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Published:October 8th, 2009 12:38 EST
History of War [Part 2] Round Towers, the Byzantines, and Bohemond

History of War [Part 2] Round Towers, the Byzantines, and Bohemond

By Rob Roy

History remembers a special Roman soldier, an engineer named Vitruvius.  Unlike other Roman engineers, he kept sticking his nose into things.  He delighted in complex ideas.  His brain processed everything he learned about, from the concept of central heating [air ducts] to the writings of clever men before him.  One thing in particular caught his attention, the aeolipile -- a steam device.  An earlier man, Ctesibius [285-222 B.C.], had written about it.  Not many Romans were known to think much about the aeolipile.  But Vitruvius did.  He wrote, Aeolipilea are hollow brazen vessels, which have an opening or mouth of small size, by means of which they can be filled with water.  Prior to the water being heated over the fire, but little wind is emitted. As soon, however, as the water begins to boil, a violent wind issues forth."

Vitruvius wrote ten books in all.  It is the best known resource of Ancient Rome`s architecture.   In Book VIII De Architectura, he warned about the danger of lead pipes.   He advised the use of clay pipes or stone channels.   Men working in lead foundries were getting sick, and Vitruvius based his warning on that. [1]

Another thing he was interested in was defense.  He wrote: The roads should be encompassed at steep points, and planned so as to approach the gates, not in a straight line, but from the right to the left; for as a result of this, the right hand side of the assailants, unprotected by their shields, will be next the wall. " [With shields facing the wrong way, archer fire could be more effective.] Towns should be laid out not as an exact square nor with salient angles, but in circular form, to give a view of the enemy from many points ... The towers themselves must be either round or polygonal.  Square towers are sooner shattered by military engines, for the battering rams pound their angles to pieces; but in the case of round towers they can do no harm, being engaged, as it were, in driving wedges to their centre. "

He might have heard about King Herod`s fondness for round towers. [Known as Herod the Great, either due to the great " command to mass murder little boys or due to his great squandering of tax money.  Ok, ok -- he was remarkable at intrigue and combat.  May he rest in pieces.] King Herod might have appreciated the ancient round towers in Samaria.   Israelites apparently constructed round towers prior to 332 B.C. Three 13 m diameter round towers dating to that period have been excavated (the first two by Harvard who attributed them to the Israelite period) and a later, massive, fortification wall with square towers. " [13]

Vitruvius had very strong opinions crammed into ten books, and his observations were shrewd.  Most of what he wrote was the original thoughts of others.  For example, the Aegean Castle of Tyrins might have been part of the root basis for his views on town defense [perhaps indirectly].   Anyone trying to storm the gate of Tyrins would have had their shields facing away from the walls, making defensive archer fire more effective.  The lost civilization of Knossos had constructed that castle.  The castle designer was long forgotten, dust before Vitruvius was even born.  But, like most sensible Romans, he wasted no ink on false boasts.  Vitruvius simply wrote down what he believed to be true. 

The ancient world was occasionally made aware of round towers, but only in obscure places.  Romans were willing to consider round towers, but they liked to keep things tidy and square -- even towers.  Square towers were easier to build.  Besides, their space was easier for architects to calculate and plan around.  When people think of the Romanesque Period ", the first thing that leaps to mind is square towers ".  Along her walls, Rome`s milecastles were largely noted for square towers and turrets. [Good to remember that if you assume that our leaders are always on the ball.  No matter how unimportant you feel, it helps to make a suggestion to the right person at the right time -- in the right way.]

A short time after Vitruvius breathed his last, someone else took the aeolipile of Ktesibius seriously, a mathematician named Heron.  In 60 A.D., Heron [also called Hero "] conceived of a way to harness the steam and make it move things "... and  [it] causes the ball to revolve, as in the case of the dancing figures." He made things dance like magic!  It was an amazing novelty that went nowhere. [Both Ktesibius and Heron had the the benefit of living in the same scholarly city -- Alexandria.]

