Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part I

Fort St. Elmo.

 

Map of Grand Harbor

Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan, had ordered that no action be taken without consulting Turgut Reis. Turgut still had not arrived. Some thought that he was not coming at all—he was old, and strange things happen at sea. There was no reason to hold up all operations on his account. Spain was a formidable power, more so now that they were not distracted by wars in the Lowlands and against France. They were quite capable of launching a relief force to trouble this siege, and intelligence suggested that, under the guidance of the new and capable viceroy, they were in the process of doing so. Best then to get on with the operation and hope that Turgut would show up sooner rather than later.

The leading commanders gathered in Mustapha’s tent to decide what to do next.

In theory there should have been little to discuss. The strategy had been laid out months earlier in Constantinople, aided by a scale model of Grand Harbor built on the report of two Muslim spies posing as fishermen. The plan was to take out Fort St. Elmo and so control the eastern-facing deep waters and the secure bay of the Grand Harbor, better protected than Marsaxlokk from the spring’s strong gregale winds that could sweep down from the northeast. In so doing, the Ottomans could maintain a supply base close to the army’s center of operations, thus simplifying the demands of logistics. All future matériel arriving from Constantinople or North Africa would not have to be hauled the eight miles overland from Marsaxlokk, a wearisome task at best, and a dangerous task so long as there were Christian marauders about—as, in fact, there were until the very end.

Mustapha had his own ideas. A veteran of wars in Hungary and Persia, Mustapha was accustomed to long marches over rough terrain—what was an eight-mile trek to him? Concede Grand Harbor to the knights, he thought, and St. Elmo becomes a Christian liability, a place they would have to defend while the bulk of Muslim soldiers were wearing down the main objectives elsewhere. His proposed order of operations was for Piali Pasha to take ten thousand men and ten guns and seize the lightly defended capital of Mdina at the center of the island. This would be both a psychological blow to the Maltese and a boost for his own men, and it would serve to protect the army’s rear from Mdina’s cavalry raiders and any possible Spanish relief forces. Once Mdina was taken, he could then attack the bulk of the enemy’s forces at Birgu and Senglea, and finally, almost as an afterthought, seize the island of Gozo. His vision went further, offshore and into Piali’s area of authority. He suggested a new disposition for the fleet, that it be divided into three parts: one to blockade Grand Harbor, one to remain in Marsaxlokk, and one to patrol the channel between Malta and Sicily.

It did not go down well. Piali Pasha reminded the council that his responsibility was to meet the needs of the sultan’s “powerful and invincible armada” and to guard the island from any Christian warships. (After his attempt to swindle Suleiman out of some ransom after Djerba, he was also on his best behavior.) Piali wanted the eastern-facing deep waters and secure bay of the Grand Harbor. To get this, they would need to take out the defensive Fort St. Elmo. The council, many of them navy men, concurred with Piali.

Compelled against his better judgment to target Fort St. Elmo, Mustapha wanted to know how long it would take to capture the place, and he sent out engineers skilled in this kind of calculation to make an estimate. They got as close as they dared, and came back with a mixture of good news and bad. The good news was that the shortcomings Don Garcia had criticized were all in place. The bad news was that the stony ground, while suitable for trenches, was useless for digging mines. As to siege artillery, that was simply a matter of getting cannon down the steep length of Mount Sciberras and into position opposite the fort. The engineers were confident that the Ottoman army, fresh from their voyage and ready for a fight, would be able to bring down the walls and take the fort in under five days. With luck, they might be able to present the first victory of the campaign to Turgut when he eventually arrived.

Mustapha gave in. His May 23 report to Suleiman notes the divided opinions and the final proposed course of action; it does not, interestingly, indicate what he thought.

Balbi describes this squabble in some detail, based on the gossip of two more renegades who had, they claimed, stood guard outside the tent. (In camps famed for their silence, shouting commanders were presumably easy to hear.) Gossip or not, an overjoyed Valette reacted swiftly. His spies in Constantinople had reported that St. Elmo was to be the first target, but he could not be sure. Initially he had entrusted its defense to the aging and unwell Fr. Broglio and a small contingent of Spanish foot. From his command center in Fort St. Angelo, he now ordered the French knight Pierre de Massuez-Vercoirin (aka Colonel Mas) and two hundred of his men, as well as sixty-five volunteers from the knights, dispatched to bolster the three hundred and thirty-five soldiers already in Fort St. Elmo. He cautioned them, however, to make self-preservation their priority, to not engage the enemy in any unnecessary skirmishes.

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Now certain that the first target was to be Fort St. Elmo, Valette had all the civilians who had taken refuge there brought over to Birgu. The boats that carried this last group out of harm’s way returned with powder, lead, rope, incendiaries, hardtack, wine, cheese, lard, oil, and vinegar for the five hundred men inside. He also ordered Colonel Mas and 150 of his men to swell the ranks.

If Valette expected caution from the men at St. Elmo, he had sadly misjudged them. Inspired by the knowledge that Ottoman siege guns were being towed down the peninsula, Colonel Mas and Captain La Cerda led a number of their men out of the fort and headed for the enemy. The ensuing fight, the last direct fighting they were to enjoy for some time, was a short and spirited affair, but the handful of men killed on both sides did not materially slow Mustapha’s progress.

It appears, however, to have prompted him to position sharpshooters within range of Fort St. Elmo. Janissaries were notorious for the efficiency of their snipers, “most excellent marksmen.” These men could lie in wait for hours at a time in the hope of blowing the head off anyone who, from curiosity, might peek over the top of the parapet, however briefly. From that time on, the Christian defenders were trapped inside the fort, with only the sound of Muslim sappers digging trenches outside the fort and enemy gun carriages moving closer and closer.

The defenders, however, were able to fire cannon from seaward facing cavalier cannon fire that was supplemented by Valette’s men across the water at Fort St. Angelo. The footsoldiers might feel superfluous in such circumstances. These were experienced warriors who knew what went into a proper fort, and Fort St. Elmo was not the best example of the military architect’s art. Personal bravery notwithstanding, the men of Fort St. Elmo could calculate odds as well as any Ottoman engineer, and they knew the power of the wall-smashing guns that in a day or so would be brought to bear.

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On May 24, Mustapha was ready. His guns were set in three ranks facing the landward side of St. Elmo. Defensive gabions, boxes filled with cotton, now created a wall through which ten guns capable of firing eight-pound balls poked out toward the fort. A second tranche that boasted two culverins, guns capable of lobbing sixty-pound shot, backed them up. Finally, on the rise overlooking the fort was one of the so-called basilisks, its vast cyclopean eye staring down on St. Elmo, a huge weapon capable of throwing a stone ball of a hundred and sixty pounds. More guns would follow, and from different emplacements, but these would do for now. Sacks of powder were shoved down the bronze gullets, with stone balls lifted in as a chaser. Engineers sighted targets and adjusted angles of fire. Each gunner prepared his slow match and blew the tip into a bright orange glow, loose sparks flying off and crackling as they expired. Mustapha himself stood behind them, waited until all was ready, and then gave the order to fire. The artillerymen lowered the linstocks to the touchholes, and in a storm of sound, fire, and smoke, the first volleys slammed into the walls of Fort St. Elmo.

The effect was devastating, so powerful that even in Birgu the houses shook. The infantry huddled inside the fort, unable even to watch the enemy. Throughout the day, Turkish artillery smashed against the walls, pulverizing and knocking off chunks of stonework and beginning to fill the ditch. Of necessity, trained soldiers became journeyman masons of the crudest sort, reduced to reinforcing the walls as the ground shook and stonework crumbled, their swords and guns and all thoughts of fighting now shelved. Men such as La Cerda could only seethe at this misuse of their talents.

The Christians of St. Elmo were not, however, fighting completely alone. Valette had ordered the guns on Fort St. Angelo to fire on the Ottoman sappers and cannon, and they did so with good effect. One of these shots dislodged a stone that struck Piali Pasha’s head and knocked him senseless. He was unconscious for about an hour, prompting rumors about his death—premature, as it happened. He had, they said afterward, his turban to thank for his life. Mustapha’s reaction to this news is unrecorded.

The entire day passed in ponderous rolling thunder of cannon fire, smoke, and dust quivering in midair. The very ground trembled in response to this pummeling. Finally, night fell, the cannon ceased, and the men at St. Elmo considered the situation. It was clear to them that the fort could not hold up under this kind of abuse, and since the defenders could not even fight back, the best option, the only option, was to abandon the fort entirely, return to Fort St. Angelo, and bolster the fighting force there.

If someone was to suggest this course of action to as stern a man as Valette, best that it be a reputable commander who was not a member of the Order of St. John. The job went to Captain La Cerda.

On the night of May 24–25, La Cerda slipped into a small boat and under a moonless sky was rowed across to Fort St. Angelo. Valette was there to greet him and in a public square asked him how matters stood at St. Elmo. The grand master presumably expected a bluff-and-hearty answer to the effect that they were holding their own and eager to fight. He got the opposite. La Cerda answered that matters were exceedingly bad.

It was a straightforward, honest, and heartfelt answer, but as the chronicler put it, one that “he should have kept secret and in chambers, so as not to frighten the populace.” He was quickly hustled into the council room before he could blurt out anything more. The grand council sat in tall back benches on either side of the room, unsteady candlelight wavered over the stones and wood, and the commanders asked him to explain himself. La Cerda didn’t hesitate. Fort St. Elmo was, he said, “a sick man in need of medicine.” Its walls could not hold, and the soldiers, his soldiers, were being condemned to die without hope of fighting back. Let the place be mined and abandoned so that Turks could enter and be blown up in the process. Let the Christians rejoin their fellows at Senglea and Birgu, and let the real fight begin.

The council might not have expected good news, but this kind of talk, this early on in the campaign, was a shock, the more so given the source. La Cerda was no raw recruit who flinched at the first sound of gunfire. He was a veteran of the 1543 siege of Tlemcen, on the Barbary coast, in which battle he had been wounded in his shoulder. His actions on Malta so far had been aggressive, even rash, but undeniably brave. Given his position and experience, his word must carry some weight, both with the council and with his own men.

How did Valette react? Accounts differ. However displeased the grand master might have been, the chroniclers Balbi and Cirni record a relatively temperate response. The encyclopedic Bosio, however, writes that Valette was scathing. He thanked La Cerda for his report. Did the men in the fort truly have no confidence in their abilities? Very well, they were free to go. Valette did not wish to have anyone in whom he could have no confidence, and clearly he could have no confidence in them. He would replace the men now in the fort with better men, braver men, men headed by Valette himself.

It may have been stage anger or the real thing, but regardless, the threat had its intended effect. The council protested that as grand master he must not leave. If more soldiers were required at St. Elmo, they could be found. Valette agreed in the end and called up Lieutenant Medrano, a subordinate to Captain Miranda (who was recovering from an illness at Messina) and ordered him to take his company of two hundred men across to Fort St. Elmo. Proving that good things come to those in whom Valette did have confidence, the grand master also promoted him to captain.

Not to be outdone by the Spanish volunteers, a French knight, Captain Gaspard de La Motte, stepped forward and offered to take a number of his own men to bolster the defenders of Fort St. Elmo. Would Valette agree?

He would. Ardent men, he said, were exactly what was needed. To top off the rebuke to La Cerda and any others at Fort St. Elmo who thought the place not worth defending, Valette also offered some sixty pressed convicts (forzati) their freedom if they would agree to act as ferrymen for the soldiers.

The sky was still dark. Captain Medrano, La Motte, and two hundred fresh troops (along with the humiliated La Cerda) embarked stealthily into the small crafts and under the last sliver of the old moon crossed the waters back to the crumbling fort. Valette wrote to Don Garcia that the fort’s complement was eight hundred men, though perhaps he was exaggerating a bit when he said “all were resolved to do their duty.”

If nothing else the incident demonstrates the degree to which auxiliaries, especially the Spanish soldiers like La Cerda, considered themselves to be the equals of the Order in terms of authority. Vertot, a seventeenth-century French historian for whom Valette could do no wrong, derides the Spaniard as someone “whom fear made eloquent.” The charge is ludicrous and ignores La Cerda’s logic, which in this instance was both simple and direct. He was on Malta to kill Muslims. In St. Elmo he was not killing Muslims. Better, therefore, to abandon a slaughter pen and take the fight to the enemy elsewhere. This was perhaps an admirable view, but impractical for Valette. The grand master’s was not a split command, much less command by consensus. Dissent was already a problem in the enemy camp, and Valette would not have it in his own.

And he did not let the matter drop. He quickly informed Don Garcia, who raised the matter with the king: “Juan de la Cerda and his lieutenant . . . have shown great baseness (vildad), and attempted to persuade the Grand Master to abandon the fort and mine it, because it was no longer possible to defend the place.” Don Garcia suggested that beheading would be suitable punishment, and the king, who took a minute interest in all details of his empire, did not object: “If what you say is true, that Juan de la Cerda and his lieutenant wanted to abandon Sant Telmo, you are to give orders that they be punished according to what is just.” Philip’s letter is dated July 7—it is a little touching that the king could imagine that he was addressing a situation static enough that his advice would be meaningful. Nothing further seems to have come of the matter, and as we shall see, La Cerda’s fate would be more complex than a simple execution.

