What is a Citadel?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A citadel is a fortress which is designed to be extremely easy to defend, ensuring that it can be protected in the event of an attack. Citadels have historically been used to protect military installations and prominent government leaders, and also as a place of refuge for the citizens of the area the citadel is located in. As a general rule, citadels are installed on hills and in other areas which command an excellent view of the region, and they are typically in or very close to cities.

Historically, citadels were placed on hills because superior height gives defenders advantages over attackers.
Historically, citadels were placed on hills because superior height gives defenders advantages over attackers.

Fortresses have been a part of human settlement for a very long time. In addition to protecting the people within the fortification, fortresses can also help to protect the people in the surrounding area. The presence of a citadel was meant to send a clear message to potential antagonists, indicating that a city would be capable of defending itself in the event of attack, and that the citizens would not welcome any attempt at a takeover. As a result, citadels often inspired loyalty from the citizens, who viewed the citadel and its staff as guardians and protectors.

Citadels have also been used to house militaries, along with leaders. In areas which found themselves frequently under attack, the gates of the citadel would be opened for citizens seeking shelter, with the people enclosed in the citadel relying on reserves of food and water to sustain themselves until it was safe to go out. Many citadels were quite large, encompassing fields for crops and animals to ensure that the residents would not run out of food in a siege.

The word “citadel” comes from the same Latin root as the word “city.” Both are derived from civitas, which means “citizen.” “Citadel” comes from the Italian cittadella, or “little city,” a reference to the fact that a citadel can operate as a self enclosed city for weeks, months, or sometimes even years. Citadels were typically surrounded by bastions, extremely thick, zig-zagging walls which allowed people on the inside to defend the citadel from attackers.

A number of citadels can be found scattered around Europe and other parts of the world today, although most are no longer used for their traditional purpose. Since traditional fortifications are not as necessary as they once were, many citadels are now used to house museums, showcasing artifacts which provide a glimpse of what life inside the citadel might have been like.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


On a cruise to San Juan, Puerto Rico, we saw one of several citadels, that once protected the Caribbean Island. Spain built these huge citadels to protect the harbor of San Juan and the city.

These citadels were built on a cliff high above the ocean. It had very thick walls. Thick sea walls were built along the water.

It was a beautiful sight coming toward the harbor and seeing the massive fortifications up above. It would have been intimidating for a ship in olden times if they came with the intentions of attacking the island.

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