Fantasy Naval Siege Warfare.
Jackie volunteered me to write this article, but I deny responsibility
for any consequences should her character (Flammis) become a
WARNING: still under construction More text to be added, notes numbered, etc.
There are three fundamental types of siege artillery
- Ballistae. The original word, catapult, means a
"shield-breaker"; the term has since been applied generically to a
variety of engines. In the campaign, we’ll artificially distinguish
"ballistae" which thrust in a [fundamentally] horizontal plane from
onagers & trebuchets which fire vertically (overhead). Height is
probably the most crucial element when successfully deploying ballistae.
We may establish 3 categories
- The TENSION-CATAPULT, the earliest siege artillery, was
crossbow-like: a large composite bow fixed to a wooden stock, in
which a wooden slider could move back and forth. The top of the
slider was grooved to receive a large arrow or bolt. The Bowstring
is held and released by a claw/trigger at the rear of the slider.
- Sixty years later it was superseded by the TORSION-CATAPULT, w
hich has a greater thrust than any bow. The bowstring was strung
between the ends of 2 wooden arms. The other end of each arm was
inserted into its own vertical spring made from ropes of sinew or
hair. Over the centuries the model was improved: increased size;
metal frames; all-weather protection for the rope bundles; mounting
on a tripod or cart; etc. Early models, both naval- and field-
artillery, threw bolts or stones; but later ballistae threw only
- ARCUBALLISTA: a crossbow-style ballista. In later times, the
"bow" was made of composite materials or even steel. One of the
latter has a 1200-lb. thrust. Steel bows were exceedingly expensive
and best mounted in defensive, permanent positions (e.g., on city
walls) rather than in the field or onboard ship.
- Onegars. Rather than 2 balanced arms thrusting in a
horizontal plane, as with a [torsion] ballista, the onager has one
very large arm which moves in the vertical plane. Instead of a
bowstring, the payload sits either in a sling (like a giant staff-
sling), or a solid cup. The onager throws: large single-stones;
volleys of medium stones; pots of greek fire; heads; darts or
shrapnel; objets d’art; etc. In C&S terminology, the
mangonel is a heavy duty onager.
- Trebuchets: A medieval advancement on the onager which
necessitated that city walls be built of stone rather than wood and
earth. The arm of a trebuchet is pivoting and the payload is thrust
by a falling counterweight. It throws similar missiles to the onager
, but (thanks to advanced technology ) the stones could be significant
ly heavier, whole bodies rather than mere heads could be hurled, etc.
Where a classical onager might throw a 50-lb. 400 yards (AD 70), a
trebuchet with 50’ arm & 10-ton counterweight throws a 300-lb. stone
Most of the fantasy campaign is set in the late Middle Ages (with
occasional spurts of early Renaissance); although the city states of
the Inland Ocean have a more golden setting within the mythical to
late Classical era.
Lets deal with those heroic states first, engaged in their frequent
battles with the barbarians and each other.
Land warfare requires many types of arms; but naval
warfare demands more kinds of arms, including machines and torsion-
engines as if the fighting were on walls and towers. What could be
crueler than a naval battle, where men perish by water and by fire?
(Vegetius IV.44). note
These nations employ the ballistae and onagers, both of which may be
deployed on ships. The missiles are rocks, packets of darts, and fire-javelins, although fire-arrows shot by hand are safer. Other machines include:
The number of artillery pieces per vessel will vary, since each one
mounted results in less cargo or marines that the boat may carry.
Marsden (1969, 169ff) states, with examples, that
- The beam(asser) a thin 2-headed battering-ram
suspended from the mast. Used as an anti-personnel weapon and to
puncture the enemy vessel's hull amidships.
- The drag or sickle(falx) a long pole-arm.
Used to cut enemy rigging (and possibly men?).
- The battle-axe(bipennis) used to sever the foe
catapults were undoubtedly mounted on ships and played their part in
operations on rivers and on the open seas. ... It was not unusual
for merchant ships and other vessels normally engaged in peaceful
occupations to carry artillery both for their own protection and to
enable them to assist warships.