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The fight for St. Elmo, projected to take five days, was now on day nine, with no end in sight. Worse, it turned out that Turgut agreed with Mustapha’s abandoned strategy completely, and said so: “‘Of what use is it to take Saint Elmo?’ he asked. ‘Even if you had ten Saint Elmos, until you take Malta [i.e., the rest of the island], you cannot be conquerors.’ Thus having spoken, he immediately wept.” They should, he thought, have gone for Mdina and Gozo, the easy targets, the mother to the child St. Elmo.

It was too late now, though the endorsement of Mustapha’s plan, added to the soldiers killed by Piali Pasha’s guns, cannot have helped relations between Mustapha and Piali. It was best to look forward. Having received a full rundown of how matters stood, the aging Turgut immediately went out to the end of the peninsula to see firsthand what steps had been taken and what things could be improved. Turgut’s first concern was for the safety of his troops. He noted that the southward part of Sciberras was clearly visible from the walls of Fort St. Angelo. Given the expectations of a quick victory, Mustapha had had no reason to spend too much time in masking their actions. By now, however, Christian gunners from across the water had been able to calibrate their fire on sappers and artillerists, making the Muslims’ work both difficult and short. This interference had to be stopped. Turgut ordered a makeshift screen to be erected between Fort St. Angelo and the Turkish part of Sciberras. Blind the gunners to specific targets and they would be wasting shot and powder on empty space.

The men now relatively safe, Turgut turned his attention to the fort itself. A devastating bombardment was in order, and from as many directions as possible. Turgut ordered new artillery emplacements on Tigné point, the north tip of the harbor mouth. This would allow the Turks to fire on St. Elmo from three sides and force the defenders within to spread out their repairs. He was particularly interested in neutralizing the raised cavalier whose cannons faced back on the Ottoman lines at Mount Sciberras. Finally, he considered the matter of the Christians’ nocturnal relief boats. These vessels, all but invisible under the nearly moonless sky, had until now been largely unmolested. The moon, however, was waxing, and with each passing day, the Christians lost another sliver of advantage. Turgut was determined to end the fort’s cycle of slow bleeding and regular infusions, and just finish the fort off once and for all. The guns—thirty of various caliber—were to begin firing that night.

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Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part II

Fort St. Elmo after the loss of the ravelin on the left.

Aleccio, Matteo Perez d’; The Siege of Malta: Siege and Bombardment of Saint Elmo, 27 May 1565; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-siege-of-malta-siege-and-bombardment-of-saint-elmo-27-may-1565-172495

The chroniclers considered it something of a miracle that the fort was still standing at all. One reason for its survival was distance. Large, wall-smashing guns work best at close range, a fact the Ottomans were happy to exploit. More than that and they lost significant power. Whether from reluctance to bring out the heavy guns against this smaller target, or as Hughes suggests, because the geography prevented their pulling anything up to point-blank range, Mustapha kept his largest cannon a full 180 yards from the fort. The discharges were inevitably both dramatic and loud, but they did less damage than they might have done had the guns been closer. Large cannon, moreover, took a long time to prepare. Smaller bored pieces, if not as destructive, could at least be fired and reloaded in fairly quick order. The knight Fra Girolamo Pepe Napolitano, with little else to do, lay back and counted the shots and “calculated that a day did not pass in which six or seven hundred cannonades were not fired against it.” Anthoine de Cressy claims that on one day, no less than fourteen hundred coups de canon struck the fort, and that by the end it would endure nineteen thousand. The numbers should not be too surprising. The chief object of the cannonade was to chip away a wall faster than the defenders could repair it. Strictly speaking, proper rebuilding was impractical if not impossible. The best that could be done was to buffer the edges with earth or cotton-filled gabions, crude barrels made of rush, that would absorb the blow of the next day’s cannonballs. It was a job best done at night when the sharpshooters were sleeping. Come the morning, the artilleryman’s first order of business was to sweep this padding away as quickly as possible and get back to chipping away at the stone structure itself. In addition, and depending on available material, the defenders could build a secondary wall inside the fort that would come as a surprise to anyone rushing through the breach.

However necessary all this preliminary work might be, in the end taking the fort would depend on sheer grit. Any given breach favors the defender insofar as it concentrates the attacking force. It took outstanding bravery to rush the small opening and become an easy target for prepared men. A single cannon of scattershot would cut a wide swath through the attackers. Where a few dozen men might charge, none might survive. The Muslims made these attacks over and over, and each time to no end other than filling the ditch with their dead and dying.

It is the mark of a good leader that his men want to go out of their way to impress him. Turgut had this quality. When the Janissaries demanded that they be allowed to take the breach, the corsair forbade it, commending their zeal but noting that the opening was still too small, and that if they gathered to make a charge, they would present Christian gunners and the fast-loading arquebusiers a single, concentrated, easy-to-hit target. He wanted better odds.

Not to be deterred, a squadron of Ottoman engineers set out in the predawn hours to see if there were any new weaknesses they might exploit. One place they explored was the north-facing ravelin, the heightened defensive spur that had so concerned Don Garcia de Toledo. Under the pale light of the first-quarter moon, these men scurried down to get a closer look. The ravelin loomed in the dark ahead of them. They approached, ready for the sudden pop of gunfire that would send them back into the shadows, but they heard nothing.

The reasons for this are obscure. Some have suggested that the designated sentry had nodded off or been killed by sniper fire, or that the complement of soldiers was unexpectedly small, only forty men, none of them Knights of St. John. Whatever the case, the Janissaries soon realized that this was a target ripe for the taking and wasted no time in getting word back down the line. They consulted (or not) Mustapha for instructions and were ordered (or not) to hurry up and take advantage of this rare opportunity.

Accounts of what followed are somewhat confused. What is nearly certain is that before dawn a number of Janissaries trotted back to the ravelin, threw up scaling ladders, then flowed over the sides of the ravelin and through its embrasures (low enough that a man standing on the shoulders of another man could easily get in), and started to butcher the Italian and Spanish soldiers inside. The luckier defenders awoke in the early half-light of dawn only to see their commanding officer lying dead and an ever-increasing number of highly agressive, brightly gowned, scimitar-wielding Janissaries looming above them. In a panic they scrambled up, abandoned their arms, and ran back onto the causeway toward the fort. Fortunately, the ravelin’s defenders were backed up by fifty men under the command of a Neapolitan knight Francesco di Guevara. Guevara’s men were stationed in a trench that blocked the passage between the ravelin and cavalier; and now alerted by the shrill cries of the Janissaries and the shouting of their comrades, they climbed over their barricade down the causeway toward the plank bridge (wood, easy to destroy in an emergency) to take up the fight. Arquebusiers fired on the Ottoman ranks, helping to slow the sudden incursion until more help could arrive.

Which it did in short order—the knight Vercoiran, along with his brother Colonel Mas, Captain Medrano, and the Spanish knight and bailo of Negroponte Juan d’Eguaras came out of the fort, across the drawbridge that spanned the ditch, and on through the causeway with the aim of repelling the Turks from the ravelin.

Despite their best efforts, it was too late to repel the Turks; word of the impromptu battle had quickly flowed back to the Ottoman camp, and fresh waves of exultant soldiers had rushed to join their comrades. As Guevara and his men hacked away on the narrow confines of the causeway and the wooden plank bridge that connected it to the ravelin, more and more Ottomans had been climbing into the ravelin itself. Soon an excess of Muslim troops was spilling over into the ditch, bringing their force up to the face of the ramparts themselves. Curione, writing in 1565, mentions ladders too short to top the ramparts, but even with that disappointment, the taking of the ditch, even at the cost of five hundred men, was worth it. Because of the fort’s wide angle and the lack of embrasures or crenellations, it was impossible for the Christians to cover all approaches in the ditch except from the tower, and even that had dead zones where the Ottomans could crouch next to the fort’s wall in near total safety. From here, they could both fire on the causeway and work on destroying the foundations of the fort itself. Along the causeway, the battle grew and the sun came up to illuminate the brawl, and for five hours men fought hand-to-hand, chiefly with blades.

The Christians had one advantage in the person of Fra Francesco Lanfreducci, who commanded two artillery pieces on the heights of the cavalier. By repeatedly sending scattershot into the mass of Ottoman troops, he was able to clear Ottoman soldiers from the traverse and even, temporarily at least, within the ravelin itself. A great multitude of flags had marked the Ottoman’s taking of the ravelin, but all were blown away in an instant by Lanfreducci’s guns. The attackers, however, were not to be deterred, and Lanfreducci could fire his guns only so often before they overheated to the point where they might themselves explode. Moreover, where the fighting was hand to hand, any shot the gunners let loose risked killing as many Christians as Muslims. As a final problem, early on Lanfreducci was short one of his key cannoneers, lost to a well-aimed arquebus shot.

The battle lines wavered over the morning hours, and from time to time, there was some hope that the ravelin itself might be recovered. The Ottomans, however, were already putting their own defense works—wooden fasces, earth-filled gabions, bales of wool—in place against any such attempt. Force of numbers eventually told, and the mass of Ottomans was able to push the defenders across the traverse and back toward the drawbridge that gave access to the fort itself. Guevara, wounded in his arm, and Louis Vercoirin, the brother of Colonel Mas, commanded the retreat, which was so closely engaged that the defenders were unable to raise the bridge. The Turks were on the verge of breaking through, those in front being pushed forward by the men in back, when the defenders on the parapets began to bombard them with a storm of rocks and burning pitch. The defenders also likely used trumps.

Trumps were an unpleasant weapon consisting of a metal tube strapped onto long wooden poles. The tubes were filled with a mixture of bitumen, tar, sulfur, and other incendiary material, the stuff the ancients called Greek fire, and all too similar to modern-day napalm. Once the material was ignited, the tubes became flamethrowers, particularly useful for defending narrow spaces, such as the entrance to Fort St. Elmo. Defenders would wave these against the men pressing the entrance. The weapons, once given a chance to warm up, spat out sticky gobs of burning naphtha, which clung to everything it touched. From the changed quality of the screaming, it took only a short time before the men at the back realized what was happening and fled backward, allowing their less fortunate comrades to run from the bridge and throw themselves into the dust or farther off into the water. Dust might have extinguished the matter, but water would not—according to contemporary sources, only vinegar or urine was proof against the stuff.

The attacks stopped entirely at about half past noon. The ravelin was now firmly in Ottoman hands, as was the greater part of the ditch. The cost to the Ottomans had been high—five hundred men killed on this day, and as many as two thousand killed since the assaults on St. Elmo had begun (a figure received from runaways). The defenders had lost about twenty knights, and sixty soldiers were killed and many more wounded.

Valette ordered boats to bring the dead and wounded back to Fort St. Angelo, and it is a testimony to Turgut’s effectiveness that not one of these vessels escaped unhit. Valette sent Coppier over to determine if the ravelin could be retaken. The answer was immediate and negative. Worse, Coppier had to inform Valette that the Turks were already hoisting goatskin sandbags onto the ravelin in order to raise its heights above the walls of St. Elmo. Balbi, in describing the action, laments the failure of Fort St. Elmo’s design, even going so far as to defend La Cerda’s objections.

Mustapha was happy to report this success back to Constantinople and put it down as a matter of careful preparation rather than luck. For Valette, the day’s failure had to be particularly bad news, and not something he would wish to report to Don Garcia, the ravelin’s chief proponent. The situation was all the more galling since the ravelin’s commander was a corporal in La Cerda’s company—the same La Cerda who had suggested the entire structure be mined, handed over to the Ottomans, and then detonated. Cirni suggests that his men, “having lost heart,” simply and dishonorably (vilmente) abandoned the ravelin as more trouble than it was worth—in effect, a strategic retreat decided on the ground without waiting for possibly inconvenient orders from on high.

If so, they paid a high price. Among the day’s wounded was a lieutenant (alferez) to La Cerda. Valette, conscientious about greeting all casualties from the fort, saw this man with the others, judged his wound insufficiently grave, and ordered him thrown into prison. The offence cannot have been too egregious, and the man’s presence must have been too valuable for him to stay in jail for long—he was released within days. But Valette had made his point about who was in charge on Malta. (Curiously, La Cerda’s own whereabouts at this time are not recorded.)

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The end was coming, but there remained the question of how it would play out. The ravelin continued to rise as the Ottoman workmen topped it with sandbags made of goatskin, and it would in due course command the parade ground. Meanwhile, Ottoman engineers were at work on a bridge to span the ditch between themselves and Fort St. Elmo. Excess galleys, superfluous as the invasion force died off, were being dismantled and reconfigured to this end. Spars were planted in the ground, supports tied in crisscross patterns to give them stability, flat planks laid horizontally on top, and dirt thrown on the whole to prevent the Christians from tossing incendiary grenades and setting the structure on fire. The passage was wide enough for eight men to advance abreast, and it looked as if it would be ready by June 5.

The night before, however, a squad of Christians stole out of the fort with buckets of pitch and began to paint the bridge’s supports. Noise, or the perhaps the smell, alerted the Ottomans still awake, and although the defenders were able to torch three of the five supports, they left the job half finished. Discovered in their task, the Christians scuttled back to the safety of the fort while Mustapha’s men did their best to put out the blaze. By daylight, the fire was out and the bridge was still standing, but sufficiently weakened so that the Ottomans did not wish to risk using it in a general assault. If the Christians had not stopped the Ottomans cold, they had at least bought themselves some more time.

