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You hear all the time in ancient history about cities or fortresses being besieged for a year, or two years, or even many years such as the sieges of Tripoli or Carthage or Drepana. I'm wondering, what would the attacking armies do that whole time? Did they just set up shop, built a little town and wait the defenders out, or were there usually active efforts to break in going throughout that whole time?

I know it's a tough challenge to break through a fortified city, and there's always the option of just starving them out, but it seems strange to have an army at your disposal and not be actively using it to try to win, whether through attacking head-on or infiltrating or tunneling or bribing or even just throwing flaming arrows and stones over the wall to make life hell for the citizens all day every day.

But on the other hand, it's also hard to imagine that active, daily efforts like that could be resisted for years at a time. Even an army without major siege equipment could set fire to the city with arrows or flaming debris shot over the wall, or even build a ramp up to the wall itself, like at Masada or Tyre. Hell, it seems like just lobbing a big rock once or twice every couple of hours would knock down a gate or a wall in less than a year... Obviously, that kind of thing would be difficult and expensive, but surely it wouldn't compare to the expense of keeping an army in the field indefinitely?

So were multi-year sieges characterized by long periods of inactivity, where the attacking army basically just loitered outside the city? Or were most sieges characterized by consistent activity throughout, and the length merely speaks to just how tough it is to break through city walls?

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Most sieges did not last for more than a year. The conventional wisdom in the Middle Ages was that if a city could hold out a year, it would win. Carthage, Masada and a few others were the exceptions to the rule. –  Tom Au Dec 14 '13 at 22:39
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The question remains, though. Multi-year sieges were rare, but there were still many examples of them over the centuries, so I'm curious about how they generally went. –  Alexander Winn Dec 14 '13 at 23:23
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Not a bad question, really. I just hope that there are enough examples to generate good answers. And a good corollary would be "why did those multi-year attackers succeed when most others failed?" –  Tom Au Dec 14 '13 at 23:24
    
Remember, that if the attackers have months to throw rocks at the walls, the defenders also have months to repair the damages. –  vsz Feb 19 at 7:18
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

pretty much, yes. Set up camp, play loud music over the walls, send out parties to pillage and loot the surrounding countryside for supplies and to hunt for attempts at tunneling under your camp), if possible maybe rotate out part of your forces with fresh ones from home.
It's a game of chicken basically, who has the most patience and resources, with the besieged city hoping to get relieved, the besieging army hoping they don't run out of places to loot for supplies.

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Remember that frequently the objective of a siege was not to defeat the opponents troops, but to bottle them up, and prevent them from joining military action elsewhere. Military action is designed to achieve a strategic objective, not just to slaughter people. I think if you look at the English wars of the 12th century, or the English civil war you'll find some good examples.

During the Napoleonic war, the nobility of neighboring towns might come out and have a picnic to watch the bombardment as a form of entertainment. (Wish I could find the citation for that right now).

As far as the expense of keeping an army in the field, the beseiging army will seize what they want from the countryside, and may or may not pay troops at all - sometimes they'll let them pillage the town in the end, sometimes they'll promise pay and provide nothing, sometimes they'll demand service on behalf of some ideal, sometimes the war is a civil war, in which there are no neutrals (just enemies that I haven't prioritized yet), sometimes they'll just demand service by feudal right.

Unless you limit the question to a specific time period, there are a lot of variable.s

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The description of several sieges that I read suggests that their main activity was digging, building walls, ramps and later mines. You can see the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel, which is located on a mountain with almost vertical slopes. The fortress had very large supplies, sufficient for several years of siege. The Romans who besieged the fortress in 73 BC had to build a huge ramp reaching to the top of the mountain. The ramp and the remains of the Roman camp still exist. It was an enormous amount of work to build all this.

In several other sieges the besieging army diverted rivers to deprive the fortress of the water supply, etc. One part of the army was digging, and another part worked for food supply for those digging...

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