BMCR 2021.11.29

The art of siege warfare and military architecture from the classical world to the middle ages

, , The art of siege warfare and military architecture from the classical world to the middle ages. Oxford; Havertown: Oxbow, 2021. Pp. 288. ISBN 9781789254068 $70.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In the last years several books have been published on fortifications in the Classical world, introducing new methodologies and insights on the topic.[1] However, there is still a lot to say and write on the subject. The book under review here is the publication of a conference held in Haifa (Israel) in 2017. It aims to provide a new perspective, by emphasizing two specific aspects: the relationship between fortifications and siege warfare; and a long-term approach, with case studies ranging from the Classical Greek world to the Medieval period. With such an approach the editors want to show the continuities, in terms of fortification and siege technology, between several periods (Classical Greece, Roman times, Late Antiquity, Medieval era) that are generally treated separately.

The 23 chapters of the book cover all the aspects of the study of fortifications: city-walls or large-scale fortifications (3, 8, 9, 16, 17), particular structures belonging to a wall (4, 11, 20, 21), rural fortifications or forts (1, 2, 15, 18), regional networks or coherent regional groups (5, 7, 13), and topics related to siege warfare (6, 10, 19). A few contributions, particularly the last two chapters, devoted to two case-studies of battlefield archaeology in the Medieval period, form an unexpected addition to the rest of the book – battlefield archaeology was one of the topics of the conference, but these two chapters are rather isolated in the final publication. The study is supported by a substantial body of illustrations, and on this aspect the book is even close to perfection.

The chapters dealing with Greek Antiquity (chapters 1-9) form a coherent whole, with case studies ranging from Sicily to the Seleukid Empire, and from the fifth century to the Hellenistic period. They form, in short, a welcome addition to the existing bibliography on Greek fortifications. Some of the contributions present new insights into the topic. Of special interest is the chapter dealing with the fortifications of Thrace (5), where Aliénor Rufin Solas convincingly demonstrates that the fortifications of the region should not be interpreted as a mere sign of the hostility between the Greeks settlers and their non-Greek neighbors, but rather as the expression of a more complex relationship between the two cultures, including exchanges and cooperation. Such an interpretation is in line with the situation in the Greek western colonies, where similar conclusions have been reached in the last decades.[2] Another outstanding chapter is the brief overview of the fortifications of Vergina, by Vassiliki Stamatopoulou (8). Vergina is one of the few cases of extensively excavated city-walls in the Greek world; the article summarizes some of the challenges of such a long-term excavation project and gives the preliminary results of the archaeological operations. The fortifications can be assigned to the Early Hellenistic period, and more specifically to the reign of Cassander. When compared to recent scholarship on the topic, this date raises interesting questions. For instance, 17 towers have been excavated so far; they are very small in size (from 26 to 47 m²), which clearly contradicts all the attempts that have been made to date fortifications according to the size of their towers.[3] The study of the walls of Vergina will thus clearly become a new milestone for future scholarship on Greek fortifications. Several other chapters provide a useful summary on recent fieldwork, such as the very careful and detailed overview of the fortifications of Messene by Silke Müth (3), in which she stresses the articulation and complementarity between the purely defensive function and the more symbolic aspects of the city-wall, or the chapter about the Hellenistic fortifications of Seleukeia Gadara by Brita Jansen (9), presenting a synthesis of her work on the subject. To complete these broader overviews, some detailed attention is also given to smaller-scale fortifications, in Classical Aeolis (1), Early Hellenistic Sicily (2) and Triphylia (7). All in all, this part on Greek fortification, in 80 pages, offers a very rich supplement to existing bibliography, with a well-balanced mixture between urban fortifications and forts, or between well-known cases such as Messene and less prominent confidential examples of Greek military architecture. The only obvious shortcoming of this part is that the question of siege warfare is only treated in one broad overview (6). The other contributions, when they come to this point, are rather inaccurate (see, for instance, the outdated restitution of a palintonos catapult p. 17,[4] or the shutters proposed by Ioannis Nakas in chapter 4 for the towers of Messene, whose existence is very improbable because they cannot be opened wide, which makes them incompatible with the use of a catapult, or even of a bow).

Compared to these chapters devoted to Ancient Greek fortifications, the chapters dealing with the Roman and Medieval worlds are much more focused on a particular region, the Near East. They develop a long-term approach of the fortifications of this area. This long-term approach is best represented by two examples, Caesarea Maritima (17) and Nicaea (16). In both cases, the city wall had a long history, with several phases of repair or improvement: the fortifications of Caesarea range from the Late Hellenistic period to the fourth century AD, and an additional chapter (21) is devoted to the study of several medieval towers of the city, resulting in a panorama of the evolution of the fortifications of the city. In the case of Nicaea, the rampart of the 3rd century AD underwent several modification phases down to the 13th century. In a few pages Ayşe Dalyancı-Berns manages to trace the history of a living monument. The same approach is applied to individual monuments, for instance the East Gate of Side (11), of which a very detailed description is given, leading to the identification of several alterations, from the first century BC to the 7thcentury AD. The chapter about the fortifications of the chôra of Hippos (13) provides another implementation of this long-term approach, this time on rural fortifications, on a much larger scale. The author, Adam Pažout, must be praised for the very detailed summary of his methodology, which provides a useful basis for a GIS study of rural fortifications. This part of the book also puts more emphasis on the second aspect of the project, namely the relationship between fortifications and siege warfare. Chapter 10 notably explores a specific siege wall in Jordan, and also provides a very useful summary of such structures in the Southern Levant. Strategies adopted by the besieged are explored in chapter 19, while chapter 20 provides an overview of the defenses implemented in the coastal Crusaders fortresses to face a particular threat, incursions through the shoreline.

