In this guest blog, TVOF seminar member Jonathan Morton tells us about how the principle of ingenuity (engin) is represented at certain points in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Jonathan is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in French at King’s College London where he is undertaking a project on ingenuity, poetry, and technology in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Western European Culture.

It was a common truism in medieval French culture to say that mieux vaut engin que force – craftiness is better than strength – and no figure exemplifies this principle more than the eponymous fox of the Roman de Renart who repeatedly gets the better of his stronger, stupider uncle Ysengrin the wolf. 

The term engin does not just refer to a kind of creative intelligence but can also mean an ability to invent or to devise new objects. It can refer to the product of that inventiveness – the ruse or the engine, often a military machine. Engin means craft as well as craftiness, although it is not necessarily possible to separate the two ideas that can both be at play in the term. During the Second Punic War, as narrated in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, the Sicilian city of Sarragonce resists capture thanks to the determination of one of its citizens, Archimedes (§965.5): ‘…[et] si ne la pot adonques prendre par engien null q[ui]l peust porpenser ne faire si durement la defendoit archimedes· uns des citeains de la uile.’ (…and therefore no one could take it by any strategy/engine that he could plan or make, so strongly did Archimedes, one of the town’s inhabitants, defend it). Here engien could mean war machine or it could mean scheme. We find out in the next line that Archimedes goes round determinedly smashing up all the Romans’ engiens, actual physical war-machines in the second usage.


Renart, Ysengrin and King Lion. London, British Library, Additional 15229 f. 92v. Source: British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Hannibal and his troops besiege a castle, f. 150r.

Hannibal's army lays siege to a city. BnF NAF 3576, f. 150rb. Source:

While the Romans are fighting wars on several fronts, including Sicily and Macedonia, the Carthaginian general Hannibal has to find a way over the Alps to get to Italy so he gets his engineers to help him devise a plan (§947). They make engien (engines) of some kind and then carve a path through the mountain, enabling him to pass across with his elephants. Hannibal who (§952) ‘mout sot d’engien’ (knew much of craft/iness) may have been too clever for his own good, as seeking to surprise his Roman adversaries, he takes his elephant army through wet swampy ground. As a result many of his men and animals die, leaving him only one elephant (§951). After losing an eye from cold, he does, nonetheless, manage to make it to Rome to which he naturally lays siege, constructing engiens to attack the city (§966).

It is a shame that Hannibal lost his elephants since the military use of huge animals themselves present excellent opportunities for testing the proposition that mieux vaut engin que force, as can be seen in Alexandre de Paris’s late twelfth-century Roman d’Alexandre, whose preoccupation for narrating epic battles is shared with its near contemporary Histoire ancienne. In the Roman d’Alexandre the Macedonian king Alexander the Great has two serious run-ins with elephants, first when fighting the Persian king Darius and later when coming up against the armies of the Indian monarch Porus. In the scenario of a pitched battle, elephants, carrying their castles on top of them, are presented as being of irresistible strength. The only way to take them on is through trickery which makes it possible to see which out of engin and force wins out. Luckily, Alexander the Great is a figure almost as full of engin as Renart the fox and in both battles it is Alexander’s ingenuity that allows him to triumph.

Royal f. 249

A precursor to Hannibal, the Greek King Pyrrhus brings his elephants to fight against the Romans. London, British Library, Royal D 20 I, f. 249. Reproduced with permission from the British Library Board.

Harley 4979 f. 74r

Elephants in the Roman d'Alexandre. London, British Library, Harley 4979, f. 74r.  Source: British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

In II.128 of the Roman d’Alexandre we are told how Darius ingeniously attaches huge scythes to his elephants in order to send them charging across the battlefield. However, the tricksy Greek king has himself ingeniously penetrated Darius’s camp (a signature move of the romance-Alexander, whose favourite occupation seems to be disguising himself and spying on his enemies). He out-foxes Darius by devising a scheme so that when the Persian elephants charge, the Greek army can scatter, run round, regroup and then attack the elephants from behind.

Later (III.99-100), after the fall of Persia, the Greeks are fighting Porus’s army in India. Porus builds a castle, kitted out with fifty elephants, among other troops and armaments. This time Alexander’s tactic is simpler and even more satisfyingly cartoon-like. He gets his men to dig a hundred-foot ditch all around the elephants so that they can’t move without falling in. Game over for the Indian elephants.

I have briefly considered the Alexander of the romance tradition here but it should not be forgotten that the Histoire ancienne also discusses Alexander at length with encounters with elephants recurring frequently (between §799 and §823 especially). As Catherine Gaullier-Bougassas has pointed out the version of Alexander in the Histoire ancienne is a cruel conqueror – §798: ‘li rois alixandres fu mout fel· [et] mout crueaus en totes manieres’ (King Alexander was very cruel in all sorts of ways) – and in this the text follows the more historical Alexander-tradition of Orosius as presented in his Historiae contra Paganos (History against the Pagans), 3.18.10: ‘Alexander humani sanguinis inexsaturabilis siue hostium, siue etiam sociorum, recentem tamen semper sitiebat cruorem.’ (Alexander whose taste for human blood, either of his enemies or even of his friends, was never slaked, always thirsted for fresh gore.) Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the textual traditions are not wholly discrete and, moreover, that engin is not a moral principle, any more than military might is. In fact, from a certain viewpoint, Alexander’s ruse will make him more not less suspect a person.

Alexander 20125

Porus's elephants in battle against Alexander's Macedonian army. BnF fr. 20125, f. 235r. Source:

Be that as it may, there is something about the extreme nature of military elephants, of their size and strength, that demands solutions that are ingenious, whether requiring feats of cunning, feats of invention, or, more often than not, a combination of the two. French accounts of battles of the ancient world show a fascination and a preoccupation not just with the jaw-dropping size of the armies and their strength but at least equally with the engin that is every bit as important a part of war as force.

Pyrrus's army with elephants 15268

Pyrrhus's army with elephants, readying for battle. London, British Library, Additional 15268, f. 226. Reproduced with permission from the British Library Board.


Alexandre de Paris, The Medieval French “Roman d’Alexandre.” Volume 2: Version of Alexandre de ParisEds. Armstrong, E. C., D. L. Buffum, et al. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1937.

Alexandre de Paris. Le Roman d’Alexandre. Trans. Laurence Harf-Lancner. Paris: Libraire générale française, 1994.

Gaullier-Bougassas, Catherine, ed. La fascination pour Alexandre le Grand dans les littératures européennes (Xe-XVIe siècle). 4 vols. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014.

Orosius, Histoires (contre les païens). Ed. and trans. Marie-Pierre Arnaud-Lindet. 3 vols. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1990-91.

Orosius, Seven Books of History against the Pagans. Trans. A. T. Fear. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2010.