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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
Siege Defense

Aeneas Tacticus

(Loeb Classical Library edition, 1928)

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Aeneas Tacticus
On the Defence of Fortified Positions

 p201  Attestations and Fragments

[link to original Greek text] I

And upon the subject of tactics in Homer we have read Stratocles and Hermeas and Fronto the ex‑consul of our own time. Now the theory has been elaborated by Aeneas in detail (and he also composed a considerable number of military manuals, of which Cineas the Thessalian made an epitome), and by Pyrrhus of Epirus, who composed a treatise on tactics, and by Alexander his son, and by Clearchus.

[link to original Greek text] II

Aeneas defined it (sc. tactics) as the science of military movements, but the definition of Polybius was, that tactics was when a man took an unorganized crowd, arranged it, divided it into companies, grouped them together, and gave them a practical military training.

[link to original Greek text] III

Aeneas, therefore, the writer of the treatise on tactics, wished to correct this defect, and did in fact make some improvement; but his invention still fell very far short of what was wanted, as the following passage from his treatise will show. "Let  p203 those who wish," he says, "to communicate any matter of pressing importance to each other by fire-signals prepare two earthenware vessels of exactly equal size both as to diameter and depth. Let the depth be three cubits, the diameter one. Then prepare corks of a little shorter diameter than that of the mouths of the vessels: and in the middle of these corks fix rods divided into equal portions of three fingers' breadth, and let each of these portions be marked with a clearly distinguishable line; and in each let there be written one of the most obvious and universal events which occur in war; for instance in the first 'cavalry have entered the country,' in the second 'hoplites,' in the third 'light-armed,' in the next 'infantry and cavalry,' in another 'ships,' in another 'corn,'º and so on, until all the portions have had written on them the measure on the part of the enemy which may reasonably be foreseen and are most likely to occur in the present emergency. Then carefully pierce both the vessels in such a way that the taps shall be exactly equal and carry off the same amount of water. Fill the vessels with water and lay the corks with their rods upon its surface and set both taps running together. This being done, it is evident that, if there is perfect equality in every respect between them, both corks will sink exactly in proportion as the water runs away, and both rods will disappear to the same extent into the vessels. When they have been tested and the rate of the discharge of the water has been found to be exactly equal in both, then the vessels should be taken  p205 respectively to the two places from which the two parties intend to watch for fire‑signals. As soon as any one of these eventualities which are inscribed upon the rods takes place, Aeneas bids raise a lighted torch, and wait until the signal is answered by a torch from the others; then, when both torches have been simultaneously visible, lower them, and then immediately set the taps running. When the cork and rod on the signalling side has sunk low enough to bring the ring containing the words which give the desiredj information on a level with the rim of the vessel, a torch is to be raised again. Those on the receiving side are then at once to stop the tap, and to see which of the messages written on the rod is on a level with the rim of their vessel. This will be the same as that on the signalling side, assuming everything to be done at the same speed on both sides."1

Aeneas wrote on signal-fires, as Polybius said, and a treatise on stratagems.2

[link to original Greek text] IV

Some of the ancients say that the poison of the viper, asp, and salamander does not lose its virtue for this purpose (i.e. the smearing of missiles).3

[link to original Greek text] V

And of the Greeks, Aelian and Arrian, Aeneas,  p207 Onesander, Patro, and Apollodorus, in their works on the besieging of cities.

Excerpts from Aeneas in the Κεστοί of Julius Africanus

[link to original Greek text] XXXVIII. How we can put out Fire

If our enemies shall set on fire a palisade or anything else with an incendiary preparation, how can we put out the fire? By pouring vinegar over it we shall at once put it out. Those who put out the fire from places above it must have some protection for the face, that they may be less annoyed when the flame darts toward them. And if you know in advance the parts that are likely to be set on fire, rub vinegar​4 on the outside, and the flame will not advance on them.

[link to original Greek text] XLV. How shall we ourselves set Things on Fire?

Let us set on fire an engine coming against us or a ship or a hostile tower in this manner. One must pour pitch and cast sulphur, then set on fire a fagot and let it down by a rope upon the particular object we wish. And such things as these, held out from the places in which we are standing, are hurled at the approaching engines.

[link to original Greek text] XLVI. Against the Burning of a Gate

If the gate is set on fire you must bring up wood and throw it on to make as large a fire as possible,  p209 even if it be necessary to tear down some one of the buildings that stand in your town, until you can dig your trench inside.

