Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 834-835
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Ancient Siege Warfare
Ancient Siege Warfare. By Paul Bentley Kern. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Pp. ix+419; illustrations, maps, figures, notes/references, bibliography, index. $35.
The new prominence of sieges in medieval historiography and the profusion of "face of battle" studies suggest a context for bringing the topics of the military techniques and moral horrors of ancient sieges together in a monograph. Paul Kern wishes to study the interaction between siegecraft and moral standards of conduct, in the belief that some understanding of the nature of war can be gained from the blurred distinction of combatants and noncombatants in ancient siege warfare, a forerunner of modern total war (p. 5). This panoramic survey of ancient sieges from the Neolithic to a.d. 70 is divided into five parts: Neolithic and Bronze Age Near East, Iron Age Near East, Classical Greece, Macedonia, and Rome. In each part, initial chapters present blow-by-blow narratives of major sieges and parallel chapters describe the treatment of the vanquished.
Historians of technology and of the ancient world will find little new here. That sieges were highly technical, no-holds-barred, expensive operations that generals preferred to avoid via betrayals or surrenders is well-known, and others have put forward the idea of ancient sieges as precursors of total war. Nor does Kern revise established notions that siegecraft reached its height first with the Assyrians, then among the Hellenistic Greeks, upon whose practices the Romans scarcely improved. Kern's mastery of the bibliography, though spotty, meritoriously includes some non-Anglophone work. Despite scrupulous citation of the major (but not minor) ancient sources, the book largely synthesizes material from such well-known monographs as E. W. Marsden's Greek and Roman Artillery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2 vols., 1969-71). Kern does not address the nuts and bolts of siege machines, and does not cite Otto Lendle's works on them. The book does not treat Greek reactions in military architecture to catapults and siege machines, although Kern did use Yvon Garlan's Recherches de poliorcétique grecque (Athens: E´cole française d'Athènes, 1974). The numerous recent conferences on ancient military architecture seem to have escaped his notice. Among the technical treatises, Kern surveys Aeneas Tacticus on sieges but not Philo Mechanicus, Aeneas's intellectual heir. Nor do we meet the mechanopoioi of the fourth century b.c., itinerant engineers selling their services to rulers and disseminating new military technology. Even Vegetius's compendium of siegecraft (De re militari, Book 4) is ignored.
Instead of the promised study of the interaction between technology and laws of war, the various parallel chapters offer parallel studies. Technological change (in contrast to the normal rigors and frustrations of sieges) is not shown as an independent variable that influenced treatment of the conquered. Apart from narrating the events of sieges (a repetitious exercise for specialists), Kern's real concern is the horrors for noncombatants [End Page 834] and the lack of rules governing the fate of the vanquished. His skepticism about the existence of rules (unwritten in antiquity) leads to an emphasis on exceptions to norms and expediency as the only restraint. A short review precludes listing the mass of works Kern neglects that deal with, for example, the laws of war at Deuteronomy 20:10-19, or Greek and Roman laws of war. More irritating, however, is the presentist moralistic perspective that permeates the discussion. The role of ideology and contemporary policy is ignored, and little effort is made to contextualize events within their own period. Kern seems not to understand the ancient concept of ius belli or the Roman idea of deditio.
Concluding the study with the siege of Jerusalem (a.d. 70) is also objectionable. We miss consideration of Herodian on the siege of Aquileia (238), Ammianus Marcellinus on the sieges of Amida (359) and Ctesiphon (363), and Procopius on various sixth-century sieges of Rome. The extensive archaeological evidence for techniques in the Sasanid siege of Dura-Europus (mid-250s) should have attracted attention, and the...