By now, Broglio had lost confidence in his ability to command. Seventy years old and fat, he did not carry his age as lightly as Turgut, or Valette, or Mustapha. During his tenure at Fort St. Elmo, according to Curione, he had repeatedly told Valette that the fort was in fine shape, its men superhuman in their energy and faith. His own, however, had fallen short. He offered his resignation to the grand master, which was accepted. D’Eguaras was also in bad shape, suffering from an arrow wound to his hand. His request was to remain with his men, even if that required his taking a lesser role. Overall command of Fort St. Elmo, something of a hot potato, was ceded to Colonel Mas.

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The guns kept chipping away at the fort, the defenders kept patching it, the tally of dead and wounded on both sides increased, and the bridge lately damaged was soon almost whole again. A renegade managed to cross the lines and bring Valette welcome news from the Ottoman camp. Turgut had been ill and confined to bed for a few days. The seventy to eighty galleys that patrolled the approaches to the island were beginning to put a strain on manpower.6 Valette countered by redeploying Giovanni Vagnone and a hundred of his men from Mdina to St. Elmo, proof of his determination to hold onto the fort and keep faith with the men inside it.

By contrast, the men inside the fort were losing confidence. The dead and, worse, the scattered parts of the dead—the arms, legs, and shredded viscera—lay stinking in the hot sun, blackened and fly-covered for lack of opportunity to retrieve and bury them. Detritus from the smashed walls flowed into the ditch, lessening its usefulness as a defensive structure and setting up a pathway for the inevitable assaults. And the guns kept firing.

Miranda, Broglio, and d’Eguaras all now agreed that remaining on the peninsula was a pointless gesture, even a strategic error, a poor trade-off of brave men for an inevitable defeat. The case for holding on might have made sense earlier, but no longer. One more time Medrano crossed the night water, past gunfire that was now taking a considerable toll on Christian boats, and one more time clattered through the narrow streets to the council chambers at Fort St. Angelo. He found Valette alert—the grand master didn’t sleep a lot these days—and ready to discuss the situation. The two spoke together first in private, and Medrano was persuasive enough to get a hearing with the entire council. He gave an affecting account of the men’s gallantry and endurance.

The spirit was willing, but facts were facts. Medrano reported on the quick work of the Turkish sappers, of the ditches they were filling in, the bridge they had constructed. He described walls scarcely worthy of the name, crumbling faster than could be repaired, the heavy casualties among those making the repairs. He spoke of the wounded and exhausted men, of the frightening accuracy of the Janissary sharpshooters, of the ravelin now mounted by two cannon capable of firing into the fort, of the sudden necessity of digging trenches within the fort because there was no other place of safety. He told of the cavalier that swayed under the constant force of cannon fire, of the two remaining guns on the eastern spur (they would be knocked out and their crews killed the next day). The fort, he said, was doomed, and the men with it unless the council permitted them to return to Fort St. Angelo.

The report was all very compelling, but except in the details, it was not news; and ultimately, it was not as compelling as Valette’s need for more time. Malta was the last bastion before Sicily, the last outpost of the Order, which in his own lifetime had lost both Rhodes and Tripoli. Malta was the last chance for an international force of Christian men to show that they could come together against the expansive embrace of Islam. Just as Malta was the shield for all Europe and as such for all Christendom, Fort St. Elmo was the shield of Malta. The longer Valette could tie the Ottoman forces down on this small piece of real estate, the longer he would be able to bolster Senglea and Birgu, the longer Mdina might survive as the main supply route for information and reinforcements, and the longer Don Garcia would have to gather and launch a relief force. Valette believed that he had no choice. The job of the men at St. Elmo was to make the taking of it long, expensive, and painful to the Ottomans. He urged Medrano to go back and convince his colleagues to hold on just a little bit longer, with the cold promise that Don Garcia had promised relief soon—as indeed he had.

Valette understood what the wretches on St. Elmo were going through. As a veteran of Rhodes, who better? But however much he sympathized, he wanted these men to realize that they, and everyone else under his command, were dedicated to Malta’s preservation. The soldiers at St. Elmo might die in its blasted ruins—and in fact probably would die there. But all men must die, and few are given the chance to do so for the sake of such a greater good. Valette was firm. Fort St. Elmo must be defended to the last man.

Medrano left Fort St. Angelo in the predawn half-light and made the trip back across the bay. As he appeared on the parade ground of Fort St. Elmo, all those who could get away from their posts gathered around him, eager to hear what the council had decided. The message did not go down well. While the older officers and men accepted obedience and blood, the younger saw nothing but pigheadedness in Valette’s decision. The latter argued that the grand master was not here on the ground, facing incessant cannon fire and arquebus bullets, he had not grappled hand to hand with Janissaries and corsairs, only barely keeping the fort under a Christian flag—how could the grand master possibly appreciate what they were going through?

What they were going through was about to get a good deal worse. At daybreak, the Muslim cannons started up their usual gunpowder symphony, slowly chipping away at the walls and almost incidentally taking Christian lives. This was routine. What was not routine was the sudden crescendo of both artillery and small arms fire just as the sun hit midday, followed by the shrill ululating voices of a thousand Muslim soldiers preparing to overrun the fort en masse. The defenders could not risk a glance over the wall to see what was coming, but they could hear the enemy approach. A wave of intense loose-robed men passed over the bridge and scrambled up the unsteady slope of collapsed masonry, shouting at and cursing the men of St. Elmo; Christian arquebusiers rose just enough to lay down a heavy cross fire into the enemy’s flanks, killing those at the van and leaving a low wall of dead and dying soldiers to slow those coming behind. Christian arquebusiers worked in teams, one man at the ridge firing, a second reloading and passing up fresh guns, and so increased the rate of fire. Those Muslims who managed to stumble over their fallen comrades and loose rubble, who dodged bullets and ignored the minor scrapes or punctures, and who got to the breaches were met with a sharp, agitated hedge of steel pikes and battle-axes. One after another the Ottomans saw the expert, almost balletic, moves of grim Spanish professionals, the swift flick and twist that propelled the razor-sharp edges and hooks of those elegant weapons. An unfortunate Muslim soldier, dressed for mobility and heat rather than for personal safety, might find a hand or a foot sliced off, his face or torso flensed, maimed for life rather than launched to paradise.

And yet they pressed on. Charge followed upon charge; no Iayalar or Janissary was willing to admit defeat against such a weak defense. Each assault failed in its turn, and the slopes that led down to the ditch were painted in blood and littered with scores of dead Muslims, and a lesser number of dead Christians. Those still alive breathed in a rank mixture of burnt sulfur, sweat, blood, viscera, and human waste. The ebb and flow of repeated assaults went on for a full seven hours, a showcase of unspeakable cruelty and astonishing bravery. Balbi praises the supreme valor of the defenders, and then adds that it was equaled by that of the enemy. He singles out Juan de La Cerda, noting that the Spanish captain had received a gunshot wound, attended to it once the enemy had fallen back, and then “with great courage removed his bandage and returned to his post as soon as the alarm was sounded again.”

By the end of the day, the defenders had lost forty men; the Ottomans, five hundred.8 As exhausted soldiers on both sides prepared to settle in for the night, a Spanish renegade called out from the Turkish lines: “You have done well today, knights. But tomorrow you will have the general assault you’ve been yearning for.”

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part III

The threat of a general assault, following on the heels of the day’s fighting and the hard line taken by Valette, proved too much for the defenders. Despite the greater number of Muslim casualties, the exhausted Christians doubted they could take another fight like today’s and saw little point in trying. Not that they feared dying; or at least, so they said. Among those who most wanted to abandon the fort was the “recently accused (poco tacciato) . . . Captain Juan de la Cerda: who nevertheless resolved to die valorously and honorably while fighting for Birgu.” The Spanish soldiers already had petitioned to abandon the place. Now for the first time, they were openly joined by fifty-three of the Knights of St. John. The members of the Order came together in the fort’s small chapel and by candlelight drafted a letter for the grand master and the council:

Most Illustrious and Very Reverend Monseigneur:

When the Turks first landed on Malta, Your Highness ordered the present knights to repair to this fortress and defend it. We have done this with fullness of spirit and to the best of our abilities and with some good outcome, as we believe Your Highness is aware. In the doing we have shirked neither fatigue nor danger. Now, however, the enemy has brought us down to such a state that we can neither injure them nor defend ourselves. They now hold the counterscarp and the ditch. They have carved steps into the very ramparts. They have built a bridge by which they can come and go at will. They have tunneled beneath the walls, leaving us to expect an explosion at any moment. They have raised the ravelin so high that it overlooks the entire fort. In consequence, our sentries are killed as quickly as they take up their positions. We are reduced to such an extent that we are no longer able to use the piazza at the center of the fort. We have lost several men there, and only the chapel provides any measure of safety at all. The soldiers are dispirited, and their officer can no longer get them to man the walls. Perfectly aware that the fort is doomed, they prepare themselves to swim for safety. We likewise see ourselves as at the end of our rope, and because we can no longer execute the obligations of the Order, we are determined, absent Your Highness’s sending us boats tonight in which we can withdraw, to rush out and die like proper knights.

Do not send further reinforcements, as they must surely die as well. This is the determined resolution of us the undersigned. We also point out to Your Highness that [Turkish] galleots have been cruising past the end of the point. Accordingly, thus resolved, we kiss your hand and keep a copy of this letter.

—Dated from St. Elmo, June 8, 1565

Fra Vitellino Vitelleschi of Corneto (modern-day Tarquinia) had the thankless task of crossing to Fort St. Angelo and delivering the letter. Balbi, ever tactful, says only that Valette was “deeply troubled” by the letter, largely because of the number of knights who signed it. Well he might have been. These were not outsiders, but brothers in faith, men sworn to obedience, and their letter was tantamount to insubordination bordering on mutiny. The threat of a quick suicidal attack might have been bluff, or might not. The signatories had no leverage (other than surrender) but the threat to cut the siege of St. Elmo short, which to Valette was unthinkable. If it was true that the Spanish soldiers were no longer willing to stand their ground, then St. Elmo might well be a lost cause.

How to respond?

The grand master had Vitalleschi wait as he wrote out his answer. First he chastised the petitioners for questioning his lawful orders and declared dishonorable the very thought of an unauthorized suicide attack on the enemy. The knights, he reminded them, were bound by vows of obedience, and he, as their superior, had determined that they would best serve the Order and their God on Fort St. Elmo.

He then softened, if only a little. Proud men, after all, can be pushed only so far, and if even his own knights had reached this extreme, how much worse must it be for the others? Valette was willing to demonstrate good faith and hoped that it would buy him at least a little more time. He determined to send over three senior knights—from Spain, Don Francisco Ruys de Medina; from France, Antoine de la Roche; and from Italy, Costantino Castriota—and have them make a full and impartial evaluation of the situation. Any further decisions, whether to remain or to retreat, would follow from their reports, which he expected before sunrise. It was one more delay, which is the least Valette wanted, and by calling their judgment into question, he might cause the knights to reconsider whether things were quite as bad as they thought.

At three that morning, the boat carrying the trio of knights bumped up against the rocks below St. Elmo, and Vitalleschi led the way up the steps to the fort. What they found was a low-rimmed crater filled with a confusion of unexpected activity. The signatories had been so confident of their case that they were already shutting down their operation. Despite the disapproval of Colonel Mas (whose alleged feelings did not seem to translate into any effective action), the defenders of St. Elmo were breaking swords and arquebuses, and tipping cannon shot into the sea. All leftover gunpowder they planned on using, as La Cerda had long ago suggested, to blow up what remained of the fort, preferably while a large number of Turks were inside it.

The soldiers stopped long enough to hear Valette’s short message. They were not pleased. Filthy, tired, wounded, insulted, and clearly sensing prevarication, they said no, there was nothing to discuss. Repeated requests, from the most blunt to the most reserved, had failed to move Valette and his council, yet a blind man could see that the fort was beyond hope. Let the envoys discover what the defenders of Fort St. Elmo had endured these past weeks and see for themselves if the demands were reasonable.

The three knights were then led past the dust-covered, truculent men who defended scarcely maintainable posts. By starlight, these envoys saw the broken walls, the shattered cavalier, and peered at the lost ravelin; from over the wall they heard the sounds of Ottoman spades thudding into the hard ground, pushing the enemy ominously closer. The three knights quickly came to their conclusions. The Spaniard agreed that there was no hope and that immediate withdrawal was the best course. The Provençal gave it a few more days, but in essence agreed.

Castriota, the Italian who on an earlier trip to St. Elmo had declared the ravelin hopelessly lost, was made of sterner stuff. A middle-aged, collateral descendent of the Albanian hero Skanderbeg, he had probably seen more action than any other man present, serving and suffering wounds in the Italian wars of Charles V (Capodorso, Turin, and Naples). He had come late to the Order (1561), “hounded by the court, a stranger to my family, abandoned by my friends,” after a multifaceted career as a soldier, diplomat, and perhaps a spy. Under the pen name of Filonico Alicarnasseo, he had also made a name for himself as a noted literary scholar (his treatise De Cavaglieria, coincidentally was dedicated to Don Pedro de Toledo, father of Don Garcia de Toledo). Given his background and his possession of a “robust and ferocious mind,” it was logical that he should have been chosen as one of this small party. He was the last to speak, and it would have been better if he had kept silent.

Things were not, he said, nearly so bad as some had claimed. True, the outer defense works were lost and the main walls were in terrible shape, and the men were tired and clearly strained. But there was all around them an abundance of stone and masonry. The soldiers might build a secondary wall behind the breaches, a curtain from which they could continue the fight for a good while longer. Abandoning the fort just now would be unnecessary, even foolish, and he could not in good conscience advise the council otherwise. He went further. He said that, should Valette put him in charge, he would be able to hold out at the very least until Don Garcia himself arrived.

