The History, 20.7

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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7After Singara had fallen, Sapor prudently avoided Nisibis, recollecting the losses which he had several times sustained before it, and turned to the right by a circuitous path, hoping either to subdue by force or to win by bribes the garrison of Bezabde, which its founders also called Phœnice, and to make himself master of that town, which is an exceedingly strong fortress, placed on a hill of moderate height, and close to the banks of the Tigris, having a double wall, as many places have which from their situation are thought to be especially exposed. For its defence three legions had been assigned; the second Flavian, the second Armenian, and the second Parthian, with a large body of archers of the Zabdiceni, a tribe subject to us, in whose territory this town was situated.

2At the beginning of the siege, the king, with an escort of glittering cuirassiers, himself taller than any of them, rode entirely round the camp, coming up boldly to the very edge of the fosse, where he was at once a mark for the unerring bullets of the balistæ, and arrows; but he was so completely covered with thick scale-armour that he retired unhurt.

3Then laying aside his anger, he sent some heralds with all due solemnity, courteously inviting the besieged to consult the safety of their lives, and seeing the desperateness of their situation, to put an end to the siege by a timely surrender; to open their gates and come forth, presenting themselves as suppliants before the conqueror of nations.

4When these messengers approached the walls, the garrison spared them because they had with them some men of noble birth, who had been made prisoners at Singara, and were well known to the citizens; and out of pity to them no one shot an arrow, though they would give no reply to the proposal of peace.

5Then a truce being made for a day and night, before dawn on the second day the entire force of the Persians attacked the palisade with ferocious threats and cries, coming up boldly to the walls, where a fierce contest ensued, the citizens resisting with great vigour.

6So that many of the Parthians were wounded, because some of them carrying ladders, and others wicker screens, advanced as it were blindfold, and were not spared by our men. For the clouds of arrows flew thickly, piercing the enemy packed in close order. At last, after sunset the two sides separated, having suffered about equal loss: and the next day before dawn the combat was renewed with greater vehemence than before, the trumpets cheering the men on both sides, and again a terrible slaughter of each took place, both armies struggling with the most determined obstinacy.

7But on the following day both armies by common consent rested from their terrible exertions, the defenders of the walls and the Persians being equally dismayed. When a Christian priest made sign by gestures that he desired to go forth, and having received a promise that he should be allowed to return in safety, he advanced to the king’s tent.

8When he was permitted to speak, he, with gentle language, urged the Persians to depart to their own country, affirming that after the losses each side had sustained they had reason perhaps to fear even greater disasters in future. But these and other similar arguments were uttered to no purpose. The fierce madness of the king robbing them of their effect, as Sapor swore positively that he would never retire till he had destroyed our camp.

9Nevertheless a groundless suspicion was whispered against the bishop, wholly false in my opinion, though supported by the assertions of many, that he had secretly informed Sapor what part of the wall to attack, as being internally slight and weak. Though the suspicion derived some corroboration from the fact that afterwards the engines of the enemy were carefully and with great exultation directed against the places which were weakest, or most decayed, as if those who worked them were acquainted with what parts were most easily penetrable.

10And although the narrowness of the causeway made the approach to the walls hard, and though the battering-rams when equipped were brought forward with great difficulty, from fear of the stones and arrows hurled upon the assailants by the besieged, still neither the balistæ nor the scorpions rested a moment, the first shooting javelins, and the latter hurling showers of stones, and baskets on fire, smeared with pitch and tar; and as these were perpetually rolled down, the engines halted as if rooted to the ground, and fiery darts and firebrands well-aimed set them on fire.

11Still while this was going on, and numbers were falling on both sides, the besiegers were the more eager to destroy a town, strong both by its natural situation and its powerful defences, before the arrival of winter, thinking it impossible to appease the fury of their king if they should fail. Therefore neither abundant bloodshed nor the sight of numbers of their comrades pierced with deadly wounds could deter the rest from similar audacity.

12But for a long time, fighting with absolute desperation, they exposed themselves to imminent danger; while those who worked the battering-rams were prevented from advancing by the vast weight of millstones, and all kinds of fiery missiles hurled against them.

13One battering-ram was higher than the rest, and was covered with bull’s hides wetted, and being therefore safer from any accident of fire, or from lighted javelins, it led the way in the attacks on the wall with mighty blows, and with its terrible point it dug into the joints of the stones till it overthrew the tower. The tower fell with a mighty crash, and those in it were thrown down with a sudden jerk, and breaking their limbs, or being buried beneath the ruins, perished by various and unexpected kinds of death; then, a safer entrance having been thus found, the multitude of the enemy poured in with their arms.

14While the war-cry of the Persians sounded in the trembling ears of the defeated garrison, a fierce battle within the narrower bounds raged within the walls, while bands of our men and of the enemy fought hand to hand, being jammed together, with swords drawn on both sides, and no quarter given.

15At last the besieged, after making head with mighty exertion against the destruction which long seemed doubtful, were overwhelmed with the weight of the countless host which pressed upon them. And the swords of the furious foe cut down all they could find; children were torn from their mother’s bosom, and the mothers were slain, no one regarding what he did. Among these mournful scenes the Persians, devoted to plunder, loaded with every kind of booty, and driving before them a vast multitude of prisoners, returned in triumph to their tents.

16But the king, elated with insolence and triumph, having long been desirous to obtain possession of Phœnice, as a most important fortress, did not retire till he had repaired in the strongest manner that portion of the walls which had been shaken, and till he had stocked it with ample magazines of provisions, and placed in it a garrison of men noble by birth and eminent for their skill in war. For he feared (what indeed happened) that the Romans, being indignant at the loss of this their grand camp, would exert themselves with all their might to recover it.

17Then, being full of exultation, and cherishing greater hopes than ever of gaining whatever he desired, after taking a few forts of small importance, he prepared to attack Victa, a very ancient fortress, believed to have been founded by Alexander, the Macedonian, situated on the most distant border of Mesopotamia, and surrounded with winding walls full of projecting angles, and so well furnished at all points as to be almost unassailable.

18And when he had tried every expedient against it, at one time trying to bribe the garrison with promises, at another to terrify them with threats of torture, and employing all kinds of engines such as are used in sieges, after sustaining more injury than he inflicted, he at last retired from his unsuccessful enterprise.

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