Announcing the Destruction of a City

Defenders of Niniveh, killed in action while trying to prevent the sack of their city

A friend of mine recently attended a lecture in which someone discussed the speech of the Rabshakeh, an Assyrian commander who besieged Jerusalem in 701. In 2 Kings 18.25, he announces that he will sack the city: “Is it without the will of the Lord that I have come up to this place to destroy it?”

At this point, the lecturer paused and asked to those present if they could name another example of the announcement of the destruction of a city. No one knew. The speaker mentioned Thucydides‘ Melian Dialog, in which the Athenians threaten to destroy the city of Melos, which my friend found surprising. He summarized the lecture for me, and I got the impression from his words that the speaker had suggested that there were only two examples of a direct threat.

That turned out not to be the case, but since I read his summary of that lecture, I have been wondering how often commanders announced that they would destroy their opponents’ city. After all, it seems like a nice adhortation to your own men that they will be allowed to plunder. At the same time, it must be demoralizing for the besieged if they know that they will be molested, raped, killed. I would have expected that there would be evidence for threats like these, and indeed remembered Censorinus’ speech at Carthage (Appian, Punic Wars 81).

And that’s it. I’ve posted it at RomanArmyTalk (here), but even the guys over there, who are usually well-informed, could not mention a fourth instance. Anyone any thoughts?

3 Responses to Announcing the Destruction of a City

  1. judithweingarten says:

    Does Aurelian’s threat to the besieged city of Tyana count? “In this town I will not leave even a dog alive.” Admittedly, it’s only reported by Historiae Augustae (Aur. XXII 6)

  2. Nathon Ross adduces

    Epaminondas, general of the Thebans, on one occasion, when about to engage in battle with the Spartans, acted as follows. In order that his soldiers might not only exercise their strength, but also be stirred by their feelings, he announced in an assembly of his men that the Spartans had resolved, in case of victory, to massacre all males, to lead the wives and children of those executed into bondage, and to raze Thebes to the ground. By this announcement the Thebans were so roused that they overwhelmed the Spartans at the first onset.
    Frontinus, Strategems I.11.6

  3. Bill Thayer says:

    Surely the main reason such an announcement seems to have been so rare, is that it was understood that cities get taken, then of course sacked. I seem to remember — typically, not a single concrete citation comes to mind — rather more frequent instances of a commander announcing in advance that a city will not be sacked if they just surrender: we are given by Roman historians in particular to understand that this was one of the reasons Rome was so great, because she offered such mild and lovable terms to anyone who toed the line.

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