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Sieges of cities in Antiquity.


Thorald

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During all Greek and then Roman antiquity, the "war" phenomenon has a central place which gives, 2 500 years after Pericles, pertinence and topicality to a thought about poliorcetic i.e. the art of besieging cities. This reflection contributes to give prominence to the impossibility to separate a global event, the "urban war", from its general context, the place of cities in antique Greece or Rome and at the same time to highlight its constants in their dual tactical and symbolic dimension.

 

The importance of cities as centers of a human community regrouping political, economical and social functions clearly appears in Greece when Athens decides, in the middle of the Peloponnesian war, to abandon the countryside to save the city. Gradually this political and strategic process is adopted by all Greek cities. De facto, cities become, more than the territory, the object of all covetousness, the objective whose fall marks the political victory in war. The seizing of the city with the violence incurred during the siege, from surrounding to mercy imposes

military efforts so far unknown.

 

Succeeding to the traditional "citizensoldier" that was the hoplite comes a "mercenary-soldier" who accepts more "easily" than his predecessor the exacerbation of violence. The Roman "urban war" is characterized by a significant development of dedicated "logistic" assets, as well as the recourse to earthwork techniques enhanced to a very high degree of perfection.

 

Two examples of sieges, one Greek and the other Roman illustrate the innovation efforts imposed by the complexity of the seizing of a city.

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The siege of Jerusalem by Roman general Titus in 70

 

In the 1st century B.C., Judaea became willingly “the ally and friend of Rome”; then, Rome ensured its protection as well as the security of the dynasty in place. However, in 63 B.C., the pacification campaign of the Eastern provinces carried out by Pompey, turned Judaea into a Roman colony. In 6, Judaea is annexed to the Empire. In order to enable Jews to serve in auxiliary troops, a population census is organized in 66. This measure leads to the outset of a revolt crushed by general Vespasian's Legions. In 69, Vespasian, acclaimed emperor, returns to Rome and leaves his son Titus to take care of the last Jewish resistance bastion : the city of Jerusalem.

 

Jerusalem, that general Titus watches from Mount Scopus in April 70, is a vast fortress : three rows of ramparts come one after the other and deep ravines deny access to areas not protected by ramparts. After having studied the city during a long time, Titus decides to attack where the first rampart is the lowest. The four legions and the Roman auxiliary troops carry out earthworks in order to be able to employ rams and helepoles. The first rampart is taken and then destroyed by the Romans on May 25th. The second rampart is defeated within 5 days, but Titus gives the order to preserve the city and his Temple. Taking advantage of this pause, the Jews launch a counterattack and the Romans need an additional 4 days to retake and destroy the second rampart. The siege then enters a “psychological” phase during which Titus tries to persuade the besieged to surrender. In vain, the Jews reject any compromise and manage to set fire to several helepoles and the four Roman legions which had settled beyond the first rampart are compelled to withdraw. Titus then decides to blockade the city whilst preserving his soldiers. He built a wall aiming at denying any supply to the besieged and simultaneously enabling his troops to carry out further earthworks. This is how a wall of roughly 7 km long is built over 3 days. On the 20th of July, the Jews launch an attack against the construction but the Romans drive them back and reach the third rampart that they shake hard. Then, feigning a large-scale charge, Titus manages to push back the Jews against the ramparts of the Temple. Besieged and besiegers then fight hand-to-hand.

 

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After the failure of a new negotiation, General Titus is compelled to launch his assault against the holy Temple he wanted to save. On the 25th of September 70, Titus orders the decisive assault and, using the rams, destroys the ramparts of the Temple. On the 28th of September 70, Jerusalem is taken, destroyed and the population, who was not able to fly away is slaughtered. After having celebrated his victory, Titus leaves Jerusalem not forgetting to set up the camp for his Xth legion in what remains of the city in order to secure its “romanity”.

 

 

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The siege of the island of Rhodes in 305 B.C. and that of his city takes place after the Rhodians refuse to obey the Antigonides, supporters of the Macedonian general Antigonus.

 

Commanded by Demetrios, the Antigonides fleet attacks, during the first phase of the siege, the merchant harbor, which is not included into the fortification lines of the island. If Demetrios is able to land his siege machines on the island, the Rhodians manage to preserve a part of the harbor thus ensuring the continuity of their supplies. During the year 304, combats mainly take place on the island, but here again the Rhodians manage to drive off the Antigonides and this, despite the material power implemented by Demetrios. Therefore, it is not thanks to the victory of the besiegers over the besieged that the siege of the island of Rhodes is known for, but by the material and firepower implemented by Demetrios.

 

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From the earthworks necessary for the employment of the helepoles carried out by nearly 30,000 workers to the employment of various catapults throwing arrows and cannonballs, with a useful range of nearly 200 meters. The helepole is the antique siege machine reference. "Fortified" and mobile wooden tower, it enables the besiegers to move close to the ramparts and then to seize the same ramparts thanks to a footbridge while being protected. The ram is composed of an "iron covered" beam hanging from a wooden structure and permits to make some breaches through the fortifications. Employed together rams and helepoles are often terribly efficient. However, the helepole can be reduced to ashes. Thus, the Rhodians from the top of their ramparts set fire to several helepoles using burning arrows or else create havoc in the ground so as to lead the siege machine to get stuck and, taking advantage of the mess, launch several successful counterattacks.

 

In fact, the "political-strategic" resolution of the Rhodians (grant of citizenship to slaves who have fought, economic support of the families of citizens killed in action, grant of a military equipment, etc.) as well as an outside support coming from Crete and Knossos have enabled them to beat off the assaults of Demetrios and of the Antigonides despite the material superiority of these last ones.

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