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I’ve been reading E.L. Doctorow’s The March, a novel about General Sherman’s march to the sea during the American Civil War. This got me to thinking about scorched earth tactics in antiquity.

Victor Davis Hanson has suggested that it wasn’t very useful during the Peloponnesian War. He says that it is difficult to kill olive orchards and vineyards, and those cut grow back quickly. He also suggests that it is hard to burn a field of grain, unless conditions are exactly right.

He may have a point – I’ve seen many forest and grass fires, but I’ve never seen a field of crops burn. In antiquity, though, presumably fields wouldn’t be so monocultural. There would be weeds in the fields, like grass, and perhaps more uncultivated areas that could burn, helping fires to spread.

General Sherman apparently targeted infrastructure, but in antiquity there probably wasn’t much in the countryside. In some areas, like in Egypt or in the Middle-East, there may have been extensive irrigation systems that could be destroyed, but elsewhere what was there? Maybe some bridges here and there, or towns, or communal grain storage facilities. It was easy to destroy a railroad, but how hard was it to destroy an ancient road? Even rural houses could probably be rebuilt within a matter of days, as it doesn’t take long to rebuild a wattle-and-daub hut.

On the other hand, a people living by subsistence farming could easily be devastated by losing a modest amount of their stored food or seeds that had been earmarked for the next planting season.

What do you think? How useful were scorched earth tactics in antiquity?
And during the Gallic Wars Vercingetorix tried this against Caesar.

Looking at these three examples the pattern I see is that it tends to be a desperation strategy. The losing side resorts to this and it sometimes helps as in the case of Sherman and the Spartans.

Another example I can think of is Heraclius in the 7th century. He used this strategy to great effect against the Persians when raiding deep into their territory, burning cities and towns, especially the estates of the nobles. He even burnt one of the greatest Zoroastrian fire temples in the city of Ganzak, in northern Iran. Again, Heraclius was in the more desperate position during most of the war.

~Theo
Quote:It was easy to destroy a railroad, but how hard was it to destroy an ancient road?
I believe there is some evidence that the Jewish rebels in Cyrenaica in 116-117 destroyed (Roman) roads - by digging them up presumably. Whether this was to impede Roman forces trying to retake the province, or just as part of their attempt to erase the signs of Roman colonisation is unclear.

Quote:a people living by subsistence farming could easily be devastated by losing a modest amount of their stored food or seeds that had been earmarked for the next planting season.
Are you referring to the deliberate destruction of food and forage by a retreating army, to deny supplies to the enemy, or the wider use of such destruction as a means of attacking a civilian population? Something like the latter was suggested several years ago (in an online article about 'Roman genocide') as an aspect of the Severan campaigns in Scotland, although off the top of my head I don't know what evidence was presented.

The military use of the tactic by a retreating or withdrawing army (for example, the Russians against the invading Napoleon) is probably a lot less common. As you say, it would be possible in areas of subsistence farming to effectively create famine conditions, either by stopping the planting of seed in the spring or by destroying stores of grain in the autumn. This could only be done by an army that had substantial stores of its own, though!

I have suggested, in this post here, that something like this might have happened during Boudica's revolt in AD61. The destruction layer in London includes evidence of burnt imported grain; Boudica's force had not planted seed that spring, intending to seize Roman stores - could the withdrawing Romans have destroyed the grain warehouses themselves, intending to force the Britons to a conflict by denying them supplies?

- Nathan
Quote:And during the Gallic Wars Vercingetorix tried this against Caesar.

Looking at these three examples the pattern I see is that it tends to be a desperation strategy. The losing side resorts to this and it sometimes helps as in the case of Sherman and the Spartans.

Another example I can think of is Heraclius in the 7th century. He used this strategy to great effect against the Persians when raiding deep into their territory, burning cities and towns, especially the estates of the nobles. He even burnt one of the greatest Zoroastrian fire temples in the city of Ganzak, in northern Iran. Again, Heraclius was in the more desperate position during most of the war.

~Theo

Whether this was a "desperation stategy" or not is debatable. It worked on the Roman side during the Second Punic War. If we read Caesar's Gallic Commentary carefully, we find Vercignetorix's scorched earth tactics produced results. As Theodosis states above, it had its merits.
Romens used scorched earth against tribes that were difficult to defeat by other means, (as Caesar also did) and without clear tribal strongholds.

Romans even had verb "vastare" for doing this "vastatio" (from which English word "devastation" derives from.
Right you are, Sardaucar, and the phrase, "to lay waste to --" comes from the same verb.
It's interesting to note that when Julian invaded Sasanid Persia the Sasanids employed the tactic of stripping the fields bare and then taking the crops to cities that they believed Julian would not be able to storm, a tactic that was not entirely successful as Julian did storm these cities and gained a great deal of food stuffs and other useful items in the bargain, The reverse side of the coin was that when himself was forced on the defensive he too took to burning excess foodstuffs etc to deny them falling into the Sasanids hands.

Has Hanson actually tried to plant and grow Vineyards and Olive groves? They take years to establish and bring to fruitition, not exactly the most rapid growing grop plants!!!

And having witnessed a number of wheatfield fires I can say that if the conditions are right they will burn as good as kindling, especially when fully ripe.
Could be my memory that is wrong, but I think Hanson is just repeating the facts stated in th ancient sources?
Or perhaps I read it in hansons book itself!
However, there are ample sources of the hardiness of olive trees!
Just ask someone from Greece!

And weeds, like the crops they grow in have to be dry enough to burn readily!
It all depends on when you decide to torch them, as to what effect you will have!
Throw a few torches into a wheat field in august, and the result will be a lot different than
Doing the same in may or June!
Quote:Could be my memory that is wrong, but I think Hanson is just repeating the facts stated in th ancient sources?
Or perhaps I read it in hansons book itself!
However, there are ample sources of the hardiness of olive trees!
Just ask someone from Greece!