"Modern" regions: general techniques
In our RP campaign, prior to the current era, the technology of
assault artillery was comparatively primitive. The defenders were f
orced to surrender, usually on favorable terms, "more often by
blockade than by the assaults of men or machinery"
note. In these "modern" times each large
siege-piece will probably have its own name and require personalized
handling -- having, in effect, "a personality if its own" (Vale 1976, 71-2).
The carpentry skills and political economy of a ship-building,
fleet-using city will enhance that power's ability to employ siege engines; especially if the ships are built on venture financing and crewed on a share-basis of the profit/plunder note. Further more, effective siege-engines become more cost effective, in a campaign, if they can be disassembled into pieces small enough for carrying through rune-portals, or if water transportation is possible note.
For a besieged port, water-borne artillery enforces the blockade and
enable the attacker to breach any part of the defensive
perimeter, not just the land approaches. Conversely the aggressor is severely hampered if unable to enclose, let alone assault, a port's harbor (e.g., Rogers 67-8). Therefore a foreign naval power may profitably ally with the besieging army in order to defeat a mutual enemy, not just for a split of the immediate spoils, but on the promise of a trade enclave and beneficial tax exemptions in the conquered city (Rogers 195-201).
Assault towers (Belfries, etc.) could be mounted on "rafts",
especially those made of several vessels lashed together. Such
towers may be employed, when moored, as maritime highpoints upon
which the attacker stations artillery and observers. If the raft is
reasonably maneuverable, it may approach the enemy fortifications so
that the marines use the belfry to assault a sea-wall or exposed
tower note. In fact, a vessel's mast may be
of sufficient height and strength to act as a sea-borne scaling
Employment of field artillery beside rivers
Artillery were used in the field to provide covering fire for moving
troops e.g., Alexander's retreat across the River Eordicus [Anabasis
I.6.8] or his attack across the Syr-Daria or Yellow Jaxartes [Anabasis
IV.4.4] (Marsden 1969, 97-8 & 165-6).
Suggested effects & techniques : ship vs Ship***
?include Naulochus 36BC and Actium 31BC***
- note Major references for this section are
Bradbury (1992) and Corfis & Wolfe (1995)
- note For this quote & following section see
Vegetius, Book 4, chapers 44-46.
- note "With the introduction of effective siege-
guns, the advantages of attack over defence became apparent ... The
guns were carried from siege to siege by water, thereby reducing the
difficulties and chronic delays of overland carriage" (Vale 1976, 60)
- note Rogers (1992, 101), speaking of the
Norman conquest of Sicily. Note that the aim of the Norman’s was to
win a rich land, not to destroy an enemy.
- note In Roger's words (1992, 207): "The
reasons for the Italian maritime pre-eminence in siege warfare on the
coasts of the Mediterranean and in the conduct of siege-tower
assaults are evident. The same technological and economic factors
which sustained and promoted maritime and commercial activities in
Genoa, Pisa, and Venice provided the basis of their siege warfare."
- note As in the Successful assault of
Constantinople, 1204 (Rogers 1992, 233-4)
- note e.g. Besancon's attempt on Acre's Tower
of the Flies (Rogers 1992, 223)
***Section C etc?? Defensive ... Counter-artillery may be deployed behind a boulevard,
meaning defensive earthworks outside the city walls, i.e., "bulwark". etc
(Vale 1976, p.61 & n.22)
- Bradbury, Jim. 1992. The medieval siege.
- Corfis, Ivy A. and Michael Wolfe. 1995. The medieval
city under siege. Woodbridge: Boydell.
- Marsden, E. W. 1969. Greek and Roman artillery:
Historical development. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Rogers, Randall. 1992. Latin siege warfare in the
twelfth century. Oxford : Clarendon.
- Vale, M.G.A. 1976. "New techniques and old ideals: The
impact of artillery on war and chivalry at the end of the Hundred
Years War" in War, Literature, and politics in the Late Middle
Ages, edited by C.T. Allmand. Liverpool: Liverpool University
- Vegetius (Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus). Late 4th
Century, 1993 translation. Epitome of military science = Epitoma
rei militaris, translated with notes and introduction by N.P.
Milner. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.