Siege is defined as: “the act or process of surrounding and attacking a fortified place in such a way as to isolate it from help and supplies, for the purpose of lessening the resistance of the defenders and thereby making capture possible” (Siege, 2004). This process was often very difficult as it involved containing a geographic area from all outside influence and could take several months or years to execute successfully. Not to mention that such a feat required great amounts of technology, resources, and endurance to prove effective. Despite all these issues, many civilizations throughout history have exploited this type of warfare, each having their own unique approach to it. So how did the Romans use this powerful and costly means of warfare, and were they effective in doing so?
To answer this question, we must first consider the beginning. Until c.a. 400 BCE, The Romans generally leaned on the Greek ideas of siege, which primarily employed the simple blockade as a manner of conquering an enemy city. Despite the monetary costs, this method worked fairly well until enemy defense systems became nearly impossible to contain and breach. A prime example of this dilemma is modeled by The Siege of Veii in which the Romans were at a standstill with the Etruscans for anywhere from 7 to 10 years! (Nossov, 2005) The Romans were very practical in warfare and quickly began to seek more effective tactics and technology to speed up this grueling process. In accordance with this, Engineers were soon put on the task of developing better systems to counter the ever complicating web of enemy defense structures and strategies. The technological and tactical applications from such research would change military history forever (Meyer, 2012).
By c.a. 200 BCE, the Roman’s had developed a strategy that would stand the test of time, the exhaustion and starvation of a city through constant disturbance. Although not remarkably wealthy in heavy artillery at this time, the Roman’s began to strategically divide armies into sub groups which would keep constant pressure on the enemy by taking turns invading and terrorizing, thus giving no time for the enemy to regroup (King, 1997). This allowed the military leaders to consider and execute new and previously improbable strategies with little disturbance from the preoccupied target. These techniques spiked in popularity during the Second Punic War and continued to grow until large scale throwing machines and other siege equipment become a regular part of the army under Julius Caesar (c.a. 50 BCE).
To ensure a successful siege, an assortment of actions such as undermining, ramming, and use of other siege weaponry became increasingly common as means to breach and conquer adverse defenses (Simkin). One of the most notable techniques that evolved under the Romans was a defense-oriented modification of the Phalanx formation. This resulting formation was coined the name “testudo” or the tortoise formation. This revolutionary arrangement provided the battalion protection from missile projections and other dangers that may be common in a siege situation, thus increasing the effectiveness of Roman infantry. (W. Contributors, 2014)
All these new components created completely new ways of strategizing, but it came at a cost… money. Due to the cost of proper siege warfare, the development of common tricks called stratagems began to be used in order to shorten the siege process. These often involved deception of the opposing side from both the sieged and the besieged perspectives. A leader from the outside may use tactics such as surprise attacks, false retreats, exploitation of traitors, or the increase of inside population to deplete food faster (Nossov, 2005). The besieged had been known to build up or diminish the outside party’s morale by portraying abundance within to weaken hopes of starvation. These common tricks became retorts from one party to the other in an attempt to portray possession of the situation to hasten a victory. The use of such trickery clearly demonstrates the growing importance of diplomacy and deception as a war tactic in addition to the various Roman battle arrangements.
Although not perfect in execution, Rome’s demonstration of strategic advancement and tactical innovation at this time period is remarkable. Siege warfare was in its infancy, but was quickly being established. Considering the intense tactical and technological nature of this form of battle, the Roman’s truly reached new heights that would assist in carrying them in their successes as an empire, and would ultimately be built upon in civilizations to come.
Connolly, Peter. Greece and Rome at War. Frontline Books, 2012. Book. 28 March 2014.
Contributors, Wikipedia. “Testudo Formation.” 4 March 2014. Wikipedia.org. Web. 28 March 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testudo_formation>.
CristianChirita. Trajan’s Column. Cast. 28 March 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_turtle_formation_on_trajan_column.jpg>.
King, Jay. “Starving a City Into Submission With Siege Tactics.” 1997. Jaysromanhistory.com. Web. 3 April 2014. <http://jaysromanhistory.com/romeweb/romarmy/art4.htm>.
Meyer, Joseph, “Roman Siege Machinery and the Siege of Masada” (2012). 2012 AHS Capstone Projects.Paper 14. <http://digitalcommons.olin.edu/ahs_capstone_2012/14>.
Nossov, Konstantin. Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons. Guiolford: The Lyons Press, 2005. Book. 28 March 2014.
“siege.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 27 Mar. 2014. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/siege>.
Simkin, John. “Military Tactics of the Roman Army.” n.d. Spartacus Educational. Web. 28 March 2014. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ROMmilitary.htm#source>.