Siege of Massilia 49 BC


A particular type of shelter known as the musculus appears only rarely in ancient writings. Vegetius describes it as a small machine, reminiscent of the Hellenistic ditch–filling tortoise in its role of protecting men as they brought forward building materials (Veg., Epit. rei mil. 4.16). However, he is surely mistaken. From Caesar’s description of the musculus in action during the siege of Massilia in 49 BCE, it is clear that it was an enormously robust gallery, constructed when the standard vineae and plutei failed to stand up to the defenders’ formidable artillery; its name, meaning ‘little mouse’, is surely another example of soldiers’ humour. The extra protection was required by men moving up to the enemy wall for undermining work. In other words, it was the Roman equivalent of the Hellenistic ‘digging tortoise’. Caesar’s version was 60ft (18m) long, 4ft (1.2m) wide, and 5ft (1.5m) tall, with a pitched roof. It was built out of 2ft–thick (0. 6m) timbers, and entirely covered with a fireproof layer of tiles and clay, followed by a waterproof layer of rawhide, to foil any attempts at dissolving the clay (Caes., BCiv. 2.10). It was perhaps unusual to mobilize such a structure; at any rate, the defenders were taken by surprise when it was suddenly advanced to the wall on sets of rollers normally used to transport ships. With the musculus in place at the wall foot, the defenders were powerless to prevent the Romans from undermining one of the city’s towers.


Like the musculus, but open along one side, was the vinea. This is especially used to shield soldiers when they were undermining the city’s walls by driving tunnels under them, or prizing out the stones at the base with sharp iron tools called terebrae.


Roman law specifically prohibited generals from bringing their legions into Italy proper without the express approval of the Senate. On the Adriatic coast, the border was marked by the Rubicon River south of Ravenna. Yet on January 10 or 11 (sources differ), 49 BCE, announcing that “the die is cast,” Caesar defied the Senate and crossed the small Rubicon with his army into Italy proper. Although Caesar had only one legion immediately with him, he retained eight other battle-tested legions in Gaul. His total force thus numbered some 40,000 men, plus 20,000 auxiliaries. Ranged against Caesar, Pompey and his allies in the Senate could call on two legions in Italy(with eight more being raised there), seven in Spain, and substantial military resources in Greece, the East, and North Africa.

Caesar hoped to counter this formidable imbalance by the decisive approach that had brought him victory in Gaul. Moving swiftly south along the Adriatic, he collected additional forces and recruits. Pompey declared that Rome could not be defended, and he and most of the senators abandoned the city to Caesar in order to buy time to gather additional resources in southern Italy. The only setback for Caesar to this point was the news that Labienus, a former lieutenant of Pompey, had defected to him. All of Caesar’s other key subordinates and legions remained loyal.

Because Pompey was slow both to react to the threat posed by Caesar and to mobilize his own legions, he and 25,000 men and most of the senators who had fled to the south withdrew to Brundisium (Brindisi). Pompey also rejected calls from Caesar that they end the fighting and restore their former alliance, Pompey claiming that he was Caesar’s superior.

Pompey was confident of ultimate victory. He expected to raise substantial forces in the eastern Greek provinces and, with control of most of the Roman Navy, institute a blockade of the Italian coast. In March 49 BCE Pompey and a number of his senatorial allies sailed from Brundisium for Epirus.

Before Caesar could contemplate proceeding against Pompey in Greece, he had to eliminate the threat to his rear posed by Pompey’s sizable army in Spain. Leaving Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as prefect in Rome and Mark Antony in charge of the rest of Italy, Caesar marched for Spain. Gaius Antonius held Illyria for Caesar, while Cisalpine Gaul was under Licinius Crassus. Caesar sent Gaius Curio with other troops to secure Sicily and North Africa.

Pompey supporter Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus landed by sea at Massilia (present-day Marseille) with a small number of men and persuaded its leaders to declare for Pompey. Caesar, having sent most of his army ahead to secure the passes over the Pyrenees that would give him access to Spain, invested Massilia in April with three legions. Caesar then hurried on to take charge of operations in Spain, leaving Gaius Trebonius to continue the siege operations by land and Decimus Brutus to raise a naval force and blockade Massilia from the sea. The siege continued during the entire time of Caesar’s operations in Spain, although Brutus won a naval victory off Massilia against a joint Massilian-Pompeian force.

Taking advantage of Pompey’s absence from the Italian mainland, Caesar moved quickly. In June 49, his legions secured the vital Pyrenees passes just in advance of a large force of 65,000 men loyal to Pompey and commanded by Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius. Frustrated by their inability to reach and secure the passes first, the two Pompeian generals awaited Caesar’s arrival in Spain. Two additional Pompeian legions and about 45,000 auxiliaries under Vebellius Rufus and Marcus Terentius Varro held the remainder of Spain.

Both sides engaged in extended maneuvering in what is known as the Ilerda Campaign. Caesar was anxious to avoid pitched battle because of his considerable inferiority in numbers. His opponents were equally reluctant to engage because of Caesar’s military reputation. Finally, through adroit maneuvering and rapid movement, Caesar cut off the withdrawal of the two legions and surrounded them, securing their surrender at Ilerda on August 2, 49. Following his victory, Caesar disbanded the two legions, gaining recruits in the process. He then marched to Gades (Cadiz) to overawe all Spain. Then, leaving a small force to complete the pacification of Iberia, Caesar returned to Massilia, which surrendered on September 6. Domitius escaped by sea.


An example of aggressive siegecraft is provided by the attack on coastal Massilia by Caesar’s deputy, Caius Trebonius, in 49 BCE. He began to construct two embankments at different points on the landward side, but was severely hindered by the town’s ballistae, which had allegedly been engineered to discharge 12ft (3.5m) iron–pointed spears instead of the usual rounded stone balls. The legionaries’ standard wickerwork shelters (vineae) could not stand up to such punishment, so Trebonius arranged for the workers to be protected by galleries made out of timber 1ft thick (30cm). In addition, he had a 30ft—square (9m) brick refuge built close to the town, so that the workers could shelter within its 5ft–thick (1.5m) walls; but he quickly realized how useful a tower would be in this location, and again exploited the legionaries’ engineering skills to raise the structure, under constant threat of enemy missiles, until it had six storeys. This opened up new possibilities, and Trebonius ordered a massive gallery to be built, 60ft (18m) long, stretching from the brick tower to the town wall. Realizing the danger posed by the gallery, the Massiliotes tipped blocks of masonry and blazing barrels of pitch onto it from the battlements above. But they were driven back by the artillery in the brick tower, and their improvised missiles were easily deflected by the gallery’s 2ft–thick (60cm) gabled roof, with its coating of padded rawhide over clay. Then, concealed within the gallery, Trebonius’ legionaries undermined the town wall, whereupon the townsfolk lost hope and surrendered.


C. Trebonius illustrates perhaps better than any other figure of the Late Republic the independence of the “everyday senator” from any “party affiliation” in ancient Roman politics, as compared, for instance, with the modern American political scene. Characterized by scholars as vacillating between political factions (particularly, the factions of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great), Trebonius, in reality, did as many Roman senators, searching out the best advantages for himself and sticking with one powerful leader or another only as long as he considered their goals appropriate and personally beneficial.

Trebonius emerges from the ancient sources for the first time in 60 BCE, when he held the office of quaestor (financial magistrate) in Rome. During his term, he was one of those politicians who opposed the intentions of P. Claudius Pulcher (commonly known as Clodius). Clodius had developed an intense hatred for one of Trebonius’s good friends, the famous orator Cicero; he intended to utilize the office of plebeian tribune (the powers of which he considered ideal for the purpose) to destroy Cicero’s life. To become tribune, however, Clodius had to relinquish his status as a patrician (a member of Rome’s most blue-blooded families) and apply for adoption into a plebeian family. He had this all arranged, but Trebonius, along with the consuls of 60 (Afranius and Metellus Celer) and other magistrates, opposed and prevented the adoption, since they understood its true purpose.

In the following year, though, Clodius got his way in all things, with the strong backing of Julius Caesar and his associates, Crassus and Pompey, the so-called First Triumvirate. Trebonius apparently continued to resist Clodius, however, endangering his own life against such a loose cannon in the efforts launched to recall Cicero, who had been exiled, thanks to Clodius.

After all this dust had settled, Trebonius teamed up with the Triumvirs. As plebeian tribune in 55 BCE, he proposed a law to grant provincial commands to Crassus (who received the province of Syria and oversight in the neighboring territories) and to Pompey (who received the provinces of Spain), each for a period of five years. In addition, the motion authorized each man to levy as many troops from both Roman citizens and allies, as well as to make war or arrange peace in their provinces, as each saw fit. Two of his colleagues in the tribunate, C. Ateius Capito and P. Aquilius Gallus, attempted to derail Trebonius’s measure; the young Optimate orator M. Favonius also spoke out in opposition, as did M. Porcius Cato, leader of the Optimates. Cato, at least, recognized that there was no way to prevent the measure with the coalition of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey behind it, but he still made the best stand he could against it; by talking out his allotted time and forcing Trebonius to make a show of dragging him off the Speakers’ Platform and into detention, Cato gave the assembled voters a clear proof of the unjust power being exercised by the Triumvirs.

At this informal meeting (contio) of the People of Rome, so many private citizens took the opportunity to express their opinions on this heated matter that the two opposing tribunes did not even have a chance to speak their views. Gallus decided, therefore, to sleep overnight in the Senate House so that he could be the first one to ascend the Speakers’ Platform (located right outside) at dawn on the following day; Trebonius, however, locked him inside the building and did not let him out for hours. In the meantime, the latter’s supporters crowded into the assembly area (Comitium) outside; they tried to stop Capito, Favonius, Cato, and other opponents from entering, but these found clever ways to do so anyway. For instance, Cato and Capito climbed on the shoulders of those standing around the edge of the Comitium and, from his perch, Capito proclaimed a warning about bad omens, which normally would have necessitated dissolving the meeting.

In the event, however, the supporters of Trebonius, many of whom were soldiers Caesar had furloughed from his army, turned to roughing up opponents of the proposal, including Capito and Cato; many people were driven from the Forum in this way, many badly wounded in the confrontation, including Gallus, and a few even killed. Capito, however, incensed by the sight of his colleague all covered in blood, and building on popular disgust at this, soon stirred up renewed resistance to Trebonius. Pompey and Crassus, as consuls, then entered the scene with their bodyguards, restored order to the assembly, and compelled a vote on Trebonius’s motion. Not surprisingly, it passed into law. They followed this up with a law of their own to extend also the provincial command of Caesar for an additional five years and under the same terms as theirs.

For his efforts as tribune, Trebonius received a reward, a posting as legatus, a lieutenant commander, in the army of Caesar from the end of his term of office through 50 BCE. He accompanied Caesar on his second expedition into Britain, commanded forces against the Belgae (especially in the punitive operations after the rebellion of Ambiorix), and expertly countered the assaults of Vercingetorix’s troops during the famous Siege of Alesia (alongside Marc Antony).

Trebonius continued to serve Caesar when the Civil War broke out between the latter and Pompey. After the city of Massilia in southern Gaul (Marseilles, France) declared itself for Pompey’s side in the first year of the conflict, Caesar placed Trebonius in charge of ground forces to conduct the siege of the town, an ever-challenging business that ended in success for Trebonius after six months. In the following year, 48 BCE, Caesar welcomed Trebonius back to Rome with another reward, the office of urban praetor, which placed him just one rank below Caesar himself as consul and made him the chief judicial official over Roman citizens. This placed Trebonius at odds with another of Caesar’s supporters, M. Caelius Rufus, who had hoped for that appointment himself; even though Caesar gave him the next best thing, the peregrine praetorship (the judicial official over resident aliens and foreign visitors to Rome), Caelius resented it and lashed out at Trebonius by vetoing everything he did in office. Indeed, Caelius went further by opposing Caesar’s laws on loans and rent payments, attempting to foment a sort of social revolution in Rome of debtors and renters against their creditors and landlords; in this uprising, Trebonius almost lost his life (which is what Caelius really wanted) and barely escaped the city in disguise. The Senate and Caesar’s consular colleague, Servilius Isauricus, put a stop to all this within Rome itself; Caelius fled southward to try to stir up support for his cause but failed and was eventually killed by Caesar’s cavalry.

The rest of Trebonius’s praetorship appears to have gone smoothly and he proceeded in the next year to the governorship of Further Spain. Since the summer of 49 BCE, both Spanish provinces had come under Caesar’s authority, but his legions there and some of the local communities had grown restless and, in fact, mutinous. Part of Trebonius’s mission was to restore order; he had previous experience of the region, having fought against the lieutenants of Pompey there in the first year of the Civil War. However, the agents of Metellus Scipio, father-in-law of the now-deceased Pompey and acknowledged leader of the survivors of his faction, had come to Spain to reclaim it by inciting more trouble for Caesar’s side; chief among those agents was Pompey’s eldest son, Cnaeus Pompeius. Inspired by his arrival, the mutinous legionaries and rebellious locals eventually forced Trebonius out of the peninsula. Caesar then personally took up the campaign against the Pompeians in Spain. He apparently sent Trebonius back to Rome and, on his own victorious return in the fall of 45 BCE, appointed his loyal legate as suffect (“fill-in”) consul for the remainder of the year. Again, Trebonius had received his ample reward.

