Ammianus and the Elephants: Roman-Persian Siege Warfare in the Fourth Century
By Michael Stawpert
The Byzantinist – The Newsletter of the Oxford Byzantine Society, No. 1 (2011)
Introduction: Ammianus Marcellinus provides the most enthralling account of military affairs available for the fourth century. His narrative covers the crucial battles and campaigns during the reigns of the emperors from Constantius I to Valens and the disaster of Adrianople in 378. Though Ammianus provides more descriptions of the pitched battles of the period, sieges are events of major significance; the strategic importance of each site, the terror of the civilian population, the tactical ingenuity needed to unlock the defences and the heroic deeds of the defenders, heighten the drama and tension of a siege in the set piece events of Ammianus’ account.
The truly epic description of the siege of Amida provides one of the most memorable and detailed description in the account, told by a narrator who combines the roles of an eyewitness and a military expert. In most scholarly works dealing with Ammianus and his military accounts, the ability of Roman and Persian forces to capture fortified strong holds receives at least some attention, concentrating mostly upon technology, literary features of Ammianus or the narrative history of the period. In this paper I wish to briefly examine how much of a part technological capabilities really played in the investment of strongholds during the fourth-century wars between Rome and Persia, and what part was played by that seldom mentioned weapon of the age, the elephant.