When it comes to assessing the book as a whole, one must acknowledge that it has, of course, a few minor shortcomings. An important part of the project, as it is described by the editors, was to study poliorcetics, that is the correlation between fortifications and siege warfare. There are, however, only a few chapters that deal specifically with this topic, and they stand in strong contrast with the rest of the book – chapters 6 and 19, for instance, are mostly based on literary sources. It is only in chapters 10 and 20 that poliorcetics are truly taken into consideration from an archaeological point of view. Most of the other contributions are rather traditional studies of military architecture, and do not particularly treat the topic of siege warfare. The book also lacks a general conclusion that clearly summarizes the positive results of the study and lays the foundations of a dialogue between the different periods taken into consideration. Because of this, the volume often appears as a succession of case studies, some of them very specific, and it is sometimes difficult to clearly see the benefits of an approach spread over nearly twenty centuries. In particular, as we have seen, there is a very clear distinction between the chapters devoted to Greek antiquity and the rest of the book, forming two distinct groups of chapters with little relationship between them. That being said, in most of the chapters, the reader will find methodological insights that go well beyond the chronological frame of each article. The general aim stated by the editors is therefore relatively well achieved: from a methodological perspective, the long-term approach appears largely beneficial. In short, this volume forms a rich collection of essays on ancient fortifications and will certainly become a must-read for the specialists of the topic.

Authors and titles

1. The Early 5th-Century BCE Fort of Larisa East (Aeolis) as Part of a Multi-Centred Defence System (Ilgın Külekçi and Turgut Saner)
2. The Layout of a Late Classical Fortress in Eastern Sicily: The Military Outpost on Monte Turcisi (CT) (Melanie Jonasch and Claudia Winterstein)
3. Strategy Versus Representation? The Late Classical City Wall of Messene (Silke Müth)
4. Apertures and Shutters at the Towers of Ancient Messene (Ioannis Nakas)
5. Interpreting the Greek Fortifications in Thrace in the 5th–2nd Century BCE: Conflicts or Collaborations? (Aliénor Rufin Solas)
6. ‘Dig for Victory’! Competitive Fieldwork in Classical Siege Operations (Gwyn Davies)
7. Fortifying a Buffer Region: The City Walls in Triphylia, Greece (Elke Richter)
8. Excavating the Hellenistic Fortification of Vergina, Northern Greece (Vassiliki G. Stamatopoulou)
9. The Hellenistic Fortification of Seleukeia Gadara (Umm Qays): Form, Function and Origin of the Military Architecture at the Southern Edge of the Seleucid Empire (Brita Jansen)
10. The Siege Wall at Mudayna as-Saliya in Central Jordan (Chang-Ho Ji and Chaim Ben-David)
11. The Development and Function of the East Gate in Side, Pamphylia (Ute Lohner-Urban)
12. The Starting Point of the Imperial Roads in Aelia Capitolina (Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah and Danit Levi)
13. Regional Fortifications in the Chora of Hippos (Sussita) (Adam Pažout)
14. The Extraordinary Roman Military Presence in Judaea from AD 70 until the 3rd Century (Werner Eck)
15. Securing the Hostile Hinterland: The Roman Fort at Gračine and the Defences of Narona (Tomasz Dziurdzik and Anna Mech)
16. Fortifications of Nicaea: The Defensive Features of a 3rd-Century CE Rampart and their Transformation Throughout History (Ayşe Dalyancı-Berns)
17. Caesarea Maritima: Fortifications and City Expansion from the Time of Herod the Great to Late Antiquity (Peter Gendelman)
18. Habonim-Kafr Lām: A Ribāt of the Levantine Coastal Defensive System in the First Centuries of Islam (Hervé Barbé and Itamar Taxel)
19. Countermeasures: The Destruction of Siege Equipment at Acre, 1189–1191 (John D. Hosler)
20. Crusader Coastal Fortifications: Preventing Longshore Raids in the Shallows, While Keeping the Sea Approach Open and Safe (Ehud Galili and Sarah Arenson)
21. Three Main Towers of Medieval Caesarea: Their Architecture and Function (Vardit Shotten-Hallel, Jean Mesqui and Uzi ‘Ad)
22. Battlefield Archaeology at Tannenberg (Grunwald, Žalgiris): Physical Remains of the Defeat of the Teutonic Order in Prussia in 1410 (Sven Ekdahl)
23. Contra Multitudinem Ruthenorum Armatorum: The Russian-Livonian Battle of Lake Smolino (1502) Reconsidered (Alexander Baranov)


[1] For an overview on recent scholarship on the topic, see S. Fachard, “A decade of research on Greek fortifications”, AR 62 (2016), p. 77-88. See also the two volumes of the Focus on Fortifications series.

[2] See (among many other publications on the topic) D. Yntema, “Mental Landscapes of Colonization: the ancient written sources and the archaeology of early colonial Greek southeastern Italy”, BABesch 75 (2000), p. 1-49.

[3] See, for instance, in this volume, ch. 7, p. 58, where a date in the Early Fourth Century is proposed for the wall of Vrestos, on the basis of the size and morphology of the towers. Well-documented cases such as Vergina should lead to avoid in the future such assessments.

[4] On this point, see the discussions provided in T.E. Rihll, The Catapult: A History (2006), and D.B. Campbell, “Ancient Catapults: Some Hypotheses reexamined”, Hesperia 80 (2011), p. 677-700.