After all this, however, Trebonius turned against Caesar. In fact, he seems to have done so already before Caesar’s return from Spain; he even mentioned something to Marc Antony, who kept it secret instead of reporting it to Caesar. The reason, evidently, for Trebonius’s change of heart was animosity toward Caesar’s kind of dictatorship, which made everyone, including his old comrades, feel like pawns in a game played only by Caesar. In wartime, this might have been satisfactory, but it was not once peace resumed. Thus, many Caesarians participated in the Conspiracy of the Liberators to assassinate Caesar in 44 BCE. While other members of the plot attacked him during a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of March, Trebonius fulfilled his assigned task by keeping Marc Antony outside, engaged in conversation. Trebonius later expressed in a letter to Cicero his pride in the part he had played, the sense of achievement he felt in ridding Rome of a “tyrant.” Cicero had applauded the assassination, but he blamed Trebonius (and Brutus) for not eliminating Antony, too.

Before his death, Caesar had officially assigned Trebonius to govern the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey today), and under the turbulent conditions in Rome following the fallen dictator’s funeral, Trebonius literally had to sneak off to his province so as not to set off any further popular uproar against himself. Soon, the leaders of the Conspiracy, Brutus and Cassius, secretly contacted him, asking him to collect money and troops for the looming head-on confrontation with Antony. He did so, and went further in fortifying key towns in the province against possible attack.

The attack came, but not from Antony. Another adversary appeared, a much more cunning one, in the person of P. Cornelius Dolabella. He had served under Caesar for a number of years and the latter planned to reward him with a suffect consulship in 44 BCE; that is, if Caesar had left for his projected war against the Parthian Empire, he would have handed over the remainder of his own term as consul to Dolabella. Instead, Caesar was assassinated, but Dolabella still wanted that office; the other consul of that year, Antony, stood in opposition, however. Dolabella turned on Antony, posed as a friend of Caesar’s assassins and assumed the consulship anyway, receiving from the Senate a special appointment as governor of the province of Syria to boot.

This proved to be the undoing of Trebonius, who did suspect treachery from Dolabella, but not quite as much as he should have. Early in 43 BCE, when the latter passed through Asia on the way to his own province (engaging in wholesale plunder all along), Trebonius did not permit his entry into the important towns of Pergamum or Smyrna, but, out of respect for his office, he did allow him and his men to gather provisions from Ephesus. All the while, a detachment of Trebonius’s army followed Dolabella. Having done so until nightfall, and seeing no cause for concern in Dolabella’s actions, most of the troops returned to Smyrna, leaving only a few to keep watch on him.

Yet, Dolabella set an ambush for them, captured and killed them, and then turned around unexpectedly and arrived at Smyrna under cover of darkness. His men carefully scaled the walls of the city, secured it for themselves, and even captured Trebonius, sleeping in his bed. One of Dolabella’s centurions, on explicit orders, cut off the head of Trebonius rather than taking him alive and brought it to his commander, who put it on display the following morning on the chair from which Trebonius had delivered his official pronouncements. Dolabella’s soldiers took the rest of the body and furiously attacked it; they also played with his head as though it were a game ball in the streets of the city. A fitting punishment, as they saw it, for the man who had helped to kill Caesar by preventing Marc Antony from coming to his rescue.

The death of Trebonius and the mutilation of his corpse sent a clear signal to the other Conspirators; he was the first of their number to be punished for the killing of Caesar and each of them had to fear such an end now.


The “bronze-bearded” (ahenobarbi) Domitii traced their distinguished lineage at least as far back in Rome’s history as the fifth century BCE. Not all of them possessed the greatest of virtues, but they did share a tendency toward obstinacy and temper and, like many others of the Roman elite, an exalted sense of dignitas. Certainly, these qualities characterized L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, who stood with the Optimates in the Senate against Julius Caesar, challenged the latter through much of his career, confronted him on his invasion of Italy, and fought against him across the empire from southern France to Greece.

According to the famous orator and statesman Cicero, Domitius, even as a young man early on in his political career, held to the moral standards of those senators who styled themselves Optimates. Little is known about that early career, aside from his testimony, in 70 BCE, against Verres, the corrupt Roman governor of Sicily. For this, Cicero praised Domitius as a distinguished young man, first among his peers.

By the summer of 61 BCE, Domitius joined up with the most prominent spokesman of the Optimates, Cato the Younger, to bring two proposals before the Senate regarding bribery. One motion declared as treasonable the sheltering or housing of those who distributed bribes (known as divisores in Latin) among the voters; the other authorized the searching of magistrate’s homes for such individuals. Undoubtedly, these motions targeted the chief adversaries of the Optimates at that time, who were also the men possessing the greatest wealth to spread around through bribery, that is, Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar. Ironically, Domitius’s own comrade, Cato, engaged the very next year in large-scale bribery of the voters to guarantee that his own son-in-law, Bibulus, would gain election to the consulship as a counterweight to Caesar. By the fall of 59 BCE, Domitius found himself implicated in an alleged plot to assassinate Caesar and Pompey, accused by the informer, P. Vettius, of conspiring with the consul Bibulus to do so; Vettius even claimed that the house of Domitius had served as the base of operations for the scheme. Fortunately for Domitius, few believed the accusations, which were probably trumped up by Pompey and Caesar themselves to discredit their opponents.

In the following year, Domitius attained some legal cover through his position as praetor and, together with his colleague Memmius, insisted on holding an inquiry into Caesar’s official misconduct while consul, his blatant disregard of customs and taboos. The Senate as a body refused to take up the matter, so Caesar ignored the praetors’ charges and left Rome for his provincial command. Other proceedings were instituted against him and one of his subordinates, likely all instigated by Domitius, but still these came to nothing.

In the summer of 58 BCE, Domitius attempted to get at Caesar again by standing up for M. Tullius Cicero; the latter had been forced into exile to keep him quiet through the efforts of Caesar and his associates. The plebeian tribune, Clodius, who had orchestrated Cicero’s downfall, found a constitutional means to order Domitius to be silent on the question of Cicero’s recall and the matter of the reconstruction of his house, which had been destroyed at Clodius’s orders.

Undeterred, though obstructed at every turn by the so-called First Triumvirate and its minions, Domitius campaigned relentlessly in 56 BCE for the consulship of the following year, hoping to utilize that office against the opponents of the Optimates. According to the Imperial historian Cassius Dio, Domitius was actively canvassing for votes right up to the very last day before the elections. Another Imperial historian, Appian of Alexandria, asserted that the intention of Domitius in all this was to challenge Pompey; this probably means that, even if Pompey obtained one of the consulships for the upcoming year, Domitius sought to obtain the other and use it as a check on Pompey’s actions and power within the state. Domitius also made clear his intention of removing Julius Caesar from his provincial command. In all this, he had the support of the Optimates in the Senate and especially of their leader, his brother-in-law, Cato.

Caesar had other plans. Pompey and their associate, Crassus, came to meet Caesar at his winter quarters in the town of Luca (modern Lucca) in northern Italy (what Romans referred to as the province of Cisalpine Gaul). Behind the scenes, the three men agreed to cooperate in squeezing Domitius out of the race and obtaining the consulships of 55 for Crassus as well as Pompey.

Even before dawn on the morning of the elections, Domitius arrived in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) where Roman voters cast their ballots for consuls in the Popular Assembly known as the Comitia Centuriata (Assembly of Centuries). Pompey showed up at about the same time; both men, as was customary, came with a crowd of supporters around them. It did not take long for these hangers-on to begin quarreling, eventually brawling, with one another over their candidates; in the escalating confrontation, one of Domitius’s torch-bearers (recall that it was still dark out when all this took place) was attacked by a follower of Pompey with a sword. Legally, no one was supposed to enter the voting area with weapons, and the fact that one of Pompey’s men was armed suggested that more of them must have had concealed weapons; in fact, Cassius Dio recorded that Publius, the son of Crassus, had brought soldiers from Caesar’s army on furlough to vote in this election, likely secretly armed. Domitius’s entourage melted away and he himself barely escaped to his own home; Cato also escaped, but badly wounded in the right arm as he had tried to delay retreating while also protecting Domitius. Clearly, fair and free elections were not going to happen this time. When the voters assembled, Pompey and Crassus secured both consulships; indeed, they managed to secure many other elective offices for their cronies by the end of the year.

In the elections for the consulships of 54 BCE, however, despite the fact that Crassus and Pompey presided, they were unable to prevent Domitius from securing one of the two positions. His hostility toward Pompey never abated and he unleashed it especially against the latter’s key followers, such as A. Gabinius, who was brought to trial on various charges and forced into exile. Yet, he lost another election important to him thanks to the efforts of Caesar; the latter, despite being far away in his provincial command, worked together with others to deny Domitius the open spot in the priestly college of augurs. Winner of the election was one of Caesar’s chief lieutenants, Marc Antony, making Domitius’s loss an even greater insult. He raged against those who had orchestrated what he considered a travesty and an injustice.

The Optimate members of the Senate pushed for the recall of Caesar from his provincial command and clamored for Domitius to replace him. By this time, Crassus had died fighting the Parthians and Pompey had begun to distance himself from Caesar. When a letter arrived from Caesar insisting on retention of his provincial command until which time as Pompey also laid down his own (so that they would both retire into private life and not pose an imminent threat to one another), the Optimates got their wish; Domitius received the Senate’s mandate to take over Caesar’s provinces and he proceeded to gather forces for that purpose.

Before anyone expected it, however, Caesar had moved with a relatively small force into Italy proper and was on the march toward Rome. By then, Pompey had been selected by the Senate as supreme commander against Caesar’s invasion, but he had retreated from Rome to gather supplies and recruit troops in southern Italy. Domitius had the task of confronting Caesar first. He did not maneuver against him but instead took up position in the town of Corfinium, strategically located on the Via Valeria, a major Roman highway in southern Italy, and at the best crossing for the River Aterno (Aternus). Here, Domitius hoped to halt Caesar and provide Pompey the time he needed to rise up against Caesar.

Caesar could have bypassed Corfinium altogether on his march against Pompey, but he chose not to; he could not allow Domitius to hold such a defiant position against him, one which could have been utilized as a base for enemy operations behind his own line of advance. Domitius’s forces slightly outnumbered those of Caesar, but the latter’s were battle-hardened veterans, while the former’s were fresh recruits from the citizenry of the region. These facts did not deter Domitius, however. He sent some of his troops to destroy the bridge over the Aterno so that Caesar could not use it to cross; the latter’s advanced forces prevented this and chased Domitius’s men back to town. While Caesar’s army camped outside Corfinium, Domitius detailed his troops along the walls, complete with artillery emplacements, and tried to rouse his men to imagine the rewards of victory, to take heart, and to stand firm.

Domitius hoped desperately for military assistance from Pompey, who was only about sixty miles away, and the orator Cicero, in his letters from those days, reveals how he and many other senators hoped for the same. They expected Pompey to concentrate his forces together with those of Domitius and others at Corfinium for the showdown with Caesar. Pompey sent word, however, that he disagreed with Domitius’s strategy of holding Corfinium against Caesar (no matter how brave or patriotic that might have seemed to be), that he had never ordered him to do so, and that he would not now trap himself in that town, too; he criticized Domitius roundly not only for allowing himself and his own force to get stuck but also for not sending on two legions of reinforcements he (Pompey) had requested from Domitius. Pompey urged Domitius to withdraw from Corfinium before it was too late (even if that meant laying open to Caesar the estates of their wealthy comrades in the process) and work toward joining forces in Apulia (modern Puglia). This terribly disheartened Domitius because by waiting for the “hero” Pompey, in whom he had reposed great confidence, he had allowed Caesar the time to flank Corfinium with two military camps, surround it with a rampart and forts, and double the size of his force with new reinforcements. In writing to his friend Atticus on the matter, as news came to him of it, Cicero described Domitius as a fool for having trusted Pompey and criticized the latter for basically deserting the former.

Domitius dared not let on to his own men that they were being abandoned by Pompey to their own devices; the only possible escape, as he saw it, was for himself and those few senators close to him, and he kept this idea secret. The plan was discovered by his troops, however, and after a heated discussion and argument, they decided to hand their untrustworthy commander over to the enemy. A day later, the town of Corfinium received Caesar peacefully and he pardoned all of Domitius’s troops, allowing them to join his own army if they wished; he also permitted Domitius and the other senators with him to go free.

Domitius could have gone into peaceful retirement at that point, but he chose instead to continue the fight against Caesar, his next theater of operations being the defense of Massilia (modern Marseilles) in Gallia Transalpina (modern Provence). In other words, he now proceeded to the provincial command he was supposed to have assumed from Caesar in the first place. An excuse for doing so presented itself in the appeals from the nobility of Massilia, who declared their allegiance to Pompey’s side; the great wealth and powerful fleet of that maritime city could prove tremendous assets in the Civil War and could not be allowed to fall into Caesar’s hands.

The Massiliotes kept Caesar at bay with false negotiations for neutrality until the arrival of Domitius; the oligarchy of the city then handed over its defense to him. Under his orders, they gathered a large store of food and other necessary supplies and commandeered all the vessels in the area for military service. Massilia prepared for a long siege by land and blockade by sea, with which Caesar soon obliged them.

