weapons and warfare, siege
- Modern scholars are unsure when the first sieges of fortified towns in Mesopotamia and surrounding regions took place. Most experts agree that the existence of fortified walls, especially brick and stone ones, around many early towns indicates that these places sometimes came under attack. All of the early Sumerian cities had brick defensive walls, for example. And much earlier, a number of towns in the Fertile crescent were protected by formidable stone walls and towers. Among these were Jericho, in Palestine, and ((atal Huyuk, in Anatolia. The question is: At what point did relatively brief assaults on these fortified towns and cities turn into protracted sieges utilizing specialized siege devices and tactics? At present, there is simply no waytobesure.Assyrian and Babylonian Siege Craft What is more certain is that the Assyrians and Babylonians possessed a fairly sophisticated knowledge of siege warfare and employed it fairly frequently during their conquests of neighboring lands. It is possible that they inherited some basic ideas about siege craft from the Sumerians and earlier peoples and then added their own innovations, thereby raising it to an art. Other contemporary Near Eastern peoples, including the Hittites and the Egyptians, also conducted sieges, and it is unclear who borrowed what ideas from whom in this regard. Suffice it to say that by the mid-to-late second millennium b.c.siegeswerea common feature of warfare in Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East.During this period and for some time to come, the Assyrians seem to have been the masters of siege warfare. This may be partly because their empire lasted a long time, and almost yearly military campaigns were conducted by most Assyrian kings. Therefore, the Assyrians had much practice in warfare and more need and opportunities to conduct sieges of enemy towns. This naturally stimulated them to devise the most effective siege techniques they could, given their level of technology and the available materials. As might be expected, town planners across the Near East responded to these advances in siege craft by developing improved, more formidable defenses. And in turn, this naturally inspired the besiegers to invent still more ingenious methods of assault, and so on and so on.For example, one of the earliest siege devices was undoubtedly the battering ram; it usually consisted of a large wooden, and later metal-tipped, beam carried by men or dragged by animals. The attackers used it to batter down a city's front gate or crash a hole in a section of the defensive wall. The defenders then developed coun-termeasures, including digging moats in front of the gate to make it more difficult for the ram to approach. They also showered arrows, rocks, and boiling liquids down onto the men and animals operating the ram. Assyrian besiegers learned to nullify these deadly rains by covering the ram and its operators with a sturdy, protective structure - later called a penthouse - made of wood, thatch, and layers of animal hides.Meanwhile, the defenders continued to come up with their own countermeasures, including making the lower sections of their outer walls extra thick to make them stand up better to the pounding of a battering ram. This inspired the attackers to try to exploit the thinner, more vulnerable upper sections of the defensive walls. They began using scaling ladders, with which their soldiers tried to climb up and over the walls. And they had contingents of archers fire arrows at the defenders manning the tops of the walls. The defenders countered by using long poles to push the scaling ladders away from the walls. They also learned to equip the tops of the walls, or battlements, with alternating merlons (square notches) and crenels (openings), the familiar notched pattern used later in all medieval European castles; the defenders could then hide behind the merlons and shoot arrows through the crenels.To counter the increasing strength of the walls and their defenses, the attackers began building siege towers - tall contraptions made of wood and thatch that moved on large wooden wheels. Soldiers rode inside a tower and fired arrows into the city as they approached the walls; when the tower reached the walls, these soldiers climbed out and fought hand to hand with the defenders manning the battlements. When possible, the defenders used flaming arrows to set the towers ablaze before they reached the walls. While this life-and-death struggle ensued, still another battle between attackers and defenders was sometimes occurring far below the walls. The attackers learned to dig tunnels, later called saps, under the walls; these had two goals: either to weaken a wall enough to make it collapse or to allow the sappers to enter the city from beneath. To counter the saps, the defenders tried lighting fires that filled the tunnels with smoke, or they dug their own tunnels beneath those of the attackers, causing the upper saps to collapse.Many of these elements of attack and defense during sieges can be seen in Assyrian relief sculptures. Particularly