Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.06.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.11

Joshua Levithan, Roman Siege Warfare.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2013.  Pp. ix, 247.  ISBN 9780472118984.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Mark Hebblewhite, Macquarie University (

Siege warfare in the ancient world is not an understudied subject. A range of scholarly material has been produced that details the tactics, weaponry and gruesome results of this form of warfare. And of course in addition many works, usually volumes dedicated to military issues, pay attention to particular sieges that fall into their areas of study.1 Despite this wealth of material Levithan’s new study, derived from his PhD dissertation, is a welcome one as it eschews the traditional scholarly approach of viewing siege warfare as a competition consisting of chessboard tactics and technological prowess. Instead, Levithan argues that the Roman siege was a highly structured psychological contest, uniquely different from open warfare and primarily a test of morale and motivation.

Levithan uses his introduction to stress that a siege cannot be considered as merely a pitched battle with fortifications but instead was “waged both in a different moral environment and with its own separate set of potential outcomes” (p 2). Here Levithan also bemoans the obsession sources have with siege machines and artillery, objects he dismissively refers to as ‘gadgetry’. Instead Levithan follows Keegan’s Face Of Battle approach to military history and stresses the importance of trying to understand the experiences of the troops who fought in the various sieges conducted by Rome. 2 Levithan is quick to acknowledge that this is a difficult task – archaeological evidence is of limited use and the available literary narratives lack first hand perspectives from the actual fighting troops – but he argues that unlike open warfare the fact that siege outcomes were “indisputable and binary” means that it is harder for our ancient historians to ‘spin’ their narratives.3 Levithan is careful in choosing his sources. For the most part restricted to narrative histories he focuses on authors whose work survives in sufficient quantity for us to have an understanding of their language and literary tendencies and who had some experience of war or who had been present at a siege. Accordingly in Chapters Four to Seven Levithan presents case studies of the work of Polybius, Livy, Caesar, Josephus and Ammianus Marcellinus and the major sieges each writer covers.

The heart of Levithan’s approach is contained in Chapters Two and Three. Chapter Two seeks to examine the moral context of siege warfare, in particular the role troop morale played in victory or defeat. For Levithan siege weapons and machines could never defeat a city on their own. There always had to be troops who were willing to be first ones to physically breach the walls. Thus the success of a siege hinged on the morale of the besieging army as a whole, and in particular on the combat motivation of the relatively small number of troops leading the assault. Levithan is left to pose the question: “Why did some soldiers choose a much greater risk of death merely in order to do violence to strangers” (p 25).4 Levithan’s answer to this question is multi-faceted. He highlights Roman efforts to engender group morale in the army through disciplina and the use of rituals such as the sacramentum and tools including the signa militaria. Such efforts meant that during a siege at least some Roman soldiers were so consumed by their group identity that they were prepared to lead an attack and if necessary die for their commilitones. The chance to obtain personal glory and wealth were also important. Drawing on a range of sources as diverse as Horace, Ammianus, Ovid and Caesar, Levithan argues that imperial rewards, whether they be battle honours such as the corona muralis or promises of donativa and promotions were powerful incentives for ordinary Roman soldiers to undertake individual acts of suicidal bravery. The commander of the besieging army also played a role in the success of these incentives as motivational tools. Although he did not personally lead the siege assault, his soldiers would fight harder under his gaze, particularly those who wished to enjoy his largesse. Finally, Levithan highlights the peculiarly Roman concept of courage (virtus) the display of which was motivated equally by desire for praise and a fear of being shamed in the eyes of one’s commilitones. In siege warfare those few troops whose virtus was so extreme that they would charge the walls were not acting in a co-operative fashion. Instead they were effectively competing in a fashion not unlike Homeric heroes (p 38).

In Chapter Three Levithan lays out a central concept of his study: that unlike the fluid nature of open warfare the Roman siege followed a “regular and predictable pattern” (p 47). To illustrate how a siege predictably unfolded from one stage to another, Levithan uses the analogy of a ratcheting gear that turns steadily in one direction and becomes ever more tense until finally it is released and its energy unleashed. Like the gear, a siege could only move in one direction. As it progressed the risk to attackers and defenders alike grew stronger with each stage promising an increasing level of violence until finally the tension was released with the sack of the city (p 48). It was the besieging commander’s decision as to how a siege would progress. The first decision he had to make was whether to conduct an active siege or merely blockade the city into submission. For a commander who wanted to take a city via an active siege the simplest choice was whether to go over, under or through the wall. Of course there were a range of ways such a siege could progress. Outside of civil wars most sieges skipped the pre-contact stage where a city would welcome the besieger without a shot being fired. Instead a siege would begin with a period of contact and intimidation whereby the besiegers would attempt to sap the morale of the defenders through a the construction of extensive earthworks, or a visual display of their overwhelming numbers – such as conducting a military parade. The overriding aim of both approaches was to encourage the quick capitulation of the defenders.

