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The Roman siege of Alesia

Ancient Roman Siege Weapons

Some of the most famous Roman sieges include Caesar's siege of Alesia in Gaul, Carthage in Africa during the Punic Wars and Gerusalem. Perhaps less famous but certainly interesting to see are the deep pits left by siege engine projectiles in the walls of ancient Pompeii around 88BC, when Pompeii had participated in the Roman social wars. Sieges could last many years, particularly if the besieged had had sufficient time to prepare and stock supplies. It was possibly the easiest means of winning a city over but also very taxing in terms of resources required during an extensive period of time. For example, Scipio’s siege of Utica in his African expedition proved to be too costly and slow, leading Scipio to change strategy, raise the siege and draw the enemy into an open battle.

Siege weapons ("tormenta") could make a huge difference of course, not only for the Roman army on land but also at sea: ballistas could be mounted on ancient Roman war ships to give them a degree of fire power before engaging in ramming maneuvers and subsequent hand to hand combat.

Sieges involved a great variety of stratagems, including building fortifications around the sieged town so as to prevent anyone or anything either in or out of the city. Perhaps the most famous of these is the double one built by Caesar around the city of Alesia which not only had to prevent people from breaking out but also guard the Roman’s backs from the attack of those who were coming in aid of the besieged.

Breaking the city’s defenses might involved building earth mounds against the city walls, wooden towers to allow soldiers to reach the top of the ramparts, digging tunnels under the walls (to make them crumble) or more basically to hit the gates with battering rams.

Types of ancient Roman siege weapons

ancient war machines: a ballista firing boltsThe inventions and engines which the Romans made use of were numerous and included amongst others: Turres mobiles, Testudines, Musculus, Vineae, Plutei, Aries, Balista, Catapulta and Scorpio

Turres mobiles: moveable turrets which were of two sorts (lesser and greater). They were of great use in approaching enemy walls carrying men, tools, ladders, bridges. Exposed parts were protected from enemy fire with hides. Wheels allowed the tower to be moved backwards or forwards.

Testudo & Testudines: The Testudo was really a formation which the soldiers would shape themselves into – a tightly packed group with Roman shields held closely on all sides making it difficult for enemy fire to penetrate to the men underneath. Roman soldiers were extremely capable with such formations and were able to use them in battle as much as in a siege situation. "Testudines" was also a term applied to all sorts of engine which provided an overhead protection: frequently oval in shape, made of wooden boards above and protected with wicker on the sides. Wheels allowed the soldiers underneath to approach enemy walls. The Musculus was similar but smaller in nature. Julius Caesar provides an extensive description of the Musculus in his book of the Civil Wars bk2.

Vineae: Wicker hurdles on posts carried by the soldiers as a roof above their heads. They could also have a double roof: ie a first roof over the heads made of planks and the second above made of the wicker hurdles so that falling objects would have their fall broken more effectively.

Plutei: A sort of wagon with much the same purpose of nearing enemy walls. They were particular in that they had three wheels so as to enable a more versatile mobility in different directions.

The most well-known of Roman siege weapons is probably the Catapult which allowed Roman troops to hammer the city walls as well as launching silent but devastating missiles into the city’s populated areas, so much so that the defenders would often arrange to have guard watches so as to have warning of the impending danger and hence allow the population to hide in appropriately fashioned shelters. It is interesting that this memorable roman siege weapon was only introduced towards the final centuries of the Roman empire.

An far earlier form of siege weapon was the Ballista – it was rather like an oversized crossbow. It could launch a rock or dart by being placed in a rack which the taught rope would fling forward. Clearly such machines were able to achieve greater aiming accuracy although they lacked the cantilever effect which made the catapult so powerful. Trajan’s column provides us with some good images, including ballistas on wheels so they could be moved around. Rocks and darts could be launched a distance of about 300-350m (approx 350yards).

Last but not least we should mention the Aries (Ram) which was of two sorts: the simple ram – essentially a large wooden beam - and the compound ram. The latter was more elaborate, as described by Josephus (de excidio hierosolym. Bk3) we know it was like the mast of a ship, it had an iron head at one end possibly resembling the shape of a Ram’s head. Vitruvius tells us that it could be some 40m in length (120ft). This beam would be suspended on another beam which was itself fixed to A-frames so that it could be placed in position and the ramming beam swung with great force by a century of men protected overhead by a Vinea: "Nor is there any tower or wall so thick or strong, that, after the first assault of the Ram can afterwards resist its force in the repeated assaults."

A single legion might have something in the region of 50 siege engines which in the presence of suitable materials could even be built locally and be handled by specialized soldiers called "ballistarii". A great example of the ancient Roman army engineers is to be seen in the speed with which Caesar's men built a bridge over the Rhine.

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"siege weapons" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments