowman in range and rapidity of fire, with the new weapon the half-trained weakling could be almost the equal of the mighty archer.

The medieval art of war was centered upon the castle or stronghold, the nucleus for the control and administration of surrounding territory as well as the base for offensive operation. Within its walls, a little army could assemble and prepare for a little war. It was designed to repel the attacks of any enemy and to shelter the neighboring peasants fleeing with their flocks and herds before a marauder. The earliest castles of medieval times – such as those William the Conqueror built in England – were of the motte-and-bailey type. They were mere wooden structures with a watchtower, set on a mound, or motte, and surrounded by a ditch and palisade. Below the mound was a court, or bailey, within its own ditch and stockade, spacious enough to provide shelter for the domain’s staff of smiths, bakers, and other workers, and refuge for peasants in time of alarm. The motte-and-bailey castles were replaced by stone structures, many of which we still visit. The first datable stone donjon, or keep, was built in France at Langeais, overlooking the Loire, in 994. Stone construction had to await the progress of technology, effective stonecutting tools, hoisting devices, and winches. Once the techniques were mastered, castle building spread fast and far. A census taken in 1904 lists more than 10,000 castles still visible in France.

One could see the castle from afar on its commanding hill, or if it was in flat country, perched on an artificial mound. Sometimes the building gleamed with whitewash. The visitor passed a cleared space to the barbican, or gatehouse, which protected the entrance. Receiving permission to enter, he surrendered his weapon to the porter and crossed the drawbridge over the dank, scummy moat, the home of frogs and mosquitoes. Beyond the drawbridge hung the portcullis, a massive iron grating that could be dropped in a flash. Such a portcullis was discovered at Angers. Although it had not been used for 500 years, its chains and pulleys, when cleaned and oiled, still functioned. The castle’s entrance passages were angled to slow attackers and were commanded by arrow slits, or “murder holes,” in the walls above. At Caernarvon Castle in Wales the visitor has to cross a first drawbridge, then pass five doors and six portcullises, make a right-angled turn and cross a second drawbridge.

One traversed the enormous walls, sometimes fifteen or twenty feet thick, to reach the inner bailey. The walls were topped by runways, with crenelated battlements to protect defending archers and with machicolations, or projections with open bottoms through which missiles or boiling liquids could be dropped. At intervals, the wall swelled out into bastions, which commanded the castle’s whole exterior. If by some unlikely chance an attacker succeeded in penetrating the interior, he could not be sure of victory. The different sections of the parapets were separated by wooden bridges, which could be destroyed in a moment to isolate the enemy. In the winding stairways within the walls, there were occasional wooden stairs instead of stone ones; these could be removed, so that an unwary assailant, hurrying in the gloom, would drop suddenly into a dungeon.

The heart of the defensive system was the keep, a tower sometimes 200 feet high and with walls twelve feet thick. Underground, beneath the keep, were the oubliettes, dungeons opening only at the top and used for prisons or for storing siege provisions, and enclosing, if possible, a well. Above were living quarters for the noble and his guardsmen, and at the top, a watchtower with a heraldic banner flying from it.

The stoutness of the castles is made evident by their survival on many hilltops of Europe and Syria. During World War II, some sustained direct hits by high-explosive and incendiary bombs, with little effect. At Norwich and Southampton, the medieval walls were hardly harmed by bombardment, whereas most of the houses built against them were destroyed.

But the castles were not impregnable. Remarkable siege engines were invented, especially by the Byzantines – battering rams, catapults that hurled stone balls weighing as much as 150 pounds, arbalests, or gigantic crossbows. Miners would patiently and dangerously dig a tunnel under the moat, under the very walls. The tunnel was propped with heavy timbers and filled with combustibles. These were ignited, the props were consumed, and with luck, a section of the wall would fall into the moat. At the same time, archers drove the defenders from the battlements. Soldiers ran forward with bales of hay, baskets of earth, or other material, to fill the moat. Others followed them across this causeway and hung scaling ladders against the walls, with shields held over their heads to deflect missiles. To climb a ladder holding the shield on one arm and keeping a hand ready to grasp the dangling sword is no small achievement. An alternative method of attack was to construct a wheeled wooden siege tower as high as the wall, with a commando party concealed on the top story. The tower was pushed up to the wall, and a drawbridge dropped, on which the gallant band of assailants crossed to the battlements. It was in this manner that the crusaders took Jerusalem.

The casualties in storming a castle were usually enormous, but lives were regarded as expendable. There are many examples of successful attacks on supposedly impregnable castles and towns. Richard the Lion-Hearted captured Acre with his siege machines in 1191. Edward, Prince of Wales, “the Black Prince,” took Limoges in 1370 by mining and direct assault. Irritated by the resistance, he commanded that more than 300 men, women, and children be beheaded. “It was great pity to see them kneeling before the prince, begging for mercy; but he took no heed of them,” says Froissart, with hardly a hint of reprobation. In general, however, the defense of castles and walled towns was stronger than the offense. By far the best way to reduce a stronghold was to find a traitor within the walls, and if one could not be discovered, then to starve out the garrison. But a prudent castellan kept his fort well stocked with a year’s supply of food, drink, and fuel. Hence, sieges could often be very long, lasting as much as two years, and were almost as exhausting to the besiegers as to the besieged.