If that failed the besiegers would be forced to engage with the defenders – usually via an assault. When planning his assault the besieging commander had to weigh up the “inverse relationship between time and danger, the benefits of a quick siege weighed against the casualties caused by hurried preparations or repeated assaults” (p 66). The quickest way to assault a fortified position was an immediate “general assault” using nothing but ladders, screens, hand tools and some artillery for support. Such an approach, used prominently at the Republican sieges of Romulea and Ferentium, required precise planning and excellent morale on the part of the troops as it invariably led to significant casualties. If a commander did not wish to sustain such casualties, or thought his army would not undertake a bloody frontal assault he could try surprise or trickery to capture a city. This could include a sudden night time attack like that undertaken by Titus’ army at the siege of Jerusalem, or Caesar’s gambit in taking advantage of a heavy thunderstorm to take Avaricum.

Most sieges though required a slow period of building siege works followed by a ‘general assault’. Roman sieges of this type either utilised heavy siege towers, battering rams and a large earthen ramp (agger) that allowed troops to directly assault the top of the walls. Also common was the use of mines to weaken or even destroy a section of the city walls. The final and gruesomely inevitable part of any successful siege was the sack of the city. For Levithan this represents the release of the pent up energy that had increased as the siege progressed. He stresses that the sack, which ironically was a ‘non military’ event in that the usual discipline and command structure of the army immediately broke down, was viewed by ancient writers as an accepted practice that was sanctioned by implicit custom. Levithan emphatically emphasises that siege warfare existed within a unique moral sphere where a set of informal ‘rules’ were understood by besieger and besieged alike. For example, Levithan cites Cicero (Off.1.35) and Caesar (BG 2.32) to argue that it was understood in the ancient world that once the battering ram touched the city walls the defenders could expect no mercy (p 74-76). Also important is Levithan’s belief that siege warfare was considered a shameful experience to the Roman mind. By refusing to engage in open warfare the besieged were shamefully forcing the besiegers to fight at a significant disadvantage. The sack, and its attendant violence that otherwise would be considered uncivilised was, in the context of siege warfare, the legitimate price of the cowardice displayed by the besieged.

Overall there is much to admire in Levithan’s work. His complaint that much modern scholarship treats siege warfare as discrete historical occasions rather than as a unique category of military event is a legitimate one. Similarly, his belief that Roman sieges should not be treated as a mere ‘fortifications-related variation on a general practice of battle’ (p 2) has merit: the art of conducting a successful siege was far different than winning an open pitched battle. This said, there are some areas in which Levithan is perhaps too forceful in his views. His repeated categorisation of artillery as ‘gadgetry’ probably goes too far. While Levithan is correct in noting that such tools have been ‘fetishized’ by ancient and modern writers alike they did remain a crucial part of the Roman siege effort. Levithan himself notes the role artillery played in the assault stage of the siege – particularly in giving covering fire to the troops. Also Levithan’s belief that siege warfare was intrinsically shameful to the Roman mind may be overstated. Roman soldiers regularly built fortified positions while on the march, particularly when campaigning in hostile territory. The benefits of strong, if temporary, defensive walls were not sneered at by the Roman military machine. A siege could be a chance for Roman defenders to attain gloria – to note a minor example, Ammianus speaks admiringly about the veterans who defended Autun from the Alamanni early in Julian’s tenure as Caesar in Gaul. (Amm. 16.2.1).5 Finally, considering Levithan’s insistence that siege warfare operated by its own moral and psychological codes some discussion on whether these codes remained the same in cases of civil war as opposed to campaigns against Rome’s external enemies would have been beneficial.

Levithan’s work is a very welcome addition to the study of Roman warfare. He makes his argument in a clear and engaging fashion and deftly handles a disparate array of ancient literary evidence. The importance of this work goes beyond the relatively narrow world of the Roman siege and will appeal to anyone (specialists and non specialists alike) interested in ancient warfare and the psychological and moral experiences of the inhabitants of the ancient world.


1.   Levithan provides an extensive and up-to-date bibliography of modern scholarship on Roman siege warfare on pages 229-238.
2.   Keegan, J. (1976) The Face Of Battle, New York.
3.   The reason that archaeological evidence is of limited use, particularly images of siege warfare found on various monuments, is that Levithan is primarily interested in the progression between different stages in a siege. Thus while there exists individual scenes of Roman sieges on monuments such as the Column of Marcus Aurelius and the Arches of Constantine and Septimius Severus, only Trajan’s column (secenes 113-124) offers a visual representation of a complete siege—thought to be that of the Dacian capital Sarmizegethusa (p 73). This said where appropriate Levithan does use the ‘visual’ evidence found on these monuments to support his case.
4.   Levithan is careful to note that these efforts are separate to the actions all commanders and Emperor’s took to maintain the army’s basic morale and loyalty. On these efforts see Campbell, J.B. (1984) The Emperor and the Roman Army, 31 BC – AD 235. Oxford.
5.   Levithan (page 2, note 1) does explicitly note that his study is for the most part focused on Rome as the besieger and not the besieged as that was the role Rome most often played.

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