[link to original Greek text] XLVIII. On the Water-Clock

A water-clock is a very useful thing for those who are keeping guard at night, according as the nights become longer or shorter, and it is constructed as follows. One should smear the interior of the clock with wax, and then remove some of the wax when the nights grow longer, so that the clock may contain more water. When, on the other hand, the nights grow shorter, more wax should be added in order that the clock's capacity may be less. And its orifice, through which the water for a particular period flows out, must be made with exactness.

[link to original Greek text] XLIX. On Gates

When a city is in constant fear precautions must be taken as follows. Close the other gates but leave one open, where access to the city is most difficult, and where those who advance are going to be in plain sight for the longest distance. And in this gate there should be a wicket-gate, so that men may pass through it singly. For in this way anyone, whether deserter or spy, is least able to escape notice if he should enter, if the gate-keeper is sharp-witted. Yet I advise against opening the whole gate for beasts of burden, wagons, and other things that are brought in. But if it shall be necessary to bring  p211 in any of these things in wagons — some grain, or wine, or oil, or such supplies — you should send the army out beforehand, and bring goods in with a gang of men. In general, the gates must not be opened early in the day, and even later no one should be let out until the region around the city has been reconnoitred. Again, boats are not to be moored at the gates but at a distance. For the revenue officers also must be watchful of vessels which anchor near by, night or day, and they must go on board and personally see the wares, having in mind that men who have neglected these precautions have suffered serious disasters.

[link to original Greek text] L. Importation of Arms by Stealth

Concerning the stealthy importation of arms, as to just what it is, this has often been set forth by the old writers, and has become to us a model for accomplishing what we desire, and, through this knowledge, for avoiding mishap. So, if there is a public holiday, there must be brought in for the aliens​5 on our side who have previously established themselves there, and traitors co‑operating with us in what is to take place, linen corslets and cloaks and helmets, shields, greaves, short swords, bows, arrows, stowed away in chests like those of merchants, just as if clothing and other merchandise were in them. The revenue officers opening these  p213 and inspecting them, will appraise them as mere clothing. Then these must be brought in, and set at the edge of the market-place; and also in crates and wicker-frames and wrapped in half-woven sailcloth spears and javelins, and, in baskets of chaff, bucklers and small shields concealed, and the things that are smaller than these in baskets full of raisins and figs, as well as daggers in jars of wheat and dried figs and olives, and the leader of the plot in a load of fagots. And if they should not be discovered by the men in the city, then, when night has fallen, those who are to make the attack should be assembled at a time when the citizens are intoxicated. And first of all the load is to be loosened, so as to get the leader, then the others must unpack and take the rest of the things, and smash the jars so as to get the contents quickly, and at a signal each is to arm himself appropriately. And some of these men are to seize the towers so as to take up others by a ladder, and the gates so as to let them in — while the rest should run to the city hall and the houses of their opponents. But if they should be discovered before evening, they must begin at once as already set forth; for any other course would be ill‑advised.

 p215  LI. On the secret Sending of Messages

Those who employ traitors must know how they should send in messages. Dispatch them, then, like this. Let a man be sent openly bearing some message about other matters. Let the letter be inserted without the knowledge of the bearer in the sole of his sandals and be sewed in, and, to guard against mud and water, have it written on beaten tin so that the writing will not be effaced by the water. And when he reaches the one intended and goes to rest for the night, this person should pull out the stitches of the sandals, take out and read the letter, and, writing another secretly, let him send the man back, having dispatched some reply and having given him something to carry openly. For in this way no one else, not even the messenger, will know the message.

[link to original Greek text] LII. Yet another shrewder Device

In a sufficiently large astragal you must bore twenty-four holes, six on each side. Let the holes stand for letters, and note clearly on which side begins Alpha and which of the following letters have been written on each particular side. Then whenever you wish to make some communication by means of it, tie a thread to it. And you are to make clear your differentiation between the letters by the drawing through of the thread, beginning from the side of the astragal on which Alpha is found, omitting the characters placed next to Alpha  p217 when you come to the side where the letter Iota is marked, pass the thread through, and again, disregarding the characters following this, pass the thread through where Nu happens to be, and thus the elements of the word​a would be indicated in the holes. And it will be necessary for the one who is to read the information to write down upon a tablet the characters revealed by the holes, the unthreading taking place in the reverse order to that of the threading.

[link to original Greek text] LIII. Other Devices for this from the Ancients

Letters were often sent in Epirus by the employment of the following method. After getting a collar around a dog's neck, they placed inside the strap a letter; then at night or during the daytime they dispatched the dog to the person to whom he was sure to go, that is, to the one from whom he had been brought. And this is a Thessalian custom.