It took a brave or foolish man to say such things in such circumstances, and if Castriota’s summing up was an insult to the foot soldiers, it was a slap at the commanders as well. The mood turned ugly, and the men began to shout. Had this interloper not seen how small the fort actually was, how useless the materials he expected them to use? Had he experienced the terror of Ottoman guns, of Janissary arquebusiers, of a wild-eyed Iayalar assault? The more hard-hearted, or just sarcastic, suggested that Castriota should spend a full day there to get a true sense of just how things stood. “Since you claim it possible, you can stay and show us the means and together we can defend [the fort] to the death.”

Castriota claimed obedience to his warrant and said that Valette had ordered him back that same night. In response, an angry Colonel Mas ordered the gate that led to the water’s edge be closed. Ruys de Medina and Antoine de la Roche, the two dissenting knights, pointed out that it was only Castriota who proposed holding on, and the Council must surely favor the opinions of two men against the one.

The impasse was suddenly broken when the chapel bells began to ring, the signal for all men to report to their stations. Remarkably, like trained border collies, they all did so. Soldiers ran into the far dark corners of the outer walls, alert to whatever might be coming, and in an instant the parade ground was entirely cleared.

It was d’Eguaras who had sounded the alarm, not because there was an actual attack, but because he saw the distraction as the only way to break the standoff. The last thing he wanted was a knock-down, drag-out fight between his men and a trio of de facto diplomats. Having scattered the mob, he came from the chapel and urged the envoys to go down the steps to their long boat immediately and return to Valette to describe all they had seen.

One more time, the council met to hear testimony and debate the destiny of Fort St. Elmo. Valette was unmoving. The fort would be defended. He would use shame, anger, guile, ridicule, and whatever else he could to keep men there and fighting. In this instance, he was backed up by Castriota, who took the occasion to do a little grandstanding. The Italian repeated his belief that the fort could be maintained, and further requested that he and his company be allowed to return to the peninsula to fight, even if others would not.

Dawn brought new surprises. A swimmer arrived from Fort St. Elmo, carrying a cow horn sealed with wax, inside which was mail. The letter was from the rebellious knights, their demands for pulling out now replaced by demands for more men and more equipment.

The explanation for this turnabout was simple. On hearing about the knights’ petition the night before, senior members of the various langues had dispatched letters of their own to their countrymen at Fort St. Elmo, chastising the rebels for the shame they brought to the individual langue and to their fellow knights. If knights of the Order of St. John could not be counted on for obedience and bravery up to death if required, what could be expected of other men? What did this kind of disobedience say to the outsiders, the Spanish and Italian soldiers who had volunteered to join them in defense of an island and an Order not their own?

If the point needed to be underscored, the senior men also had informed the defenders of St. Elmo of Castriota’s offer to return to St. Elmo with five hundred men. They added that his was not simply an offer to fight to the end, but to do so as the overall commander of all forces within the fort, an offer that the grand master could all too easily be expected to accept. For the knights, the dishonor was too great. They would as soon stay alone and die as the brave men that they were.

But Valette, having regained the upper hand over the men on St. Elmo, was not going to let go easily. In a communiqué laced with regret, he informed the knights still at St. Elmo that he was relieving them of their post. That such once-brave men should have lost heart was unfortunate, the more so as this was in violation of their vows. If, however, any knight on St. Elmo wished to leave, Valette would not stand in his way. Indeed, he would prefer not to have anyone there on whom he could not rely, and as there were four or more eager volunteers for every soldier currently at the besieged fort, it would be no great hardship to fill the gaps. He announced that he was granting Castriota his request, and that the gentleman had already raised his banner, sounded his drum, and inducted volunteers. The bishop of Malta had promised another two thousand ducats to encourage new recruits. It seemed that Castriota’s common soldiers would do for money, the bishop’s money, what certain knights of St. John would not do for honor.

The letter was delivered by Don Melchior de Monserrat, who had been making trips back and forth between the forts for some time now, and who had some credibility with these men that Castriota did not. He and Miranda—who had received a separate letter from Valette reminding him of the confidence the grand master had in him—both exhorted the defenders to remain, and the spoken and written words, combined, had their intended effect. Word of their capitulation spread throughout Fort St. Angelo and Birgu. The men had come back into line, discipline and determination had been restored. Valette had won. More supplies and a hundred more soldiers were now readied and could come across; Castriota, clearly unwelcome at Fort St. Elmo, was reassigned, no longer expected to defend St. Elmo. The wounded Broglio needed replacing, however, and Valette asked Monserrat to take command of the fort, to which Monserrat, who had repeatedly said that the fort should not be abandoned, agreed.

To help consolidate the soldiers’ new determination to stay and fight, Monserrat took along the Capuchin monk Friar Robert of Eboli, a man with a talent for fire-breathing rhetoric. This peculiar cleric, for nearly ten years a slave in Tripoli after being kidnapped by a nephew of Turgut, had been living in Malta only a year, but seems to have become an institution. On the second day of the siege, he had taken it upon himself to embark on a forty-hours’ adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, a first on Malta, and greatly comforting to the island’s inhabitants.

He now stood before the half-dead men in the dust of the ruins and, with the power of the truly inspired, made his sermon “uplift, confirm, and renew the spirits of the said knights with spiritual consolation.” His rhetoric had moved two newly converted Jews (Valette had recently allowed Jews back on the island) to come “to die in the faith of Christ.” For his work during the siege, his presence was considered as providential. He stayed on at St. Elmo, going from man to man at each station, crucifix in hand, encouraging, comforting, as needed until the night of June 13, at which time the friar accompanied the exhausted Broglio back to Birgu. Fort St. Elmo would endure for a little while longer.

At least one modern scholar suggests that there is an element of wishful thinking in this story. He notes that the men on St. Elmo were in no position to get back to Birgu without Valette’s cooperation, and that the grand master’s dispatching fresh volunteers was simply a means of defusing the situation. Men will, of course, volunteer to join their comrades in hopeless causes if the emotional draw is sufficient.

On June 10, the sixteenth day of the siege, Mustapha had scheduled a night assault on St. Elmo. Surprise was not part of the plan—rather, he intended to stretch the enemy both physically and emotionally before the men attacked. Bombardments lasted into the third night watch, at which point Mustapha judged the Christians sufficiently exhausted. He halted the cannon and sent his men forward into the darkness with scaling ladders.

The downside of his plan was that the defenders were all wide awake and clearly prepared for the attack. Here Balbi mentions fire hoops for the first time. These were wooden rings curved to a diameter large enough to encircle three men. A length of cloth infused with pitch and other accelerants was wrapped around the wood. More cotton, more pitch, and so on until the item was about as thick as a man’s leg. When a heavy press of soldiers appeared on the far side of the wall, the hoops were set alight and tossed horizontally in a murderous game of ring toss. The Turks and their allies were in the habit of wearing loose cotton, which, in the torrid heat of a Maltese summer, was far more comfortable than the leather jerkins and steel plate armor that the Christians wore, but which burned readily. Balbi attributes the greatest number of Muslim casualties to this device.

Whatever advantage Mustapha might have had by timing his assault at night was obviated by the extensive use of fire on both sides. Indeed, the gunners in St. Angelo and the other positions were able to lay their guns by the light of the enemy’s fires. It was not just the hoops that turned night into day. The defenders lit torches, while the Janissaries hurled sachetti, friable clay pots filled with Greek fire that were intended to break on Christian armor and roast the enemy alive. In preparation for these, the defenders had filled a number of deep tubs with water.

By dawn the fight was over. More than fifteen hundred Ottomans were dead, and only sixty Christians. The only activity that morning was a massive cannonade that lasted from dawn till noon.

Turgut had been kept busy as well. Some time earlier, cavalry under Coppier had managed to disrupt his gun battery at Point Tigné. Within a day, he replaced four heavy guns on that point and manned them with enough soldiers to ward off any further attack. Valette countered with new gun emplacements at Fort St. Angelo, and he was able to take out a number of enemy batteries on Mt. Sciberras before they were removed to less vulnerable positions. He also sent over another one hundred and fifty soldiers to St. Elmo, and more ammunition, baskets, mattresses, and rope.

The situation inside the Turkish camps was becoming grim. A Janissary was captured outside the capital city. The man reported that casualties were unexpectedly high and had included Curtogli, aga of the Janissaries, killed by cannon fire while observing St. Elmo from the forward trenches. Six vessels carried Ottoman casualties to Tripoli, and it was common knowledge that the wounded were not recovering as they should. Illness, most likely dysentery, was rampant, and biscuit rations for the laborers were now down to ten ounces a day. There was more talk of friction between the pashas and the Janissaries, a notably independent sort, who could not have been pleased with the loss of their commander. For their part, the pashas could only note that in over two weeks these elite troops had failed to take a fort in a siege that was supposed to have required no more than five days.

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part IV

On June 12, Ottoman soldiers managed to grab a prisoner, who gave them the encouraging news that a cannonball had destroyed the bakers’ oven inside Fort St. Elmo, forcing the defenders to rely on Fort St. Angelo for bread. This intelligence was improved upon by a Spanish deserter, a piper, who informed Mustapha that, given the fort’s architecture, they needed to raise the ravelin just a little bit more to have total command of its interior piazza. Mustapha thanked the piper but, having been deceived before, assured him that if his report proved untrue, the man could expect the same bastinado treatment that had been meted out to La Rivière. While sappers redoubled their efforts on the ravelin, the piper had time to consider the various fates that threatened him. Should Mustapha be dissatisfied with the ravelin, the Ottoman camp might not be the best place for him; returning to St. Elmo, however, was out of the question. He slipped off again, this time to Mdina, where he presented himself as an escaped slave. Alas for him, he was recognized, and so, after some time on the rack, was the lie. Governor Mesquita turned him over to the citizens, who tied him to a horse’s tail and then stoned him to death.

Perhaps the sudden disappearance of the piper caused Mustapha to try to reason with his enemy. On June 14, a trumpet sounded, a white flag went up, and a herald trotted over from the Ottoman lines and offered parley, an offer the defenders refused. The herald withdrew. A little later, the defenders heard an Italian voice call out from the trenches, informing them that Mustapha would graciously allow the Christians to sleep that night and that anyone inside the fort was free to leave in peace. If they continued to resist, however, the Ottoman soldiers would cut them to pieces. In response, the Christians let loose a volley in the Italian’s general direction, which ended any further talk of surrender.

There followed a day and a night of sporadic raids, cannon volleys, the sound of shouts and music that sometimes preceded attacks, but often did not. Mustapha’s technique was that of a picador at a bullfight: the administration of modest irritants to keep the defenders off balance, sleep deprived, and confused. There was little the commanders at St. Elmo could do other than petition Valette for more men, more ammunition, and more supplies. He complied and loaded the night boats with the fire hoops and powder and biscuits and ammunition needed to defend the fort. That these small convoys were able to make their nightly runs was a significant failure on the part of the Ottomans, and lack of moonlight notwithstanding, we can only conjecture why they were allowed to proceed. Once arrived, these goods were shifted to points where the fighting, once it came, would be fiercest.

The real attack came on June 16. Two hours before sunrise, the defenders of St. Elmo could hear the Ottoman mullahs addressing the gathered Muslim force and the full chorus of the soldiers’ response. The pattern of call and response, measured by the slowly rising light to the east, seemed interminable, but the meaning was clear—the soldiers were cleansing themselves of sin and preparing themselves for death. Then silence, as the four thousand men carrying arquebuses padded to their stations. Having called up the dawn, the Ottomans ringed the fort at the counterscarp, west, southwest, and south, facing into the rising sun that at dawn would silhouette anyone who looked over the walls. They were also girding themselves mentally for the fight. They knew how tough the Christians were.

Defenders lined the cracked rim of the fort in a regular pattern—three soldiers, then a knight, three more soldiers, another knight, and so forth. Monserrat, Miranda, and d’Eguaras commanded three bodies of reserves, stationed in the piazza and ready for deployment wherever the enemy threat proved greatest. Support staff prepared wine-soaked bread to refresh the hungry and thirsty—and to comfort the wounded and dying. Guns, pikes, swords, grenades, and stones all lay within easy reach of the men on the front. Fra Roberto da Eboli had returned to the fort and was in his element: “If God is with us, who will be against us? . . . recall the ancient kings of Israel, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, Jefte, Delbora, Jehosaphat, Ezekiel, the brothers Maccabee whose zeal and valor you, sacred knights, must now emulate. . . . In this most sacred sign of the cross we shall prevail.” Not far away, Mustapha reminded his own men that Muslim prisoners inside the dungeons of Fort St. Angelo were counting on them: “Perhaps you have not heard the cries and entreaties of captives from that fortress, people joined to you by blood and bound by hardest chains, enduring a life sadder than death itself, immersed as they are in squalor and sorrow?”

Then the artillery barrage began. This time Piali Pasha had brought gun-mounted galleys to fire in concert with the land batteries. Cannon fired from the ravelin, from all platforms, and from ships offshore, throwing “around a thousand shots with such force that not only the Maltese, but also the neighboring Sicilians were dumbstruck with horror.” The bombardment stopped an hour later, as suddenly as it had begun, leaving the men’s ears ringing. A few of the defenders snatched glances over the rubble to see what was coming next. The farsighted could make out Mustapha, upright, determined, the green standard fringed with horse tails significant of the rank given to him by Suleiman himself. He stepped forward the better to be seen and drew his scimitar from its scabbard. The roar of eight thousand Muslims filled the air. The assault was on.

