The Siege of Antioch: the Odds were in their Favor

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Warfare during the First Crusades was shaped by four factors, the dominance of land which was seen as a form of wealth, the limited competence of government, the state of technology which favored defense over attack, and the geography and climate of the land they fought on. The Siege of Antioch marked the arrival of the First Crusade in the Holy Land. Yaghi Siyan, although well-prepared and had many allies who come to fight and protect, resulted in losing to the Franks in their siege of Antioch.

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The Siege of Antioch reveals that despite being at a disadvantage with the factors that determine a victorious battle, the Franks successfully conquered Antioch. Included are details of the Siege of Antioch, motives of the Franks army, influences of medieval warfare during the crusades, and the styles of the raids and sieges that resulted in the Franks to successfully carry out the siege of Antioch.

Antioch is situated in the great Amuk Plain, an extremely fertile area, where there is a lot of grain, sheep, and cattle available, making the land worthy of capture. Antioch has a population of 40,000 and was enclosed within high walls put in place by the Byzantines in the 10th century CE. The first units of the Franks army reach the outskirts of Antioch in October 1097. As the city was encompassed by the Orontes River to the northwest, and Mount Silipius to the southeast, it was well defended by a formidable wall studded with countless towers, built but the emperor Justinian 400 years earlier. As an additional line of defense, a citadel was standing up on top of the mountain, both natural and manmade defenses posed as an intimidating prospect to the Crusaders. Despite the walls being old, they had been kept in a good state of repair. They were high and regularly intersected by many towers, which provided the defenders with the opportunity to launch devastating crossfire against any attacking force. The Turkish garrison, counting around 5-7,000 men, was commanded by Yaghi Siyan, who was prepared for the approaching Crusaders by gathering a large stockpile of supplies for an upcoming siege and requesting for help to other nearby Turkish lords of Alep, Mosul, and Damascus.

The siege of Antioch lasted for seven and a half months, through a winter during which the Crusaders suffered dreadfully. The Crusaders laid the siege on the north-western side of the city, trying to block just three out of six total gates, keeping in mind that Antioch was a considerably large stronghold than their previous conquest, Nicaea, and the Europeans had already lost some of their number in previous encounters. The first major crisis occurred when Bohemond, the leader of the Franks, set out on a raid at the head of 20,000 troops.[footnoteRef:1] Yaghi-Siyan knew of their departure, and of the consequent weakness of the forces left behind. While the Crusaders were unprepared, Yaghi launched a fierce attack on the crusader camp. After an 8-month long siege, the city of Antioch falls to the Christian army of the First Crusade. Bohemund has secretly contacted an Armenian named Firouz who commanded one of the city’s gates. After receiving a bribe, Firouz opened the gate during one of the first nights of June, allowing the Crusaders to storm the city. [1: Bartlett, W. B. The Crusades: An Illustrated History (pp. 62). Stroud: Sutton, 2005.]

Medieval warfare during the First Crusades was influenced and shaped more than anything else by the nature of the people waging war, by the climate and geographical circumstances in which they fought, and by the available technology, which itself was also in part governed by political and social factors. War was the instrument of landed proprietors because land was the primary source of wealth, and power over men and women sprang from ownership of it. Kings and emperors were also primarily influential as owners of the land, as they claimed a special authority but generally lacked the means to make it real. Since states were primary, and in major areas that were never developed, the ability and potential to wage war was an important factor in the political life. Castles and armed following were the currency of political influence.

The style of war reflected the nature of landholding and its central importance. Raiding and devastation were the primary activities and mounted men who could be easily mobilized were necessary, both to wage it and to guard against it. This kind of war placed an emphasis on the personal qualities of a soldier rather than his position within the disciplined hierarchy.

War between elites was marked by a degree of moderation and even mercy. Even in the Middle East, where a European Catholic elite confronted an Islamic nobility[footnoteRef:2], a degree of contact and mutual appreciation was possible. Mercy to a captured opponent was profitable because he could then ransom himself, and ransom payments were amongst the most important profits of war. Of course, not extending to the infantry, who were too poor to redeem themselves and too expensive to keep in prison. Civilian population were normally treated with casual brutality, but massacre was avoided simply because was tended to be about possession of land and they were indispensable to make it produce wealth. Slavery wasn’t economically viable in the West, whereas in the Holy Land, it was profitable, and their civilian populations were treated much harshly by Catholics and Muslims alike. [2: France, John. Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300 (pp.233). Warfare and History. London: UCL Press, 1999.]

Mobility was always important, and the cavalry always held the initiative, but their potential in battle was not always realized because of the problems of organization and discipline. Despite being mobile, they were hardly fast-moving, especially when coming into action. This and the simple polarity of Western armies between heavy cavalry and armed foot meant that speed and maneuver on the battlefield were not common: muddy fields rather than open plains were the normal theatre of war in Europe. This accounts for the Western emphasis on close-quarter fighting.

This style of warfare was adaptable, specifically because it was so centered on close-quarter fighting, which was everywhere the ultimate skill in war. Everywhere they fought, Europeans adapted their characteristic methods and weapons of war. The Normans in Wales, and the Germans in Baltic thought about how to best fight in new circumstances. In the Middle East, the style underwent a fairly radical adaptation to the circumstances of a very different environment, in which the Crusaders enjoyed no technical advantages. Even so, the European style of war remained part of the identity of the Franks in the East and was adapted rather than transformed.