Domitius made his first target the enemy fleet, under the charge of Brutus Albinus, one of Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants. They engaged in difficult and bitter combat in two naval encounters, both sides attempting to maximize their advantages either in maritime skill or fighting prowess. Pompey, finally, came through for Domitius, sending him reinforcement warships all the way from Greece. Domitius also had the full support of the Massiliotes; he called upon every able-bodied man to serve, whether aristocrat or commoner. The remainder of the population did their part as well, by praying to the gods for the success of their fleet. The latter did cause great damage among the enemy vessels, even sinking the flagship of Brutus Albinus (who managed to escape) but were deserted by Pompey’s reinforcements and suffered too many losses of their own to break the blockade.

In the meantime, Caesar’s ground troops, under the command of another of his trusted lieutenants, Trebonius, conducted the siege of Massilia by land. As they erected various devices for that purpose, the Massiliotes, directed by Domitius, attempted to drive the enemy away with artillery fi re and assaults by Gallic warriors armed with firebrands. After some time of this sort of fighting, Trebonius’s sappers undermined and brought down a portion of the defensive wall of Massilia; out of the opening streamed civilians who begged Trebonius for a chance to negotiate peace with Caesar. An uneasy truce ensued, punctuated by skirmishes of differing sorts, until the Massiliotes decided it was, indeed, time to surrender.

Domitius had learned of this decision a few days earlier and prepared ships for his escape. He hoped that inclement weather would deter Brutus Albinus from trying to stop him but that was not the case. Of his three vessels, only his own escaped. Having arrived in Greece, he joined up with Pompey’s main force.

Almost a full year later, Pompey and Caesar fought their major battle at Pharsalus in northern Greece. Up to that moment, Pompey’s three leading lieutenant commanders, Domitius, Metellus Scipio, and Lentulus Spinther, fully expected to destroy Caesar and his army; they had even wasted their time bitterly quarrelling over which of them would succeed Caesar in the post of Pontifex Maximus, the most prestigious priesthood of Rome. Domitius went further in his imaginings about the future; he suggested that, after their victory, the senators who fought on their side should pass judgment on those who stayed out of the conflict or proved useless in it, either exonerating them of wrongdoing, ordering them to pay a fine, or condemning them to death.

Pompey assigned Domitius to command the left wing of his army as it stood to face Caesar’s. The Battle of Pharsalus did not go as Pompey’s side expected. In the turmoil following the victory of Caesar’s troops, Domitius fled the battlefield and headed into the nearby hills for safety. Some of Caesar’s cavalry took off in pursuit and, eventually, captured and killed him.

Having been the first official defender of the Republic against Caesar, Domitius Ahenobarbus carried that duty through to the end of his life. His entire career, in fact, epitomized the determined resistance of the Optimates to the rise of any one senator too far above the others.

Further Reading Carter, J. 1996. Appian: The Civil Wars. New York: Penguin Publishing. Carter, J. 1997. Caesar: The Civil War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Foster, H. B. 2010. Dio’s Roman History in Six Volumes. Alvin, TX: Halcyon Press Ltd. Graves, R. 2007. Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars. New York: Penguin Publishing. Greenwood, L. H. G. 1988. Cicero: The Verrine Orations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Gruen, E. 1974. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Syme, R. 1939. The Roman Revolution. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Wiseman, T. P. 1985. Roman Political Life 90 B. C.-A. D. 69. Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press. Seager, R., and R. Warner. 2006. Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic. London and New York: Penguin. Shackleton Bailey, D. R. 1978. Cicero’s Letters to Atticus. New York: Penguin Publishing. Shackleton Bailey, D. R. 1978. Cicero’s Letters to His Friends. New York: Penguin Publishing. Syme, R. 1939. The Roman Revolution. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Wiseman, T. P. 1985. Roman Political Life 90 B. C.-A. D. 69. Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press.

Fall Of Constantinople – Ottoman Superguns






Ottoman superguns

It is not without some irony that bombards, all but abandoned as obsolete by most European powers by 1453, played a critical role that year in the fall of Constantinople, the last Christian stronghold in the East. For centuries the Byzantine capital’s great walls and defenders had repulsed invaders, including an earlier 1422 attempt by Sultan Murad II (r. 1421–1451). Although Murad had employed bombards against the city, they were rather ineffective, and he subsequently withdrew. His successor, however, Mohammad II, sometimes known as Mehmed II (b. 1432; r. 1444–1446, 1451– 1481), and also known as Muhammad the Conqueror, possessed an innate appreciation for artillery and its use in siege craft.

Muhammad, lacking technical experts among his own subjects, subsequently obtained the services of Christian gun founders to design and build cannons especially suited for the siege. Among these was reportedly a famed Hungarian cannon maker known as Urban. Urban (or Orban) had previously been hired by the Byzantines but had deserted their cause after they failed to meet his fees. Muhammad, unlike the Byzantines, appreciated Urban’s considerable, although mercenary, talents and “welcomed him with open arms, treated him honorably and provided him with food and clothing; and then he gave him an allowance so generous, that a quarter of the sum would have sufficed to keep him in Constantinople” (De Vries, X 356).

Urban quickly established a gun foundry at Adrianople where he oversaw the casting of both a number of large iron and bronze guns. These included at least one huge bombard of cast iron reinforced with iron hoops and with a removable, screw-on breech. Typical of such large breechloading cannons, the gun was fitted with slots around the breech’s circumference to accept stout wooden beams. For loading and unloading, these beams were inserted in the slots to act as a capstan and provide the leverage to unscrew the heavy powder chamber. Weighing more than 19 tons, the gun was capable of firing stone balls weighing from approximately 800 to 875 pounds. The sheer size of the bombard, known as Basilica, required forty-two days and a team of sixty oxen and a thousand men to traverse the 120 miles to its firing site at Constantinople.

Muhammad began preparations for the siege in February and ordered the positioning of fourteen artillery batteries around the city. As a further preparation, he ordered his navy, also equipped with artillery, to cut Constantinople off from the sea. For his part, the Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (b. 1409; r. 1449–1453), did possess some artillery, but it was for the most part obsolete and numerically insufficient to reply to Muhammad’s forces. The Byzantines had long lost the technological superiority they had held in previous centuries, and they soon found themselves reckoning with their shortsightedness in snubbing Urban the Hungarian.

Muhammad began the bombardment of the city on 6 April 1453. With a keen eye for the city’s weaknesses, he concentrated his guns against its most vulnerable points, including the Gate of St. Romanus, where they affected a breach on 11 April. His success was short lived, however, as the defenders counterattacked and repaired the damage. Muhammad also faced other setbacks when Urban was killed when a cannon he was supervising exploded, and when his giant bombard cracked after a few days of firing, necessitating repairs. The sultan, however, proved his own resourcefulness in the use of artillery and made much better use of his smaller guns—weapons that were capable of a much higher rate of fire than Basilica’s three rounds a day and were also more maneuverable. These included eleven bombards capable of firing 500-pound shot and fifty guns firing 200-pound balls.

The Ottoman barrage continued day and night, wearing down both the city’s walls and its defenders. A witness described its effect:

And the stone, borne with tremendous force and velocity, hit the wall, which it immediately shook and knocked down, and was itself broken into many fragments and scattered, hurling the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened to be nearby. Sometimes it demolished a whole section, and sometimes a half-section, and sometimes a larger or smaller section of tower or turret or battlement. And there was no part of the wall strong enough or resistant enough or thick enough to be able to withstand it, or to wholly resist such force and such a blow of the stone cannon-ball. (ibid., X 357–358)

Finally, on 29 May 1453, the walls on either side of the St. Romanus Gate collapsed, and the Turks stormed the city. The Emperor Constantine fought valiantly in the defense of his city, but he was killed as overwhelming numbers of Turkish troops rampaged through the city for three days, killing, looting, and raping. With the fall of its capital, the Byzantine Empire collapsed, and with it the last vestiges of the Roman Empire.


Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. He occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. It lies on the Sea of Marmara, flanked to northeast by the Bosphorus and to the southwest by the Dardanelles, two narrow passages linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. The only direct route from Europe into Asia Minor is at Constantinople, so it has been an extremely strategic possession for land and naval warfare and trade.

Constantinople became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. It not only was the political capital of much of the Mediterranean and Middle East, but also the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church, rival to the power of the pope in Rome for the souls of Christians everywhere. In the end it was that religious rivalry that spelled Constantinople’s doom.

In the seventh century Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam. By coincidence (or divine intervention) he appeared in Arabia just as the two major Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He therefore conquered a massive amount of land hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persia and the Byzantines suffered major territorial losses as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

For seven hundred years the forces of Islam and Orthodoxy struggled, with both sides trading ascendancy. By the fifteenth century, however, the Byzantine Empire had shrunk to almost nothing: Constantinople and a handful of Aegean islands. An earlier Islamic threat to the city resulted in the Crusades in the twelfth century, but that too ended in further alienating the Catholic and Orthodox churches. When in 1452 Sultan Mohammed II, son of Murad II, decided to attack Constantinople, European responses to pleas for help were almost nonexistent. England and France were just winding down the very costly Hundred Years War; Germanic and Spanish princes and kings offered aid but sent none. Genoa and Venice, however, did not want to see Constantinople fall into the hands of Arab merchants, and Rome promised aid if the Orthodox Church would submit to papal will. The emperor did all that he could to prepare for the siege. Envoys were sent to Venice, Genoa, the Pope, the Western emperor, the kings of Hungary and Aragon , with the message that, unless immediate military help was provided, the days of Constantinople were numbered. The response was unimpressive. Some Italians, embarrassed at their government’s impotence, came as volunteers. Reluctantly Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus agreed to Rome’s demand, but it netted him a mere 200 archers for his meager defenses as well as the hostility of his people; many claimed they preferred Turkish domination to Roman.

In the spring of 1452 Mohammed II sent 1,000 masons to the Bosphorus to build a fort to protect his army while crossing the straits. Constantine could do little more than lodge a protest. Among his populace were a mere 5,000 native and 2,000 foreign soldiers. The Venetian colony in Constantinople and many citizens in Pera, opposite Constantinople, also stayed, as did Orhan, the Ottoman pretender with his Turks. Some 30,000 to 40,000 civilians who rendered valuable service by repairing the 18-mile-long walls of the city before and during the siege. He had tradition on his side, however, for the triple walls that blocked the city from the landward side had survived twenty sieges, even though at this point they were not in good repair. As of January 1453, he also had the services of Italian soldier of fortune Giovanni Giustiniani, who brought 700 knights and archers. Giustiniani was well known in Europe for his talents in defending walled cities. Mohammed also had some European assistance in the form of a cannon maker named Urban from Hungary, who provided the Muslim army with seventy cannon, including the “Basilica,” a 27-feet-long canon that fired stone balls weighing upwards of 600 pounds. It could only fire seven times a day, but did significant damage to anything it struck.

As part of the Ottoman military preparations, some 16 large and 60 light galleys, 20 horse-ships and several smaller vessels were constructed in the Ottoman arsenal of Gallipoli. The sultan’s army of 80,000 to 100,000 men was assembled in Edirne, the Ottoman capita l, In the Edirne foundry some 60 new guns of various calibres were cast. Some of them threw shots of 240, 300 and 360 kg (530-793 lb), The largest bombard that the Hungarian master Urban made for the sultan fired, according to the somewhat contradictory testimonies of contemporaries, stone balls of 400 to 600 kg (800-1,322 lb), It was transported to Constantinople by 60 oxen.

A single wall that ran the circumference of the city’s seaward sides defended the rest of Constantinople. Mohammed sent his men across the Bosphorus north of the city, so the southern approach to the Mediterranean was open. A chain boom protected the primary harbor, the Golden Horn, across its mouth supported by twenty-six galleys. Thus, if anyone sent relief, the route was open.

Mohammed II arrived on 6 April 1453. He led 70,000 regular troops and 20,000 irregulars called Bashi-Bazouks, whose sole pay was the loot they might gain if and when the city fell. The premier troops were the Janissaries, slave soldiers taken captive in their youth from Christian families and raised in a military atmosphere to serve the sultans. They were heavily armored and highly skilled, and at this time they were beginning to use personal firearms. Mohammed first seized the town of Pera, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. At first this action was little more than symbolic, but it had serious ramifications later. He then deployed his forces on the city’s western face and began the siege. A single wall near the imperial palace protected the northern end of the city. It was there, the Blachernae, that Constantine placed most of his men.

For twelve days the Muslim cannon pounded the city walls, and on 18 April Mohammed decided that had softened up the defenses sufficiently. The Byzantines easily defended a narrow breach in the walls, killing 200 attackers and driving off the rest without loss to themselves. On the 20th, four ships approached from the south: three Genoese transports with men and supplies from Rome and a Byzantine ship hauling corn from Sicily. After a hard fight with the Muslim fleet they broke through, cleared the boom, and entered the Golden Horn. Mohammed decided he had to control the harbor. He could not pass the chain boom, so he ordered ships dragged overland, through the town of Pera, to the harbor. It was a monumental engineering feat and on 22 April thirty Turkish ships were in the Golden Horn. An agent of the sultan betrayed the Byzantine counterattack, which managed to destroy only a single Turkish ship. In spite of this Turkish accomplishment, it had little effect on the siege.

