Though ancient Rome borrowed from the Greeks, Romans took siege warfare to unprecedented levels of mastery. No one sieged like ancient Rome. Not before, and only rarely since. The Romans mastered siege by employing exceptional methodology, science, and discipline. All through Rome’s long expansion across the Mediterranean, siege played a crucial part in the consolidation of Roman power. It was not enough that ancient Rome merely took territory. Conquest was only secured when the centers of governance, population, and economy were captured. Though many historians focus on ancient Rome’s prowess in battle, it was in siege warfare that ancient Rome excelled. Let’s look at 5 top ancient Roman sieges and see what they can tell us about ancient Rome.
1. The Ancient Roman Siege of Veii, c. 505 – 496 BCE
Going back to a very early period of ancient Rome, we find the major siege of Veii. A remote period for Roman history, even the Romans were hazy on some of the details from their archaic past. Yet the stories they told themselves are still based on events and are still illuminating.
Veii was an early rival of ancient Rome, and the Romans invested 10 years of war, to overcome their enemy. Rome was still in a very early form of development. Her citizen militia were a far cry from the professionalized legions that she would later deploy.
Under the direction of a legally appointed dictator, Marcus Furius Camillus, the Romans sieged Veii in the 10th year of the war. This included a blockade of the city enforced by a series of fortifications. Camillus, a famed figure, was a visionary commander. He set the Romans to tunneling, splitting his forces into 6 shifts to avoid them being exhausted. Hiding his intentions from defenders, he implemented a sense of discipline:
“… an edict was issued that none should fight without orders, thereby keeping the soldiers to the construction of the siege works.”
[Livy, History of Rome, 5.19]
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Launching a diversionary attack on Veii drew defenders to the wall and distracted them from the Roman mining that eventually broke into the city. When the Romans broke in, there was great slaughter.
“At length, after great carnage, the fighting slackened, and the Dictator ordered the heralds to proclaim that the unarmed were to be spared. That put a stop to the bloodshed, those who were unarmed began to surrender, and the soldiers dispersed with the Dictator’s permission in quest of booty.”
[Livy, History 5.21.]
The booty taken from Veii dwarfed Rome’s previous wars and enriched the soldiers hugely. It was enough to shame even Camillus, who raised his hands to the gods to seek divine mitigation. This was an ugly feature of ancient Roman sieges. Soldiers who had spent months in deprivation were deeply motivated by their desire to destroy and loot. This was often tolerated by Roman commanders, who could not always control the bloodlust of their men. A noted feature in all periods of Roman history, we would be naïve to assume that the full horrors of warfare were not commonly visited on those who succumbed to Roman siege.
Camillus was not stupid; he had already checked with the Senate whether the soldiers should be allowed to plunder the city. There were fears about the consequences, and yet not letting them could be more dangerous. Those people of Veii that were not slaughtered, were sold into slavery.
Rome and its army enriched themselves. So ended many ancient Roman sieges. Tenacious, organized, clever, and ruthless. This was Rome’s siege pathology. Even early in her history, ancient Rome showed an aptitude for siege.
2. Lilybaeum 250 – 241 BCE
Our next siege took place at a different time in Rome’s expansion arc on the Western tip of Sicily. Rome was engaged in the Frist Punic War (264–241 BC) and was fighting a highly sophisticated enemy in Carthage, for mastery of the strategic island of Sicily. The latter years of the conflict saw the Romans dominant on land, having pushed the Carthaginians back to the extreme west of the island. Yet, the Carthaginians clung on to their last remaining garrisons of Drepana and Lilybaeum.
By 250 BCE Rome was besieging Lilybaeum with an army of up to 100,000 men. Though they could not take the city by assault, a lengthy 9-year siege ensued that also included a naval blockade. Polybius gives a fascinating insight into just how tactical the siege and counter-siege operations were at Lilybaeum:
“The Romans … advance[d] their siege-works in the direction of the tower nearest the sea … They did this gradually, always adding something to what they had already constructed; and thus, bit by bit pushed their works forward and extended them laterally, till at last they had brought down not only this tower, but the six next to it also; … battering all the others with battering-rams. The siege was carried on with vigor and terrific energy: every day some of the towers were shaken and others reduced to ruins; every day the siege-works advanced farther and farther, and more and more towards the heart of the city.”
[Polybius, Histories, 1.42]
This was a game of deadly chess, using major siege engines. Yet, the commander of the Carthaginians was also a skillful player:
“… Himilco omitted no measure within his power. As fast as the enemy demolished a fortification, he threw up a new one; he also countermined them, and reduced the assailants to straits of great difficulty. Moreover, he made daily sallies, attempted to carry or throw fire into the siegeworks, and with this end in view fought many desperate engagements by night as well as by day: so determined was the fighting in these struggles, that sometimes the number of the dead was greater than it ordinarily is in a pitched battle.”
