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Chapter 32


In how many Ways the Romans gained Possession of Towns.


Turning their thoughts wholly to arms, the Romans always conducted their military enterprises in the most advantageous way, both as to cost and every other circumstance of war. For which reason they avoided attempting towns by siege, judging the expense and inconvenience of this method of carrying on war greatly to outweigh any advantage to be gained by it. Accordingly, they thought it better and more for their interest to reduce towns in any other way than this; and in all those years during which they were constantly engaged in wars we find very few instances of their proceeding by siege.

For the capture of towns, therefore, they trusted either to assault or to surrender. Assaults were effected either by open force, or by force and stratagem combined. When a town was assailed by open force, the walls were stormed without being breached, and the assailants were said "aggredi urbem corona," because they encircled the city with their entire strength and kept up an attack on all sides. In this way they often succeeded in carrying towns, and even great towns, at a first onset, as when Scipio took new Carthage in Spain. But when they failed to carry a town by storm, they set themselves to breach the walls with battering rams and other warlike engines; or they dug mines so as to obtain an entrance within the walls, this being the method followed in taking Veii; or else, to be on a level with the defenders, they erected towers of timber or threw up mounds of earth against the outside of the walls so as to reach the top.

Of these methods of attack, the first, wherein the city was entirely surrounded, exposed the defenders to more sudden perils and left them more doubtful remedies. For while it was necessary for them to have a sufficient force at all points, it might happen that the forces at their disposal were not numerous enough to be everywhere at once, or to relieve one another. Or if their numbers were sufficient, they might not all be equally resolute in standing their ground, and their failure at any one point involved a general defeat. Consequently, as I have said, this method of attack was often successful. But when it did not succeed at the first, it was rarely renewed, being a method dangerous to the attacking army, which having to secure itself along an extended line, was left everywhere too weak to resist a sally made from the town; nay, of itself, was apt to fall into confusion and disorder. This method of attack, therefore, could be attempted once only and by way of surprise.

Against breaches in the walls the defence was, as at the present day, to throw up new works; while mines were met by counter-mines, in which the enemy were either withstood at the point of the sword, or baffled by some other warlike contrivance; as by filling casks with feathers, which, being set on fire and placed in the mine, choked out the assailants by their smoke and stench. Where towers were employed for the attack, the defenders sought to destroy them with fire; and where mounds of earth were thrown up against the walls, they would dig holes at the base of the wall against which the mound rested, and carry off the earth which the enemy were heaping up; which, being removed from within as fast as it was thrown up from without, the mound made no progress.

None of these methods of attack can long be persisted in and the assailant, if unsuccessful, must either strike his camp and seek victory in some other direction, as Scipio did when he invaded Africa and, after failing in the attempt to storm Utica, withdrew from his attack on that town and turned his strength against the Carthaginian army in the field; or else recourse must be had to regular siege, as by the Romans at Veii, Capua, Carthage, Jerusalem, and divers other cities which they reduced in this way.

The capture of towns by stratagem combined with force is effected, as by the Romans at PalŠopolis, through a secret understanding with some within the walls. Many attempts of this sort have been made, both by the Romans and by others, but few successfully, because the least hindrance disarranges the plan of action, and because such hindrances are very likely to occur. For either the plot is discovered before it can be carried out, as it readily may, whether from treachery on the part of those to whom it has been communicated, or from the difficulties which attend its inception, the preliminary arrangements having to be made with the enemy and with persons with whom it is not permitted, save under some pretext or other, to hold intercourse; or if it be not discovered while it is being contrived, a thousand difficulties will still be met with in its execution. For if you arrive either before or after the appointed time, all is ruined. The faintest sound, as of the cackling of the geese in the Capitol, the least departure from some ordinary routine, the most trifling mistake or error, mars the whole enterprise. Add to which, the darkness of night lends further terror to the perils of such undertakings; while the great majority of those engaged in them, having no knowledge of the district or places into which they are brought, are bewildered and disconcerted by the least mishap, and put to flight by every imaginary danger. In secret nocturnal enterprises of this sort, no man was ever more successful than Aratus of Sicyon, although in any encounter by day there never was a more arrant coward. This we must suppose due rather to some special and occult quality inherent in the man, than to success being naturally to be looked for in the like attempts. Such enterprises, accordingly, are often planned, but few are put into execution, and fewer still with success.

When cities are acquired by surrender, the surrender is either voluntary or under compulsion; voluntary, when the citizens appeal to you for protection against some threatened danger from without, as Capua submitted to the Romans; or where they are moved by a desire to be better governed, and are attracted by the good government which he to whom they surrender is seen exercising over others who have placed themselves in his hands; as was the case with the Rhodians, the Massilians, and others who for like causes gave themselves up to the Roman people. Compulsory surrenders take place, either as the result of a protracted siege, like those we have spoken of above; or from the country being continually wasted by incursions, forays, and similar severities, to escape which a city makes its submission.

Of the methods which have been noticed, the Romans, in preference to all others, used this last; and for four hundred and fifty years made it their aim to wear out their neighbours by invasion and by defeat in the open field, while endeavouring, as I have elsewhere said, to establish their influence over them by treaties and conventions. It was to this method of warfare therefore that they always mainly trusted, because, after trying all others, they found none so free from inconvenience and disadvantage--the procedure by siege involving expense and delay, that by assault, difficulty and danger, and that by secret practice, uncertainty and doubt. They found, likewise, that while in subduing one obstinate city by siege many years might be wasted, a kingdom might be gained in a single day by the defeat of a hostile army in the field.


Niccolo Machiavelli

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