Ancient Siege Warfare – Exploring Greek Siege Tactics

ancient siege warfare

The first known pictorial evidence of siege warfare, a wall painting from Egypt, dates to the 27th century BC.[1] But Jericho, a fortified city mentioned in the Bible, has, by archeologists working in the 1950s, been dated back to the 70th century BC, with the archeologists uncovering a wall “ten feet thick and thirteen feet high.”[2] With siegecraft being so old we can’t be surprised if ancient Greek methods of siege warfare lagged behind compared to those of the Middle East.[3] The ancient Greeks were experts at siegecraft nonetheless, as we will explore in discussing several siege strategies the Spartans could have used against Athens during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).

The Fortifications of Athens and the Stand Against the Spartans!

ancient athens siegecraft and siege warfare stragies
Ancient Athens

Like the walls of Jericho perhaps, the walls of Athens did more than provide defense. The walls of Athens were “symbols of power and pride.”[4] Athens’ fortifications were “a critical public works project of great political and strategic significance.”[5] Pericles’ Long Walls, a profound addition to the city’s defensibility, were destroyed after Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, but Athens didn’t lose the war due to siege per se, not exactly. Athens lost the war due to plague, starvation and a naval defeat at the battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC. We call the final act of the war the “Siege of Athens” (404 BC) but the city was not taken by force because “in the current state of Greek siege warfare [Pericles’ new] walls were invulnerable when defended.”[6] Eventually, Athens’ starvation did cause them to surrender in 404 BC but they did it under peace negotiations before the walls were destroyed, and surrendering under peace negotiations was a rare occurrence in ancient warfare.

What if Sparta Had Full-out Besieged Athens in the Peloponnesian War?

If, however, Sparta had decided to besiege Athens earlier in the war with intention of taking her by force, what are some of the ancient strategies of siege warfare they could have used? By answering this question and listing different ancient siege tactics we can learn more about ancient siege warfare in general.

Exploring Ancient Siege Warfare Strategies


Strategy #1: Using Reputation to Make the Enemy Surrender

ancient warfare tactics
Alexander the Great

First of all, we don’t have to look at the Jolly Roger to learn that reputation can go a long way in making people surrender immediately. When Alexander entered Egypt in 332 BC, the satrap Mazaces surrendered the capital Memphis by the bud because his people were weary of Persian rule.[7] This event may have happened differently if Alexander hadn’t arrived with his reputation at the tail of his horse. If the Spartans had been able to flaunt a leader as reputable as Alexander, dragging a trail of decisive victories behind him, perhaps the Athenians would have surrendered a lot sooner. If that didn’t work, a famous leader could also rile an army and boost enough morale to attack a city full-force.

Strategy #2: Treachery and Deception

ancient siege warfare treachery and deception
Treachery and Deception

Another strategy the Spartans could have attempted is one displayed by the Thebans against Plataea in 431 BC. Essentially, this strategy goes as follows: feign peace for the sake of negotiation and have a body of men enter the city then once inside fortify yourself and shout “Plataea [has been] occupied!”[8] In a way this strategy is similar to the Trojan horse. If the Spartans had managed to get 300 of their best fighters inside Athens using this strategy, they could have opened the gates to let the rest of the Peloponnesian host inside like the Greeks had done at Troy.

This strategy is risky though, as is simply entering a city by breaching the walls, for “an attacking army might breach a city’s walls only to face continued resistance in the streets, houses, and public spaces.”[9] This is precisely what happened to the Thebans in Plataea and it caused their failure. With that said, Sparta’s 300 best fighters may have put up a better fight than the Thebans had despite Athens’ greater population. We don’t have to read the fate of the suitors in Homer’s Iliad to know that further urban resistance can be quelled because when Philip II of Macedon waged urban warfare in the streets of Olynthos in 348 BC “the Macedonians had to subdue [her] house by house.”[10]

When the strategy of entering a city by deception is combined with taking advantage of the enemy’s stasis (civil discord) between internal factions, the effects can be augmented if one of these factions decides to assist the deceivers. However, much like the keep of a medieval castle, the Acropolis in Athens could act as a fortification within the walls, supplying the defenders with a base for counterattack maneuvers.[11] The agora (marketplace), too, was a great place for the defenders to assemble their army because it was usually the largest open space in any Greek city.[12] When the Athenians and Ionians entered Persian-held Sardis in 499 BC, they found the Persians amassed in the agora and were forced to retreat.[13]

