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Fortifications in Ancient Chinese Warfare » Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

While ancient Chinese warfare was often characterised by large armies in pitched battles, siege warfare and the sacking of cities were also regular features. Huge earth walls with towers and encircling ditches or moats became the normal strategy of defence for most cities, even from the Neolithic period. Fortifications were also thought necessary to protect certain vulnerable stretches of state borders too, especially during the Warring States Period from the 5th century BCE. This strategy culminated in the Great Wall of China of the Qin and Han dynasty. Nevertheless, Chinese warfare was anything but passive and most commanders knew full well the limitations of a defensive policy based on a long and bitter history of fallen cities and, like their counterparts in other ancient cultures, they much preferred the mobility provided by chariots and cavalry or the advantages of pre-emptive strikes and quick withdrawal.

Han Watchtower Model


The first thing to do when considering the possible defence of a town or city was to select a geographically favourable site. For this reason, many ancient Chinese cities in the Neolithicperiod were built on hills and or near rivers to provide a natural obstacle to attacking forces. Even better was a raised site protected by a confluence of two or three rivers which was still high enough to avoid the risks of flooding. Next was to make access even more difficult by surrounding the settlement with a ditch, a practice with traceable remains dating back to the 7th millennium BCE but becoming a common practice in Neolithic times, especially at sites such as those of the Longshan culture (c. 3000-1700 BCE).
The excavated soil from ditches could be used to further raise the settlement site or build a rudimentary wall on the side of the ditch nearest the settlement. In addition, a local water source could be diverted to make the ditch into a moat and present an even more formidable obstacle to enemy soldiers. As warfare became a more common feature of daily life the moats became wider (up to 50 m) and deeper (up to 6 m) with the walls higher (up to 5m) and thicker (up to 25 m). However, it was not until the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) that siege warfare on fortified towns became a more common strategy when it was seen as necessary not only to defeat an enemy in the field but also wipe out their settlements.
Early fortifications may well have had an important social impact, as here summarised by the historian R. D. Sawyer:
Even though history shows that forces of destruction normally overwhelm constructively oriented efforts, the defensive solidity provided by the earliest walls and moats made possible the gradual accumulation of the goods produced by the weaving and handicraft industries, facilitated the domestication of animals, protected the emergence and expansion of agriculture, and harboured metallurgical workshops. It also fostered social cohesion and nurtured a sense of identity by separating the community from the external realm. (Sawyer, 2011, 406)
In addition, such consequences as accumulating goods and wealth within a defendable space may well have contributed to making these settlements a tempting target to covetous neighbours, thus leading to a necessity for even greater defences. Certainly, great wealth and power were needed in order to coerce a population into building the fortifications in the first place. There is ample evidence that both men and women in their thousands were required to provide their labour, conceived as a form of tax, to help build defensive fortifications which took years to construct. Slaves and criminals were used, too. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), for example, those convicted of such crimes as manslaughter had their forehead tattooed with the word chengdan, meaning “Wall Builder”, and so their required punishment was made known to all the world.

Gate Towers, Chang'an

Once having constructed fortifications, there was the never-ending problem of maintenance to ensure the continued integrity of the structures, that the exterior of walls remained smooth and difficult to assault, and that ditches were not filled with rubble and undergrowth. The following ode, which dates to the Zhou period, describes the building of city walls:
Crowds brought the earth in baskets;
They threw it with shouts into the frames;
They beat it with responsive blows;
They pared the walls repeatedly, and they sounded strong.
Five thousand cubits of them arose together,
So that the roll of the great drum did not overpower them.
(Sawyer, 2011, 55)


Defensive walls, over time, became more solid and more permanent as warfare became a more frequent reality of daily life. Cities used walls made from earth pounded and compressed (as in the ode above), using wooden beams and flat tools, which then became a highly weather-resistant and extremely hard material. Architects began to realise that different soils interspersed in a particular way gave added strength and stability. As walls became more imposing, and consequently much heavier, foundations had to be better prepared to bear the weight. The wall itself was made stronger by mixing in plant material, pottery sherds, sand, straw, and branches. A protective lower layer of river stones made earth walls more resistant to erosion, too.
A double wall structure was increasingly employed, and then walls developed even further to be faced with stone or brick and buttressed with waist walls. From the 6th century BCE walls began to be reinforced with wood, had towers and monumental gates added, incorporated crenellations to protect archers, and, as cities expanded, whole new walls were built to encompass the growing suburban areas. The great capital city of Chang’an had impressive earth walls and towered gateways. The city’s 5.3-metre high walls enclosed some 8,600 hectares (c. 21,250 acres). Such defences, and those at other cities, especially those near troublesome border regions, were really designed to protect the population only long enough for an army to be organised and sent to relieve them.

