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Tactical Exercises: Art of the Siege

By Translation by George T. Dennis
11/17/2017 • MHQ Magazine

A Byzantine emperor’s military manual describes how psychological warfare can break the will of the enemy.

Leo VI, the Byzantine emperor from AD 886 to 912, was an extraordinary armchair general. Though he probably never set foot on the battlefield, he decided to compile the best teachings about warfare and effective armies, reaching back to sources such as the first-century Greek philosopher Onasander and the sixth-century Byzantine emperor and general Maurice. The result was an exhaustive military manual called the Taktika, or Tactical Constitutions.

In its pages, Leo instructed his generals on everything from weapons to cavalry training to effective troop movement. “For many years now,” he wrote, “the pursuit of tactics and strategy has been neglected, not to say fallen so completely into oblivion that those assuming command of an army do not understand even the most obvious matters.”

It’s doubtful that Leo’s work dramatically changed the Byzantine organization or ideology of warfare. Indeed, his rule is known for few significant military victories. But the Taktika sparked new interest in military literature—literature that scholars speculate may have helped the Byzantines meet a threat rising in the east from the Arabs. Among those inspired by Leo to create military manuals of their own was Nikephoros II Phokas, a Byzantine emperor from 963 to 969 and a brilliant battlefield campaigner. Nikephoros admired Leo and incorporated parts of the Taktika into his own text.

The first English translation of the Taktika was recently completed by Father George T. Dennis, a Byzantine scholar at Catholic University. Dennis spent nearly 30 years on the work, finishing it before he died last year. What follows is an edited excerpt of Leo’s prescription for the successful siege of a walled city.

One of Leo’s chief lessons: Carry out operations at night in order to frighten the defenders and psychologically break them.

Darkness prevents [the defenders] from seeing what is happening and they grow all the more confused, their spirits are cast down, and they imagine that they suffer many terrible things during the night, even things that you have no intention of doing. For everything that happens at night, even something very minor, causes more fear among people under siege, and so they very quickly become slack and embrace subjection. If you can do so, have one or two men mount the wall and the people inside will think that the whole army has climbed onto the wall. They will run away and leave the walls deserted.

When you begin the siege, you must make an accurate assessment. First, is it possible to keep the necessities, such as food and water, from getting to the people within? If they possess these in abundance, then resort to siege engines.

You will cause great consternation if you select from among your soldiers or officers the most impressive, in the prime of life, very large in appearance, and with bright, shining armor. Show them off to the besieged by having them pass close to the wall or the fortification. Station the less impressive troops farther off with the baggage so the enemy will not be able to form any judgment of them, either men or horses.

Make clear to the people inside the city or the fortress that you are proposing light and bearable terms to seek their surrender, either their horses or some weapons or some of their other moveable possessions. Such moderate proposals and the hope of safety may lead them to differences of opinion and they may become more hesitant to offer resistance and face dangers.

When you begin to get the siege under way, you must not lead the entire army out to combat every day. If you did, all of [the soldiers] would immediately become exhausted. You should divide [the army] into various sections and assign the number of men and how many hours they are obliged to work each day. Schedule some to work at night and others during the day.

For not only must the besieged be harassed by continuous attacks during the day, but, in like manner, they should be kept on edge all night by troops designated for this.

If you have an army large enough that you can carry on the same siege at night, you will do well to divide it into as many sections as you judge best. One section sleeps during the designated hours of the night, others carry on the attack.

Do this, one following after the other, without letup both by night and by day, so as not to allow the people under siege even a tiny respite. In this way they easily become unstrung from lack of sleep and constant hard work as well as by the attacks, the siege engines, and stratagems.

In the course of the unrelenting activity of such sieges, you, O general, must take a short and brief rest so you may be wide awake to manage things properly.

If you feel more emboldened, you may order the army to be divided into a large number of sections and have each section bring ladders up to the wall. With the assault then being carried on in a circle all at once, the besieged will fall into helplessness and dejection, especially when, along with the ladders, you move the other machines into place, such as rams, tortoises, towers, or other siege engines.

If you bring up the siege engines and, at the same time, set the ladders against the wall, the people within will be harassed from many directions. If they neglect the other sections of the wall in order to concentrate their defense against the engines that have been moved up, the men bringing up the ladders will encounter no strong opposition and will easily climb up onto the wall.

Even if they divide their own forces to confront the men bringing up the ladders, then those who are bringing up the machines will make their attacks all the more forcefully. They will not be able to beat off the evils brought upon them by both assaults.

If the fortress or city is strong and has a large number of men who are bold enough to confront and ward off our troops as they charge in, we must occupy the higher places or the highest point of the city and, fighting from that vantage point, cause serious injury to those caught in the city. Our men will then proclaim that nobody should kill persons not carrying a weapon but kill only those bearing weapons. Make this proclamation in the language of the citizens. On hearing it, each individual will be concerned for his own safety and, gripped by fear, will throw away his weapons. Armed resistance will then drop off and the besieging forces will win a decisive victory.

If the siege proves to be lengthy and you happen to capture some people outside the city, hold on to the younger men in the prime of life as you might wish. But send the women, children, elderly, and infirm individuals back into their city. In this way, people of a useless age will consume the food and will bring no benefit to the besieged, in fact, they will cause them trouble. In addition, you will give the people in the city reason to expect humane treatment. This should instill doubt in their minds and will mark the first steps of their subjection to you.

Since a great deal of noise, coming from the shouts of men and the clash of shields, usually accompanies a siege, make sure that all the men in the army together are not unduly disturbed or under stress. Have your men set up camp one or two miles from the fortification, beyond earshot of the noise that is causing confusion to those under siege.

Do not order assaults to be made recklessly and without purpose lest, when some losses occur, our troops become discouraged and the people under siege become more defiant. For we have often read about this happening. The strongest soldier might be struck by a stone or tile or piece of wood thrown or hurled down by a weak woman and so perish.

If you are setting siege to a small fortification, and you believe an assault will be risky and costly and you know that the besieged are not lacking in supplies, concentrate on confusing and harassing them day and night. Such harassment will leave them exhausted, since they are only a few against a multitude of unending attacks, one after the other.

If there are houses within the fortified city that can easily set on fire, shoot a constant barrage of fire-bearing arrows in many directions, especially if there is a strong wind blowing, and set them on fire, affixing inflammable material to the arrows, by means of the stone-throwing machines that are called alakatia or tetrareai, and hurl stones filled with inflammable material against the houses and they will burn easily. While the inhabitants are busy trying to extinguish the fire, put up ladders, where the ground permits, and give the command to climb up on them in safety.

If God bestows his grace upon you, and the city or fortress or walled town submits to you, either out of fear of a siege or for some other reason, act gently and kindly toward the population. Do not weigh them down with fiscal impositions or frighten them in a harsh manner or threaten them with some punishment or harass them unjustly. Instead, be good and fair with them. Then, as others see your goodness toward those who have submitted to you, they will eagerly approach you in the hopes that they will not suffer any evil from you that they cannot bear.

 

© Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University.

Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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