Mohammed continued his cannonade against the walls. By 6 May it had opened a breach at the Gate of St. Romanus, where the Lycus River enters the city. Giustaniani built a new wall just behind the breach, rather than trying to repair the wall while under fire. The Turks attacked on 7 May but their 25,000 men were thrown back after three hours of fighting. On the 12th another force assaulted a breach in the wall at Blachernae; only quick reinforcement by Constantine and the Imperial Guard stemmed the tide. Mohammed then tried mining the walls. Constantine’s engineer Johannes Grant managed to locate each of the mining attempts and either undermine the mines or destroy the attackers inside with explosives, flooding, or the incendiary Greek fire. None of the fourteen mines succeeded.

Mohammed then determined to scale the walls. His men built a siege tower and rolled it into place before the Charisius Gate, the northernmost opening in the city walls. Muslim artillery fire had destroyed one of the defending towers, and the siege tower was able to provide covering fire for Turks filling in the moat. Constantine’s call for volunteers to attack the siege tower produced spectacular results. The sally surprised the Turkish guards and the Byzantines broke pots of Greek fire on the wooden siege tower. Meanwhile, their compatriots spent the night rebuilding the city wall and its destroyed tower. The next morning Mohammed saw the charred remains of his assault machine smoldering before the newly rebuilt tower in the city wall.

In both camps officers debated the progress of the siege. The defenders were exhausted and running out of supplies. In Mohammed’s camp, some factions wanted to end the siege before a rumored rescue fleet could arrive. The sultan favored those who counseled continuation and decided to launch one more attempt before withdrawing. As the most serious damage to the walls had been inflicted along the Lycus River entrance to the city, it was there he proposed to launch his final assault. Constantine learned of the plan from a spy, but could his dwindling force survive another battle? The Bashi-Bazouks began hurling themselves against the Byzantine defenses at 0200 on 29 May. For two hours the Byzantines slew them with arrows and firearms, but grew increasingly tired in the process. With the first attack repulsed, Mohammed threw in a second wave before the defenders could recover. Even though these were regular troops with better discipline and equipment, the narrow breach provided the defenders with less area to cover and they threw back that assault as well.

After another two hours of fighting the Byzantine troops could barely stand. Mohammed sent in the third wave, made up of Janissaries. Constantine’s exhausted troops managed to repulse them as well. During this fighting, a small band of Turks discovered a small open gate and rushed a handful of men through before it could be closed. They occupied a tower near the Blachinae and raised the sultan’s banner, and the rumor quickly spread that the northern flank had been broken. At the same moment, Giovanni Giustiniani was severely wounded. Hearing of his evacuation, coupled with the report from the north quarter, the defenders began to fall back. Mohammed quickly exploited his advantage. Another assault by fresh Janissaries cleared the space between the walls and seized the Adrianople Gate. Attackers began to pour through.

Constantine XI led his remaining troops into the Turkish onslaught, dying for his city and his empire. Almost all his co-defenders as well as a huge portion of the civilian population joined him, for the Turks went berserk. Mohammed II limited very little of the pillage, reserving the best buildings for himself and banning their destruction. He claimed and protected the Church of St. Sophia, and within a week the Hagia Sophia was hosting Muslim services. Thirty ships of a Venetian fleet sailing to Constantine’s relief saw the Turkish flags flying over the city, turned around, and sailed home.

The looting finally subsided and the bulk of the population that was not killed, possibly 50,000 people, were enslaved. The bastion of Eastern Christianity fell after more than 1,100 years as Constantine the Great’s city. Mohammed II proceeded to conquer Greece and most of the Balkans during the remaining twenty-eight years of his reign.

Western Europe, which had done so little to assist Constantinople, was shocked that it fell after so many centuries of standing against everyone. In Rome, the Catholic Church was dismayed that they would now have no Eastern Christians to convert, for they were all rapidly becoming Muslim. The Eastern Orthodox Church survived, however, for Mohammed allowed a patriarch to preside over the Church. It remained a viable religion, now far from the reach of the Catholic Church’s influence. As such, its survival encouraged others who resented the Catholic Church. Within sixty years Martin Luther led a major protest against the Church, starting the Reformation.

The trading centers of Genoa and Venice feared having to deal with hard-bargaining Arab merchants who now controlled all products coming from the Far East. The major cities of eastern Europe began to fear the Turkish hordes approaching their gates, and for the next 450 years Austria and the Holy Roman Empire carried on the European/Christian struggle against the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks established themselves as the premier Middle Eastern Muslim power, controlling at their height almost as much as had the Byzantine Empire: the Balkans, the Middle East, much of North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean.

The flood of refugees from southeastern Europe, especially Greece, brought thousands of scholars to Italy, further enhancing the peninsula’s Renaissance. Italian merchants, shocked at the prices the Muslims charged for spices and silks from the East, began to search for other ways to get those goods. Certainly the age of European exploration came much sooner because of Constantinople’s fall.





In March 1204, Chateau Gaillard fell to the army of King Philip Augustus, and with the loss of the castle the English lost their claims to Normandy.


Chateau Gaillard, Les Andelys, France. Richard the Lion Hearted claimed to have built his “cocky castle” on the border of Normandy in only a year, but no one believes he did. The walls, towers, and courtyards of the huge castle cover the narrow hill top, creating a system of barricades known as a defense in depth. An independent fortification at the left blocks access to the main structure, whose great tower still rises above the walls at the right. The area is roughly the size of two modern football fields.

Richard the Lion Hearted, who became king of England in 1189, had inherited Aquitaine (western France) from his mother Eleanor and Normandy and Anjou—and England—from his father Henry. As Duke of Normandy and Anjou, Richard was a vassal of the king of France, but he controlled more land in France than did the French king. Although Richard had been an ally of Philip Augustus in the Third Crusade, in 1192 he went to war with the king over his French lands. Richard built Chateau Gaillard (he called it the “cocky castle”) on a cliff above the Seine north of Paris to defend his claims to Normandy. He began his castle in 1196 and boasted that he finished it in a year (in fact it may never have been completely finished). Having experienced the advantages and defects of the great crusader castles, Richard put all his expertise to work in the design of his Norman fortress.

Richard chose an excellent site, in the territory of the archbishop of Rouen, who objected strenuously until Richard paid him a handsome sum for the land. The site is a narrow plateau, about 600 feet long and at most 200 feet wide, surrounded by deep ravines leading down to the river Seine. On one side a narrow spit of land links the site to its hinterland. A walled town (Les Andelys) stood at the base of the cliff, and Richard also built a tower on a small island in the river. Dams and obstacles in the water inhibited an enemy’s approach from the river, while during peacetime these river defenses enabled the castle’s commander to support the garrison by levying tolls on the river traffic. Richard also raised money by selling rights of citizenship to residents of the town.

The castle consists of three separate units along the plateau. An attacking army had to approach the castle along this land route, capturing one fortification after another. First, a walled outer bailey, which was built like an independent castle, blocked the approach. Huge round towers defended its curtain wall. From this outer bailey, a bridge with a drawbridge over a very deep moat led to the gate into the middle bailey. Again a curtain wall with one rectangular and three round towers enclosed a large area where Richard built his inner bailey with its tower. This fortress within- a-fortress became a concentric (double-walled) castle with a wall that resembled a series of round towers. Rising at one side of this “corrugated” wall and commanding the river side of the castle was the great tower. This tower had massive walls about sixteen feet thick and a battered base that made mining virtually impossible. Its massive pointed keel also deflected blows, and inverted buttresses supported a fighting gallery.

As long as Richard was alive to command and reinforce it, the castle stood securely. But Richard died in 1199, and his brother John was not an effective general. Philip Augustus moved to the attack, laying siege to the castle in the summer of 1203. The constable of the castle was Roger de Lacy of Chester, who had sufficient supplies and a large garrison of about 300 men to hold the castle for King John. Roger expected to hold out for as long as a year, while the English king gathered resources to relieve the castle.

The town and the river fort soon surrendered to the French king, and the siege of the castle began in earnest in August. About 1,500 civilians from Les Andeleys fled to the safety of the castle and added to the strain on the provisions. Aware that he probably could starve the castle into submission, Philip built ditches, walls, and timber towers around the castle to prevent supplies from entering. These fortifications were beyond the defenders’ arrow range, so they could not destroy or even harass the attackers. With nothing to do but stand guard, the castle garrison undoubtedly suffered from a loss of morale during the long winter.

Two months into the siege, Roger de Lacy realized he could not feed all the people who had taken refuge within the castle walls. He evicted the oldest and weakest who could not help in the defense, and the French army permitted them to leave. But later when de Lacy had to expel the rest of the town, the French closed their lines. When the people tried to return to the castle, they found the gates locked. Trapped between the opposing forces and forced to live in the ravines around the castle walls, they slowly starved.

The final attack on Chateau Gaillard began at the end of February in 1204. First the French had to take the outer bailey. They used stone throwing machines to keep up a barrage while they filled the castle ditch so that they could haul in a siege tower. But the French troops were so eager to attack that they did not wait for the tower. Instead they used scaling ladders to climb from the bottom of the ditch to the base of the main tower whose foundations they mined, causing the tower to collapse. With the outer walls breached, the garrison had no choice but to withdraw to the middle bailey.

Again a deep ditch prevented further attack. As the French studied the castle walls, one man, named Peter the Snub Nose, saw a weak point and a possible way in. The arrangement of windows high on one wall suggested there might be a chapel and well-appointed living quarters, which would have garderobes. Peter and his friends searched the base of the wall until they found the place where the drain from the garderobes emptied. In a daring sneak attack, the men climbed up the drain and emerged under a large window where they boosted each other into the castle. Once inside they made so much noise that the castle guard thought a large force had entered. The defenders started a fire hoping to burn up the invaders, but the wind shifted carrying the flames back through the building, and the defenders had to retreat to the inner courtyard. Peter and his men escaped the flames and opened the doors for their comrades.

The end was near. The English had about 180 men left. The attackers smelled victory. They brought in a “cat”—a mobile, roofed gallery— for protection and began to mine the gate. The English cut a counter mine and drove the attackers back, but the double mining operation weakened the base of the wall. The French brought in their stone throwing machines, and the volleys of rocks combined with the weakened foundations caused the wall to collapse. Still the English fought on—with only 36 knights and 120 other men. They moved into the tower, but to no avail. In March 1204, Chateau Gaillard fell to the army of King Philip Augustus, and with the loss of the castle the English lost their claims to Normandy.


626 AD Avar Siege of Constantinople


Avar khagan Haganos laid siege to the city, an advance guard of some 30,000 men forced the Byzantine army guarding the wall to fall back to the protection of the Theodosian Walls.


Very important events took place in the Balkan Peninsula after the death of Justinian, although unfortunately present knowledge of them is limited by the fragmentary material that appears in the sources. During Justinian’s reign the Slavs frequently attacked the provinces of the Balkan Peninsula, penetrating far into the south and threatening at times even the city of Thessalonica. These irruptions continued after Justinian’s death. There were then large numbers of Slavs remaining in the Byzantine provinces, and they gradually occupied the peninsula. They were aided in their aggression by the Avars, a people of Turkish origin living at that time in Pannonia. The Slavs and Avars menaced the capital and the shores of the Sea of Marmora and the Aegean, and penetrated into Greece as far as the Peloponnesus. The rumor of these invasions spread to Egypt, where John, bishop of Nikiu, wrote in the seventh century, during the reign of the Emperor Phocas: “It is recounted that the kings of this epoch had by means of the barbarians and the foreign nations and the Illyrians devastated Christian cities and carried off their inhabitants captive, and that no city escaped save Thessalonica only; for its walls were strong, and through the help of God the nations were unable to get possession of it.” A German scholar of the early nineteenth century held the theory, discussed at length later, that at the end of the sixth century the Greeks were completely destroyed by the Slavs. Studies of the problem of Slavic settlement in the Balkan Peninsula depend greatly upon the Acts of the martyr Demetrius, the protector of Thessalonica, one of the main Slavonic centers in the peninsula.

At the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh century the persistent southward movement of the Slavs and Avars, which Byzantine troops were unable to stop, produced a profound ethnographic change in the peninsula, since it became occupied largely by Slavonic settlers. The writers of this period were, in general, poorly acquainted with the northern tribes and they confuse the Slavs and Avars because they attacked the Empire jointly.

The Avars were probably the amalgamated remnants of the Juan-juan with those of the White Huns after both were driven west by the Oak Turks. They conquered the Kutrigur and Utigur remnants of Attila’s Huns, now mixed with the Sabir and Onogur and calling themselves Bulgars, the Gepids and many of the Southern Slavs, incorporating them into their army and sending them to lead the attack! After their failed attack on Constantinople in 626, the Avars lost face and were deserted by many of their subjects The Bulgars revolted in 631, but some became allied again from 675 until eastern Avarria was attacked by Krum’s Bulgarian empire in 805. The Avars are described by Maurikios as dishonest, cunning and very experienced in military matters, preferring to win not so much by force as by deceit and surprise He says that unlike other nomads “they concern themselves with military organisation, and this makes them more powerful in pitched battles”, which suggests regular status. Maurikios says that they wore armour and most were double-armed with both lance and bow, the horses of the most important also being totally armoured There is no evidence for shields They often used more than three commands and separated them widely Their baggage consisted of tents and vast horse herds. They did not use wagon laagers.