In the Dark Ages, both the steam engine and the concept of round towers faded to obscurity.  One thing Romans and Americans have in common -- just like the Romans, Americans respect defeated enemies more than most cultures. [We even spend a fortune to rebuild them.] The barbarians of Europe were typical; they detested their vanquished foe.  Most of their leaders failed to appreciate Roman scholars such as Vitruvius.  Literacy plummeted, and so did progress.

If anyone had experience with towers, it was France and the Holy Roman Empire [now called Germany].  They constructed 10,000 castles each -- 20,000 total for both of them. [5] They started off with square towers for centuries.

Then we can look to China`s Ming Wall [1572-1620 A.D.], ... the youngest of the walls, the most militarily sophisticated and grand ... Most towers were square or rectangular in plan, a few circular or ovoid. " [3]

It was a common thing the world over.  Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians -- just about every major power constructed square or rectangular towers up until the Byzantine Empire [architects in Constantinople probably studied Vitruvius]. 

- -

In 447 A.D., a mighty conquerer, named Attila the Hun, led his vast horde against the Byzantine Empire.  An earthquake came at the worst time, toppling 57 towers.  Seeing the damage, Attila decided that the Byzantine Empire was still too difficult to attack.  He led his barbarian army elsewhere. [It must have been a difficult decision for him.  If there was ever a chance to conquer that empire, this seemed to be it.]
After the frightening moment with Attila, the Byzantines took defenses even more seriously -- two rings of walls acted as "inner and outer baileys".  If the first wall fell, people could flee into the inner part of the city, which was even stronger.  The inner wall was fourteen feet thick and had ninety-six towers -- Each tower was sixty feet high and large enough to mount any sized siege weapon.  The outer wall also had ninety-six towers.

But that was just the beginning.  The Byzantine Empire became truly "byzantine", which is where the word comes from. [15] Later on, one wall even had 110 towers. [8] The Empire ultimately constructed 14 miles of walls and reinforced by 300 towers and bastions ".   Her Theodosian Walls were legendary.  A besieger would have to overcome four separate belts ".  Each inner wall network was higher than the previous one.  An aqueduct poured in water for a sixty foot wide moat that was as deep as thirty feet in parts.  The ground was uneven, so they constructed dams periodically.  Each of the moat`s five gates each had its own drawbridge, towers, and bastions. [15]

But even the Byzantine Empire constructed numerous square towers at first.  Only her newer constructions tended to be less Romanesque " [even though the Byzantines were, in fact, Romans].  The Byzantines began to build round towers and semi-circular towers far and wide.

Their empire`s next great challenge was an invasion of 200,000 moslems.  They attacked the Byzantine Empire with suicidal fury.  The endless wave of violent humanity began their attack in 717 A.D.  Despite her vast defenses, the Byzantine Empire was nearly overrun, but the Byzantines used greek fire and incinerated them by the thousands.  Greek fire could even burn along the surface of  water.  Flames rose up on land, on moat water,  and on the surface of the sea.   The following year, only 30,000 muslims returned.   The Byzantine Empire lost most of her territory to the muslims during that war, but at least she survived and spared Europe from a huge invasion. [15]

What became of the other 170,000, I suppose most died during the jihad. 

- -

A Norman turned his eye toward this area in 1079 A.D.  His name was Bohemond [but please forgive me -- I`ve grown fond of the way Harold Lamb spelled his name -- Bohemund "]. Bohemund`s father was was Robert Guiscard, known as Robert the Wily.  Like many Normans, Robert did not sit idle until he had enough lands of his own to rule.  Bohemund`s father carved out an Italian dukedom in Apulia and Calabria, as well as Arab strongholds in Sicily ". [It was not just Spain and the Byzantine Empire suffering muslim invasions, so did Italy and Sicily.] But even as a duke, the old Norman lion seemed to enjoy battle. 