striking are the panels commissioned by King Sennacherib (reigned ca. 704-681 b.c.) to commemorate his siege of the Hebrew city of Lachish in Judah in 701 b.c.. (This siege is also described in the Old Testament book of 2 Chronicles.) These sculptures, found in the ruins of Nineveh by the great nineteenth-century Assyriologist Austen Henry Layard, show that the stronghold was erected atop a high mound to discourage the approach of siege devices such as battering rams and siege towers. So Sennacherib ordered a huge earthen ramp to be built in front of the stronghold. The attackers then dragged their battering ram, which was protected by a strong penthouse made of animal hides, up the ramp and began smashing at a section of wall. Meanwhile, as the sculptures show, Assyrian soldiers climbed scaling ladders placed against the walls; they protected themselves by holding large shields made of thick layers of wicker above their heads as they moved upward. The reliefs also show that inside the town the defenders built a massive ramp of their own in an effort to bolster the portion of wall weakened by the battering ram. Despite their heroic defense, however, the city eventually fell. Sennacherib besieged another Hebrew city, Jerusalem, but failed to take it, although he later successfully laid siege to Babylon. As for Lachish, it was besieged again, using similar methods, by the Babylonians circa 588 b.c.. They also besieged and captured Jerusalem the following year.Persian Sieges The Persians, who modeled many of their battlefield formations and tactics on those of Sennacherib and other Assyrian warrior-kings, also learned about siege tactics from the Assyrians. And some evidence for Persian sieges has survived. For example, the Greek historian Hero-dotusrecordedhow, in 494 b.c., King Darius I besieged the Greek city of Miletus in western Anatolia, which had joined in the rebellion the Anatolian Greeks had launched in 499 b.c.. Herodotus also mentions a typical outcome of successful Assyrian and Persian sieges - killing some of the losers, enslaving others, and deporting the rest back to Mesopotamia:[The Persians] invested Miletus by land and sea. They dug saps under the walls, brought up rams of all kinds, and, five years after the revolt [had begun] overwhelmed it. So Miletus was reduced to slavery. . . . Most of the [Milesian] men were killed by the Persians . . . the women and children were made slaves, and . . . the men in the city whose lives were spared were sent as prisoners to Susa; Darius did them no harm, and settled them in Ampe, on the Persian Gulf, near the mouth of the Tigris. ... In this way, Miletus was emptied of its inhabitants. (Histories 6.17-22)The Height of Near Eastern Siege Warfare Though the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians prosecuted many successful sieges, they did not survive long enough to witness the pinnacle of siege warfare in the Near East. During his invasion of the Persian Empire in the 330s b.c., Alexander the Great invested a number of cities that made the mistake of resisting him. Of particular note was the spectacular siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre, then controlled by Persia, in 332 b.c.Alexander's officers and engineers owed a great deal to an earlier Greek military genius, Dionysius I, who became dictator of the Sicilian Greek city of Syracuse in 405 b.c. Dionysius and his own engineers created large mechanical crossbows. Each was attached to a wooden framework equipped with a metal winch that slowly drew back the bowstring. A barrage of wooden bolts (huge arrowlike projectiles) unleashed by these bows showered a city's battlements, allowing siege towers to get closer to the walls. Dionysius's siege towers were equipped with big wooden gangways that dropped onto the rooftops of buildings within a city. (His troops ran down the gangways and quickly took control of the buildings.)Greek inventors also introduced torsions-powered catapults, which featured bundles of animal tendons or human hair that had been twisted tightly. When released, the pent-up energy propelled large bolts or stones up to .5 miles (.8 km) or more, doing tremendous damage to stone walls and wreaking havoc in besieged towns. (The large missile shooters and catapults were the ancient equivalent of artillery.) Alexander's father, Philip II, utilized such devices in the sieges he prosecuted in northern Greece; and Alexander proceeded to employ them in his invasion of the Near East. Then, in the centuries immediately following Alexander's death, new generations of Greek inventors, engineers, and machinists produced even more lethal versions of siege artillery. The Greek Seleucids, who came to control Mesopotamia, along with their frequent enemies in Greece and Greek-ruled Egypt, used these devices. And so did the Romans, who were experts at borrowing useful ideas from other peoples and then improving on them. Under the Greeks and the Romans, the art of siege craft reached its apogee in ancient times.
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.
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