[Polybius, Histories, 1.42]
This was desperate siege fighting and the Carthaginians would have been in trouble were they not able to break the Roman naval blockade and get fresh troops into the city.
The Roman stranglehold suffered a further setback when a storm damaged the protective canopies of their siege towers, which were blown away in high winds. The opportunity for the defenders was too good to miss and a coordinated attack by the Carthaginians sallied forth and set fire to the towers and rams of the Romans.
The siege went on for nine years and the Romans suffered several setbacks on land and sea. Yet their siege was never broken. The tenacity of ancient Rome would eventually win the war in her favor. By 241 BCE, unable to break a renewed Roman land and naval blockade, the Carthaginians suffered a major naval defeat and were forced to sue for peace. Rome was victorious.
3. Numantia. 134 – 133 BCE.
This 8-month siege went down in Roman history for its brutality and the bitter resistance of the defenders. The Celtiberian Wars had been ancient Rome’s attempt to subdue the warlike Iberian tribes of the Ebro valley. Amongst these tribes, the Numantines were considered especially fierce as they had resisted Roman incursion with great resolve. Although only 8,000 warriors were involved in the final siege of Numantia, the Romans held a grudging respect for these fearsome fighters.
Led by the highly capable Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, Roman troops were confident in their famous commander who had recently destroyed Carthage in the conclusion of the Third Punic War in 146BCE. Scipio was clever, pragmatic, and ruthless. His plans for this siege were based on the notion that he did not need to fight the fearsome tribesmen of Numantia. His strategy was rather to ‘bottle them up’ in their hillfort and prevent them breaking out.
Roman circumvallation (building a wall or ditch around the site) and a series of camps and towers ensured the defenders were contained. Outer defenses (contravallation) ensured no relieving forces could disrupt the siege. The Romans also dammed up a nearby swamp and flooded the space around the hillfort. The nearby river, the last lifeline, was also blockaded:
“As [Scipio] was not able to span it on account of its breadth and swiftness, Scipio built two towers in place of a bridge. To each of these towers he moored large timbers with ropes and set them floating across the river. The timbers were stuck full of knives and spearheads, which were kept constantly in motion by the force of the stream dashing against them, so that the enemy were prevented from passing covertly, either by swimming, or diving, or sailing in boats.”
[Appian Numantine War, 31]
Though the Numantines attempted several sallies, they were boxed in. When it looked like the young fighting men of the nearby town of Lutia might intervene to aid the Numantines, Scipio made a forced march to the town. Here the Romans cut the hands off 400 of the town’s young warriors and went back to their siege. This was the Roman psyche: brutal, unflinching, without pity.
A Numantine delegation was next refused by the Romans, who would only accept the unconditional subjugation of the tribe. In the depths of starvation, the Numantines turned to every measure of sustaining themselves, including the boiling of leathers and the eating of grass. Finally, they reverted to cannibalism, first of the dead, then of the weakened living.
Late in the siege, some of the non-combatants came down to throw themselves on Roman mercy. They were described as wild, starved, and animal-like. The Romans were unnerved by their desperate and wild appearance. Many of the warriors would still not surrender, but rather chose suicide by blade or by poison, openly defying Rome. Only about 50 Numantine captives were taken for Scipio’s triumph, the rest were sold into slavery and the town was completely burned to the ground.
Roman sentimentality was ever perverse. It showed no pity to the terrible end of a fiercely proud foe. But it always admired a ‘good death’. Numantine resistance became a famous example of savage bravery in Roman popular culture.
4. Alesia 52 BCE
80 years after Numantia and the Romans were besieging another tribal enemy. This was the siege of Alesia, which was in many ways the culmination of Julius Caesar’s bloody conquest of Gaul. Battling a highly capable coalition of tribal enemies, Caesar faced a sustained Gallic rebellion under the famed war leader Vercingetorix. The Romans were keen to end the war. Not everything had been going their way, and the Gauls had reason to be confident, having forced the Romans to break off the siege of Gergovia, just months before. Yet, after years, of fighting, Caesar seized his opportunity to effectively end the war when he isolated Vercingetorix and up to 80,000 warriors within the hilltop fortress of Alesia. Investing the Gauls in a sustained siege, Alesia would become a textbook example of how destructive ancient Roman sieges could be.
Surrounding the hilltop fortress, the Romans set about a double line of circumvallation and contravallation, ensuring they could both lock in the defenders and hold off attacks from external relieving forces. The Roman works included a substantial ditch, mound and palisade. The ground in front of these lines was made lethal with anti-personnel traps called lilia, which were iron barbs, laid in traps, that would maim and disable unwary attackers. The ancient Roman version of a mine filed.