Raised in southern Italy, Bohemund had plenty of opportunities to learn warfare from his father.  With an older brother, young Bohemund himself had no lands to inherit.  In 1079 A.D., Bohemund led part of his father`s army and followed Norman tradition -- the young man sought a mighty conquest.  He factored in that the Byzantine Empire was weakened at the time [but just how weak was the question].  He captured the town of Avlona in 1081.  It was south of Durazzo, one of the most important citadels in the Byzantine Empire`s fortress network.  From Avlona, the Normans could plot how to take Durazzo next. 

The Emperor let his wrath be known, but was unable to do anything decisive.  In 1085, the Normans had gotten the better of the Empire, winning a few brilliant victories ".  Alexius [the Emperor] ultimately managed to force a retreat, but the war was not over.  Bohemund`s father died that year, and the young Norman saw little chance of defeating the Byzantine Empire.  [To me, it`s amazing they even did that well.] The rivalry continued to fester between Bohemund and the Emperor. 

Everything changed after sixteen years of hostility.  In 1095 A.D., the First Crusade began.  Bohemund had excellent military experience in siege and battle, particularly fighting against non-Europeans and even fighting Saracens. [It is my personal opinion that Bohemund was the Crusaders` most battle-savvy commander.  He also attracted many strong knights under him, such as Tancred.] Bohemund and the Emperor made an uncomfortable truce.  The Norman even swore an oath of allegiance to the Byzantine Empire, along with most other leaders of the First Crusade.  [16]

- -

Either the Byzantine Empire or Israel might have been the inspiration for muslims to build round towers. [Perhaps both, perhaps neither .] In 1095 A.D., the Crusaders marched and looted their way overland toward Eastern Europe.  The only sea barrier along the way to Jerusalem was the narrow Hellespont [or the Dardanelles if you prefer] -- the heart of the Byzantine Empire.  The Iron Men of Europe had never seen anything to compare with Constantinople [the Empire`s capital].  It`s a challenge to imagine what went through their Dark Age minds.  The Byzantine Empire must have made quite an impact to help break them out of their Romanesque " ways.  The First Crusade did not try to tackle the Byzantine Empire`s walls.  They did, however, pillage a few places there. [Even on a holy cause, Dark Age Europeans were not the greatest house guests.]

Entering the Middle East, the Crusaders pressed forward relentlessly.  Many fell along the way, but the remnants were  hardened.  The Saracens assumed that Bohemund was the leader, although he was not. [The Nazis made a similar mistake thinking that Patton was the Allied leader in Europe while the Japanese often assumed that MacArthur was the leader in the Pacific.] In truth, the lords met in war councils to make decisions.  No one Crusader truly led the group. [They sometimes made some incredibly foolish decisions too, mostly from a feeling that God would disapprove of too much caution as a lack of faith.  That was something Bohemund was never guilty of.]

When the Crusaders besieged Antioch, a traitor in the city-stronghold named Firuz wanted to speak with the Commander of the Christians ", Bohemund.  Firuz claimed that his own muslim commander mistreated him.  Bohemund took a chance and trusted Firuz to allow him to sneak in with a raiding party in the Tower of the Two Sisters.  At the same time, the savvy Norman knew better than to share this information.  He wanted as much credit for the fall of Antioch as possible, and he wanted to avoid any loose tongues from wagging. 

With a fanfare of trumpets being a signal to the traitor, Bohemund pretended to be part of a foraging party before sunset, and then his group moved stealthily to position, a ditch below the Tower of the Two Sisters.  After a standard wall patrol passes by, Firuz promised a way in.  Bohemund must enter with the first group.  Otherwise, Firuz would not help them.  The column of Crusaders waited quietly until it was nearly dawn.  Up along the wall, a procession of torches came and went.  That was the moment.

