Book Review – Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons

As an aside, I realize that my book reviews, are more like book recommendations. I don’t plan on writing reviews of books that I don’t like. So, if a book appears here, expect it to be a positive review.
Book CoverSieges played a huge role in medieval and ancient warfare, but I realized that I didn’t know that much about them. I had seen various documentaries that covered a siege engine or two and I knew the difference between the major types of siege engine (or so I thought), but I didn’t really know the details. Who used what? What were the strategic and technological reasons for the development of different siege engines? Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons: A Fully Illustrated Guide to Siege Weapons and Tactics by Konstantin Nossov is an excellent introduction to the history of siege warfare from the earliest known examples through the introduction of cannons.

Overall, the writing style is what I like in a historical book. The author presents the information in a straightfoward manner, without too many diversions or minutiae. Even though I only have the Kindle version, I recommend getting the print version. The color plates are not inline with the text. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I knew where the images were and could flip back and forth, but the Kindle version didn’t have any crosslinks. In fact, I didn’t know that the color plates existed until I bumped into them in the middle of the section on throwing machines. There are plenty of black-and-white illustrations peppered throughout the book to illustrate key ideas.

The first section of the book is dedicated to the history of siege warfare.  Nossov uses this historical overview to provide context for the machines and tactics that he will discuss later. For example, battering rams and borers are used against different types of walls.

The second section is dedicated to different types of siege engines.  The author groups siege engines together by broad types such as “Scaling Ladders” and “Battering Rams” and then goes on to provide specific examples within each category. He discusses the tactical uses of each machine, how they were built, and how defenders would try to destroy or disrupt them. Some measurements are provided, and the drawings are quite detailed, a creative builder could reconstruct from this information, but that is not the goal of the book.

This section on seige engines is the meat of the book and probably the main reason why people will be interested in it. The book focuses on well established machines, instead of getting distracted by failed inventions and obscure flights of fancy. Even so, you will find a lot to learn here. As you would expect, it covers catapults, battering rams, and siege towers, but it also covers mobile sheds, borers and sambucas (which I never heard of before this book). There are plenty of illustrations to help you understand these machines and how they were used.

A small, but important, detail that he cover is how certain terms (such as “catapult” and “ballista”) were applied to very different machines at different times. This helps prevent a lot of confusion.

The third section builds upon the first two sections to discuss siege tactics. This includes tactics of both the besieger and the besieged. By the time you reach this point in the book, many of the ideas will be familiar, but Nossov brings it all together to paint a picture of a siege. He does not limit his discussion to which machines to use, he discusses many of the other gambits that armies took to claim a city.

I realized that I have been a fantasy roleplayer for over 30 years and not once have I played a siege. Sieges tend to go against the “epic quest” model of fantasy role-playing, but this book has motivated me to find a way to work it into a game. If you have any interest in siege engines or warfare, this is a great book to start with.

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