The dwindling of feudalism and of the nobles’ independence and the introduction of gunpowder and siege cannons in the fourteenth century made the castle obsolete. Gentlemen abandoned the discomforts of life in an isolated stone prison without regret. They much preferred a spacious manor house or a residence in town among their own kind.

War was waged on the high seas as well as on land. In time of need, the monarch would simply commandeer his nation’s merchant vessels. These might displace 200 tons or more; by the fifteenth century, we find even 1,000-tonners. A crusader’s ship could transport 1,000 soldiers with their horses and equipment. The ingenious Frederick II built for his crusade fifty vessels, similar to modern landing craft, with doors at the waterline, so that knights could disembark on horseback. In the Mediterranean, the Byzantines, Venetians, and Genoese favored long, narrow galleys, very maneuverable and with formidable beaks for ramming the enemy.

The admiral built on his merchant ships a forecastle and a sterncastle, from which his archers could fire down on the enemy’s decks. His purpose was to sink his opponent by ramming, or if that did not work, to grapple and disable him by cutting his rigging and then boarding. For hand-to-hand combat, he was likely to carry quicklime to blind the defenders, and soft soap mixed with sharp bits of iron to render their footing precarious. The Byzantines mounted catapults on their ships; they also introduced the West to Greek Fire, apparently a mixture of petroleum, quicklime, and sulphur. The quicklime in contact with water ignited the bomb, a primitive napalm.

The medieval art of war found its great exemplification in the crusades. The organization of an expeditionary force calls into question familiar logistics; the prosecution of a distant war demands new strategies and tactics; out of battles with strange foes in far lands emerge new weapons, new techniques of warfare. The crusaders learned much from the Byzantines’ well-drilled, professional infantry, from their advanced weaponry and engineering. The crusaders’ vast castles in the Levant were constructed according to traditional Byzantine principles of fortification.

The crusades were a great historical novelty; they were the first wars fought for an ideal. Naturally the ideal was promptly corrupted and falsified. But the fact remains that the crusades were conceived as a service to the Christian God, and the crusaders thought themselves, at least intermittently, the consecrated servants of holy purpose. The crusades were many things, but originally they were a beautiful, noble idea.

The idea of a crusade owes something to the Old Testament, something to the Muslim example of a jihad, or holy war. It owes something, too, to the inflammatory preaching of illuminate monks, and a great deal to the beginning of the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors; this combined the triumph of the faith with the acquisition of rich properties. But the chief stimulation of the idea came in news from the East.

By the end of the first millennium, the Near East had attained a kind of stability, with the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs holding each other at a standstill. The pilgrim route to Jerusalem was kept open and secure, and the Holy City, itself in Muslim hands, was operated as a sanctified tourist attraction for both Muslims and Christians. The comfortable balance was upset by the Seljuk Turks, who captured Jerusalem, defeated the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor in 1071, and harassed the Christian pilgrims. Hard pressed by the Turks, the Eastern emperor, Alexius Comnenus, at length appealed to the pope and to the West for military aid against the pagan foe. He asked for a mercenary army that would recapture his territories in Asia Minor and pay itself from the proceeds. He was not much interested in the Holy Land.

The pope who launched the crusade was Urban II, a French noble who had humbled himself to become a Cluniac monk and then had been exalted to the papal throne. He was a vessel of holy zeal, wise in men’s ways. Emperor Alexius’s appeal stirred in him a vision of a gigantic effort by Western Christendom to regain the Holy Sepulcher. The union of military resources under the pope’s control would end the wars of Europe’s princes, would bring peace in the West, and in the East, Christian unity in spiritual purpose; it might even link – under papal leadership – Eastern and Western churches, long painfully at odds. The times were propitious for the realization of such a dream. Faith was ardent and uncritical. Europe’s population was increasing, men were restless, looking for new lands, new outlets of energy. They seemed to be begging for a worthy use for their idle swords.

At the Council of Clermont in south central France in November 1095, Pope Urban, tall, handsome, bearded, made one of the most potent speeches in all history. He summoned the French people to wrest the Holy Sepulcher from the foul hands of the Turks. France, he said, was already overcrowded. It could barely support its sons, whereas Canaan was, in God’s own words, a land flowing with milk and honey. Hark to Jerusalem’s pitiful appeal! Frenchmen, cease your abject quarrels and turn your swords to God’s own service! Be sure that you will have a rich reward on earth and everlasting glory in heaven! The pope bowed his head, and the whole assembly resounded with acclaim: “Dieu le veult!” – “God wills it!” Snippets of red cloth were crossed and pinned on the breasts of the many who on the spot fervently vowed to “take the cross.” It was a spectacle to rejoice the heart of any revivalist. Astutely, Pope Urban had roused men’s emotional ardor for the faith, and as if unaware, had tickled their cupidity. All his hearers had been bred on Bible stories of the rich fields and flocks and blooming meadows of Canaan; they confused the actual city of Jerusalem with the Heavenly City, walled in pearl, lighted by God’s effulgence, with living water flowing down its silver streets. A poor crusader might find himself tempted by a fief of holy land; and if he should fall, he was assured, by papal promise, of a seat in heaven. The pope also offered every crusader an indulgence, or remission of many years in purgatory after death. Urban appealed, finally, to the strong sporting sense of the nobles. Here was a new war game against monstrous foes, giants and dragons; it was “a tournament of heaven and hell.” In short, says the historian Friedrich Heer, the crusades were promoted with all the devices of the propagandist – atrocity stories, oversimplification, lies, inflammatory speeches.

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.

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.