While the Emperor was absent leading the army in distant campaigns, the capital became exposed to very serious danger. The Khagan of the Avars broke the agreement with the Emperor and in the year 626 advanced toward Constantinople with huge hordes of Avars and Slavs. He also formed an agreement with the Persians, who immediately sent part of their army to Chalcedon. The Avaro-Slavonic hordes besieged Constantinople to the extreme apprehension of the population, but the garrison of Constantinople was successful in repelling the attack and putting the enemy to flight.

The extent to which siege towers were employed remains unclear. They appear in several sixth-century accounts of siege machinery (for example, the Roman siege of Amida in 503, the Persian siege of Martyropolis in 530, and Belisarius’ siege of Rome). Twelve such towers are reported to have been constructed by the Avar besiegers of Constantinople in 626, and they appear again at the Avaro-Slav siege of Thessaloniki in the period 616-18.

As soon as the Persians heard of this repulse, they withdrew their army from Chalcedon and directed it to Syria. The Byzantine victory over the Avars before Constantinople in 626 was one of the main causes of the weakening of the wild Avar kingdom.

Ottoman Siege of Vienna 1683

The relief of Vienna on September 12, 1683. In the decisive battle at Kahlenberg, the united imperial army succeeded in liberating Vienna after two months of siege at the hands of the Turkish army.

Plan of Vienna, with the Turkish approaches.

In June 1683 the Ottomans were at the gates of the city of their European dreams-Vienna. They had been battling the Habsburgs for centuries for dominance in the region, and Vienna was a strategic and cultural plum they had tried to take once before, in 1529. Now, with Vienna again under siege, an Ottoman draftsman recorded his own vision of the Imperial City-along with the offensive and defensive lines. As in 1529, the city had forewarning of the Ottoman advance, and Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, had assembled an allied army of Habsburg, Polish-Lithuanian, Roman, and smaller regional forces. By mid- September, they were outside Vienna. On the heights of the Kahlenberg, in the Vienna Woods, the allies clashed with the army of Kara Mustafa Pasha. At one point Polish king John III Sobieski launched 18,000 horsemen at the Ottomans-the largest cavalry charge in history at that time. The Battle of Vienna not only freed the city, it stopped the Ottomans from advancing farther west, and it established Habsburg dominance in Central Europe.

In February 1683 Quartermaster-General Haslingen drew up a complete list of Leopold’s troops and of the areas in which they were stationed. He counted seventy companies in Bohemia, forty-five in Moravia, and forty-eight in Silesia—with a complement, in theory, of 7,600 foot and 10,000 cuirassiers and dragoons. There were seventy-five companies in western Hungary and thirty-eight in Upper Hungary, although a comparison with another of his memoranda seems to show that he was here counting some regiments and companies twice over; nor could he, or anyone else, rely on the estimates of men serving in the various types of Hungarian militia. In the Inner Austrian lands (Styria, Carinthia and Carniola) Haslingen enumerated forty-three companies—5,600 foot and 1,200 horse; in Upper and Lower Austria forty companies—4,000 foot and 1,600 horse; and in the empire eighty companies of foot and one of horse—16,400 men. His figures for the number of companies were correct (except, no doubt, for Hungary); but on the premise that the full complement in foot and mounted companies was 200 and 80 men respectively, the grand totals of 44,800 infantry and 17,600 cavalry were no more than the roughest of guides to the size of the whole Habsburg force. They much exceeded the actual number of effective soldiers. However, the quartermaster could soon hope to add to it the bands of irregulars to be raised by Magyar magnates, three mounted regiments which Prince Lubomirski was commissioned to bring from Poland, and also the new regiments of the patentees nominated by Leopold during the winter.

The immediate problem, for the War Council, was to decide how many men could be safely moved east from the empire, in spite of Louis XIV’s aggressive policy, in order to reinforce the contingents sent south from the Bohemian lands, building up by this concentration the strongest possible force in Hungary to oppose the Turks. The decision involved some of the best regiments at Leopold’s disposal; it had also to take into account the treaty recently agreed with Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, which obliged the Emperor to leave 15,000 men always available for the defence of the Empire. In fact, about 7,500 infantry from the old regiments were finally ordered to march from the western front to a rendezvous at Kittsee, near Pressburg, to join there the great majority of the regiments recently quartered in Bohemia and the various Austrian duchies. In due course, 5,000 men from the new regiments were also available for the campaign in Hungary.

It was soon realised that one miscalculation had already been made. The troops, especially those in the Empire, took much longer than expected to make the long journey to the eastern front, and the date for the rendezvous at Kittsee had to be altered from 21 April to 6 May. Sixteen days were thus lost, and the chance of taking the initiative before the Turks could arrive dwindled fast.

Another difficult point was the appointment of a commander in the field. Leopold, unlike his father, unlike such militant contemporary rulers as Max Emmanuel and William of Orange or John Sobieski, never imagined himself a victorious commanding general. He had always to choose a deputy, after taking into account the ticklish animosities of the military and political grandees of his court. In the last war against France, Montecuccoli, by combining the presidency of the War Council with the supreme command in the field, had caused them the greatest offence. Enemies and critics of Baden, the new President, were determined to deny him the same monopoly of power and they relied on the pledge, previously given by Leopold, to appoint Charles of Lorraine commander-in-chief if war broke out again. This could not bind the Emperor. Circumstances alter cases, Charles had often been ill in recent years, while Herman of Baden certainly disliked and perhaps under-estimated him. In 1683, in spite of counter-intrigues, Lorraine’s party at the court persevered and finally triumphed, so that he was instructed to be in Vienna by 10 April in order to discuss the strategy of the coming campaign.


Money without manpower was useless. Lorraine and Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, military governor of Vienna from 1680, had immediately agreed that the infantry regiments marching up the Danube from Pressburg should move at once into Vienna. On 10 July, troops of the vanguard first appeared. More arrived on the following day, and on the 13th the mass of Leslie’s command completed their long journey from Györ; the great majority of his infantry regiments were sent over the river with the utmost despatch. Early that day, therefore, Starhemberg commanded 5,000 men. By evening he had some 11,000. The prospects were at least less dismal than the week before, when the Turks were expected to invest or storm a city held by no more than the ghost of a garrison.

Yet the foremost Ottoman raiders now appeared, and in the distance the smoke of burning villages in the neighbourhood rose skywards. Starhemberg did not dare delay in performing one of his most disagreeable duties: the speedy and forcible clearing of the glacis. Since earlier demolition orders had not been obeyed, he began—on 13 July—to burn down everything in the area outside the counterscarp which would obviously hamper the garrison. Most of all he wanted to clear the ground west of the city, where suburbs came closest to the moat. More smoke rose skywards. The sparks flew. They flew over the walls as far as the roof of the Schotten monastery by the Schottengate, where a fire broke out in the afternoon of Wednesday, the 14th; and it almost altered the course of history. The wind blew sparks against the neighbouring buildings, an inn, and from the inn to a wall of the Arsenal, where supplies of every kind were stored, including 1,800 barrels of powder. Nearby, other powder magazines adjoined the New-gate. If the defence-works here were seriously damaged by explosion, or the stores lost, resistance to the Turks was hardly thinkable. The flames moved along a wooden gallery into the Arsenal. Townsmen and soldiers gathered, there was a muddle about keys which could not be found, but soldiers broke through a door and cleared the points of greatest danger. A hysterical mob, looking on, smelt treason at once and lynched two suspects, a poor lunatic and a boy wearing woman’s clothes. It also destroyed the baggage which an inoffensive mining official from Hungary, then in Vienna, was trying to get out of a second inn near the Arsenal; and it panicked at the sight of a flag flying unaccountably from a roof close to the fire, fearing some kind of a signal to the enemy. More effectively, the wind then veered. Flames swept towards and into aristocratic properties on the other side, away from the Arsenal, and proceeded to burn out the Auersperg palace where the ruins went on smouldering for days. The crisis had passed before the arrival of the Turks; but the danger of yet more fires, set off by Turkish bombs or by traitors and spies inside the walls, was to be a constant nightmare in Vienna later on.

Starhemberg very properly ordered the municipality to requisition cellars for the storage of powder. It took over a number of crypts or cellars under churches and convents for this purpose.

On the same day, the 14th, Lorraine began pulling his cavalry out of Leopoldstadt and the islands. Breaking down the bridges as they went, they crossed right over the Danube and took up a new position on the north bank. Only the final bridge was left intact, guarded by a small force. Leslie’s infantry continued to move into the city. Stores, coming downstream by boat and raft, were still being unloaded by townsmen and units of the garrison.


Kara Mustafa completed his investment of Vienna on July 15, 1683, and then commenced a heavy bombardment of the bastions, curtain, and town. The Ottoman bombardment continued for two months, which was longer than a comparable shelling by a European army would have taken because, after leading in siege artillery for generations, the Ottomans had finally fallen behind the European powers in the quality and hitting power of their siege guns. The Viennese replied with their more numerous wall and bastion cannon, but counter-battery and harassing fire against Ottoman sappers was severely limited by a shortage of powder and shot. Many batteries were ordered to fire only a few times per day, in order to conserve shot and conceal their location until the final assault by Janissaries and berserkers. Ottoman miners were highly skilled, and their saps steadily approached the town walls. On August 12th mines were detonated and Ottoman infantry broke through Vienna’s outer works. On September 2 they overcame several outer ravelins. Four days later engineers blew a huge mine beneath the “Burg bastion.” This cratered a section of wall, leaving a ten-meter gap. Into this Mustafa poured crack Janissaries. They were met by improvised barriers and lines of pikemen, behind which Austrian musketeers poured volley after volley into the Janissary ranks, driving them out of the breach. As these events were occurring, the Allied relief army approached and assembled northwest of Vienna. Some 40,000 assorted Germans joined 20,000 Imperials and 16,000 Poles, the latter led personally by their king. The Tatar light cavalry screen and other Ottoman scouts failed to detect this relief army or block it from transiting key mountain passes and river crossings. The fight that ensued marked the first time in history that a European army outnumbered an Ottoman army in a major field battle.

On September 12, the German, Imperial, and Polish armies, jointly led by Sobieski, destroyed the Tatar and Ottoman cavalry at Kahlenberg, in front of Vienna’s walls. Mustafa made the critical error of leaving most of his infantry in the siege trenches, sending 28,000 unsupported horse and insufficient field artillery (just 60 light guns) to meet the enemy in the field. That is the number most often cited by historians of the Ottoman military, possibly underestimating the extent of the defeat suffered in the baking heat that day. Similarly exaggerating the scale of the “Christian victory,” some European sources claim that as many as 50,000 Ottoman cavalry fought at Kahlenberg. In either case, the fight began at dawn, with heavy action first on the Christian left, where Charles of Lorraine commanded the Imperials and Saxons. The Bavarians and Franconians soon joined this attack on the Ottoman right, which spread to the center as the two armies fully engaged. Sobieski’s Polish cavalry and dragoons needed until 1 P. M. to traverse broken countryside as they approached the Ottoman left. But when they emerged and charged into the Tatars, they pushed them back in hard cavalry-on-cavalry fighting. Around 3 P. M., a massed Allied infantry and cavalry assault began against the Ottoman center, behind which Kara Mustafa looked on in disbelief at his misfortune and the size of the enemy army he faced. Fighting continued until about 6 P. M., when the Ottoman lines were wholly shattered and all their positions overrun. Christian troops moved over the battlefield as the sun set, sabering and shooting wounded sipahis and Tatars while Allied cavalry hotly pursued fleeing survivors. When it was over, 10,000 Ottoman and Tatar dead lay in the fields, with more bodies strewn across abandoned siege lines around the city and in overrun camps.

Kara Mustafa was forced into a desperate and disorderly retreat, following what had become a decisive rout. The Allies even captured part of the Ottoman baggage train that had been left behind in their haste to depart. The grand vezier’s retreat took him and the remnants of the siege army across mountainous and river-crossed Hungary just as the weather turned truly nasty in mid-October. Heavy rains slowed the withdrawal and cost the lives of more men, along with most of the remaining siege guns, pack animals, and supplies. The worst episode came while crossing the Leitha River, widened and swollen with flash runoff from the mountain rains. During the night of October 19-20, hundreds of draught animals became mired in mud along the river’s banks and nearly all remaining baggage was lost, including all tents. Along the way, Mustafa executed officers who were openly critical of his leadership. It did not avail: when he arrived in Belgrade, news of the catastrophe had preceded him, and he was strangled to death by order of the sultan. Mehmed survived in power for four more years, until deposed as part of the wider political aftermath within the Ottoman Empire of the catastrophe outside the walls of Vienna and at Kahlenberg.

Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in 717–718


umayyads 750ad



Date: August 717–15 August 718.

Location: on the Sea of Marmara, modern Istanbul.

Forces Engaged:

Byzantine: unknown. Commander: Emperor Leo the Isaurian.

Muslim: 210,000. Commander: Maslama.


Defeat of Muslim forces in their first serious attempt to overpower the Byzantine Empire led to another seven centuries of Christian power in southeastern Europe.

Historical Setting

Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. In doing so, he occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries had controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. The Sea of Marmara is flanked northeast and southwest by the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, two narrow straits linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. Unless one goes completely around the Black Sea, the passage from Europe into Asia Minor is across one of those straits. Therefore, Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul has been an extremely strategic possession for both land and naval warfare, as well as overland and maritime trade. As Rome faded and Constantinople rose in power, it became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire.

Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam in Arabia in the seventh century. Claiming his divinely inspired teachings, the Koran, to be the successor to the Bible and the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity, he spread his faith by both proselytization and warfare. By coincidence (or divine intervention) Muhammad arrived on the scene just as the two Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He was therefore able to acquire massive territorial gains hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persians and Byzantines suffered major losses of real estate as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

Muhammad the Prophet had a public career of ten years (622–632), then died without publicly naming a successor. His close associate Abu Bakr was elected to succeed him but ruled only two years; upon his death Omar reigned as caliph (“deputy”), the religious and political head of Islam. For ten years Omar oversaw Islam’s expansion into Byzantine territory, Persia, Syria, modern Iraq, and Egypt. It spread further still under the caliphate of Othman (644–656), ultimately stretching west to the Atlantic shore of North Africa as well as east to Armenia and Afghanistan. After he was assassinated Islam split into two major factions: the followers of Muhammad’s nephew Ali became the Shi’ites, while the supporters of the Syrian governor Muawiya started the Sunni faction. Muawiya established the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus between 661 and 750.

Muawiya’s goal was the downfall of the Christian Byzantine Empire, for reportedly whoever was involved in capture of the capital city of Constantinople would have all his sins forgiven. Intermittently between 674 and 678 Muslim forces attempted to capture the city, by both land and sea, but the double walls protecting it proved too formidable. Muawiya settled for a peace treaty with the Byzantine emperor, which provided for an annual tribute from Damascus to Constantinople. For the next thirty years Muslim armies carried the faith as far as Spain and India, but the lure of Constantinople, the key to Europe, always beckoned. Caliph Walid (705–715) organized the forces necessary to seize the city, but died before the project began. Thus, his successor Suleiman sent men and ships to the Byzantine capital in 717.

The Byzantine Empire had suffered through a series of mediocre emperors since the last assault. Anastasius was now emperor. He came to the throne in 713 and was in the market for able soldiers to defend his realm. In his army served a general named Conon, better known as Leo the Isaurian. (He was probably from Syria rather than the Anatolian province of Isauria [modern Konia], however.) He had been a soldier since 705 and in 716 took command of the theme (district) of Anatolia. He harried the approaching Muslim army as it marched out of Syria toward Constantinople, then took the throne from Anastasius in March 717. Crowned Leo III, he immediately set about laying in as many provisions as he could for the siege he knew was coming, a daunting task for a city of perhaps half a million people. He also oversaw the repair and strengthening of the city’s two walls and the placement of weaponry to repel attacks from land or sea.

The Siege

Caliph Suleiman named Muslama as commander of his army, reportedly 80,000 men marching through Anatolia toward Constantinople. His plan was to invest the city from the western, landward side while a huge fleet blocked any supplies from reaching the city. That fleet numbered some 1,800 ships carrying a further 80,000 men under the command of a general named Suleiman, not to be confused with the caliph. The Muslim fleet was divided into two divisions: one to blockade the Dardanelles (or Hellespont) and keep any relief from coming to Constantinople from the Mediterranean, and one to hold the Bosphorus to the north, keeping out any relief from Black Sea ports. Muslama crossed the Hellespont in July 717, then divided his forces. He took command of the main body that began the siege, while sending a detachment to Adrianople to keep an eye on the Bulgars, who had been pillaging through southeastern Europe and had attacked Constantinople in 712.

Immediately upon his arrival Muslama threw an attack against the walls, but it was easily beaten back. That convinced him against undertaking a frontal assault, so he began digging trenches to prevent any breakout from the city. Most of the fighting, therefore, took place on the water. Admiral Suleiman left part of his navy at the Dardanelles, as ordered, but led the remainder northward to take up station on the Hellespont. As they approached Constantinople, however, the leading ships were caught in a swift and unfamiliar current that began to tangle them. Seizing his opportunity, Leo quickly lowered the chain that protected the Golden Horn (the upper harbor of the city) and dashed out into the Muslim fleet before they could form into line of battle. Using Greek fire, his ships quickly destroyed or captured a large number of vessels while the rest retreated. Suleiman feared sailing past the city now, for another such battle could destroy the rest of his fleet. Thus, the northern avenue for aid for a time was kept open.

The Muslim effort was off to a poor start, and soon bad news came from Damascus. Caliph Suleiman had died of a stomach ailment (probably from overeating) and Omar II, not known for his military acumen, had replaced him. For the next several months little happened except for bad luck. The winter of 717–718 was much colder than usual and snow lay on the ground for more than three months. For an army born and raised in Arabia and Egypt this was disconcerting at best, deadly at worst. Delays in the delivery of supplies from Egypt, coupled with the bad weather, meant the deaths of thousands of besieging soldiers.

The Muslims hoped to take the initiative in the spring of 718 with the arrival of a new fleet from Egypt bringing 50,000 reinforcements. The 400 ships of the fleet from Egypt slipped past the Byzantine fleet in the Golden Horn at night, thus avoiding a naval battle, and anchored at the Hellespont. That cut off the flow of supplies and would eventually have spelled the city’s doom, but Leo’s navy again saved the day. He was aided by the desertion of large numbers of crew members from the new Egyptian fleet, sailors who were Coptic Christians and had been pressed into Muslim service. Learning of the enemy fleet’s disposition, Leo launched a surprise attack in June that caught them completely unawares. The Greek fire (an unknown mixture of materials with many of the characteristics of napalm) once again caused both destruction and terror; the Christian crews deserted wholesale to the welcoming Byzantine forces. The northern blockading fleet was destroyed and Leo followed up his victory with an attack on Muslim forces on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, opposite the capital. That attack was so unexpected that Muslim soldiers and sailors were slaughtered by the thousands.

Leo at this point proved himself to be a diplomat as well as a general. He sent envoys to the Bulgars, who persuaded their King Tervel to attack the Muslim army from the west. In July Tervel’s soldiers drove back the Muslim holding force at Adrianople and attacked Muslama’s forces in the rear, defeating them and inflicting some 22,000 casualties. This new threat was reinforced by the rumor that a Frankish army was marching across Europe to assist their fellow Christians. The Muslims had not yet fought the Franks, but had heard tales of formidable military power. Caliph Omar decided it was time to bring the siege to a close. On 15 August 718 Muslama led the army away from Constantinople.


The defeat at Constantinople was the first disastrous loss the armies of Islam had suffered. There had been occasional defeats, but never a catastrophe such as this. Of the 210,000 Muslim soldiers and sailors who took part, it is reported that only 30,000 actually saw their homeland again. Of the more than 2,000 ships reported to have been involved, only five supposedly made it home.

Had Muslama’s armies captured the city, the route into eastern Europe would have been virtually unguarded. Little organized resistance could have been mounted against hordes of Muslim troops until they reached central Europe. Constantinople, the seat of political, religious, and economic power in the Christian East, probably would have become Islam’s capital as it did in the wake of the Muslim capture of the city in 1453. The Eastern Orthodox Church may have disappeared, with untold consequences in eastern Europe and Russia, although such did not happen in 1453. Sea power would have been completely in Muslim hands, for no European population at the time owned a significant navy. None would until the Vikings a century later. Even with the Frankish victory at Tours in France fifteen years afterward, Islam could well have become the dominant European, and therefore world, religion.

The Byzantine victory insulated Europe from Islam, but also from other outside influences. Hellenistic knowledge and culture survived and in many ways flourished in the Middle East and Africa, while Europe entered the Dark Ages. Militarily Europe was strong, but cultural progress was at a crawl. Not until the Crusades and the resulting revival of trade with the East was the old knowledge rediscovered, and the Renaissance was the result. It is interesting to speculate what Europe may have been like had Constantinople fallen seven centuries before it did.

References: J. F. C. Fuller, Military History of the Western World, vol. 1 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1954); Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 6 (London: Methuen, 1898); Warren T. Treadgold, Byzantium and its Army, 284–1081 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

The siege of Ostend and the Spinola offensives 1601-8

Ostend’s military machines by Pompeo Giustiniani 1 & 3, the construction of wicker filled with stones and earth were buried in the trenches by the besiegers; they were used in the western part of the town to allow the fording of the Old Haven. 2 & 4, to the east, the deeper flowing channel Geule of the Old Haven, a dam was constructed by Count Bucquoy’s troops on which rode artillery pieces to prevent the entry of ships into the harbour during low tide; 6 Cannons mounted on parapets on top of boats that ventured close to bomb the city; this design would be a failure as it sank on its maiden voyage without even firing a shot. 8 Mobile drawbridge or Targone bridge: this too was a failure after it took a direct hit.

Maurice of Nassau’s foray along the Flemish coast brought home to the Spanish the need of doing something about the Dutch coastal enclave at Ostend, which the enemy had been diligently fortifying for some years:

Quite apart from the fact that the Archduke Albert was denied the use of such a good port, the presence of the garrison compelled him to maintain a war in his own territory, added to ‘The Eighty Years War in the Netherlands 1566-1648 85 which the land had to bear the ruinous cost of paying an extra army – Flanders in particular was the prey of the soldiers, whereas in peacetime it was reckoned to make up a fourth part of the whole Seventeen Provinces in wealth (Haestens, 1615, 98).

Albert therefore decided to reduce Ostend. His ambition resulted in a contest which lasted for three years, and bears comparison with the sieges of Vienna in 1683 and of Stalingrad in 1943 for the interest which the rest of the world attached to its outcome.

The Duke of Parma himself had never dared to tackle Ostend, which possessed free communication by sea to Zeeland and Holland, and was surrounded by water on almost every side. The sea ruled out all serious attacks against the Old Town, or northern portion of the fortress, while the landward fronts were protected by two tidal creeks: the Old Harbour on the western side, and the New Harbour or Geule (the present port of Ostend) on the eastern side.

The landward approaches represented ‘a plashy moor (Vere, 1672, 126) on all sides except the coastal dunes. These sand hills offered the only tracts of dry ground over which siege guns could be brought close to the fortress, but if they chose this path of advance the Spanish would be presented with the problem of crossing the Old Harbour and the Geule at their deepest and widest points.

The man-made defences of Ostend consisted of two perimeters. The inner enceinte owned eight earthen bastions, in front of which was a broad and deep ditch of sea water. The bottom was ‘a glutinous impermeable mud, which supported no vegetation . .. and always retained its water’ (Montpleinchamp, 1693, 152). Beyond the ditch ran a very thick counterscarp, or rather outer enceinte, which conformed approximately to the trace of the inner enceinte, and consisted of long branches which ran forward into bastion-like salients. The works as a whole were high, well-flanked and strongly palisaded, though built of a ‘sandy and mouldered earth’ (Vere, 1672, 121).

On 5 July 1601 the Spanish appeared before Ostend in the strength of about 12,000 men. Over the following months they proceeded to drive the defenders back from their positions in the marshes to the two enceintes. They simultaneously planted some heavy siege batteries in the western dunes, from where the guns kept up a heavy fire against the Sandhill Bastion, which stood at the north-west corner of the outer enceinte and overlooked the point where the Old Harbour entered the sea. The cannonade was so violent that the work

might rather have been called iron-hill than sandhill: for it was stuck so full of bullets, that many of them tumbled down into the fausse-braye, and others, striking on their own bullets, breaking into pieces flew up into the air as high as a steeple (Hexham’s account, Vere, 1672, 166).

The besiegers paid heavily for their gains. The newly-arrived troops from Spain and Italy perished miserably in the bitter weather, and they were cut down in scores by the fire from Ostend. ‘The ground was strewn everywhere with arms, legs and hands . . . surgeons came out of the town, and brought back bags full of human fat which they had stripped from the bodies’ (Haestens, 1615, 147). (This disgusting material was prized as a salve for wounds.)

Possibly as many as 2,000 men were lost on the single night of 7-8 January 1602, when the Spanish launched an assault along the beach at low water against the Sandhill Bastion. Archduke Albert had committed precisely the same mistake as Parma at Maastricht in 1579, throwing his men into the assault over open ground against prepared defences. All along the ramparts of Ostend lay the people who had paid for his error:

whole heaps of dead carcasses, forty or fifty upon a heap, stark naked, goodly young men, Spaniards and Italians: among whom, some (besides other marks to know them by) had their beards clean shaven off. There lay also upon the sand some dead horse, with baskets of hand-grenades; they left also behind them their scaling-ladders, great store of spades, and shovels, bills, hatchets, and axes and other materials (Hexham’s account, Vere, 1672, 174)

For the rest of 1602 and the best part of 1603 the siege settled into a noisy but indecisive routine. The Spanish never again essayed an assault, but contented themselves with cannonading the town from a high platform built on the western dunes.

Compared with the Spanish host, the garrison was not particularly big (in March 1602, for example, it stood at 7,000), but in compensation the defenders were continually reinforced and replenished from the sea. So sure, indeed, was the traffic that many civilian spectators, including women, made the trip to Ostend to view the siege.

This period was enlivened for the Spanish by the arrival in their camp of a present from the Pope, in the person of the engineer Pompeio Targone (1575- c. 1630). Targone had

a very ready wit, which made him apt for inventions in his calling: but having never till then passed from the theory to the practical part in military affairs, it was soon seen, that many of his imaginations did not upon trial prove such, as in appearance they promised to be (Bentivoglio, 1678, part III, book 7).

Targone bent his imagination to the task of pushing forward the approaches from the eastern dunes, but he failed dismally in everyone of the devices he contrived: first a monstrous rolling gabion, then a floating battery, and finally a dyke which broke apart in the north-western storms.