The Iayalars, religious fanatics, came first, “dressed in the skins of wild animals and the feathers of birds of prey” and with “blue tattoos of various characters on their faces.” A good number of these alarming men managed to cross the ditch and scrabble up the loose rubble toward the breach, where they were stymied by an “infinity of caltrops,” sharp spikes welded in such a fashion that one point will always face upward and impale the foot of anyone unlucky enough to walk on it. While the Iayalars contended with this new hazard, Christian arquebusiers rose up and fired into their ranks, killing many outright, wounding others, but failing to turn the tide.

Soon enough the fighting drew closer, as guns gave way to pikes and halberds, then swords, stones, and finally knives, poniards, and fists. Fortune seemed to favor the Muslims; a westerly breeze drove smoke from incendiaries into the defenders’ eyes, and more fortunate still, as the Iayalars had filled the breach, the entire store of the Christians’ firepots somehow ignited, exploded, and covered those nearby in flaming pitch. Christians and Muslims alike screamed, ran, rolled on the ground, and threw themselves into the water barrels or the sea.

Their bravery notwithstanding, the Iayalars, exhausted, withdrew soon after this incident. Mustapha now sent in his dervishes. This new strain of religious fanatic made their way over the dead and dying bodies of their coreligionists and took up the fight in a dry fog of powder smoke and the increasingly scorching heat of Malta’s July sun. The Christians managed to push the enemy back down to the counterscarp and would have pushed farther if Monserrat had not ordered them to remain in the relative safety of the fort. Zeal was all well and good, but the numbers were against them, and Monserrat wanted his men to prepare for the third wave of attackers. It was the turn of the spahis. Another charge at the breach, another failure to take it. Mustapha now turned to the warhorses of his army, the Janissaries.

The Janissaries targeted the post of Colonel Mas. Valette, watching from Fort St. Angelo, saw the attackers bringing scaling ladders to the wall, and ordered his gunners to shoot them down. Precision was wanting. Their first volley landed too far to the right and killed a mixture of the enemy and eight Christians, “putting with this misstep the fort in greatest danger of being lost.” Frantic signaling had the artillerists correct the error. Their next shot was better. Twenty Turks died, but no Christians. The remaining Muslims were few enough for the men at St. Elmo to push back successfully with pikes and trumps.

The next wave included a crew heading specifically for the cavalier. Burning hoops repelled some, and a good number were seen rushing down to the water to extinguish the burning gelatin that clung to their flesh. For seven hours “spears, torches and stones flew from all sides,” until Mustapha and Turgut finally called it quits. The defenders, once they realized they had bought another day, jeered at the retreating Muslims and heard the cries taken up by their comrades across the water in Fort St. Angelo. Mustapha’s report to Suleiman was philosophical. He wrote that he had suspended operations “because all things are tied to their destiny and marks of victory are unavoidable.”

Regrettably for him, destiny in this case had decreed a thousand Turks and only a hundred and fifty Christians should lie dead on the edge of the fort. Two Muslim standards, one belonging to Turgut, the other to Mustapha Pasha, were now in Christian hands. The battle had exhausted both sides, and veterans of the fight believed that the Turks would have been able to take the fort if they had made just one more assault. Balbi writes, in a left-handed compliment, that convicts, oarsmen, and even the Maltese fought “as if [they] were [men] of superior reputation,” persona de mayor estima.

Among the dead was Medrano, having received a bullet through the head as he seized one of the Muslim standards. Miranda had led the final counterattack and was wounded (broken leg) but not, according to him at least, incapacitated; he ordered that a chair be brought up and positioned near the big guns. Let the enemy come again—the Spaniard would stay with his men. He could, he noted, fire an arquebus from a sitting position and even kill with a sword if his enemy had the nerve to approach. Other defenders, burned, cut, maimed, of lesser birth and therefore of whom less was expected, did not stay. These, along with Medrano’s body, were ferried back to Birgu; senior among them was the badly wounded Juan de La Cerda. The force was down to some three hundred men.

Outside the battle zone, the Ottomans were on the move. They had now struck camp at the village of Zeitun, their halfway point between Marsaxlokk and Mt. Sciberras, and burned the remains—they would soon be settled closer to the fighting and bring their ships into Grand Harbor. The endgame was under way. St. Elmo would be annihilated shortly.

Valette would no longer order any more men into Fort St. Elmo, though he would accept volunteers. Three hundred men of Birgu and thirty knights stepped forward and presented themselves for service across the water. They were targeted by Turgut’s sharpshooters on Tigné, whom Valette had Coppier chase away until the boats could make it across. On June 17, Valette reported these events to Don Garcia in terms meant to encourage him to get on with sending some aid. The entire Ottoman fleet, he said, had moved from Marsaxlokk at night so “we should not see his weakness” and from “fear of your fleet,” thus leaving Marsaxlokk free for any Spanish relief force. Bombardment of Fort St. Elmo had slackened, morale was high even though supplies were low, and Valette was certain that just a few more men, even just the two triremes of the Order now in Messina, would be enough to hold the fort indefinitely. “Our safety lies in your hands; after that, our hope remains in God.”

The siege was in its twenty-fourth day. The Ottomans kept up a desultory bombardment of six guns on the southern spur, but spent the better part of their day in recovering and burning their dead. As the smoke rose and then bent back and covered the island, Mustapha and his lieutenants considered why Fort St. Elmo had not yet fallen. Exasperated at the tenacity of the enemy and eager to get the operation over with, he was ready to listen to all sides. Theories were fielded, argued, weighed, and finally reduced to three. First, the Christian gun on the fort’s eastern flank was disrupting any mass attacks on the right side. It must be taken out. Second, the guns on Fort St. Angelo had found their range and were interfering with operations on the southern side of Sciberras peninsula. They must be neutralized. And finally, the steady flow of fresh troops from Fort St. Angelo kept the defensive manpower at an insuperable level.

This last point was key, and Turgut had already begun to address it. In addition to his cannons, Turgut had placed sharpshooters on the peninsula of Tigné. Men without pity, they fired on the small boats bringing the dead and wounded back to Birgu.

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Turgut and the Ottoman high command began the morning with a tour of the various trouble spots with a view toward improving offensive capabilities. They also reconsidered the terrain. Turgut ordered that the counterscarp of the ditch facing St. Angelo be extended down to where the relief boats from Birgu entered Fort St. Elmo. The project had been more trouble than it was worth back when the siege was estimated at five days, but reality was forcing their hand. Sappers were already pushing the Turkish trenches forward, and sharpshooters should be able to fire not just on the skiffs that ferried men across the water, but at the subterranean entrance to Fort St. Elmo. Other sappers completed the curtain wall that hid the Turks from the guns of St. Angelo.

Turgut and Mustapha and their staffs, all dressed in the brightest robes possible, were inspecting the new arrangements. Balbi writes the Turgut was dissatisfied with a Turkish gunner who was aiming his cannon too high. He told the man to lower it. Still too high. He ordered him to it lower still more, but this final time the trajectory was too low, with disastrous consequences. The ball glanced against a trench and chipped off a stone that ricocheted back and hit Turgut in the temple. Turgut’s turban absorbed some of the shock, possibly preventing him from being killed outright, but the shock was severe. Blood flowed out of his mouth, perhaps even his ear and eye, and he lost the power of speech. Staff officers, appalled, quickly covered the still breathing Turgut and carried him back to Mustapha’s own tent at the Marsa, worried that news of his injury might spread and alarm the men. Ever the professional, Mustapha continued the inspection, and with his remaining staff oversaw the emplacement of four new guns aimed at the watery route to Fort St. Angelo.

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News of Turgut’s injury marked the beginning of a small winning streak for the Christians. The day after the corsair was hit, Grugno, the knight in charge of the cavalier, was able to lay cannon fire into knots of the enemy and kill the aga (commanding officer) of Turkish ordnance. The Ottomans’ reaction to this—piercing howls of grief—encouraged Grugno to strike out at other brightly uniformed men. To do so, he had to expose himself more than was strictly prudent. A Muslim sharpshooter soon winged him, and he was sent back to the infirmary at Birgu, replaced by a Fortunio Escudero, a knight of Navarre who was even more troublesome than his predecessor. The Muslims eventually trained thirty-four guns on the cavalier, he had become such a nuisance.

There was some encouragement for the Ottomans as well. On the evening of that same day, across the waters they heard a massive explosion, the more surprising as they had not been firing in that direction. A cloud of dust and smoke hung over the area, and only later did they learn that it had been the powder mill at Fort St. Angelo. Two kantars—about a hundred kilos—of powder were lost along with ten workers. The Turks cheered the display “with their bestial voices,” which Valette answered with a volley of cannon fire across the waters. Fra Sir Oliver Starkey was appointed to investigate the matter (possibly Valette was handing the Englishman a vote of confidence; before the siege, he had been charged with accepting bribes). He determined that the explosion was accidental, but it was unnerving nevertheless, and that much powder was hard to lose. Valette sent word to Mdina asking them to make up the shortfall and to provide some twenty-three more kantars besides. With St. Elmo nearly ready to fall, he would need them.

Turkish guns surrounded the fort and kept firing the entire day, though almost to no purpose—at some points the bombardment had reached bedrock, and only the ditch lay between Christian and Turk, a ditch the Ottomans were doing their best to fill up with brush and rubble and whatever else came to hand. As the inevitable climax approached, the defenders of Fort St. Elmo seemed to have fallen into a calm acceptance of what was to come, which in turn encouraged daring and insouciance. The night of June 19, Pietro di Forli had himself lowered into the ditch, where he hoped to torch the bridge. He could not—the Ottomans had packed it with wet dirt (terra ben bagnata) and its defenders soon noticed him and began to shoot. Di Forli managed to return to the fort, where his companions followed up his efforts by dismantling a section of wall and firing chain shot at the bridge. This turned out to be a waste of powder, as they were unable to depress the angle of fire enough to actually hit the structure. However futile these efforts were, they at least gave proof that these men had by no means lost their spirit.

By now the space between Fort St. Elmo and Fort St. Angelo had become a watery no-man’s-land, but somehow Ramon Fortuyn, the knight sometimes credited with the invention of fire hoops, was able to cross over from Fort St. Angelo without incident to get a sense of how things stood. Miranda, more or less in charge despite himself, seemed a little surprised to see him and assured Fortuyn that it would be simple cruelty to send more men to die. Those remaining officers on St. Elmo—d’Eguaras, Monserrat—all said the same. Fortuyn would better serve the island by returning to St. Angelo and readying himself for the fight that would soon begin again at Birgu. All that remained was prayer. Accordingly, Fortuyn went back to Fort St. Angelo along with two Muslim standards captured in the last assault, standards that he ceremoniously presented to Faderigo de Toledo as a proxy for Don Garcia and King Philip.

Fortuyn’s report clearly disturbed Valette, and the grand master followed up the next night by dispatching a second emissary, the Chevalier de Boisbreton, along with an Italian brother Ambrogio Pegullo. A dangerous trip—the moon was just past full and the Turks were vigilant. Fra Ambrogio’s head was taken off by a cannonball. Boisbreton’s arrival must have stirred new, if unreasonable, hope within these men—why else had he been sent if not with good news? But nothing had really changed. The fort, they agreed, might be able to hold off one more Muslim assault, but no more. If they did hold off such an attack, and no help arrived from Sicily, it would be best to evacuate the fort at that time.

This was wishful thinking at best. Boisbreton managed to bring the news back to Valette, but only barely. Turgut’s engineers finally had extended their trenches to command the grotto from which Fort St. Elmo anchored its lifeline to Fort St. Angelo. By the same token, it would be impossible to get enough boats to ferry the men in St. Elmo safely across the water. In Turgut’s words, Fort St. Elmo, the child of Birgu, was now cut off from the mother’s milk and must soon fall and die.

June 20 also appears to be the last day that anyone in the Order had enough leisure to compose a daily situation report.

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June 21, the feast of Corpus Christi. Soldiers, civilians, and men, women, and children lined the streets of Birgu. Inside the Church of St. Lawrence, the priest intoned the liturgy, raised the monstrance containing the host above his head, and then solemnly carried it into the daylight and through the streets—a demonstration to the faithful that God was not confined to the inside of a church but was everywhere with them. Valette and other knights, trading the red-and-white cloaks of martyrdom for the black-and-white of devotion, raised the poles to hold the canopy that shielded the container from the sun or rain. At the conclusion, Valette, “carrying his staff, served food to thirteen poor men,” as did others of the Order, replaying the message of love and charity at the core of the Order’s mission. To the sound of distant cannon fire, the procession trod the narrow stone streets among the people of Birgu, solemn, but with a care for current dangers—the route deliberately avoided those areas most at risk of Ottoman artillery.

Across the water, Ottoman forces had managed to create a breach on the scarp walls of the cavalier and hurried to exploit this bonanza. Quickly erecting a barricade against the gunfire and fire hoops of the Christians above them, they brought up four or five small culverines (capable of firing sixty-pound balls) and began to fire down into the central piazza. It took the men inside a few minutes to realize what had happened, and when they did, they fired back with small arms. When that failed to discourage the enemy, Monserrat ordered one of the few remaining cannons wheeled about. The gunners knew their business. They stuffed the barrels with scrap iron and stone, fired on the tower, and silenced the enemy position—at least, for the time being.

