Over the course of the wayward history of mankind, sieges have been crucial to making or breaking the tides of war. The tactic of surrounding a settlement, effectively blocking the escape of the besieged and denying them access to food, water, and other necessities, is one that has been used since the earliest times of organized warfare.
Here we'll explore in chronological order some of the most prolonged sieges in history. These aren't sieges that took several months, but years to come to a close.
Siege of Troy
c. 12th century BCE
Emblematic of the most superb military ruse, the Trojan Horse is a symbol steeped in the mists of bygone centuries, between the blurred lines of fact and fiction.
Long contended to be little more than an extravagant myth concocted by the ancient Greeks and solidified in Western liberal arts traditions, the Trojan War continues to shape our imaginations today. Indeed, modern scholars once thought the city itself was a myth. However, once the ruins of ancient Troy were unearthed in the 1870s under the leadership of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, it appeared historians deserved to grant at least some credence to the story recounted by the Roman poet Virgil in the Aeneid.
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The siege of Troy, which is said to have been a decade-long conflict, likely occurred sometime in the 12th century BCE. According to the long-standing literature, Paris—prince of Troy—kidnapped Helen of Sparta to be his wife, although she was already married, and brought her back to his kingdom. This sparked outrage among the Greeks, who retaliated by laying siege to Troy.
Odysseus contrived the Trojan Horse, which was left outside the gates of Troy. But this wooden equine held a secret: the large hollow structure contained soldiers within. When brought inside the city walls, deemed a gift from the apparently disheartened Greeks, the horse unleashed its hidden cargo. Through this clever sneak attack, the Greeks were victorious in winning the war.
Today, historians are unable to confirm that the Trojan War really took place, or that it unfolded how Virgil and Homer described. Regardless, it was considered a real historical event by people in the ancient world, and the story isn't so far-fetched that it couldn't have happened...except, of course, for the parts with all those meddling Greek gods and goddesses.
Siege of Veii
c. 406—396 BCE
Veii was an Etruscan urban hub, one of a dozen or so cities that banded together and were known as the “Etruscan League.” Located just 10 miles from Rome, Veii often butted heads with Roman authorities. The town was renowned for its terra-cotta production during the 6th century BCE. However, in the 5th century BCE, the import-export business began to wane. Even while in the throes of economic decline, Veii still sported a daunting defensive, especially on account of its thick, sturdy walls.
Around this time, the struggles of the city saw their peak, resulting in the ultimate downfall of Veii. In c. 406 BCE, Marcus Furius Camillus—a very efficient general of Rome—made his attack. The skirmishes between Rome and Veii had been going on for years, and this outright assault from Camillus was no short-lived endeavor either. The general laid siege to Veii and, like the (perhaps) legendary siege of Troy, this offensive was said to have taken close to a decade.
A combination of frontal assault and digging under the Veientine walls won the day. In 396 BCE, Camillus successfully captured the city, after which the town's women and children were sold into slavery; men for the most part were executed. Today, the ruins of Veii can still be seen near Isola Farnese on the outskirts of Rome.
Siege of Carthage
Ancient Rome had its eye set on empire-building. Its military conquests speak for themselves. Perhaps one of the most famous of all is its victory over the city of Carthage, which served as the capital of a competing empire for a time. The Punic Wars—the battles in which the Carthaginian and Roman forces clashed—punctuated relations between the two polities for over a century.
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The First Punic War occurred between 264 and 241 BCE; the subsequent Punic War took place from 218 to 202 BCE. The former witnessed an impressive construction of vessels on the part of Rome and expert seamanship from Carthage. However, due to the negligence of its government, Carthage did not come out on top. The latter Punic War, made famous by Carthaginian general Hannibal's long string of successful battles and his use of war elephants, also ended in disaster for the Carthaginian stronghold.
The Third (and final) Punic War was the shortest and the one in which the great Siege of Carthage occurred. Nevertheless, it still took nearly three years for Rome's general Scipio Aemilianus to prevail and crush the city.
