The History, 19.5

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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5In the mean time the restless Persians were surrounding the city with a fence of wicker-work, and mounds were commenced; lofty towers also were constructed with iron fronts, in the top of each of which a balista was placed, in order to drive down the garrison from the battlements; but during the whole time the shower of missiles from the archers and slingers never ceased for a moment.

2We had with us two of the legions which had served under Magnentius, and which, as we have said, had lately been brought from Gaul, composed of brave and active men well adapted for conflicts in the plain; but not only useless for such a kind of war as that by which we were now pressed, but actually in the way. For as they had no skill either in working the engines, or in constructing works, but were continually making foolish sallies, and fighting bravely, they always returned with diminished numbers; doing just as much good, as the saying is, as a bucket of water brought by a single hand to a general conflagration.

3At last, when the gates were completely blocked, and they were utterly unable to get out, in spite of the entreaties of their tribunes, they became furious as wild beasts. But on subsequent occasions their services became conspicuous, as we shall show.

4In a remote part of the walls on the southern side, which looks down on the Tigris, there was a high tower, below which yawned an abrupt precipice, which it was impossible to look over without giddiness. From this by a hollow subterranean passage along the foot of the mountain some steps were cut with great skill, which led up to the level of the city, by which water was secretly obtained from the river, as we have seen to be the case in all the fortresses in that district which are situated on any river.

5This passage was dark, and because of the precipitous character of the rock was neglected by the besiegers, till, under the guidance of a deserter who went over to them, seventy Persian archers of the royal battalion, men of eminent skill and courage, being protected by the remoteness of the spot which prevented their being heard, climbed up by the steps one by one at midnight, and reached the third story of the tower. There they concealed themselves till daybreak, when they held out a scarlet cloak as a signal for commencing an assault, when they saw that the city was entirely surrounded by the multitude of their comrades; and then they emptied their quivers and threw them down at their feet, and with loud cries shot their arrows among the citizens with prodigious skill.

6And presently the whole of the mighty host of the enemy assaulted the city with more ferocity than ever. And while we stood hesitating and perplexed to know which danger to oppose first, whether to make head against the foe above us, or against the multitude who were scaling the battlements with ladders, our force was divided; and five of the lighter balistæ were brought round and placed so as to attack our tower. They shot out heavy wooden javelins with great rapidity, sometimes transfixing two of our men at one blow, so that many of them fell to the ground severely wounded, and some jumped down in haste from fear of the creaking engines, and being terribly lacerated by the fall, died.

7But by measures promptly taken, the walls were again secured on that side, and the engines replaced in their former situation.

8And since the crime of desertion had increased the labours of our soldiers, they, full of indignation, moved along the battlements as if on level ground, hurling missiles of all kinds, and exerting themselves so strenuously that the Virtæ, who were attacking on the south side, were repulsed covered by wounds, and retired in consternation to their tents, having to lament the fall of many of their number.

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