The end, however, was getting near. The sun went down, and as the exhausted Christians lay and waited, the cool night air carried the sounds from the Ottoman army of “the same prayers, rituals, and acts of superstition and false religion that had been heard the night before the previous assault.” There was no sleep, and so the defenders made the best use they could of the dark. Fifteen men under the Rhodian Pietro Miraglia (emulating the Italian Pietro da Forli) slipped into the ditch and attempted (unsuccessfully) to set the Ottomans’ bridge on fire before being chased back to the fort. The rest of the night was spent listening to the enemy’s prayers and chants as both sides prepared for the morning.

The attack came just after dawn and on every side. The Ottomans threw scaling ladders against the walls and were met by flying sacchetti, gunfire, trumps, and pikes. For six hours of repeated assaults, they chipped away at the defenders, never quite getting the upper hand. Several times the Ottomans planted their standards on the parapet, and each time the Christians pulled the banners down. On one occasion, the Muslims succeeded in mounting a portion of the wall, only to find that the siege cannon had left the masonry so unstable that it collapsed under their weight, throwing them down into the ditch below. From across the water, the guns on St. Angelo fired on the wooden bridge leading to the post of Colonel Mas. This was welcome help to the Christians inside the fort, who were running low on powder and soon forced to defend the breaches with steel.

Janissaries had also retaken their position near the cavalier and were again firing into the fort proper. Monserrat ordered the same gun that was so successful the day before to prevail again. For Monserrat it was a personal victory, and his last. Seconds later a bullet struck him in the chest, killing him instantly. The still-living were saved the trouble of burial when moments later cannon fire brought down a wall on his remains. After the siege was over, survivors “dug through the ruins of the fort and found his body, fully armed, his hands joined as if still in prayer to God.”

With Monserrat gone, rumors spread among the foot soldiers that d’Eguaras, Miranda, and Colonel Mas, all three of whom had not been seen since the last assault, had also been killed. This was easy to disprove. The three were all badly wounded, struck by bullets, arrows, and artificial fire, but still alive, or half-alive. They dragged themselves into view to encourage their men and to restore some sense of order. Mas and Miranda returned to their places on the line; d’Eguaras returned to his command post at the center of the piazza. Those still alive had neither the time nor the energy to bury the dead. Instead, they stacked the bodies against the walls to bolster the defenses. Even this gruesome expedience might delay the enemy and cost them a few more casualties, which was some consolation to the survivors.

Seven hours after the assault had begun, five hundred Christians lay dead, one hundred others wounded. They comprised the last of the fort, and yet, against all logic, the Turks still fell short of victory. Balbi claims that all Christian officers were now killed. The men waited in what is described as a day as hot as any fire. The next attack could come at any time, on any side, on all sides. Anyone not utterly incapable was at his post, weapon in hand. Mustapha toyed with these men, launching a series of feints, so many that no one bothered to keep a tally. Nightfall provided welcome relief from the sun at least, and time enough to tend their wounds, many of them serious.

All stocks of gunpowder were now empty, and the surviving defenders were forced to scavenge the powder horns of their dead comrades. They were able to get out one last communication to Fort St. Angelo. A single light swift boat shot out from the grotto under St. Elmo and managed to elude ten heavier Muslim craft. As backup, an unnamed Maltese swimmer followed suit, navigating a good part of his trip underwater. They reported that in St. Elmo “almost none healthy remained, and of those who were still healthy, all were exhausted, all soiled and stained by the blood, brains, marrow, and viscera of the dead colleagues and the enemy they had killed.” That the defenders would have only cold steel to fight with—Cirni refers to picks and spades—was almost an afterthought.

Men trapped in situations that must end in certain death can inspire a strange envy in outsiders. Having heard the last testimony from the fort, of its remaining defenders with their broken weapons, a large number of knights, soldiers, and citizens stepped forward to join the chosen few certain to die the next day. Romegas himself volunteered to lead them. Valette, who had masked his emotions with bluff heartiness and further talk of Don Garcia’s imminent arrival, refused to allow it. He did, however, agree that they might carry supplies to the beleaguered men, the first supplies in three days.

In the event, it didn’t matter. The moon was full and the Ottomans were on highest alert; and while a lone swift boat might, with some luck, successfully dart its way through, there was no hope of five cargo-laden boats lumbering over the water between St. Angelo and St. Elmo in safety. Piali Pasha, already humiliated by the last vessel out of St. Elmo, was in no mood to let another one back into the fort, and now led the flotilla to prevent any action in person. Romegas, outnumbered sixteen to one and target of a furious storm of cannon fire, gunfire, and arrows, chose to return back to Fort St. Angelo.

The chosen few remaining at Fort St. Elmo were now utterly alone. Without hope for victory, for rescue, or for mercy, they could only prepare themselves for a good death. “Seeing that all hope of survival was broken, being already certain, clear, and secure that they were to be taken and killed, and their fate delayed only so far as the hour of dawn; with great contrition they confessed to one another, asking forgiveness of God for their sins, and with his Divine Majesty, they devoutly reconciled themselves with no Sacraments other than a shared fraternal and devout embrace.”

Along with the soldiers, two friars, Pierre Vigneron and Alonso de Zembrana, one French, one Spanish, remained at St. Elmo. The two had tasks of their own to fulfill before sunrise. They entered the chapel, which now served as a hospital for the most grievously wounded, and delivered what last rites they could. This accomplished, the two brothers prised up a large paving stone and, putting it to one side, dug a hole in the earth below. Into this cavity they laid the gold and silver chalices and candlesticks and a reliquary containing a bone of St. John the Baptist. With the stone back in place, they proceeded to gather all remaining sacred objects—the tapestries that covered the walls, the wooden crosses and cloth vestments, the sacred books. All these they carried out of the chapel, piled up in the center of the fort, and set on fire. The Turks took this as a signal fire calling for help.

The pair made the circuit of the fort. They took confession from and conferred absolution on all those who remained alive in Fort St. Elmo in anticipation of imminent death. Then they, too, waited for the dawn.

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June 23 was the eve of the feast of St. John the Baptist. Fort St. Elmo had held out for twenty-nine days, and the Ottomans were impatient to be done with it. Throughout the night, their thirty-six heavy guns fired from three points on land and several of Piali’s ships on the water, illuminating both the sky and the fort and proving if nothing else that they still had a vast amount of ordnance to waste. Dawn broke. The Muslim soldiers on Sciberras gazed up at the smoking ruins and saw the white-and-red crossed flag still flying, still defiant. Presently they made themselves ready for what would have to be the final assault. Across the water, the men at Fort St. Angelo, all too aware of what was coming and helpless to stop it, stood and watched the final act play out.

Inside St. Elmo scarcely sixty men remained, scattered among the breaches and placed in the remains of the cavalier, outnumbered by the dead, who lay where they had fallen. Few of those left alive had escaped injury; all were determined to hold on to the last instant. The captains were focused on a hard fight, a good death.

One more time the kettledrums pounded, brass horns shrilled, men shouted, and the order to advance was given. Mustapha reported to the sultan that his troops, “shouting ‘Allah, Allah!’ and accompanied by the souls of the martyred,” began to charge the walls. Janissaries, spahis, and their corsair allies, impatient for victory, crossed over the rubbish pit of stone, earth, and broken weaponry, climbed over the corpses, scrambled up the incline toward the breaches, and braved a single, weak volley from inside the fort.

If they expected the job to be easy, they were disappointed. The first Muslims into the breach were met with a hedge of sharp steel, pikes, swords, lances, and a hail of stones. An hour passed, and although men on both sides fell, the fort did not. Another hour passed, and the attackers fell back, re-formed, came forward again, and again were held off by the stubborn Christian line. Both sides licked their wounds and dragged their dead away. From time to time there followed small diversionary attacks of no particular consequence, each a prelude to the next general assault.

When the final assault came, the first Janissaries to cross the rise found, to their astonishment, Captain Miranda, strapped into a chair and gripping a pike. The commander was maimed and bandaged, but still possessed of the soldier’s skills of thrust and parry. Even now in a position of weakness he managed to slash and gut a handful of enemy soldiers before his fellow Christians were able to repel the attackers one more time. The Muslims, however, managed a final parting shot that killed Miranda.

Command now devolved on d’Eguaras. His leg had been shattered, and so he too was confined to a chair. Seeing how the number of his men had dwindled, he thought to improve the odds by consolidating his remaining forces. He ordered the gunners on the cavalier to fall back and join their comrades inside the fort. This move was a boon for the Muslims, who quickly moved to fill the cavalier with sharpshooters. From its heights they could look down inside the shattered fort and signal to their comrades just how diluted the Christian force truly was. All tactical advantage now lay with Mustapha. Marksmen on the ravelin and on the cavalier could fire down on the Christians from the rear while Muslim infantry could attack from the front and flanks. (Oddly, Balbi says that the Muslims confined themselves to throwing stones.)

A little past eleven that morning, the final assault began. Janissaries, corsairs, and anyone else who wanted to be in at the kill, drew their blades and overtopped the crumbling edge of the fort and poured into the main piazza. The area soon resembled a Roman amphitheater in the final stages of a gladiators’ show, a confused mass of desperate men fighting in separate brawls “in which there ran rivers of blood from the multitude of the dead and the wounded on all sides.” D’Eguaras was among the first to die. Knocked from his chair, he managed to raise his sword and limp toward four Janissaries. One of the four brought a scimitar down on his neck and severed his head, which Mustapha would later order stuck on the end of a pike.

With their comrades gone, not wishing to survive them, unable to see beyond the moment or to hope for a life in this world, the remaining Christians lashed out with a superhuman fury at any Muslim who came within reach. At the door of the chapel, Chevalier Paolo Avogadro swung a broad sword with both hands and soon created a half-circle of Muslim dead around him. It took a volley of arquebus fire to put an end to this slaughter, and the dying knight collapsed on top of the pile of men he himself had killed.

The few small fights were winding down as force of numbers made good the Ottoman effort to leave no man standing. Colonel Mas, last of the commanders and also confined to a chair, swung a two-handed sword until he was himself cut down. Fortunio Escudero, last gunner on the cavalier, headed a small group of soldiers wielding broadswords on the crest of the fort, clearly visible from across the water at Fort St. Angelo, until he and they too succumbed to greater Muslim numbers. Official reckoning was now only minutes away. Mehmed ben Mustafa, who had captured La Rivière on the first day of the invasion, had the honor of seizing the knights’ ragged banner for his general as well, after which he “entered the bastion of the infidels and chopped off some heads.” The end was marked when a wounded knight, Frederico Lanfreducci, went to his post at the marina and gave the final agreed-upon smoke signal (una fumata) that the fort was lost. Moments later he was taken prisoner, becoming one of nine Christian survivors captured in Fort St. Elmo’s last battle. A handful of Maltese, able swimmers, were able to escape.

The fight was over. It had taken four hours.

Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar and March

Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar and March, was better known as Black Agnes was a Scottish heroine who famously withstood a siege of her castle by the English – “Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate” – Her nickname was due to her dark hair and eyes. She was the wife of Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March. She was also the daughter of Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray- nephew and companion-in-arms of Robert Bruce.

The centre of resistance in south-east Scotland was Dunbar, East Lothian, where its virtually impregnable castle was left in charge of Agnes Randolph, Patrick 9th Earl of Dunbar’s Countess. Because of the unrest in the south-east, Salisbury and Arundel decided that Dunbar Castle must be taken as it posed a threat to stability in the remaining English-held territory. Their strategy was also aimed at relieving pressure on castles in the vicinity still occupied by English or pro-English garrisons. While the siege of Dunbar Castle was in no sense a set-piece battle which qualifies as a Scottish ‘killing field’, it deserves a brief mention in this account because its successful defence prevented the need for a pitched battle by the Scots to regain control of the south-east of Scotland.

The siege of Dunbar began on 13 January 1338 it would last for twenty-two weeks. ‘Black’ Agnes successfully withstood every attempt made by Salisbury and Arundel to capture the castle, by both fair means or foul; Salisbury tried bribery and blackmail to no avail. (Agnes’s sole surviving brother John was brought from the Tower of London and displayed before her, Salisbury threatening to execute him if she did not surrender. Agnes simply replied that were he to do so, she would inherit the earldom of Moray!) In June 1338, Agnes was relieved by Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, much to the annoyance of Edward III.

Necessary Bulwarks: The Theory and Practice of Siegecraft in the Civil War

Engravings of siegeworks from Stone’s Enchiridion of Fortification (1645). The chevaux de freis is noted as E on picture.

As Englishmen went to their storehouses and churches to dust off their pikes, muskets, and corslets when the Civil War broke out in 1642, they also grabbed shovels, picks, and axes for use in building siegeworks. In the early days of the war, and for much of the next four years, citizens and soldiers in towns across the country set to work digging bulwarks and trenches. Old town walls and medieval castles were given modern bastions made of earth, wood, and stone, while pioneers followed the two armies and constructed sconces and batteries at strategic points across England. The most extensive earthworks were constructed in the first year of the war around London. In October 1642, work began on eighteen kilometres of ditches and twenty-eight sconces that were built along the trench line. In A True Declaration and Just Commendation of the Great and Incomparable Care of the Right Honourable Issac Pennington (1643), Pennington, London’s mayor, was lauded for his efforts in “advancing and promoting the Bulwarkes and Fortifications about the City and Suburbs.” According to the pamphlet’s author, who we know only as W. S., Pennington had soothed the Londoners’ fears by quickly “fortifying the City on every side,” saving the capital from the “malignant party.” The construction work, which also included inner and outworks, began under the direction of Philip Skippon, who was now in command of the London trained bands. Known for his talents as an infantry commander, Skippon knew a thing or two about siege warfare, having gained his experience in the art of building defences after serving at the sieges of s’Hertogenbosch and Maastricht in 1629 and Breda in 1637.

