Ancient Greece was no stranger to warfare. While battles tended to follow predictable patterns of hoplite warfare, siege became ever more important as Greek city-states evolved their war science capabilities. Over time, ancient Greeks became more skilled and competent in siege warfare. Though they never achieved the same sophistication as the Romans, Greek siege practices would become methodical, formidable, and sophisticated. We can map the evolution of warfare in ancient Greece by examining five great sieges.
Top 5 Ancient Greek Sieges: 1. Troy (c. 750 BCE)
The siege of Troy is attested in Homeric legend through the Iliad and Odyssey. Historically speaking, this was a legend and so distant that it’s very difficult to know what went on. However, historians and archaeologists have found a famous site at Ilium that they believe corresponds to ancient Troy. Though, whether this is the Troy described in Homer is debated to this day.
Yet Troy still points to a profound cultural memory that informed Greek identity, and it centered around the notion of siege. If we can get past the heavily mythologized stories of beautiful women, vengeful gods, and violent heroes (all the fun stuff), we are presented with a prehistorical telling of rudimentary siege.
Homer outlines the siege as lasting ten years, where the Achaeans besieged the Trojans at a site near the coast by the Dardanelles in Asia Minor. The Iliad shows the Achaeans and Trojans slugging it out without recourse to any real sophisticated techniques. Periodic battles at the Achaean camp or in front of the city took place, but there was no war science applied to the operations. This was an attacking army just waiting for the defenders to give up through lack of resources.
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Later Greek historians like Thucydides analyzed Troy as being a war centered on resources:
“Difficulty of subsistence made the invaders reduce the numbers of the army to a point at which it might live on the country during the prosecution of the war … .”
[Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.11]
Lack of supplies prevented the Achaeans from ever deploying their full effort. In this, Thucydides was spot on, as attackers – not just defenders – need massive resources to maintain a siege. In Archaic and even Classical Greece, those resources were not always available. Armies tended to be from archaic clans or, in Classical times, from citizen militia, and this made it far less likely for long sieges, as men had to get back to their ‘day jobs’ and harvests.
Yet, Troy fell eventually to deception. The legendary Trojan Horse, left as an honorific prize to the Trojans, was a masterful trick. Seeing the Achaeans had quit their camp, the Trojans took the horse inside their walls, embracing their own demise. Hidden Achaean warriors inside the horse opened the gates and the city fell. One of the greatest legends of all time mimics a common ancient occurrence, as many ancient cities were taken by deception, as were by force. The fall of Troy still echoes as a lesson for all history.
2. Syracuse (415 – 413 BCE)
The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta, saw the Greeks advance their capabilities greatly. The greatest siege of the conflict took place at Syracuse during Athens’ ill-fated Sicilian Expedition. Sending a major expedition in support of Segesta, a local ally, Athens really sought to curb mighty Syracuse, which was aligned with her enemies Sparta and Corinth. Influenced by the hawkish demagogue (and eventual turncoat), Alcibiades, the Sicilian Expedition is one of history’s greatest moments of military hubris.
The Athenians and their allies were led by Nicias, who fortified a camp south of Syracuse and began hostilities in pitched battle. Things went in Athens’ favor though this was not conclusive. Over the coming months, the battle would be characterized by a series of fights as the Athenians sought to circumvallate the city and the defenders sought to break their stranglehold with counter walls. Fighting was fierce, but the Syracusans could not ultimately resist the Athenians progressing their circumvallation of the city. When the Athenian fleet next blockaded the harbor, Syracuse looked to be in a stranglehold.
However, events turned back in the Syracusan favor with the arrival of a Spartan relief force under the general Gylippus. Bolstering Syracusan morale, it was not long until the Spartan commander was able to counter the Athenian line of circumvallation. The Syracusans capitalized and were able to cut across the Athenian works with their own counter wall, weakening the siege.
A Syracusan attempt to break the naval blockade of their Great Harbor included the sophisticated use of divers, to clear underwater obstacles from below the water lines. Cleverly strengthening the rams of their ships, the Syracusans sacrificed maneuverability for strength in ramming. This was a master strategy that did considerable damage to the Athenian navy. While the naval battle was underway, Gylippus was able to sally out of the city and overrun the Athenian fortified encampments. The Athenians were forced to move their camp into unfavorable swampy ground.
Fatefully, the Athenians doubled down and sent for a second major expedition of reinforcement, led by the commander Demosthenes. With fresh troops, they managed to retake the heights at Epipolae. However, a disastrous Athenian night attack forced the Athenians back into the swamp land. The Athenian position was becoming dire on land and sea. The supply of their army would soon become a problem.
A further combined attack by sea and land now convinced the Athenians that they could not win. With their fleet blockaded, Athenian troops sought to retreat inland, abandoning their siege altogether. They were harried by the vengeful Syracusans. A column led by Demosthenes was routed and taken prisoner. The second Athenian column under Nicias was overcome at a river crossing as they broke formation to desperately drink water. Slaughter ensued, and the Athenians were totally overrun.