The lurking invaders searched along the wall and found a rope ladder.  Quietly, sixty swordsmen climbed up the Tower of the the Two Sisters.  Firuz asked them, Where is the Invincible Bohemund? " 

The Norman and forty others came next.  When they reached the top, men from below heard the din of battle.  Someone called out the Crusaders` battle cry, God wills it! " The rope ladder broke.  A dozen climbers fell among the men beneath the ropes.  A hundred men at the top of the tower were trapped. 

The sun rose.  Fighting persisted.  Desperately, the men below sought a way in.  Losing a hundred brave souls was bad enough.  To lose Bohemund would be more than the Crusaders could stand to contemplate.  Someone found a postern gate made of wood; they took axes to it.  The chopping sounds drew more crusaders. [Up above, the walls were in dispute, and that probably made it easier for the invaders to keep close.] They surged through the now-open gate.  Some ran up to defend their brethren, but others rushed into the quiet city.  For the first time in centuries, no call to prayer was made in their high minarets.  Men, women, and children stood upon their rooftops, beholding the havoc.  Women and children wept and screamed.  Mounted Saracens rode through the streets, seeking desperately to turn the tide. 

There was much more to that battle than this, but in the end, Bohemund survived and became Lord of Antioch.  The Crusade progressed painfully.  After most had fallen slain, they finally raised a cross in Jerusalem.  Attacking the moslems` round towers would leave quite an impression on one`s mind.  Muslims, with their willingness to die for Allah -- that ensured respect.  It is a tribute to Christian courage that the First Crusade was victorious, and for the first time, Dark Age European war lords were almost humbled by an enemy, but not quite.  Many times outnumbered, often half mad from near-starvation, the Crusaders had won battle after battle and siege after siege.   No, that doesn`t quite humble a man.

Fighting for territory, Bohemund found himself trapped in an ambush and was captured by the emir of Sebastea.  He was released in 1103.  The Crusaders believed they had been double crossed by the Byzantines.  They were now free of their oaths to the Emperor.  They also wanted to punish the traitors of Christendom ".  Bohemund decided to act on that belief.  He spent the next four years planning a second invasion of the Byzantine Empire.  The pope sanctioned it as a Crusade.  The Iron Men of Europe admired him so much that he had nearly 40,000 men in 200 ships and barges by 1107.  Bohemund landed and set up camp outside the wall of Durazzo, that critical citadel.  A Scythian messenger galloped with such haste that he killed some horses along the way.  Hastily dismounting, he notified the Emperor of the invasion, Bohemund has landed. "  The Emperor replied, Let us lunch first and see about Bohemund afterward. "

Winter turned to Spring.  Surprisingly, the Byzantines did nothing.  Bohemund tried to lure the Byzantines out to a battle, but they did not take the bait.  After Jerusalem, most men wondered if the Crusaders were invincible [with the sole exception of the Mongels -- that for another day].  Bohemund tried using rams, tunnelers, and a siege tower.  Greek fire burned the rams, scorched the tunnels, and turned the siege tower into an inferno.  Something changed the equation.  The Emperor managed to bribe a Venetian fleet which blockaded Bohemund, cutting his army off from supplies.  Bohemund was so determined that he burned his own ships.  The Crusaders now had no way to retreat.  He told his men that they must fight or die.

The Emperor took that moment to march his armies to key mountain posts and passes.  They strongly positioned themselves, taking maximum advantage of terrain, so that Crusaders would have a tough time mounting cavalry charges [this must have been due to painstaking planning in advance].  The Crusaders found themselves hemmed in and surrounded.  No reasonable solution presented itself.  But the Crusaders fought anyway.  Lancers charged and routed one of the Byzantine armies, but there was no decisive gain from that.  Other skirmishes resulted in Byzantine victories, but nothing significant.  People might be tempted to call it a stalemate, but not when they stop and realize that the Emperor had them in a stranglehold.  With no food for his men, Bohemund was losing.  They also expected payment and received none.  Sickness brought its contribution to lowering morale among the Dark Age warriors. [The Byzantines were more scholarly about sanitation.]