Fall of Philadelphia
Philadelphia, a settlement in Asia Minor that later became known as Alaşehir, witnessed a terrible injustice at the hands of Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. The emperor was in a tight spot amid the feuds of the Byzantine civil war and was in need of allies.
The Emperor was known for the peaceful terms on which he stood with the Ottoman Turks. He turned to them seeking aid and proposed that in return for their assistance, he would give them Philadelphia. Unfortunately for everyone, the only people who didn't offer their consent in this bargain were the citizens of Philadelphia themselves. Under the rule of the Knights Hospitaller, the city was a rare remnant of Christian Greek civilization in the vicinity. Besieged by the Turks, Philadelphia managed to hold its own for a period of 12 years, from 1378 to 1390 CE, before succumbing to defeat.
Siege of Candia
A close second to the extraordinarily long Siege of Ceuta (see below), Candia's siege lasted for a daunting period of 21 years. As the Thirty Years' War was raging in Europe, the Cretan War was triggered, involving Christian Venetian forces versus the Ottoman Empire. Candia, a Greek city under Venetian rule, was at the heart of the militaristic attention displayed during the war. Whichever side gained control of the stronghold would hold terrific influence over that region of the Mediterranean.
Beginning in May 1648, the Ottomans besieged Candia, quickly choosing to dig trenches and cut off water access to the city. Both sides suffered their weaknesses. Turks and Venetians alike struggled to maintain sufficient supplies and garner reinforcements.
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Recent studies have illuminated a militaristic strategy that considered the use of biological warfare during the Siege of Candia. Apparently the Venetians proposed inflicting the Black Death on the camps of the Ottoman besiegers via a liquid containing “the quintessence of the plague.” However, the strategy was never implemented.
After more than two decades and a collective death toll of over 100,000, the Siege of Candia ended with the Venetians' surrender.
Siege of Ceuta
1694—1720 CE, 1721—1727 CE
The Siege of Ceuta can tout itself as the longest siege in recorded history. The first phase of the conflict lasted a staggering 26 years, during which time Moroccan forces fought with the inhabitants of the Spanish-held city on the northern coast of Africa. Sultan Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, having defeated many of the Ottoman and European forces in North Africa, next set out to overtake the coastal city of Ceuta. The sultan sent the general Ali bin Abdullah to attack the fortified settlement.
Besieged in 1694, Ceuta was about to prove its strength. Once the Moroccans realized that the siege was going to be a drawn-out strategy, they made themselves as comfortable and as self-sustainable as possible, cultivating the surrounding turf in order to provide for their nutritional needs.
Ceuta soon requested military aid from the Spanish crown. The king sent reinforcements. Among these were both Spanish and Portuguese soldiers, the latter of whom weren't fully trusted on account of old rivalries. Still, Ceuta endured...all the way up until 1720.
At that time, the Marquis of Lede came on the scene and managed to force back the Moroccan troops, resulting in a short-lived victory for the Spaniards. Plague struck the city a few short months later, resulting in a weakened populace that was left even more vulnerable by the Marquis' departure. The siege resumed in 1721 for another six years. The city could finally rest at ease upon the deathbed of Sultan Moulay Ismail; not because they had emerged victorious over their enemies, but because Morocco's established government foundered in the aftermath of a grapple for the throne.
Siege of Leningrad
Violating an agreement of non-aggression, Nazi forces invaded Soviet Russia in June 1941, striking strategic locales. Leningrad (modern-day Saint Petersburg) was an important city for Hitler to take on account of its hundreds of factories and position as the base for the Baltic Fleet. The city sustained a population of more than three million people.
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When they laid siege to Leningrad, the German forces swiftly cut off all remaining road and railway connections. Although German fire led to tens of thousands of civilian fatalities, the more dire threat came from the deliberate starving of its population. By the end of the siege on January 27, 1944, which came a little over two years after it had commenced, anywhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million civilians were dead. Russia's Red Army arrived on the scene and successfully drove back the Nazi forces, thus freeing the city and its hardened inhabitants.
Sources: BBC, Encyclopedia Britannica, CDC, History.com