Such was the state of affairs when the Spanish officers heard that yet another Italian dilettante was coming out to Ostend, not merely to invent siege engines but to take charge of the whole army. This gentleman was one Ambrogio Spinola, a scion of a wealthy Genoese family. The signs could hardly have been worse. Spinola was known to be devoid of all military experience, and to have been brought up in comfortable, not to say sumptuous surroundings. Moreover, the family had virtually bought the command for its pampered son, by offering to put the Spinola riches and credit at the disposal of the army in the Netherlands.

In one respect the Spanish expectations were fulfilled, for as soon as Spinola reached Ostend in the late summer of 1603 he charged a large proportion of the costs of the siege to his own account. As early as 10 December Archduke Albert could write to King Philip III that since Spinola had taken charge

the siege has been progressing very quickly. With the help of the money which the said Marquis is providing … we have overcome many difficulties which hitherto impeded the course of the works. All of this gives us good cause to be optimistic (Villa, 1904, 73-4).

What was much more surprising was that Spinola proved to be that rarest of creatures, a man who had equipped himself to be a complete commander from the study of books. Not only did he show himself to be an expert engineer, but he won over the ordinary soldiers by leadership of the most direct and forceful kind. In the quiet of his library he had absorbed all the lessons which Parma and Archduke Albert had had to buy with the blood of their men.

Spinola’s main objective was to force the crossing of the Old Harbour from the west. If he could gain the counterscarp on that side, he explained to the king, ‘Your Majesty would have a guarantee that the town would be yours’ (ibid., 76).

Reviving the ferocious emulation which had existed among the Habsburg contingents in the days of Charles v, Spinola arranged his Germans, Spanish, Italians, Burgundians and Walloons in order of battle along the bank of the Old Harbour from its mouth to the marshes behind the town. The troops then threw causeways of. earth and fascines across the creek. This was a difficult and bloody business which was helped by screens of gabions, but not at all by the employment of the last of Targone’s inventions, a mobile drawbridge mounted on four ten-foot wheels. A single cannon shot shattered one of the wheels and immobilised the machine for good.

Spinola was everywhere, ‘exposing himself as much as any of the rest to all the labour and dangers, encouraging some, rewarding others’ (Bentivoglio, 1678, part III, book 7). The Walloons and Burgundians were the first across, for the water was shallowest at the head of the creek, but the other contingents were not far behind, and on 4 April 1604 the besiegers surprised and took a number of redoubts on the counterscarp opposite the Sandhill Bastion. Maurice received the news in Holland with astonishment, and began to harbour his first fears as to the fate of Ostend.

Parma now undertook a second, formal siege of the inner enceinte. In the summer the Dutch were forced to abandon the inner rampart altogether, and they retired to a large bastioned retrenchment which· they had heaped up in the north-eastern corner of the town.

In order to complete these fortifications the defenders had to dig up a number of dead bodies, and heap up the heads and bones of their late comrades like fascines. Since these works were made of dead bodies and freshly-dug earth, they could not offer adequate resistance to cannon-fire (Baudart, 1616, II, 340).

Unseasonable storms completed the Spaniards’ work for them. The Dutch supply ships found it increasingly difficult to make their way into Ostend, and on 22 August a combination of tempest and high tide swamped the grisly retrenchment and carried large sections of it away.

The States General finally authorised the last governor, Daniel d’Hertaing, to seek a capitulation on good terms. He shipped off all the gunners, engineers, Spanish deserters, heretical preachers and other folk who were calculated to awake the Spanish ire, and then opened negotiations with Spinola. On 20 September 1604 he was granted a free evacuation for the remaining 3,000 men of his garrison.

 Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella came from Ghent to view the conquest, but they could see

nothing but a misshapen chaos of earth, which hardly retained any show of the first Ostend. Ditches filled up, curtains beaten down, bulwarks torn in pieces, half-moons, flanks and redoubts so confused with one another, as one could not be distinguished from another; nor could it be known on which side the attack, or on which side the defence was (Bentivoglio, 1678, part III, book 7).

The scale of the struggle for Ostend resembled that of a war rather than a siege. The contest lasted three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours, and the losses of the Spanish from all causes are variously estimated at between 17,000 and 80,000 dead. The impartial Carnero (1625, book XV, chapter 10) puts the figure at 40,000, which seems a good average. The casualties of the Dutch are quite impossible to estimate, for their vessels made something like 3,000 round trips, bringing reinforcements to Ostend, and carrying away the sick and wounded to die or recover in their homeland.

The siege, long and costly though it was, must be accounted a major victory for the Spanish, for they had evicted the Dutch from their one remaining foothold in ‘Belgium’, and so completed the work which Parma had begun in the 1580s. The technical lessons were obvious enough: in the first place, that it was extremely difficult to take a fortress which could receive reinforcements and replenishment throughout the siege; then again, it was clear that an unprepared assault would almost certainly meet with a bloody repulse, and that it was essential to shelter the besieging troops with all the cover that earth and brushwood could provide.

Maurice and the Dutch field army had meanwhile been striving to draw the Spanish away from Ostend by reducing fortresses in other parts of the Netherlands, applying the technique of trying to break a stranglehold by stamping on the strangler’s foot. Maurice captured Rijnberk in 1601, Grave the next year, and in 1603 he essayed a determined but vain siege of s’Hertogenbosch – all without persuading the Spanish to move from Ostend. At last in the spring of 1604 the Dutch army undertook a direct offensive along the Flanders coast. Sluis and its fine harbour fell to Maurice on 19 August 1604, hardly a month before the Spanish conquered Ostend.

If the siege of Ostend had established Spinola as a master of fortress warfare, then his capacity in the open field was proved beyond doubt in the brief (but for the Dutch extremely alarming) period of fighting which preceded the Twelve Years Truce. In 1605 Spinola took a leaf out of Maurice’s book. He advanced threateningly on Sluis, then swung eastwards with 15,000 men, crossed the Rhine at Kaisersworth, and in August reduced the fortresses of Oldenzaal and Lingen. For the first time in two decades the main Spanish striking-force had been transferred to the vital pivotal area east of the Ijssel, and Maurice spoke wonderingly of the movements of this ‘flying devil’ who seemed to read his thoughts like a crystal ball.

The Eighty Years War in the Netherlands 1566-1648 89 Grol fell to Spinola on 14 August 1606, so deepening the area of his conquests in Overijssel and eastern Gelderland. Heavy rains ruled out any exploitation westwards across the Ijssel, or northeastwards towards Friesland. Spinola accordingly turned on his tracks, and strengthened his hold on the middle Rhine by taking the much-disputed fortress of Rijnberk.

Despite his recent conquests, Spinola was one of the leading advocates of a truce with the Dutch. He knew that the Spanish finances could not possibly support the strain of further campaigns. A preliminary armistice was concluded in April 1607, which led to an agreement to conclude a truce with a term of twelve years dating from 1608. The demarcation confirmed the status quo, leaving the Dutch with a narrow foothold in northern Brabant and Flanders to the south of their river line; further east, the Spanish reaped the benefit of Spinola’s recent successes, and retained Oldenzaal and Grol as tiny enclaves lodged on the borders of Germany and the Dutch provinces.

The Medieval Siege

In ancient times, cities often had strong walls around them, and warfare against these cities had always involved the basic tasks of breaking the walls, going over or under the walls, or starving the defenders into surrender. In the Middle Ages, Europe’s decentralized political structure put a new twist on the siege by planting heavily fortified castles all over the landscape. Constantinople’s thick city walls were similar to the fortresses of Roman, Greek, and more ancient times. Northern Europe, on the other hand, had several hundred small fortresses that were designed to hold off disproportionately larger attackers. In order to capture a region, an invader would need to besiege more than one fortress.

After the period of the First Crusade, knights returned with much grander ideas of defensive fortification. They had seen Byzantine fortress designs and had participated in attacks on Antioch, Acre, Jerusalem, and Tyre. Crusaders had built their own fortresses to hold the new territory, and they had used local engineering and labor to build much larger stone fortresses than Europe had at the time. When they came home, many rebuilt their family castles to incorporate the new defensive features. Castles became harder to capture by direct assault.

Sieges, attacks that stretched out over a long period of time, were the only way of capturing a castle unless it was taken by surprise. Sieges were expensive for both sides. The attackers had to sustain an army in hostile territory for a number of months, while the defenders had to make their food and water last. Both sides worked hard to attack or defend the walls. Walls could be broken down or surmounted by going over or under the walls. Siege machinery falls into three basic types. Catapults threw projectiles over the castle walls, either into the castle or from the castle toward the attackers. Rams battered the walls to make them fall down. Siege towers lifted attackers to the top of the wall so that they could enter.

Because of the high stakes and expense, sieges were not governed by the polite rules of chivalry. No trick was too dirty, gross, or savage. Treachery was one of the best ways of breaking a siege, if an insider could be bribed to open the gates or tell of a secret weak point. Poison or bacterial contamination of food or water was a popular way to break a siege.

Climbing, Ramming, and Digging

The simplest siege weapon was the ladder. The attackers wanted to get into the fortress, and one way was to go over the walls. Siege ladders had been used against city and fortress walls since ancient times. Basic facts that governed the construction of siege ladders began with length: if a ladder was too short, it would not allow the attacker to go over the top, but if it was too long, its top would stick up where defenders could shove it away. The ladder had to lean enough to be stable, but it had to be vertical enough to be strong. The ideal siege ladder came to just below the top of the wall, and its foot was placed at a distance from the wall equal to about half its length. Since the walls of a town or castle were of varying heights, and were surrounded by varying terrain, the attackers had to build custom siege ladders for each position.

A refinement on the simple ladder was a ladder with a bridge. The bridge was a sturdy plank hinged at the top of the ladder, raised by ropes. The ladder had to be somewhat freestanding, like a platform, since it could not lean against the wall. Some engineers designed folding ladders that could be made in advance and carried with the army or ladders that could be assembled from short sections. Some sieges also used ladders made of rope or leather, with hooks at the top. These ladders were for quiet night attacks, when the ladders could suddenly appear hooked on top of the walls by long poles without the defenders having seen any ladders.

Defenders tried to repel attackers on ladders by using the force of gravity. Standing at a higher level, they could drop harmful substances on the climbers. Most often, they threw large rocks to knock the attackers off the ladders or force them to cover their heads. Sometimes they threw or poured boiling water, oil, or any other hot substances they had on hand, such as tar. They could also throw quicklime, a highly caustic, alkaline material that burned on contact. In sandy places, they could heat sand to red-hot and fling it down. In some cases, they could fling nets onto the attackers when they reached the top and trap them.

To protect against all these defenses, attackers used heavy shields. Since classical times, there had been siege shields made tall, curved back, or with a small roof, and at times on wheels. Many shields were large enough for more than one man. Medieval sieges used all forms of wooden shields, covered with leather. In the 15th century, the tall siege shield was called a pavis. It often had a spike to drive into the ground and a pole to hold it up.

Of course, the first defense against siege ladders had been put in place before the siege began, when the fortress was designed. Most fortresses used a ditch or moat that came as close as possible to the outer walls. Attackers had to fill in the ditch with sacks or barrels of rocks and earth. In some cases, they resorted to using catapults to land rocks and dirt in the moat. Unless the ground was reasonably level approaching the wall, their use of siege machines would be limited.

If the attackers continued to try to go over the walls, but needed more than ladders, the next logical step was to make portable sheds. Sheds could be made fi re resistant with water and fresh skins. Sheds could also disguise or protect structural attacks, such as digging or battering rams.

The purpose of a ram is simple. It is a strong tree trunk that hits a wall, gate, or door repeatedly until the object is smashed. The design of a battering ram had three aims: to strengthen the ram itself, to increase its force, and to protect its operators from counterattack.

The end of the battering ram was strengthened by a metal tip. Sometimes this was actually in the shape of a ram’s head, invoking the ram’s butting strength and using the ram’s extended snout as the focal point of the battering force. More often, it was a blacksmith’s iron binding so that the wood did not shatter as easily from the force put on it. The ram’s bulk was suspended by ropes that could swing it, so the operators of a battering ram did not need much human power to strike with it. Longer ropes, of course, gave it more swinging power. The frame that suspended the ram was usually roofed so that its operators were protected from arrows or stones. Finally, the roof was often covered with damp animal skins as fire prevention.

Defenders dropped projectiles and hot liquids on the operators of battering rams. They could also try to disrupt the action of the ram, if the ram’s housing was too well defended to be vulnerable to rocks or fire. When the ram struck the wall, they could try to hook it and pull it up, either deflecting its blow or flipping its shed over.

Battering ram technology had been well explored during classical times, and, although rams were still used, castle designers built walls to withstand them. The thickest parts of the walls were at battering level, and gates, the main target of rams, were protected by gatehouses and moats. Attackers had to find new ways to use rams during the Middle Ages. Small rams could be mounted on ladders and lifted up to smash parapets. Attackers could build an earth ramp to a higher point in a wall, where it was likely to be thinner.

Attackers could also try to drill holes in the walls. Borers, too, had to work in the shelter of sheds and shields. It was not easy to drill holes in stone walls, so borers were more commonly used against brick. They were not a large feature of Northern European siege warfare, since most French and English castles were made of limestone and granite. A strong brick wall could be sufficiently weakened by holes that a ram could bring it down. Holes could have wood pushed in and set on fire, and the heat further weakened the walls.