And weeds, like the crops they grow in have to be dry enough to burn readily!
It all depends on when you decide to torch them, as to what effect you will have!
Throw a few torches into a wheat field in august, and the result will be a lot different than
Doing the same in may or June!

As some one who has attempted to grow olive trees I can say that they take a few years to establish and then perhaps a few more to bear fruit, the same goes for those who I know who grow vines, they are not something you can plant at the beginning of the year and expect a harvest the same year, they are a long term investment.
I am sure you will understand what I said then!

The trees themselves are, as you say, not a quick crop, but they are hardy trees, no?

Just out of curiosity , where is you have your grove?
Quote:Has Hanson actually tried to plant and grow Vineyards and Olive groves? They take years to establish and bring to fruitition, not exactly the most rapid growing grop plants!!!

And having witnessed a number of wheatfield fires I can say that if the conditions are right they will burn as good as kindling, especially when fully ripe.
He owns a grape and olive farm in Southern California, although since he is a pundit and professor I doubt that he does much work himself. His point is that olive trees are almost impossible to kill, and that vines and grainfields are harder than some non-farmers think. I'm a city boy, so I don't have much of an opinion of my own- I read his book on ravaging once years ago.
In Sherman's instance, it was more a matter of showing the South that the Union Army had free reign to do whatever it wanted, and thereby broke the will of the people to resist. A swatch of burned everything 30 miles wide and a couple of hundred miles long (more or less) would do that to most any group of citizens.

Homes, farms, forests, fields, towns, everything torched would be a horrendous damaging deed to any culture. And if set in front of an advancing army, it would be hard to handle. The air after a fire is pretty harsh to breathe, as evidenced by the recent fires next to a city near me (Bastrop). Several days afterwards, the air was still smoky and irritating to the lungs. That fire was 34,000 acres, a tiny fraction of the fires being discussed.
I believe that VDH grew up on a working farm (vineyards and olives). I suspect that he knows what he is talking about. They grow a lot of grapes around here, and while I am no expert I know that those vines are tough. I am not sure about wheat fields, but I suspect that the effect is to lose one growing season - the one that was destroyed. I base this on grass fires; the next year the grass is back. Perhaps someone from wheat growing country could give us a definitive answer.

I don't think that Sherman's March was desperation. I think it was mainly psychological: rip the heart out of the Confederacy, and in particular destroy the plantations - bring the war to the upper class who had the most to lose. Destroy the armament factories at Atlanta, and destroy its function as a railway hub. It may have been brutal, but it worked.
Until modern times only a few well organized armies could depend on a supply system to provide supplies from home base with most military forces depending heavily or wholly on food and forage from the area they were operating in. Even an Army with a well developed supply system could advance father and faster by exploiting local resources making any denial operations by the defending force an effective tactic of warfare. Destruction of the defending population's resources has a fourfold impact on the conflict:

1. Denying supplies to the defending force
2. Threatening the prosperity and survival of the enemy civilian population.
3. Discouraging resistance by others not directly affected yet.
4. Encouraging other forces to quit the conflict, remain neutral or
ally with the attacking force.
Quote:It's interesting to note that when Julian invaded Sasanid Persia the Sasanids employed the tactic of stripping the fields bare and then taking the crops to cities that they believed Julian would not be able to storm, a tactic that was not entirely successful as Julian did storm these cities and gained a great deal of food stuffs and other useful items in the bargain, The reverse side of the coin was that when himself was forced on the defensive he too took to burning excess foodstuffs etc to deny them falling into the Sasanids hands.

Julian employed a 'scorched earth' stategy himself while on the offensive [i.e. at the beginning of the invasion.] This is one example where the strategy succeeded but backfired.

Ammianus says, "But he [Julian] allowed the fields of the enemy which were loaded with every kind of produce to be burnt with their crops and cottages, after his men had collected all that they could themselves make use of. And in this way the enemy were terribly injured before they were aware of it;" [Book XXIV, Chapter 1.14]

When Julian reached Ctesiphon he was outmanuvered by the Persians and could not return the way he came because of his earlier 'scorched earth' policy. "...the common soldiers inconsiderately crying out that it was best to return by the same way they had advanced, the emperor steadily opposed this idea...since all the crops had been destroyed throughout the plain, and the remains of the villages, which had been burnt were all in complete destitution, and could afford no supplies;"[Book XXIV, Chapter 8.2] To be fair it may not have mattered since the Persians who were trailing the Romans may have burned the crops anyway. Generally speaking, using 'scorched earth' alone isn't a substitute for good leadership and a well executed plan. It has to be part of a larger strategy.

Yes, VDH, as people have said, is a lifelong farmer. That's a large part of his appeal as a military historian. Since he can relate to the middle class farmers of Classical Greece who made up the Hoplite phalanx he's adept at providing insights into the mentality of the ordinary citizens.

With the exception of Julian's campaign I can't see any downside to using 'scorched earth'. It doesn't sound too timeconsuming and the demoralising factor to the enemy was probably just as important, as Rutilius and Demetrius alluded to.

Quote:I don't think that Sherman's March was desperation. I think it was mainly psychological: rip the heart out of the Confederacy, and in particular destroy the plantations - bring the war to the upper class who had the most to lose. Destroy the armament factories at Atlanta, and destroy its function as a railway hub. It may have been brutal, but it worked.

I agree completely that Sherman's strategy was to bring the war to the upper class. And I think this was also the case with Heraclius against the Persians. A large faction of the nobles turned on the king after their lands were devastated.

But I maintain that Sherman's March was desperation from the Union's perspective. The Union was losing year after year and didn't expect the war to drag on for so long.

~Theo
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