The first equipment designed specifically to take walled cities for which
we have evidence was a ladder with wheels on its base depicted in an
Egyptian relief. The engraving shows the ladder already wheeled up against
an enemy wall and soldiers climbing up to the fight. Most cities sacked in
the third millennium BC and before were probably taken by scaling the
walls or breaking down the gates.
Prior to the time of Alexander the Great, the cultures and kingdoms of
Mesopotamia were the most advanced in building specialized equipment for
taking cities. The principle construction material in this region was
sun-dried, or later fire-baked, mud brick. One important siege engine from
this area was a battering ram sheltered within rolling protective
framework that could be rolled up against the mud brick walls. Under the
cover of the roof, engineers inside could use the metal tipped ram to
break and gouge out bricks, eventually crumbling sections of the wall and
forming a breach that could be stormed.
As the cities got larger and fortifications stronger, new equipment was
required. The structure covering the battering rams increased in size,
becoming movable towers. When wheeled up against the walls, archers from
the top could fire down or along the walls. A ramp lowered from the tower
to the wall, allowed attackers to advance into the city. More attackers
could climb up within the covered tower before crossing over into the
Catapults, the first long-range missile weapons, were invented in
Syracuse, Sicily, in 399 BC. The king of Sicily, Dionysus I, assembled
craftsmen to design machines to aid his assault of an island fortress on
the coast. Catapults hurled large stones against walls from a distance,
minimizing the danger to attackers while slowly crumbling the defenses.
The stones fired against the wall built up at its base, forming a rough
assault ramp into the breach. Within sixty years, advanced catapults were
standard weapons in the armies of both Greece and Persia.
The best-known siege of antiquity was the destruction of Jericho by Joshua’s
trumpet as recorded in the Bible. Other well-known sieges were the taking
of Tyre by Alexander the Great and the siege of Alesia by Julius Caesar.
In 332 BC Alexander advanced down the Eastern Mediterranean coast after
his victory at Issus. The coastal cities surrendered one by one, except
Tyre, an island fortress one half mile off the coast with walls 150 feet
high. The Greeks began building a 200-foot causeway out to the island.
When the Tyrians began firing on the construction crews with catapults,
Alexander built two 150-foot towers on the causeway armed with catapults
to fire back. These were burned by a fire ship but Alexander responded by
widening the causeway and building more towers. Alexander anchored ships
off the walls to serve as platforms for battering rams. The walls of the
city were finally breached from the ships and causeway. The elite troops
of Alexander’s army led the assault, infuriated by the Tyrians tactics.
More than 8000 Tyrians were killed in the final attack and the remaining
30,000 inhabitants were sold into slavery.
In 52 BC Julius Caesar was attempting to subjugate the Celtic tribes of
Gaul (modern France) at the head of 12 Roman legions. He bottled up a
leader of the Gauls, Vercingetorix, in the hilltop town of Alesia (modern
Alise-Sainte-Reine near Dijon). Expecting a relief force to break his
siege, Caesar’s problem was to defend the long circumference, keeping
Vercingetorix in while being able to respond to an attack from the
outside. Caesar surrounded Alesia with a 14-mile-long double fortification
of wooden walls, walkways, towers every 800 feet, deep trenches and pits
filled with spikes. The traps, pits, and trenches were designed to slow
any attack so that legionnaires could quickly move from their camps around
the circle to any threatened spot before the Gauls broke through. Several
assaults from within and without failed, and Caesar was able to drive off
the relief force with the help of mercenary German cavalry. The city of
Alesia surrendered and Vercingetorix became Caesar’s prisoner.