Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Sieges of Rome and Minas Tirith

J.R.R. Tolkien was always a bit touchy about speculation on the origins and meanings of his work. But sometimes you can see clear "templates" for his stories.  And I think the great man based some of the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings on the Siege of Rome in the Gothic Wars, as related by Procopius.

For those who do not know the tale, Procopius was the secretary of Belisarius, one of the greatest generals in history.  Under the direction of his Emperor, Justinian, Belisarius attempted nothing less than the reconquest of the western provinces of the Roman Empire...generations after they had fallen to the barbarian hordes.  And using remarkable acumen and bravery he actually succeeded in large measure.

Tolkien of course was brought to the big screen by Peter Jackson.  I think it makes an interesting exercise to compare the words of Procopius, which likely inspired Tolkien, with the images of Peter Jackson, who interpreted the LOTR visually.  Then to walk the actual Aurelian walls that Belisarius defended as the Orcs, um I mean the Goths, raged against them.

Belisarius  managed to take Rome from the Goths without a fight.  He had successfully besieged Naples and as he marched on Rome appeared unbeatable.

And it so happened on that day that at
the very same time when Belisarius and the emperor's army were entering
Rome through the gate which they call the Asinarian Gate, the Goths were
withdrawing from the city through another gate which bears the name
Flaminian; and Rome became subject to the Romans again after a space of
sixty years, on the ninth day of the last month, which is called
"December" by the Romans, in the eleventh year of the reign of the
Emperor Justinian.

Belisarius set about immediately to repair the fortifications of the City.  On one occasion he ventured forth to examine an outlying fortification and was surprised by a large body of enemy soldiers who has appeared on his side of the river.  Much the same thing happened to Faramir in The Return of the King.

Belisarius, who had not as yet learned what had happened to the
garrison, was bringing up a thousand horsemen to the bridge over the
river, in order to look over the ground and decide where it would be
best for his forces to make camp. But when they had come rather close,
they met the enemy already across the river, and not at all willingly
they engaged with some of them. And the battle was carried on by
horsemen on both sides. Then Belisarius, though he was safe before,
would no longer keep the general's post, but began to fight in the front
ranks like a soldier; and consequently the cause of the Romans was
thrown into great danger, for the whole decision of the war rested with

Having escaped narrowly with his life he readied himself for the assault, which was not long in coming.  Now most writers dismiss the abilities of "barbarians" in siege warfare.  But the Gothic king had a good theoretical grasp of it, so his preparations included:

And when Vittigis heard
this, he began in great earnest to plan an assault upon the wall, and
the preparations he made for the attempt upon the fortifications were as
follows. He constructed wooden towers equal in height to the enemy's
wall, and he discovered its true measure by making many calculations
based upon the courses of stone. And wheels were attached to the floor
of these towers under each corner, which were intended, as they turned,
to move the towers to any point the attacking army might wish at a given
time, and the towers were drawn by oxen yoked together. After this he
made ready a great number of ladders, that would reach as far as the
parapet, and four engines which are called rams.

Belasarius was undaunted.  As the army of Goths - at times they had him outnumbered 30-1 - came close he picked up a bow and with a remarkably long shot felled one of the Goth chieftains. This scene was pretty much duplicated entirely in LOTR where Helm's Deep is falling under attack.

But Belisarius, seeing the ranks
of the enemy as they advanced with the engines, began to laugh, and
commanded the soldiers to remain quiet and under no circumstances to
begin fighting until he himself should give the signal. Now the reason
why he laughed he did not reveal at the moment, but later it became
known. The Romans, however, supposing him to be hiding his real feelings
by a jest, abused him and called him shameless, and were indignant that
he did not try to check the enemy as they came forward. But when the
Goths came near the moat, the general first of all stretched his bow and
with a lucky aim hit in the neck and killed one of the men in armour who
were leading the army on. And he fell on his back mortally wounded,
while the whole Roman army raised an extraordinary shout such as was
never heard before, thinking that they had received an excellent omen.

When the siege towers were close enough Belasarius gave the order for his men to fire, but only at the oxen pulling the towers.  The poor things went down like pin cushions and the siege towers stalled.

The Siege of Rome was then started in earnest.  There were mass assaults on the walls and cavalry charges out the gates in response.  The Goths tried treachery and diplomacy and the simple slow mathematics of starvation.

Nothing worked, so in the end they slunk away.

So, did Tolkien really have this in mind when he wrote the relevant chapters to LOTR?  Lets look at the similarities.

Tolkien's great human heroes were the Numenoreans.  They left their fallen home land and came to a new world.  They build a great Empire that eventually was split into two halves.  One half fell to barbaric forces but the other fought on alone.  A great hero came forth to unify the two long sundered kindred.  I mean really, other than Aragorn filling both roles of Belisarius and Justinian, and for the latter figures ultimately failing in their quest, it is pretty direct cribbing.

By the way, Rome's Aurelian Walls - built in haste as civil war and barbarism set the Empire aflame - are still standing strong and tall.  Here is a section, one of the southern gates actually, in 2015.

If the army of Sauron had to first get past the Vespas and the Rome city buses they might be a seriously depleted and demoralized force by the time they got to the gate!

The Porta San Paolo.  It withstood the first assault of Goths in the 6th Century, then was treasonously opened to them in a second round of siege.  It continued to guard the Eternal City....with various levels of success thoughout the long centuries.

In an age of nuclear weapons and stealthy terrorism it has likely seen its final assault.  In 1944 the German army changed their mind about evacuating Rome and marched against a brave but outnumbered force of Italians.  The park behind the gates now recalls their brave but futile stand.

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