Strategy #3: The Element of Surprise

the element of surprise in ancient warfare
The Element of Surprise

There’s one way to avoid finding the defenders amassed in the agora after successfully entering a city, and it’s another treacherous strategy the Spartans could have tried against Athens. This strategy is to enter the city by pretending to be local traders and then smuggle weapons “into the agora inside baskets of fruit and boxes of clothing.”[14] Getting into a city this easily, however, wasn’t commonplace, despite the fall of Babylon in 539 BC. It was more typical for sieges to be a long process. The siege of Bactra directed by Antiochus III lasted from 208 to 206 BC, a total of two years.[15] A way the Spartans could have entered Athens relatively easily and quickly is to enter autoboei (at first assault). This is typically accomplished by implementing the element of surprise, but the Spartan army stalled indecisively on the Isthmus of the Peloponnese for a while before waging time-consuming chevauchée against the Athenians. Instead, the Spartans could have simply rushed to Athens as quickly as humanly possible to gain the element of surprise and receive the least resistance, perhaps even catching the Athenians in a phase of early preparation.

Strategy #4: Circumvallation and Ramp

ancient greek siege
Siege Ramp

Yet another strategy available to the Spartans was a more traditional one, that which was used by Archidamus and his Spartan army against Plataea in 429 BC. Thucydides the contemporary Athenian historian tells us that Archidamus built a wooden palisade around Plataea,[16] a wall described much like Caesar’s famous circumvallation at the battle of Alesia in 52 BC. Then, the Spartans built a ramp against the wall of the city,[17] a ramp much like Lucius Silva’s ramp at the siege of Masada against the Jews in 73 BC. We’re told that groups of relief parties took “seventy days and nights without intermission” to complete the ramp.[18] However, in a competition of inventiveness, the Plataeans built a hide-covered wall of timber and brick on top of the wall where the ramp was located to make the Spartan’s efforts for naught.[19]

A race for who could build faster ensued and, trying a different tact, the Spartans brought a battering ram onto their ramp only to have it broken by Plataean lassos.[20] The Spartans, believing to be running out of options, made their last effort to take the city with fire only to have the flames soused by a rainstorm.[21] Finally, seeing that all their options were spent, the Spartans strengthened and garrisoned their circumvallation before dispersing their army.[22] If the Spartans had tried a similar method of siegecraft at Athens, combining it with the aforementioned element of surprise, they could have also used the sambyke (lifting device) in lieu of the ramp and the chelone (siege engine with drill) in lieu of the battering ram to provide different results.

Surely there are many more strategies the Spartans could have used at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, like digging a river from the Bay of Phalerum to flood Athens, but like all else hitherto these speculations are most plausible in the modern mind and have only been used here as tools to learn more about ancient siege warfare in general. I hope that was accomplished here today, and thank you for visiting.

If you want to keep reading, here are some similar posts about historical warfare:

 

Bibliography

 

Berkey, David L. “Why Fortifications Endure: A Case Study of the Walls of Athens during the Classical Period.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Donald, Kagan. The Peloponnesian War. Viking Press, 2003.

Kern, Paul B. Ancient Siege Warfare. Indiana University Press, 1999.

Lee, John W.I. “Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek World.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1996.

Worthington, Ian. “Alexander the Great, Nation Building, and the Creation and Maintenance of Empire.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010.

[1] Kern, Paul B. Ancient Siege Warfare. Indiana University Press, 1999. p. 11.

[2] Kern, Paul B. Ancient siege warfare. Indiana University Press, 1999. p. 11.

[3] Kern, Paul B. Ancient siege warfare. Indiana University Press, 1999. p. 89.

[4] Berkey, David L. “Why Fortifications Endure: A Case Study of the Walls of Athens during the Classical Period.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 77.

[5] Berkey, David L. “Why Fortifications Endure: A Case Study of the Walls of Athens during the Classical Period.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 58.

[6] Donald, Kagan. The Peloponnesian War. Viking Press, 2003. p. 51.

[7] Worthington, Ian. “Alexander the Great, Nation Building, and the Creation and Maintenance of Empire.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 120.

[8] Lee, John W.I. “Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek World.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 138.

[9] Lee, John W.I. “Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek World.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 141.

[10] Lee, John W.I. “Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek World.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 141.

[11] Lee, John W.I. “Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek World.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 144.

[12] Lee, John W.I. “Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek World.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 145.

[13] Lee, John W.I. “Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek World.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 145.

[14] Lee, John W.I. “Urban Warfare in the Classical Greek World.” Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 145.

[15] Chantiolis, Angelos. “Greeks Under Siege: Challenges, Experiences, and Emotions.” The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World. Oxford University Press, 2013. p. 440.

[16] Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1996. p. 134.

[17] Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1996. p. 134.

[18] Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1996. p. 134.

[19] Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1996. p. 134.

[20] Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1996. p. 135.

[21] Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1996. p. 135-6.

[22] Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1996. p. 136.

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