Watchtower at the Great Wall of China

It is also true that massive walls were built not only for purposes of practical defence - many were much more massive than required for that function alone - but also to project power over the local populace and ensure outposts could be defended by a relatively small force, an important consideration as states expanded and an army had to cover a wide expanse of territory. It must also be true that impressive fortifications had an important psychological effect on an enemy and so would have acted as a deterrent which, with luck, never needed to be tested in actual battle. This idea is supported by ancient military treatises which actually listed and graded cities based on their defensive strength.


Such developments as towers in fortifications were in response to the frequently ingenious methods of attack they had to withstand. Armies equipped themselves with scaling ladders, battering rams and mobile towers, held protective covers while they charged the defences, set up prebuilt bridges made of wood and chains to cross moats, tunnelled away at foundations to make walls collapse from below, used artillery to fire destructive heavy missiles and incendiary bombs, diverted rivers to erode the walls, and even entered through a city’s sewers if they could. The defenders met these attacks with bows, crossbows, and likely anything else they could throw down on the attackers from a great height. Heavier artillery crossbows worked by pulleys and winches came in handy for defence from the 4th century BCE onwards.
Defenders were not without their own peculiar innovations, either, as they used such devices as hollow pottery jars covered with a leather top and buried within their walls, thus, if anyone started tunnelling the pottery would resonate as a warning. Fires were also lit using such materials as dried mustard, which created a thick smoke which could be blown down attacking tunnels using bellows.
The moats should be deep and wide, the walls solid and thick, the soldiers and people prepared, firewood and foodstuffs provided, the crossbows stout and arrows strong, the spears and halberds well suited. This is the method for making defence solid. (From the 4th-3rd century BCE military treatise Wei Liao-Tzu, Sawyer, 2007, 253)


Even more ambitious than city walls were the attempts to build walls along state borders, especially during the Warring States period (c. 481-221 BCE), although the first such walls along the northern frontiers of China may have been built as early as the 8th century BCE. By the 5th century BCE and the situation of many major states all at war with each other, China became crisscrossed with defensive border walls. The Wei state, for example, built on its frontier with the Qin state a double border wall with each side being over six metres thick. The walls were themselves protected by huge square watchtowers built separate from them but within firing range. The historian G. Shelach-Lavi has this to say on the fortifications of the time:
The walls functioned not only to keep enemies out, but also to control the movements of subjects and keep them in. On a symbolic level, these walls served as enormous displays of the Warring States kings’ power and their ability not just to build such huge monuments, but also to transform the physical landscape of their states. (276)
Most of these Warring States structures were dismantled when the Qin dynasty established itself as the sole ruler of China in 221 BCE, but they did keep some and even extended others, the most famous being, of course, what became known as the Great Wall of China. This great edifice was extended again during the Han dynasty and the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE) so that it stretched some 5,000 kilometres from Gansu province in the east to the Liaodong peninsula. The wall was not a continuous structure and had several breaks, designed as it was to help protect China’s northern frontier against invasion from nomadic steppe tribes. Square watchtowers and beacon towers were built into the wall at regular intervals, and fast communication between them was possible by chariot riders having enough space to ride along the top of the walls. This was necessary because no standing army was stationed on the wall permanently, it being much too long for anything other than a regular patrol guard and the occasional camp.
It is also to be remembered that symbolic though the Great Wall has become of ancient China, many emperors preferred a policy of paying off the northern and western tribes which threatened the empire’s borders in the form of tribute. This was far less costly than a war or even permanently stationing troops along China’s lengthy frontiers. It is also true that in actual warfare Chinese commanders much-preferred attack to defence and pre-emptive strikes against troublesome neighbours was the usual method of maintaining the territorial status quo rather than sitting behind a wall waiting for the enemy to take the initiative.