As early as the First Crusade the Franks were aiming at the conquest of territory. Not only was it a professed intention of men like Bohemond and Raymond of St Gilles to acquire lands in the East, but the aspiration of the most pious and unworldly pilgrim who marched with them[footnoteRef:3], which was the recovery for Christendom of the Holy Places, involved the military conquest of the walled city of Jerusalem. The permanent settlement required the acquisition of further territories. In order to ensure communication with the West, the Franks had to establish themselves on the Syrian coast and to become masters of routes which linked the ports with their inland possessions. [3: Krey, A. C., and R. C. Smail. “Crusading Warfare (1097-1193).” The American Historical Review 62, no. 2 (1957): 378. (pp. 22)]

The backbone of the army was then the knights, brought to the muster by the magnates who owed military service for the lands they held. It was usual that force was applied within that territory which was the source of contention. The ruler who launched an offensive campaign led his army, and his intention was either to conquer the area or, by the devastation of the country-side, so to weaken it that he might acquire it more easily at a later date. A hostile army, able to attack the besieger’s camp and to cut off his supplies from the surrounding country-side, always made siege operations difficult and usually impossible; the besieger must, therefore, attempt to dispose of the threat by success in battle. Successful resistance to invasion meant the preservation of strong places. That the invade should cross the frontier and penetrate deep until the disputed territory was undesirable, for the damage which he could do to cultivation and to unprotected villages weakened the resources of the ruler attacked. The main purpose of such force was not to destroy the invader but to secure his withdrawal from the disputed area. This could be achieved by adding to the difficulty of his siege operations, and by aggravating his supply problem. To offer battle was usually unnecessary.

During the siege of Antioch, Bohemond laid the siege on the north-western side of the city, trying to block just three out of six total gates, attempting to cut out the supply of Antioch. When Muslim armies approached to relieve Antioch, the Franks promptly joined battle with them on December 28, 1097, and February 9, 1098. Immediately after the conquest of Antioch, the greatest relieving force of all, led by Karbuqa of Mosul, besieged the Franks within the city. Without the resources to sustain a lengthy siege, and without hope of relief, battle against heavy odds was the only course which gave the Franks any hope of survival. Their victory on June 28, 1098, gave them Antioch, and in northern Syria freed them for ten years from a military attack on the scale of that led by Karbuqa.

The Crusaders conducted warfare similar to what was seen in western Europe. Building towers, they began to conduct more of a blockade than a siege. The warriors of the Crusades were a mix of peasants, soldiers, and knights, and their mix of weaponry reflected the means by which each could acquire arms. All who came to war brought their own equipment: the rick, the proprietors and their immediate supporters, could afford the best weapons and defensive equipment. Peasants often had simple weapons, since they couldn’t afford such luxuries, and Knights had more expensive swords and armor, while others had bows, arrows, and spears. Even when they fought on foot, knights were distinguished by superior equipment. The equipment in which cavalry, the knights, and infantry fought with was appropriately different, but the differences were not merely functional. The limitations and possibilities offered by weapons exerted a powerful influence on the conduct of war. There is an unchanging quality about the appearance of war in the period 1000-1300. The mail-clad knight on horseback of the eleventh century, and the simple pointed iron cap of the Norman knight in 1066. The men who fought at the Battle of Dorylaeum in 1097 during the First Crusade learned valuable lessons about their enemies’ tactics as the Seljuk Turks of Antioch fired volley after volley of arrows into their opposition.

Religious belief is often beyond belief. A Crusade was a special kind of holy war in that it was also penitential. The Cross was invariably enjoined on men and women not as a service, but as a penance, the association which with war had been made about a decade before preaching of the First Crusade. The Crusaders believed they were embarking on a campaign in which their obligations, at any rate, if completed, would constitute for each of them an act of equitable self-punishment. In 1099, after the fall of Jerusalem, many of the survivors of the campaign threw away their arms and armor and returned to Europe carrying only the palm fronds they had collected as evidence that they had completed their pilgrimage. The confidence that it was holy and penitential didn’t exempt a crusade from adherence to the principles underlying, and to a certain extent limiting, the bearing of arms by Christians. It had to accommodate to the criteria of the just cause, the authority of the prince and right intention.

The First Crusade was widely successful and led to many later crusades. The journey of Christians began as pilgrims to the Holy Land and later, due to their persecution, lead to war-pilgrimages to take back the Holy Land. The First Crusade was motivated primarily through spiritual privileges that were promised to Crusaders and ultimately assisted in creating a large army compromised of thousands of dedicated warriors. Yet despite the odds that seemed impossible to overcome, miraculously the First Crusade ended in success. The success was a huge factor in changing the course of European history, but also in Christian history.


  1. Krey, A. C., and R. C. Smail. “Crusading Warfare (1097-1193).” The American Historical Review 62, no. 2 (1957): 378.
  2. Riley-Smith, Jonathan. A History of the Crusades. Oxford: Oxford University Press, UK, 1999.
  3. Riley-Smith, Jonathan. What Were the Crusades? London: Macmillan, 1977.
  4. Bartlett, W. B. The Crusades : An Illustrated History. Stroud: Sutton, 2005.
  5. France, John. Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300. Warfare and History. London: UCL Press, 1999.
  6. Falk, Avner. Franks and Saracens : Reality and Fantasy in the Crusades. London: Karnac, 2010.
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