Veterans could choose from an array of titles, both domestic and foreign for guidance in laying out defensive perimeters and devising earthen bastions at key crossroads and towns. In the first years of the war, treatises by Ward and Hexham as well as Norwood’s Fortification or Architecture would all have been available for officers to peruse. Another, Ball’s Propositions of Fortifications was printed in 1642, and though no extant copy exists, it most likely laid out the methods for constructing continental-style bastions. Add to these titles the large number of foreign treatises on siegecraft that could be purchased from booksellers and it becomes evident that if Englishmen required instructions in the art of siege warfare, they need not necessarily wait for the arrival of a foreign expert.

In the first two years of fighting, there was a rush to build bastion defences and sconces across England and the work was often carried out by local engineers. In 1643, Charles I employed 5000 civilians to ring Reading with bulwarks and outworks. Exeter, Gloucester, Bristol, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Plymouth all shored up their existing medieval walls with ditches and bastions in the first months of the war, while sconces also were built at Worcester and outside York. Smaller towns like Newark and Newport Pagnell, soon become strategically important to the struggle, resulting in the building of elaborate defences of interlocking sconces and batteries close to each. At a number of castles and manors work also was carried out to add ditches and bastions to create strongholds capable of withstanding artillery. Earthen bastions and palisades fortified Wardour Castle in Wiltshire and bastions were added to the corners of Cambridge Castle in Cambridgeshire to improve its defences. Basing House, Lathom House, and Highnam House were all encircled with ditches and earthworks that proved highly effective in withstanding assaults during the war.

The reports from sieges during the war describe practices that would not have been out of place at Ostend or Breda, though on a much smaller scale. At Gloucester, the Parliamentary governor, Edward Massey, improved the town’s defences by building sconces and using fire to destroy a number of houses outside the walls so as to provide clear fields of fire for the defenders. A published letter written by John Dorney, a clerk from Gloucester, reported the activities of the Royalist army as they began to lay siege to the town in August 1643. Following the establishment of a camp about a half mile from the town, the Royalist pioneers began trenching and “making of a redoubt in a field neer Lanthony towards Severn; making a breest-work from it to Lanthony wall crosse the causey. And we perceiving by their Canon Baskets they placed in their Square redoubt in Gawdy Green that they intended a battery there.”Later the Royalists mounted three artillery pieces on the newly constructed battery and opened fire on the town with demi-cannon and culverins in an effort to batter the walls and open a breach for infantry and cavalry to exploit. Their efforts were eventually thwarted by the arrival in September of a Parliamentary relief army under the earl of Essex who advanced on the Royalist lines and forced the King’s forces to give up the siege.

At York in 1644, Royalist cannon duelled with four Parliamentary guns in a battery on a hill overlooking the town. An anonymous spectator described skirmishes between sallies by men in the Royalist garrison against Parliamentary troops entrenched about the town, and against the pioneers outside the walls who were constructing galleries and a bridge of boats across the Ouse. At the siege of Basing House that same year, the hardy Royalist defenders of the marquis of Winchester’s stately manor house held out against Parliamentary cannon shot and fire weapons, including the “sending of [a] Crosse barre, shot Loggs bound with Iron hoops, Stones, and Grenades.”

Though once again it is difficult to fully measure the influence that printed books may have had on the construction of bastion defences or in the production of fire weapons, there is evidence that home grown English engineers turned to treatises for assistance. As I have noted, there were a number of works printed just prior to the Civil War, and new editions of older works, as well as new titles, appeared in press between 1643 and 1645. In 1643, new editions of Smith’s Art of Gunnery, Bourne’s The Art of Shooting in Great Ordnance, and Norton’s Art of Great Artillery were printed. Just as the war was reaching its conclusion in 1645, two new treatises dedicated to fortification design and siegecraft, Nicholas Stone’s Enchiridion of Fortification and David Papillon’s A Practical Abstract of the Arts of Fortification, were printed in London.

Both of these works suggest that at the war’s end, military architecture had undergone a significant transformation in Britain as a result of the fighting, though continental engineers still believed that the English had much to learn about the subject.

In 1642, Nicholas Stone was a well-respected English architect and sculptor who had had a long and prosperous career. He had established his name working on royal architectural projects at Windsor and in London in the 1620s and through his sculptures that graced the estates of nobles. He continued his loyalty to the monarchy when the Civil War erupted, a decision that was to cost him his estate and his career. He never had the opportunity to put his services to use in the field for the Royalists, owing to his imprisonment by Parliament at the beginning of the war. Stone appears to have spent some of the time during his imprisonment writing his Enchiridion of Fortification. In the dedicatory poem that opens the treatise, he found the opportunity to chastise his captors, offering the book only to

. . . assist the Good.

If the Bad doe chance to draw

Thee to help them, ‘gainst the law:

(As they may doe, tis no doubt;

For what’s a Handfull, ‘gainst a rout?)

Stone’s work as a master mason and architect did not necessarily mean that he had any experience with the construction of trace italienne defences and for this reason his treatise might best be described as following in the manner of Edward Cooke or Gervase Markham, with much of the it based on the work of others, in this case Hexham’s translation of Marolois’s Fortification ou Architectvre militaire (1631). Stone claimed that he took the “choice flowers . . . gathered out of the great nursery of Martiall discipline, by Samuel Maralois & others of great skill there in, and profound Mathematicians.” Like Cooke and Markham, Stone also attempted to simplify the process of constructing bastion defences, writing for gentlemen who are “not very skill’d in the Mathematicks, nor of great knowledge in Geometry.” Stone’s plates and diagrams were taken from Marolois and his study of the various types of polygonal fortresses was complemented by brief instructions on the construction of siegeworks, including the building of approaches and turnpikes and equally brief descriptions of artillery and siege weapons, such as petards and grenades. Stone’s instructions, however, could not have been too helpful to gentlemen soldiers, especially those who lacked education in mathematics and geometry. Enchiridion of Fortification was short on details and analysis, undoubtedly the result of Stone’s limited access to other sources and possibly to his own lack of experience.

David Papillon’s A Practical Abstract of the Arts of Fortification was a better manual for soldiers. Papillon was a supporter of Parliament who was also an accomplished mason and architect. He was highly critical of Stone’s work, as well as a number of other books on siegecraft written in the 1630s. Papillon, a French Huguenot who came to England as a boy in the 1580s, was able to put his talents to use for the Parliamentary army, assisting in the construction of the bastion defences at Leicester, Gloucester, and Northampton. The defences at Leicester were composed of a series of hornworks, fortifying the eastern and southern approaches to the town, while Papillon’s work at Gloucester involved the building of a number of bastions along the existing medieval walls of the town. Papillon advised rather than helped the Parliamentarian engineers to build Northampton’s fortifications, a town that already had well-constructed defences when the war began. When Papillon wrote A Practical Abstract in 1645, the war was coming to an end, and he believed that after the war, garrisons would still be required to protect towns and that these should be given strong, bastioned defences. In his dedication to Thomas Fairfax, (dated January 1, 1645/46) Papillon offered the general of the New Model Army directions “for the future of the Works of our garrisons; and for the double intrenched Camps, that we are necessary to make use of, if we intend to give (by the gracious favour of God) a speedy and ablest period to the miseries of this poor and desolated Kingdome.” By the end of 1645, the country had witnessed at least 200 sieges, and commentators like Papillon had no doubts that siegecraft was now an essential part of the military arts in England. But Papillon still felt that Englishmen needed more study, and he decried the English defences constructed in the war, which were, in his opinion, “insufficient.” He hoped that Fairfax would see to it that the stronger bastions were built along the lines of continental fortifications. This would mean eventually replacing the earthen defences that sprang up so rapidly during the war with stone fortifications. The earthen defences were apparently the “object of derision to Forrainers that see them,” and Papillon suggests that this might be perceived as a sign of national weakness, beckoning invaders from Europe. He went on to heap much of the responsibility for the state of those defences on the heads of local engineers and townspeople who helped to construct the fortifications that now dotted the land. Yet, his attacks suggest that while the defences that were built could hardly be compared with the massive stone fortifications in the Low Countries or France, English “mechanicall Artificers and Shop-keepers” had done their fair share to assist local authorities and Royalist and Parliamentary forces in constructing these bastions. Papillon did not lay all the blame on those who had done the building; he also took a jab at his fellow military writers, notably Ward, Cruso (for his Castramentation or the Measuring Out of the Quarters For the Encamping of an Army, 1642), and Stone. Papillon described these works as having “encreased the ignorance of [the] meane capacities” of their readers, rather than improving “their knowledge in the practice of these Arts.” He also reports that in discussions with some of these men, he found them poorly versed in the field of military architecture.

Despite his attacks, Papillon reveals an intersection between the theory found in the works on siegecraft and the practice of constructing bastions and bulwarks during the Civil War. Though English defences were not up to the standards of continental trace fortifications, the speed at which they were constructed across the country in the first years of the war, their close resemblance to Dutch models, and the sheer number of siege works built indicate that the English were either quick studies or they were already keenly aware of the art of constructing siege defences before the war broke out. Archaeological research undertaken over the course of the last two decades has uncovered earthworks throughout England, Wales, and Scotland revealing a much more developed art of siegecraft in the English Civil War than historians have described. Though foreign engineers and veteran soldiers played their part in advising local citizens and soldiers in the construction of bastion defences, the influence of English and European military books cannot be overlooked as another means by which the English obtained knowledge of the art of siegecraft.

The gentleman soldier in early Stuart England could hardly call himself a “complete soldier” if he knew nothing of the art of siege warfare. The treatises and manuals on siegecraft and military architecture inherited from the Tudors, as well as pamphlets, siege histories, and analytical treatises devoted to the subject that were printed in the Jacobean and Caroline periods, gave English soldiers a window into a world that was once the preserve of the engineer and the gunner. In fact, the first half of the seventeenth century witnessed an important stage in the development of siegecraft in Britain. While the Parliamentary army would destroy or dismantle most of the fortifications constructed during the Civil War, and the English would once again come to rely upon their natural defences for protection, the sieges undertaken during the conflict had helped to complete the education of soldiers. This education had begun in the trenches of the Low Countries with Vere, Maurice, and Spinola and ended at Basing House, Pontefract, and Colchester. Along the way, complete soldiers turned to books and treatises to augment their studies of siegecraft, providing them with direction in the construction, defence, and storming of these “necessary bulwarkes.”

Greek Sicily

The Athenian siege of Syracuse, 415-413 BC. The scene is from 414 BC, when the Athenians bad established a fort at Syca (‘the fig tree ‘) on the Epipolae plateau above Syracuse, and embarked upon their usual strategy of periteichismos [encirclement]. Specialist masons and carpenters appear to have accompanied the army to Sicily, and tools for construction work were a normal part of their equipment.

One consequence of this broad diaspora is that there are as many superb Greek sites in Italy, Sicily and Asia Minor as there are in the area we now know as Greece. The greater part, inevitably, has been lost; and yet, in Sicily alone, at Selinunte—formerly Selinus—there are at least seven temples of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. in tolerable states of preservation, though most of those still standing do so only thanks to a long and ambitious program of reconstruction in the past half-century. Of the nine at Agrigento, five are more impressive still and, particularly around sunset, quite astonishingly beautiful. Loveliest of all is Segesta, set in a fold of hills an easy drive from Palermo (but just out of sight, thank God, of the motorway). It is actually unfinished—the projecting bosses used for shifting the blocks of stone were never filed away—but the general impression is one of quiet perfection, everything a late-fifth-century B.C. Doric monument ought to be. There is also, high on the opposite hillside, a beautifully preserved third-century theater, from which one can look down on the temple and marvel that such a sublime building should have survived virtually intact after two and a half thousand years.

Finally, the cathedral of Syracuse, one of the only cathedrals to have been built five centuries before the birth of Christ. Its splendid baroque façade gives no hint of what lies within, but the interior tells a very different story. The columns that support the building are those of the original Doric temple of Athena, erected by the tyrant Gelon to celebrate his victory over Carthage in 480 B.C. and famous for its magnificence all over the ancient world. Under the Romans, its greatest treasures were stolen by the unspeakably corrupt Governor Verres, against whom Cicero so famously thundered. The Byzantines converted it for the first time into a Christian church; the Arabs turned it into a mosque. Normans and Spaniards both made their own contributions; a series of earthquakes did their worst; and there was a major reconstruction in 1693 after the collapse of the Norman façade. Those ancient columns, however, survived all their tribulations, and still stand to prove once again that most curious of historical-religious phenomena: that once a place is recognized as holy, then, regardless of all changes in the prevailing faith, holy it remains.