Aegina » Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Joshua J. Mark

Aegina is an island in the Saronic Gulf, south of Athens. It was one of Greece's early maritime powers, famous for minting the earliest coins in Greece which were accepted all over the Mediterranean region. According to the classical writer Ovid, the island was originally known as Oenone. As the myth explains, the god Zeus, in the shape of a great flame, carried off the nymph Aegina, and kept her on the island. In time, she gave birth to a son, Aeacus, who re-named the island after his mother.
According to Herodotus, Aegina was a colony of the city of Epidaurus, a prosperous cult centre for the demi-god Asclepius, located on the coast of the Peloponnese. This city was an important Mycenaen stronghold, and artifacts discovered on Aegina have established that the Mycenaen culture survived on the island long after the Doric Invasion of c. 1200 BCE which supplanted it. The wealth of Epidaurus seems to have been put to good use by the citizens of Aegina in that the island flourished early on and, in time, came to rival Athens. The standard of weights and measures developed by Aegina became the standard all over Greece, they were the first to mint coins, and their fleet of ships carried on trade throughout the Mediterranean and the Aegean all the way to Egypt and the Persian Levant. While Herodotus claims that Athens and Aegina became enemies over a feud involving statues of two deities, it is more likely that the mainland city grew envious of the island city's prosperity and, further, concerned over their trade with Persia.
The Ionian Greek colonies in Asia Minor, under Persian control, had been a source of conflict for the Persian Empire for years. After the Ionian Revolt of 499-493 BCE, in which the Greek colonies were defeated by the Persian forces and order restored, Aegina, which had not been involved in the conflict, sent Persia symbols of submission which amounted to a pact in the eyes of Athens. The Athenians had supported the Ionian Revolt (along with the city of Eretria) as far as supplying troops and arms to the colonies. Aegina's gesture of good will toward Athens' enemy would not have been taken well. In retaliation for Greek support of the Ionian Revolt, Darius I of Persia invaded Greece in 490 BCE but was beaten back at The Battle of Marathon.

Aegina Silver Stater

Ten years later, Darius' son, Xerxes I, invaded Greece to complete what his father had begun. After a series of battles (including the famous Battle of Thermopylae) he was defeated at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE by the combined naval forces of Athens and Aegina. As there is no evidence of warm relations between Athens and Aegina, nor any evidence of a breakdown in relations between Aegina and Persia between the pact in 491 BCE and the Battle of Salamis, it would seem as though Aegina was forced to fight against the Persians in the patriotic aftermath of Thermopylae. Whatever their motivation was, Aegina's ships played a crucial role in the destruction of the Persian fleet. Following this, however, Aegina fell under the shadow of Athenian naval and commercial supremacy and began to decline.
Aegina fought against Athens in the First Peloponnesian War (460-445 BCE) where they were probably backed by the Persians who not only protected their trade interests but also supported the enemy of their enemy (Athens). With or without Persian support, however, Aegina's time of greatness was behind her. By the time Plato wrote his dialogue of the Phaedo(c.380-360 BCE) Aegina was considered little more than a pleasure resort. In the dialogue, when Echecrates asks Phaedo, "But Aristippus and Cleombrotus, were they present?" Phaedo answers, "No, they were not. They were said to be in Aegina." Aristippus was the founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, which taught that pleasure is the only intrinsic good, and an informed ancient reader of Plato's dialogue would have understood these lines as a kind of `inside joke' equating the Cyrenaic's hedonism with the island of Aegina.

Aeschylus » Who was

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Aeschylus (c. 525 - c. 456 BCE) was one of the great writers of Greek Tragedy in 5th century BCE Classical Athens. Known as 'the father of tragedy', the playwright wrote up to 90 plays, winning with half of them at the great Athenian festivals of Greek drama. Perhaps his most famous work is Prometheus Bound which tells the myth of the Titan punished by Zeus for giving humanity the gift of fire. All of his surviving plays are still performed today in theatres across the world. An innovator of the genre, Aeschylus is said to have described his work as 'morsels from the feast of Homer'.


5th century BCE Athens was blessed with three great tragedians: Aeschylus, Euripides (c. 484 - 407 BCE), and Sophocles(c. 496 - c. 406 BCE). The senior of the three, Aeschylus was born in Eleusis in c. 525 BCE. Aeschylus' father was Euphorion, and ancient sources claim the family belonged to the aristocracy. Living through the Persian wars, Aeschylus almost certainly participated in such famous and decisive battles as Marathon and Salamis. His brother Kynegeiros was killed in the former battle and his other sibling Ameinias fought at the latter. Aeschylus' epitaph, said to have been self-penned, stated nothing of his success as a playwright but only that he had fought at Marathon. These experiences and the transformation of Athens' political structure as it embarked on the road to democracy greatly influenced the playwrights' work.
Other snippets of biography, which have survived from antiquity, reveal that Aeschylus was once prosecuted for revealing details of the secret Eleusinian mysteries cult but managed to prove his innocence. Sometime after 458 BCE Aeschylus travelled to Sicily, visiting Syracuseat the invitation of Hieron I, and around 456 BCE he died on the island in the town of Gela. Aeschylus' plays were already recognised as classics and their public performances were given particular privileges. His son Euphorion and nephew Philocles both became noted dramatists in their own right.