Athens had lost an irreplaceable army. Seven thousand hoplites were taken alive to work out in the Syracusan quarry, an effective death sentence. The commanders Nicias and Demosthenes were put to death. Estimated overall losses were over 10,000 hoplites and up to 30,000 rowers with c. 200 ships. Such losses were not sustainable for an ancient city-state.
Political instability and loss of standing meant Athens was no longer able to dominate her allies as she once had. Though she would rally fantastically to survive the coming years, Athens would never win the long and bitter Peloponnesian war.
3. Thebes (335 BCE)
The sack of Thebes was a short siege that took place the year after Philip II of Macedon died. Already forced to accept Macedonian hegemony after earlier defeat, Thebes had been forced to accept a Macedonian garrison in the Cadmae citadel. However, a false rumor that Alexander The Great had died during a campaign in Thrace led some resentful cities, like Thebes and Athens, to revolt against Macedonian power. This was a big mistake.
Alexander undertook a lightning march with his army of c. 30,000 men into central Greece. There to re-assert Macedonian power over wavering allies, his arrival was quick and unexpected. The Thebans were totally wrong-footed.
Caught in a double layer, the Thebans were surrounded while they besieged the Macedonian garrison (under Philotas) in the Cadmae citadel. However, proud to the last, the Thebans would not seek terms. Alexander offered the Thebans terms for surrender, but he could not allow their refusal to go unpunished.
Always a marker of extreme stress in an ancient society, the Thebans freed and armed their slaves as well as refugees and foreign aliens in the city. Women and children were sent to the temples for sanctuary. These were the desperate acts of a city that chose to go down fighting:
“… [the Thebans] were so carried away with enthusiasm that they reminded one another of the victory at Leuctra and of the other battles where their own fighting qualities had won unhoped for victories to the astonishment of the Greek world. They indulged their nobility of spirit bravely rather than wisely, and plunged headlong into the total destruction of their country.”
[Diodorus Siculus, History, 17,10.4]
Alexander split his forces into three divisions, one attacking the Theban palisade around the city. A second fought the Theban main force and a third was a mobile reserve. Close quarters fighting ensued, with the Thebans being described as defiant and ‘reckless’ of danger in their forlorn defense.
The Macedonians were highly professional and battle-hardened and also outnumbered the Thebans. The fight hung in the balance as the Thebans put up a tremendous fight. Even the introduction of Alexander’s reserves did not break the main Theban body. However, stretched to near breaking, Alexander sent Perdicas to seize a gate that had been left unprotected by the overstretched defenders. The city was breached and with the inner Macedonian garrison under Philotas now breaking out of the citadel, the fate of proud Thebes was sealed.
The sack of Thebes was a terrible event. Alexander, mindful that he needed to subdue other restless Greek cities before his Persian campaign, made a deliberate example. All the men (c. 6,000) were slaughtered. The city was put to the torch and all the buildings fired. Thebes was sacked without mercy, bodies piling in the streets. Up to 30,000 women and children were taken brutally as the spoil of war into slavery.
So grievous was Alexander’s revenge that even years later, he was said to feel crushing guilt. Such guilt that he would forever more grant the petition of any native Theban. Atonement for a guilty conscience.
4. Tyre (332 BCE)
Alexander sought to deprive the Persians of valuable seaports on the Phoenician coast. His Macedonian army had already won key victories at the battle of the River Granicus and at Issus, but to progress into Egypt and then Persia, he needed to secure the coast and prevent enemy fleets from cutting his communication lines.
The Tyrians had moved their defense to the city island of New Tyre up to 1km from shore and protected on the landward side by major 150ft walls. This was a formidable fortress, and it was made even harder in that Alexander did not initially have a navy at his disposal. When his envoys were murdered by the Tyrians, the Macedonian King set his resolve. It would signal many months of grueling conflict.
Alexander started to construct a massive causeway of stone out to the island fortress. This was made from the looted stone of old Tyre (the land-based old city) and was a huge undertaking. It allowed the Macedonians to eventually bring up siege weapons and unleash missiles at the island fortress. As the causeway neared the city, the Macedonians came under fire from the city walls. Advancing two towers on the end of their causeway, the Macedonians were able to defend their troops and launch catapult fire at the walls.
The Tyrians now launched a sustained naval attack on the towers. Towing out a barge that was packed with incendiary material, the Tyrian ships lit the siege towers and burned them to the ground. Many died in the fires and the Macedonian towers were lost.
Alexander’s forces set to work again, widening their causeway and rebuilding siege engines. They also sent to the coastal communities in the region, including Cyprus and managed to recruit a navy of over 200 ships.