But who, you may ask, was this tyrant Gelon, who started the whole thing? Of all the tyrants—those men who ruled their cities as virtual dictators and who played all too large a part in Greek-Sicilian history—Gelon could boast the most distinguished parentage. Herodotus claims that his ancestors had founded the city of Gela. The prototypes of these tyrants first make their appearance in the early sixth century B.C.—Panaetius in Leontini, Phalaris in Acragas and one or two others. About Panaetius we know next to nothing, and of Phalaris very little except that he greatly enjoyed eating babies and small children, and that he possessed a huge, hollow bull of bronze in which he tended to roast those who displeased him. We are a good deal better informed about Pantares of Gela, whose four-horse chariot was victorious in the Olympic Games of 512 or 508, and whose sons Cleander and Hippocrates ruled successively after him. It was on the death of Hippocrates in 491—killed in battle with the Sicels on the slopes of Mount Etna—that Gelon, his former cavalry commander, seized power. He ruled in his native city for six years, then in 485 moved to Syracuse, taking more than half its population with him. The move was sensible, if not inevitable. Gela, as we have seen, had no harbor; but no one beached ships anymore if they could avoid it, and in all the Greek world there were few harbors more magnificent than that of Syracuse.

But Syracuse was more than its harbor. It also possessed an island, separated from it by no more than a hundred yards, which could serve as a huge, self-contained fortress. It was here that the first Greek colonists founded their city, which they called Ortygia after one of the epithets of Artemis. Almost miraculously, the island possessed a seemingly inexhaustible spring of freshwater at the very edge of the sea; this they dedicated to Arethusa, one of the goddess’s attendant nymphs.

Over the next few years Gelon transformed his new conquest into a powerful and prosperous city. In this he was greatly aided by an idiotic attack on Syracuse by another Greek city, Megara Hyblaea, some ten or twelve miles up the coast. Herodotus tells us the story:

[Gelon] brought to Syracuse the men of substance, who had instigated the war and therefore expected to be put to death, and he made them citizens. The common people, who had no share in the responsibility for the war and therefore expected to suffer no evil, he also took to Syracuse and there he sold them into slavery for export outside Sicily….He did this because he thought the commons were the most unpleasant to live with.

It was not long before Gelon, with his ally, the immensely rich Theron of Acragas, had extended his power across the greater part of Greek Sicily. Selinus and Messina alone managed to preserve their independence; and it was Anaxilas of Messina who took what appeared to be the only course open to him if he and his people were to escape absorption. He appealed to Carthage.

At this point—and before we go any further—it might be a good idea to say something about Carthage. It was originally Phoenician, and the Phoenicians—the Canaanites of the Old Testament—were a very curious people indeed. Unlike their contemporaries in Egypt, they seem to have made little or no attempt to found a single, coherent state. The Old Testament refers to the people of Tyre and Sidon, and we read in the First Book of Kings how Hiram, King of Tyre, sent King Solomon timber and skilled craftsmen for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. His people had developed one memorable home industry: gathering the shells of the murex—a form of mollusc which secreted a rich purple dye,worth far more than its weight in gold.*2 But their principal interest lay always in the lands to the west—with whom, however, they traded more as a loose confederation of merchant communities than as anything resembling a nation. Today we remember them above all as seafarers, a people who sailed to every corner of the Mediterranean and quite often beyond, setting up trading colonies not only in Sicily but in the Balearic Islands and along the shores of North Africa. Beyond the Strait of Gibraltar they had important settlements on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and on the promontory of Cádiz; they probably even crossed the English Channel in search of Cornish tin.

As for Carthage, it had gained its independence around 650 B.C., and by the fifth century it had developed into a formidable city-state, by far the most important and influential of all the Phoenician settlements in the Mediterranean, occupying the site of what is now Tunis. People are always surprised when they look on the map to find that Tunisia is not south of Sicily but due west of it, and that the distance between the two is barely a hundred miles. Carthage was highly centralized and efficiently governed. It was not, in short, a presence that could be taken for granted. It responded to Messina’s appeal—and on a scale far beyond anyone’s expectation or, indeed, understanding. The response was not immediate, but that was simply because the Carthaginians meant business. They were not interested in just helping out small-time tyrants in distress; they were aiming at something a good deal more ambitious. They spent the next three years amassing a huge army, not only from North Africa but from Spain, Corsica and Sardinia, while building up an equally massive fleet; and in 480, under the command of their Chief Magistrate Hamilcar, they landed at Palermo. From there they advanced eastward along the coast to Himera, and attacked.

What happened next is almost as incomprehensible as the size and scale of the expedition itself. Theron—Gelon’s principal ally—who had been carefully following the passage of the Carthaginian fleet and was now standing ready to resist the invaders, at first found himself hopelessly outnumbered; but he was able to hold the situation until the arrival of Gelon from Syracuse, with an army comparable in size to that of Hamilcar but infinitely better equipped and trained. Meanwhile, to their bewilderment, the Carthaginians found themselves entirely alone. Of Anaxilas and his Messinans—who had invited them in the first place—there was not a sign; nor was there any help from Selinus. In the desperate encounter that followed Hamilcar was killed—or, as some say, took his own life by leaping into a blazing fire; his ships, drawn up defenseless on the beach, were burned to cinders. Vast numbers of prisoners were enslaved, and Carthage was obliged to pay an immense indemnity, of which Gelon made excellent use, building not only his great temple of Athena but two lesser temples in a developing quarter of Syracuse, dedicated to Demeter and Persephone—the goddess of fertility and the harvest, and her daughter, queen of the dead.

After the Battle of Himera—which, Herodotus tells us, was fought on the very same day as the great Athenian victory against the Persians at Salamis—it was as if the Carthaginian expedition had never been. Carthage retired to lick her wounds; she made no attempt to take her revenge or resume hostilities, remaining quiet for the next seventy years. Anaxilas was allowed to continue in Messina as before; indeed, he felt secure enough to travel to Olympia, where he won a not very exciting race for mule carts at the Games. He seems gradually to have reconciled himself to Syracusan hegemony; a year or two later he married his daughter to Hiero, Gelon’s younger brother and successor. As for Gelon himself, he died in 478 B.C. For many years he had been the most powerful figure in the entire Greek world—perhaps in all Europe. Despite Herodotus’s nasty little story above he had shown himself, for a tyrant, unusually just and merciful; we are told that, as one of the conditions of the peace treaty, he insisted that the Carthaginians should give up their traditional practice of human sacrifice—which they somewhat regretfully did. It was not only in Syracuse, but in many other cities of Magna Graecia, that Gelon was deeply and genuinely mourned.

The immense popularity and respect in which Gelon was held should have rubbed off on Hiero, but it somehow failed to do so. Hiero meant well enough, but he possessed little of his brother’s ability and intelligence. Some basic insecurity led him to establish a formidable secret police, which had little effect other than to make him more unpopular still. Like Gelon, he was a great mover of populations, transporting the people of Naxos and Catania to Leontini, and actually refounding Catania under a new name—Etna—and populating it with immigrants from the Peloponnese. He was ambitious too: in 474 B.C., in response to an appeal from Cumae, he sent a fleet across to the Bay of Naples, where it inflicted a crushing defeat on the Etruscans.

Perhaps his most attractive feature was his love of the arts: Pindar and Simonides, together with many other lesser poets and philosophers, were welcomed to his court at Syracuse, as was the tragedian Aeschylus, but somehow the old magic was gone. It is the inherent weakness of autocracies that their success depends entirely on the character and strength of the autocrat. Hereditary monarchy can take the occasional weak ruler in its stride; tyranny collapses. Hiero, alas, was found wanting. He survived long enough to win an Olympic chariot race in 468 B.C., but died the following year. He was briefly and ingloriously succeeded by two more of his brothers, who were thrown out one after the other.

At this point it was certainly on the cards that some new, unrelated adventurer might have seen his chance and staged a coup d’état; for some reason, however, tyranny suddenly dropped out of fashion. It was not only Syracuse—by far the most important city in Sicily—that reverted to a form of democracy, but almost all the petty tyrannies (whose fortunes we have no time, space or reason to follow here) across the island. This change of heart raised its own problems: so many local populations had been uprooted and transported to other cities that it was almost impossible to determine who deserved a vote and who did not, and the result was half a century of considerable confusion. It was this, perhaps, which in 415 B.C. emboldened the Athenians to launch against Syracuse what Thucydides described as the most splendid and costly fleet ever to have sailed from a single Greek city—more than 250 ships and some 40,000 men.

For reasons not entirely clear, Athens had been showing a faintly sinister interest in Sicily since the 450s, when she had most improbably signed a treaty of friendship with Segesta—a diplomatic coup comparable, perhaps, to a pact today between China and Paraguay. A number of similar treaties followed, and when in 427 Leontini appealed for help in resisting an attack by Syracuse, the Athenians immediately sent twenty ships. This might have seemed generous enough at any time; during the fourth year of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was fighting for her very existence, it was little short of astonishing. Thucydides claims, not very convincingly, that their object was to prevent the dispatch of grain to their enemies.

The Peloponnesian War—which was basically a struggle between Athens and Sparta—had had little effect on Sicily until 415; in the previous year, however, hostilities had flared up—not for the first time—between the two western cities of Segesta and Selinus. Segesta, being by far the weaker of the two, having appealed in vain for help to Acragas, Syracuse and Carthage, finally in despair sent an embassy to Athens. Athens was still technically at war, but warfare had given way to a period of uneasy truce and she had large numbers of bored fighting men who needed employment. She also had a dazzling young senator named Alcibiades—a former ward of the great Pericles—who enthusiastically championed the idea of a large-scale expedition to Sicily. He had no very high opinion of the Sicilians; and in a long speech to the Senate, he explained why:

Although the Sicilian cities are populous, their inhabitants are a mixed multitude, and they readily give up old forms of government and receive new ones from outside. No one really feels that he has a city of his own….They are a motley crew, who are never of one mind in counsel and are incapable of any concerted action.

The Athenians believed him, and launched their expedition.

Almost immediately, the plight of Segesta seems to have been forgotten; the Athenians had bigger fish to fry. They may well have had in mind the subjection of all Sicily, but it was clear that their first objective must be the island’s most important city, Syracuse. To Syracuse, therefore, they sailed; but the army had hardly landed before its commanders began to quarrel. Alcibiades, who was by far the ablest of them, was recalled to Athens almost at once to answer charges of profanation, and played no further part in the fighting; had he done so the expedition might have ended very differently. None of his fellow generals seems to have had any overall plan of attack; for weeks they shilly-shallied, giving Syracuse plenty of time to prepare a firm resistance—and to appeal for help. Sparta with its superbly trained army and Corinth with its magnificent navy were swift to respond, and the Athenians soon found that the conquest of Sicily, or even only of Syracuse, was by no means to be the walkover that they had expected.

Moreover, unlike Athens, Syracuse possessed a superb commander. His name was Hermocrates. He is described by Thucydides as highly intelligent, experienced in war and of conspicuous courage, and by Xenophon as thorough, diligent and, as a general, unusually accessible to his men. In 415 he had been among the first to warn his countrymen of the Athenian danger, and had made a determined attempt to unite all Sicily—together with Carthage—against Athens while there was still time. In this he had failed, being by some written off as an alarmist, by others reviled as a warmonger; and more than a vestige of these suspicions seems to have remained, as the Syracusans absolutely refused to entrust him with supreme command, electing him instead as merely one of three generals who would share the executive authority between them. This asinine arrangement meant that, to a very considerable extent, his hands were tied.

The fighting continued for two full years, and on at least two occasions the Athenians had the city almost within their grasp. In 414 a major slave revolt was narrowly averted, and later the same year Hermocrates was obliged to open peace negotiations; only the timely arrival, with substantial reinforcements, of the Spartan general Gylippus saved the situation. Gylippus was not initially popular in Syracuse, but he soon showed himself a thoroughgoing professional and Hermocrates, swallowing his pride, accepted him as his superior officer. It was these two men together who were ultimately responsible for the Athenian defeat—a defeat which Athens was to take a long time to live down.

But there were other causes as well. As time went by the Athenian soldiers became ever more homesick and demoralized, and thus increasingly vulnerable to epidemics, particularly of malaria—unknown in Athens but rampant in Sicily. At last the Athenian commanders accepted that they had failed and gave the order to withdraw. But they were too late. The Syracusans and their allies launched a sudden last-minute attack; the Athenian fleet was trapped inside the harbor and annihilated. What followed was little short of a massacre. After it, the two principal Athenian generals, Nicias—despite being seriously ill—and Demosthenes, were executed, while some 7,000 of their men were captured and forced to work in those fearsome limestone quarries that can be visited just outside the city. The marks of their pickaxes can still be seen. In the next few months many of them were to die of cold and exposure. Countless others were branded on the forehead with the mark of a horse and then sold into slavery. (Plutarch’s claim that a few lucky ones were set free because they could recite a chorus or two of Euripides can, alas, be discounted.) Thucydides summed it up: “the victors earned the most brilliant of successes, the vanquished the most calamitous of defeats.”

Sicily was victorious and, for the moment, safe from foreign invaders; but the Peloponnesian War was by no means over and Hermocrates, now unemployed, assumed command of a fleet of twenty triremes to fight for Sparta in the Aegean. For two years all went well; but in 410 fate turned against him. Perhaps he was less gifted as an admiral than he was as a general; at any rate, in the course of a grim battle off Cyzicus on the Sea of Marmara every one of his ships was destroyed by an Athenian fleet. He returned to Sicily, only to find the gates of Syracuse firmly closed against him—perhaps because, despite his excellent past record, the citizens mistrusted his obvious ambition and feared that he might make himself a tyrant. Their fears were probably well justified, but we shall never know: in 407, while making a determined bid to force his way into the city, he was surrounded and killed.