By the 14th century, castle walls were built to be too high and thick for ladders and rams to be effective. If ladders and rams could not boost attackers over or batter walls down, a more elaborate machine could be built. A siege tower was a heavy, cumbersome machine, not designed for a lightning attack or for secrecy. It was part of an all-out assault on a weakened castle. The tower was a tall wooden structure on wheels; it was sometimes called a castle or a cat. It had protective walls and a roof and was fi reproofed if possible. Inside, it had wooden floors as stories where attackers could stand. A ladder led from bottom to top, so each layer of attackers could climb the ladder in turn. A top floor allowed archers to give further defensive cover to the attackers. The siege tower also had a bridge to cross to the top of the wall. This bridge could be a drawbridge, operated by a windlass in the bottom story.

Certain engineering issues governed the construction of siege towers. They had to be tall enough to reach the walls and stable enough not to tip when loaded with climbing soldiers. They also had to be portable, usually on wheels. Medieval siege towers were as tall as 75 feet high, but they were often shorter. Designs in medieval illustrations appear to favor a small fortress on a rolling platform, reached by one or more ladders. The attackers expected a tough fight before they could cross a bridge, and they designed it to have walls or even a roof. Other siege towers were more like rolling platform ladders with bridges. The builders had to think about fire, since the most common way to defend against a siege tower was to set it on fire. In the Byzantine region, siege towers became obsolete when it became clear the defenders would hurl Greek fi re at them. Northern Europe was able to use siege tower tactics longer, since it was easier to defend wood against ordinary fire. The tower could be roofed with fresh turf or newly skinned wet hides.

Siege towers were heavy and could easily tip over. It was difficult to move them into position from the safe distance where they had been built. The ground had to be level, and many teams of oxen were needed to move them. They also needed to be moved close to the walls, which normally meant that pushing, not pulling, force was required. One way to move a very heavy siege platform was to sink one or more posts into the ground by the castle walls and loop heavy pulleys and ropes around them. The platform was then attached to the ropes, and it could be moved forward by oxen walking away from the battle. The siege tower inched closer to the fortress walls, but the muscle power moving it only moved farther out of range. The tower could come right up to the pulleys, if the defenders had not disrupted them. Towers could also be moved with levers, but, in any case, they moved very slowly because of their great weight.

Undermining a wall could be the most successful attack, and there were fewer ways for the defenders to work against it. Ideally, the defenders would not know that sappers were digging a tunnel under the walls. The first somewhat successful underground attack in medieval times was carried out by the Vikings when they besieged Paris in 885. After the Norman conquest of England, mining was part of many sieges. The siege of Rochester Castle in 1215, when King John of England was putting down a rebellion, was one of the few times when mining was a key factor in the castle’s surrender. Miners dug under two outer walls so that the defenders were trapped in the keep. Chateau-Gaillard, built by King Richard I of England, was designed to be impregnable, but miners collapsed its walls twice. Mining was a large part of Crusader warfare, on both sides.

The best location to begin a sapping operation was in a place where the defenders could not observe what was going on without leaving the fortress. Sappers sometimes needed to start some distance away, on the other side of a hill. The attackers could put up a wooden palisade so that the defenders could not see what they were doing on the other side. If the diggers had to start in a place where the defenders could observe them, they needed a strong shed to protect them. The shed was sometimes nicknamed a “tortoise” or a “sow.”

An attacking army drafted industrial miners to dig their siege tunnels. Since stone was tunneled from deep underground, even from under the city of Paris, miners knew how to dig any length of tunnel required, through any materials. Beginning in a safe place, they dug underground and moved in a carefully planned direction toward the walls. Sometimes, two tunnels were dug as parallel galleries. As the miners tunneled, they shored up the walls of the mine with strong timbers. Mining was an operation that required a large number of laborers, which made it difficult to carry out deep in hostile territory.

When a tunnel successfully reached a point under the defensive wall, the miners nearly always started a fire. The intense heat caused the ground to expand, which cracked the walls and collapsed the tunnel. Added to the wood carried into the tunnel, oil and fat made the fire burn hotter; one mine fi re, in the siege of Rochester, used 40 pigs as sources of fat. The wood props securing the tunnels also burned, allowing the tunnels to collapse faster.

Once gunpowder was in use, it was even easier to produce a hot blast. It was harder to get away safely, since the combustion happened so quickly and the blast collapsed the tunnel. The best way was to approach the wall with snake-like curves and then use the curved passages to set a long fuse, out of sight and reach of the blast. As the fi re crept along the fuse, the miners could escape out the end of the tunnel. Since gunpowder came into use at the end of the Middle Ages, it did not become a major force in siege mining until the Renaissance period.

Most walls collapsed when the ground supporting them caved in. There were few ways to build walls that were not vulnerable to sapping. One way was to reinforce the walls with stone columns laid like pegs through holes in the building stones. Places with ruined Roman or Greek columns could use them this way, but most places did not have ruined columns. The fortress design could also use very deep digging to place a moat or a wall in vulnerable places.

Defenders tried to detect tunnel digging when they could not see it. A bowl of water, set over an area being mined, quivered with the vibrations of the tools. If they could tell where the miners were approaching the wall, the defenders could dig down to meet and surprise them with combat. They could sink a hole nearby and try to set the attacking tunnel on fire, or they could flood it if they had a moat or river inside the walls. The attackers tried to make their tunneling less predictable by making decoy tunnels or by making the tunnels take unexpected paths. Tunnels could branch out, or they could zigzag or curve.

Working trebuchet at Château des Baux

Ballistic Machines

Machines that threw projectiles were known by many names in their time, although today we refer to them all as catapults. There are a few simple forces that can provide ballistic power without explosives or motors. Levers and gravity can be harnessed to provide flinging power. The power of both tension and torsion derive from a material being bent so that it will spring or unwind back to its original state.

Tension engines worked by bending wood; it would spring back to shape when the tension was released, thus flinging a projectile with the force of its movement. Crossbows and longbows work on this principle, and some larger forms of crossbows could act as siege weapons, throwing larger projectiles. These great crossbows were built on a frame and used a windlass at the back of the frame to wind the bolt on its string far back. When the windlass was released, the wooden bow’s tension thrust its heavy bolt forward with speed and great force. But wood’s ability to bend and snap back is limited by its tendency to crack. Wooden bows could not throw anything larger than a bolt and could not take aim at walls, but only at people.

Torsion is the force exerted by a rope that has been twisted tightly and tries to untwist. It is the principle of a child’s toy boat or airplane that uses a rubber band wound up tight to drive paddles or propellers as it unwinds. Torsion had been used to drive throwing machines since ancient times. The Romans had a throwing machine called an “onager,” a wild donkey. It used a very thick band of rope, highly resistant to being twisted, as the torsion spring. When a lever was inserted into the torsion spring and cranked back so that the rope was forced to twist, on release it sprang into the air. The lever had a sling on the end with a heavy stone. As it sprang into the air, it struck a bar that stopped its movement, and the stone flew out of the sling. The onager’s simple torsion spring provided great velocity and force.

Medieval uses of the torsion spring are not as clear. There is evidence that torsion machines of this kind were known in the time of Charlemagne. Artists’ illustrations show a machine similar to the Roman onager, but instead of a sling at the end of the lever, there is a spoon-shaped cup for the rock to be placed in. It was probably called a mangonel. Turkish medieval sources picture a device similar to the Roman one, called a manjaniq, used by Muslim armies.

In the 14th century, there were large crossbows that did not use bent wood, but rather had two separate arms with torsion springs. Different types were known variously as ballistae and espringals (and in other languages, springarda or springolf). They were more often used by a fortress’s defenders, since they shot bolts at individuals, rather than rocks at walls. The espringal was built into a wooden frame, mounted on a tower. On each side, the frame had a torsion spring made of very thick horsehair rope that was resistant to twisting. Levers inserted into each spring were pulled back by ropes attached to the firing mechanism. The espringal’s firing system was like a crossbow, with a long groove for a bolt. The operator cranked the bolt back, pulling on the levers and the torsion springs. Released, the torsion springs untwisted and the levers shot the bolt forward, through the groove and out toward the target. The bolts were long and heavy. They could be expected to pierce wooden shields, steel armor, and sometimes more than one body.

The third type of throwing machine used levers and gravity. Since ancient times, people had known that if a lever is put over a fulcrum, like a seesaw, and the lengths are not equal, it takes a much heavier weight on the short end to balance a lighter weight on the long end. If the short end is suddenly weighted, the long end will fly into the air very fast. Unlike tension and torsion, which depend on the strength of bent wood or twisted rope, lever-based machines can throw very heavy objects with relative ease. As long as the lever’s arm and the stand with the fulcrum hinge are strong enough, there is no load limit.

The perrier used only the lever to fling large stones. The perrier depended on a sudden downward pull by men or horses. Its frame lifted the lever’s short arm above the men’s heads, with a rope dangling down, and the long end rested on the ground with a sling. They could load a heavy rock into the sling. When the payload was in place, men with ropes pulled the short end down, as hard as they could, and the long arm with its rope swung upward suddenly, flinging the projectile into the air. In order to achieve significant force, the pull had to be both sudden and hard. Many ropes attached to a bar allowed many men or horses to pull. Sudden pull could be achieved by having the throwing arm restrained by a latch as the men began pulling, so the latch could suddenly be released. The perrier may have been in use by the 11th century.

The trebuchet used a lever with a very heavy counterweight on its short end. The long arm, with a sling on the end, was winched to the ground, forcing the boxy counterweight to lift into the air. Men loaded a large stone into the sling as the long end was held down firmly. When the long arm was released, the counterweight fell to the ground, suddenly lifting the long throwing arm and releasing its sling-propelled payload into the air. Because the machine’s power depended on gravity to pull the counterweight down, not on men or horses to tug it hard, the trebuchet was the strongest of the throwing machines.

Trebuchets could be built larger and stronger to throw ever-larger payloads. Instead of a windlass, the winching could be accomplished by one or two wheels, the way the tallest cranes raised loads. Several men stood inside the wheel and walked on its steps, using their weight and a pulley system to magnify the force. The counterweight, perhaps by now a large wooden bucket filled with many large stones, slowly lifted into the air. The throwing arm was lashed down, the men got out of the wheels, and the counterweight could be released.

Rocks are the best-known catapult payload, and they were the most commonly used. A machine could deliver a series of rocks to the same spot on a wall if the rocks were the same weight and the machine had not been moved. This pounded the wall over and over, increasingly weakening it. Iron shot was even better than stone shot, but it was more expensive.

As a siege went on, trebuchets were loaded with new payloads that were intended to frighten or harm the people inside. The trebuchet was now aimed to fling over the wall, not at it. Most often, armies threw dead animals or even dead human body parts. Severed heads were a common payload. Corpses spread disease, a deadlier attack than any rock. An assault with corpses was also a psychological terror weapon, especially if the heads or other body parts belonged to the targets. Trebuchets could also fling manure.

A shrapnel effect came from “beehives”-clay pots packed with rocks. They burst open on contact, and the rocks flew into the town to smash windows and injure people. Armies also threw incendiary mixes, such as hot tar and quicklime. Incendiary mixes were often called naphtha; there are a few existing recipes. Quicklime was the key ingredient, because water causes combustion on contact. Other ingredients were flammable substances: pine pitch, tar, oil, animal fat, and dung.

Greek fire was the most famous incendiary compound of the time. The name “Greek fire” caught on because it was invented in Constantinople, after they had lost territory to the invading Muslims. Byzantine soldiers used catapults to fling pots of Greek fire at besieging Muslim armies. It caught fire on contact, and even water did not put it out. They could pump it at attacking ships and burn up whole fleets; in this way, they saved Constantinople in the seventh century when other cities were conquered by the invading Arabs. The secret composition of Greek fire was carefully guarded for a long time, but eventually first Muslims and then Christian Europeans learned how to make it. It became a component of trebuchet attacks during sieges. However, there is no surviving account of what was in Greek fire. Many scholars speculate that it must have contained quicklime or saltpeter, and others believe it had to use petroleum as a main ingredient. The use of petroleum in some form seems very likely, since Greek fire was described as a liquid that burned even on top of water.

After the introduction of gunpowder, cannons became the main siege breaking weapon. The largest cannons, called bombards, required large trains of horses and oxen to move their parts and heaps of stone shot. They had to be moved off their wagons with large cranes, and they were fired either from heavy wooden frames or from trenches dug into the ground. The idea was not to fire the stones or iron balls into the fortress, but to fire them straight at the defensive walls. A bombard that was placed lower to the ground could aim right at the ground level. It was most effective when it was close to the wall, its operators defended with wooden walls.

Further Reading Bennett, Matthew. Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World: Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005. Carey, Brian Todd. Warfare in the Medieval World. Barnesly, UK: Sword and Pen, 2006. Donnelly, Mark P., and Daniel Diehl. Siege: Castles at War. Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1998 Keen, Maurice. Medieval Warfare: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Nossov, Konstantin. Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2005. Partington, J. R. A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Payne-Gallwey, Ralph. The Book of the Crossbow: With an Additional Section on Catapults and Other Siege Engines. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Rihll, Tracey. The Catapult: A History. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2010. Wiggins, Kenneth. Siege Mines and Underground Warfare. Princes Risborough, UK: Shire Publications, 2003.