The works were a manifestation of Roman power. Interspersed with defensive towers, they traversed two rivers that ran either side of the hilltop fortress. Taking many weeks to complete, the Romans were attacked by sorties of Gauls as they relentlessly progressed their fortifications; Caesar having to balance the allocation of defenders to those building.
In the end, Alesia was a close-run battle. The Romans came close to being overrun when a massive Gallic force of many tens of thousands came to the relief of their countrymen. Temporarily, the Romans became the besieged as massive Gallic attacks would stretch them as both their inward and outward defenses were attacked in coordination. The Romans were hard-pressed, and several critical moments were only saved due to the discipline and flexibility of the soldiery and the talent of their commander.
Repulsed several times, the Gauls grew exhausted as it became clear that they could not break the stranglehold of Caesar. So transpired the inevitable surrender of Vercingetorix. The surviving Gauls were sold into slavery and Vercingetorix and other chieftains were taken for Caesar’s later triumph. The amazing siege fortifications of Alesia had held, and the Roman talent for siege won Caesar a great victory. Here was the true Roman genius, meticulous, relentless, and disciplined professionalism.
5. Masada 72CE
The last siege we shall look at is one of the most famous examples of Roman siege ever. It became synonymous in demonstrating ancient Rome’s implacable desire to never be beaten. Although the siege of Masada was militarily less significant than the much more significant siege of Jerusalem in 70/71CE, it is Masada that to a large extent has captured the popular imagination. Both were part of the Great Jewish Revolt [66 – 73 CE] that broke out against Roman rule.
Masada is famous because it seemed all but impregnable. Sitting up to 400 meters above the desert lands of the Dead Sea, Masada was a fortress on a huge plateau, it was virtually unassailable, except for one narrow pathway. A defender’s dream, and an attacker’s nightmare, Masada had originally been the defensive palace of Herod the Great (long dead). It was well set up for a long defense with water cisterns, stores and great defenses.
Although some aspects of Masada have been disputed, we have an excellent account of the siege from the Jewish historian Josephus. In essence, he tells us that Masada was seized by a militant band of Jewish insurgents made up, at least in part, of an ultra-militant sect the Sicarii. Slaughtering the local garrison, Masada became a focal point for the rebellion, especially after the fall of Jerusalem. Fighters and families gathered in the fortress to resist the final Roman siege.
Besieged by the procurator Lucius Flavius Silva and the already battle-hardened, 10th legion the Romans set in to eliminate the last symbol of Jewish resistance. The near 1000 insurgents and their families resisting was not a major military threat, but they were a symbol of resistance. A challenge to Roman power that could not be tolerated.
The Roman preparation began with the ever-predictable act of circumvallating the site with an 11 km wall around the base. The Romans endured many months in the hot desert in a place difficult to supply. Initial attacks of the fortress were fruitless, and it soon became clear the Romans would have to construct a major ramp of stone and earth if they wished to bring siege machines up to the fortress.
“Accordingly, he got upon that part of the rock, and ordered the army to bring earth; and when they fell to that work with alacrity, and abundance of them together, the bank was raised, and became solid for two hundred cubits in height. Yet was not this bank thought sufficiently high for the use of the engines that were to be set upon it; but still another elevated work of great stones compacted together was raised upon that bank; this was fifty cubits, both in breadth and height. The other machines that were now got ready were like to those that had been first devised by Vespasian, and afterwards by Titus, for sieges.”
[Josephus, Jewish Wars, 7.304]
Over many months the Romans relentlessly built their massive ramp on the western wall, an act of engineering brilliance and relentless determination. With a platform on top of that, the Romans had an effective ledge on which they brought up a great ram and a tower to attack the walls.
Though they eventually breached part of the wall, the defenders counter-built a barrier just inside the breach with wood and earth. This proved very effective, absorbing the force of the ram. However, it came to nothing when the Romans fired the structure and it burned in the high winds.
Masada was breached and the next act would end in predictable slaughter. Josephus tells us the defenders committed mass suicide, the night before the final attack. Though this has been hotly debated by later historians and archaeologists, it seems certain the defenders did not survive. Whether in defiance or in cold slaughter, surviving Roman siege could never be counted on.
Ancient Roman Sieges: Conclusion
That was a gallop through 5 great ancient Roman sieges. There are many more that deserved a place, but those selected all tell a key aspect of a greater story.
Look to the sieges of Syracuse and Jerusalem if you wanted two more, that would easily make a longer list. The Romans were experts in the art of siege. They employed military and scientific skills at a level only rarely seen in history. With a remarkable capacity for discipline and determination, history leaves us in no doubt; most enemies of ancient Rome could not resist the onslaught of a Roman siege.