Bohemund called for terms and managed to appear untroubled during negotiations.  The Norman haggled over whether the Emperor should stand when he approached.  Bohemund rejected one treaty after another.  He also made the Crusaders think that he was still reluctant to agree to anything.  Ultimately, the proud Norman surrendered Antioch to the Emperor. [But he probably knew how the city-fortress`s guardian would react.  Tancred refused to allow it.] [16]

This was the first Crusade to fail.  Failure is a better teacher than success.  The Byzantine Empire must have been a strong influence on future castle designs. 

Taking a look at Bohemund`s epic life, there are military lessons to be learned.  Like most raised in Italy, Bohemund was a realist about religious purity -- that was one of his strengths.  But when he trusted his fate to chance, he failed to factor in enough overkill or contingency plans.  For example -- he trusted Firuz at the siege of Antioch.  That was a shrewd calculation.  But he had no contingency plans.  He brought no extra rope, nor did he bring ladders.  I suppose he was reluctant to offer his fellow Crusaders hints, but he nearly paid for it with his life. 

When he later laid siege to Durazzo, he was not confident in God so much as in his own experience with siegecraft.  He knew how to construct siege towers and he understood the concept of tunneling.  He was correct -- that would have prevailed if it were not for the secret weapon of greek fire.  He also expected a decisive battle on open land.  He had made similar miscalculations the first time he attacked the Byzantine Empire and failed to sufficiently learn from them.  With a small army overseas, a besieger must plan a swift, rapid attack.  For example, future crusaders had siege weapons prefabricated and loaded aboard ships before even setting sail for the Holy Land.  Without something swift at the outset, Bohemund was foolish to give his enemy time to think and react.  He should have been content with Antioch until he carefully planned something special and unique.  He won Antioch through intrigue, and perhaps he could have done the same with Constantinople.  If nothing ever came to mind, he was still Lord of Antioch.  But he was ambitious. 

Being a mere lord did not suffice -- he lusted for an empire.  It was not a matter of fighting for God; he wanted to conquer the Byzantine Empire in his lifetime.  Once he began calling for people to join and sacrifice, he put himself on a self-imposed deadline.  His mental energy at that point was largely consumed with manipulating others.  Little time remained him to seriously plan a siege.  Unwholesome lust for anything turns people impatient and foolish.  Bohemund was typical.  People must lust less, be grateful for what they do have, and use their brains more.   To get what they need and desire, people must question their plans now and then and consider contingencies.

Conclusion about round towers:  Only in obscure places were round towers common until the Byzantine Empire [soon followed by muslims].  The pen of Vitruvius might have conquered square towers, but it took hundreds of years.  To see the pen become mightier than the sword sometimes requires more patience than we have years.   So where did round towers begin?  That`s the strange thing -- the first round towers were constructed in the Stone Age -- 9,650 B.C. [in Tell Qaramel, Syria]. 

I have almost completed a future article about that -- Mystery of the Six Towers.  I plan to submit that one possibly as early as tonight.  I might soon be able to carry out my promise about Land of the Civilized Lords [which should now be History of War, Part 3].

- - -

History of War, The Dawning, Part 1

- - -


[1] Excellent summary of Rome, lead poisoning, and the decline:
[4] [primary Five Towers source]
[9] [Sardinia round towers]
[10] [brochs]
[13] [Round towers in Samaria]
-- Note that I do not intend to discredit the that website`s handy timeline, which made no mention of the first known tower ".  I am simply trying to create context for the scholarly upheaval antiquarians are now experiencing.  If anyone gets the wrong idea, I apologize in advance. 
[15] [main source for Byzantine Fortifications/History]
[16] Two sources regarding Bohemund [aka Bohemond]
The Crusades by Harold Lamb [written in 1930, actually two books]