Newfound naval power was essential in allowing the Macedonian siege to progress, the Tyrian fleet being bottled up within its harbors. The Macedonian ships were fitted with catapult and missile engines that attacked the walls of the island fortress. The causeway now began again with new towers and engines progressing to the walls.
Breakouts of the Tyrian fleet attempted to loosen the blockade, and divers were sent to cut the anchor ropes of the Macedonian ships that sat off the walls. These did damage but were ultimately fought back. The Macedonians reverted to chains to anchor their siege ships as these could not be cut.
Fighting on the renewed causeway — which had now reached the walls — was bitter and heavily contested. The Tyrians used a terrible weapon, like ancient napalm, superheating red-hot sand in bronze vats:
“By means of a certain apparatus they then scattered this over those Macedonians who were fighting most boldly and brought those within its range into utter misery. The sand sifted down under breastplates and shirts, and scorching the skin with the intense heat inflicted upon them irremediable disaster.”
[Diodorus Siculus, Library 17.44]
Men were driven mad with pain as they were flayed alive. This was pitiless warfare, but the causeway did not yield.
The Macedonian breakthrough would eventually come at the southern wall via the ships using rams. It allowed for a breach that would soon become the focus of assault. Led by Alexander himself on board ships, the Macedonians forced the breach in vicious close-quarter fighting.
Breaking into the city, the slaughter was ruthless. Macedonians unleashed their fury on all but those who sought refuge in the city’s temple. 6,000 Tyrians were killed in the immediate slaughter, with 2000 taken for crucifixion on the beach. Thirty thousand women and children were taken into slavery. This time, the brutality of Alexander’s vengeance spoke to the frustration he and his troops felt toward the defenders.
5. Rhodes (305 – 304 BCE)
The island city of Rhodes came under siege in the early Hellenistic period; a time when various successor states to Alexander the Great’s legacy, fought it out with each other to establish lasting dynasties.
In 305 BCE Demetrius I attacked Rhodes as the city had failed to send him troops for a war. Demetrius was the son of Antigonus I, founder of the Antigonid dynasty, a major player of the Hellenistic period. Demetrius was a master in the art of siege and this would earn him the popular nickname ‘Poliorcetes’ or ‘The Besieger’ as he took siege principles to new levels of sophistication. While besieging the island city of Rhodes for up to 1 year, Demetrius employed many technical innovations against the city.
Investing the city with ships, Demetrius blocked the landward side, cutting down trees and building a series of palisades and stockades. His initial attack was aimed at the harbor and some ingenious naval engineering was utilized. Binding ships into platforms, they built great siege towers on the fronts, to attack the city walls. Other ships carried catapults and missile engines. The Rhodians also built defensive rafts with engines and defended their mole (a pier) to their harbor.
Capturing and fortifying one end of the mole, Demetrius sought to squeeze the defenders. However, the Rhodians rose to the challenge, forcing his engines back, which they managed to light with burning pitch. Such fighting raged for days with sallies and counter-sallies across the harbor.
While this went on, ships took ladders to the other walls and Demetrius’ troops assaulted the walls. The fighting was desperate and costly to both sides. At one point, Demetrius brought up huge ship-borne rams to breach the walls, but these were countered by enemy ships that sunk them in the water. A further huge engine was constructed but was lost in a storm. The Rhodians were obliged to build an inner wall by ripping down their temple when their outer defense was breached by Demetrius.
An attempt to tunnel under a wall at Rhodes was discovered and counter-mined, allowing the defenders to resist what was a very sophisticated form of subterranean warfare. Building a massive siege tower called the ‘helepolis’, Demetrius went all out:
“… not only did the size of the siege engines and the number of the army which had been gathered stun [the Rhodians], but also the king’s energy and ingenuity in conducting sieges. For, being exceedingly ready in invention and devising many things beyond the art of the master builders, [Demetrius] was called Poliorcetes; and he displayed such superiority and force in his attacks that it seemed that no wall was strong enough to furnish safety from him for the besieged. … For it was in his time that the greatest weapons were perfected and engines of all kinds far surpassing those that had existed among others; and this man launched the greatest ships after this siege …”
[Diodorus Siculus, Library 20,92]
However, a failure to prevent relief ships from breaking into the harbor, allowed the Rhodians to re-supply and refresh. After nearly a year of costly fighting, Demetrius came to terms with Rhodes. Though not decisive, the siege was a significant milestone in the history of ancient Greek sieges.
Top 5 Ancient Greek Sieges: Conclusion
There we have it. Siege was an important aspect of warfare to the ancient Greeks. Although starting slowly, ancient Greek sieges adapted and evolved. As archaic and classical states tended to have clan or citizen militia – and not professional armies – the Greeks were perhaps slower to adopt siege. However, by the Hellenistic period, this started to change, and we can see the skills learned during the history of siege becoming an important aspect of warfare and science.