Certain others, by writing long lines with fine characters upon some very thin papyrus, so that they may be as compact as possible, then by placing it on the shoulder under the over-tunic and spreading that out, have caused the letter to be transmitted without suspicion. Others, again, after writing on the wooden part of the tablet, have poured wax over it and written something else on the wax. Then when it came to the appointed person, he, scraping  p219 off the wax and reading the writing, sent back a reply in a similar manner. And I advise that letters be opened as soon as received, because it is very difficult to guard against anything sent in by artifice.

[link to original Greek text] LIV. Detection and Prevention of Mines

Those who are constructing mines must be prevented in the following manner. If it appears that a mine is being made you should dig the moat outside the wall as deep as possible, so that the mine may open into the moat and those who are digging it may be exposed to view. And if you have a chance, a wall should also be built in the moat, of the very hardest and largest stones available. But if you have no chance to build a stone wall, bring up logs and rubbish. And if the mines open into the moat, dump the rubbish, set fire to it, and cover the rest over in order that the smoke may penetrate the opening and injure those in the mine, for it happens that many are killed by smoke. And by releasing wasps and bees into the opening one will work mischief with those in the mine. One must, at whatever point the enemy are digging, construct a countermine and oppose them.

[link to original Greek text] LV. To protect from Injury those who are digging Mines

For those who are to construct mines a very effective form of protection would be this. One  p221 should fasten together the poles of two wagons, having first turned them back each in the direction of the other part of its wagon in such a way that the poles may be raised aloft, inclining toward the same point. Then, when this has been done, one should fasten on to the poles in addition other timbers and sorts of covering above, and cover them over with clay. This device, then, could be advanced and withdrawn on its wheels wherever you desire, and those who are excavating could keep under this protection.

[link to original Greek text] LVI. A Stratagem

Those undergoing siege ought to contrive thus. At the gateway and somewhat within it they should dig a trench and leave a passage on this side and on that, and should lure some of the enemy to make a dash into the town with them. Of course they must themselves run in along the passages that have been left on either side. But it is likely that those of the enemy who run in with them, being unaware of the trench, since it is concealed, will fall in.

[link to original Greek text] LVIa. Another Method by which we may catch
as many of the Enemy as we please

However many of the enemy we may wish to catch as they come in — let us do it in this way. Let us allow to enter as many as it is convenient for us to kill. You should have ready inside, above the centre of the gate, as stout a portcullis as possible,  p223 and this should be overlaid with iron, so that when you do not wish to admit the enemy as they run in, it may keep them from entering. Drop this, and the portcullis itself not only will destroy some few or many of them as they sweep in, but also will keep the foe from entering; at the same time let the forces on the wall keep shooting at the enemy by the gate.

[link to original Greek text] LVII. How a large City can be guarded by a few Men

If the city is a large one and the men in it are not numerous enough to man its walls all the way around, and yet you wish to keep it closely guarded with the men you have, you must from the materials at hand build up high all the easily assailable parts of the city wall, so that, if any of the enemy shall scale it, either by force or by stealth, from their unfamiliarity they may not be able to leap down. And on either side of the parts that have been built up the available men should keep watch to destroy those who may leap from the high points. Moreover, you should disguise the most able-bodied of the women, old men, and boys that are in the town, and arm them as much like men as you can. And in place of arms give them jars and similar bronze utensils, and march them around the wall, but do not by any means allow them to throw missiles or yet to hurl a javelin, for even a long way off a female betrays her sex when she tries to throw.

 p225  [link to original Greek text] LVIII. How Soldiers who are few may appear to be many

If you wish the patrolmen upon the wall or rampart to appear more numerous than they are, you should make them go their rounds two abreast, the first rank with their spears upon the left shoulder, the other with their spears upon the right, and thus they will appear to be four abreast. And if they go about three abreast, the first man should have his spear upon his right shoulder, the next upon his left, and in this way each man will look like two.

The Author's Notes:

1 Shuckburgh's translation, slightly revised.

[decorative delimiter]

2 This notice is clearly taken direct from Polybius.

[decorative delimiter]

3 The same substances are mentioned in Philo Mechanicus V.90.17 ff. as necessary supplies in a beleaguered city. Such topics as this must have been treated by Aeneas in his Παρασκευαστικὴ βίβλος, On Military Preparations. See 8.2‑5; 40.8, and the Introduction, p8.

[decorative delimiter]

4 See note on Aeneas, ch. 34.1.

[decorative delimiter]

5 These may have been mercenaries hired by 'us,' i.e., by the exiled faction which is seeking to regain possession of the city. The original in Aeneas is written from the point of view of the defenders of the town.

Thayer's Note:

a The word thus started ΑΙΝ. . . is of course ΑἰνείαςAeneas, our author's name; see Aeneas' original text (as emended) in 31.18.

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