Greek tragedy was typically performed at important religious festivals such as the CityDionysia where three playwrights each wrote three tragic plays and a satyr play to compete for a prize. Tragedy plays were restricted by certain conventions: the theme was almost always mythological with elements of religion and family affairs, the number of actors who could have speaking roles was limited (although they could play multiple characters), a chorus consisted of 12 or 15 singers, and all actors were males wearing masks.
An innovative playwright, Aeschylus was, according to Aristotle, responsible for adding a second actor for minor parts and, by including more dialogue into his plays, he squeezed more drama from the age-old stories so familiar to his audience. Aeschylus is also credited as the first to use the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform used to change stage scenery, and the mechane, a crane device used to lift actors. He was also noted for his extravagant costume designs and use of striking imagery.

Greek Tragedy Mask

The stories of Aeschylus' plays illustrate that there is no escape from the bad deeds of one's ancestors and divine retribution. Other themes which appealed to Aeschylus were the conflict between the individual and the state, between humans and the gods, and against the old enemy Time. Another thread which runs through Aeschylus' work is his consideration of the threat to reason and persuasion that violence brings.
As plays were submitted for competition in groups of four (three tragedies and a satyr play), Aeschylus often carried on a theme between plays, creating sequels which followed several generations of a single family. One such themed trilogy is AgamemnonThe Libation Bearers(or Cheoephori), and The Furies (or Eumenides), known collectively as the Oresteia. This trilogy model would be copied by contemporary and later playwrights and helped to earn Aeschylus his reputation as the founder of Greek Tragedy as we know it today.


Aeschylus wrote between 70 and 90 plays, of which six or seven survive complete along with various fragments of others, notably The Netfishers (Diktyoulkoi) and Spectators at theIsthmian Games (Isthmiastai). His first play was presented in c. 499 BCE and he claimed his first of 13 festival victories in 484 BCE. His complete surviving plays are:
• The Persians (472 BCE) - set after the Greek victory (less than a decade earlier) over the Persians at Salamis and Xerxes' return to Persia.
• Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE) - about the cursed Labdacids and the siege of Thebes. It is the third part of a trilogy which included Laius (part I) and Oedipus (part II).
• Suppliants (unknown date but after Seven Against Thebes, possibly c. 463 BCE) - about the Danaids myth. First in a trilogy, now lost, known as The Danaid Trilogy, part II being The Egyptians and part III The Danaids.
• Oresteia (458 BCE) - a trilogy about the aftermath of the Trojan War comprising AgamemnonThe Libation Bearers(Choephori), and The Furies (Eumenides). Proteus, the accompanying satyr play, does not survive.
• Prometheus Bound (c. 457 BCE) - this play is disputed by some scholars as the work of Aeschylus and it may have been staged by Euphorion in his father's name. It deals with Zeus' punishment of the Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gifted it to humanity. It is the first part of a trilogy with part II being Prometheus Unbound and part III Prometheus the Fire Carrier, both now surviving only in fragments.
Below is a selection of extracts from Aeschylus' works:
Here is Prometheus, the rebel:
Nail him to the rock, secure him on this towering summit
Fast in the unyielding grip of adamantine chains.
It was your treasure that he stole, the flowery splendour
Of all-fashioning fire, and gave to men - an offence
Intolerable to the gods, for which he now must suffer.
(Strength speaks, Prometheus Bound, lines 5-10)
The bronze, iron, silvergold hidden deep down - who else
But I can claim to have found them first? No one, unless
He talks like a fool. So, here's the whole truth in one word:
All human skill and science was Prometheus' gift.
(Prometheus speaks, Prometheus Bound, lines 499-502)
Now it is happening: threat gives place to performance.
The earth rocks; thunder, echoing from the depth,
Roars in answer; fiery lightnings twist and flash.
Dust dances in a whirling fountain;
Blasts of the four winds skirmish together,
Set themselves in array for battle;
Sky and sea rage indistinguishably.
The cataclysm advances visibly upon me,
Sent by Zeus to make me afraid.
(Prometheus speaks, Prometheus Bound, lines 1076-85)
May murder and devastation
Never come to tear this city,
To put a sword in the hand of Ares, father of tears,
To banish dancing and music
With the shout of civil war.
(Chorus, The Suppliants, lines 674-678)
And troubles followed like a sea rolling its waves onward;
One breaks, and it lifts the next, three heaped together,
Whose surge seethes around our city's hull;
And our barrier between life and death
Is no more than the width of a wall;
I fear for Thebes and her line of kings,
Lest all be overwhelmed together.
(Chorus, Seven Against Thebes, lines 758-64)
Alas for Persia's honoured name!
Alas for all that noble host,
The flower of manhood, Asia's boast,
By gods condemned to deadly shame!
Our land bewails the men she bore,
Slaughtered for Xerxes, who has fed
Hell's hungry jaws with Persian dead.
(Chorus, The Persians, lines 910-17)


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