Catapults were one of the most terrorizing and powerful weapons of Ancient Greece and Rome. They were able to destroy enemy defense and turned sieges in favor of the offensor. They also operated with deadly precision and could fire massive boulders huge distances. (Foley and Soedel 5). Catapults were some of the biggest engineering marvel of Ancient times, and marked the first time many engineering and management techniques that we see today were used. And these new engineering practices let the catapult become one of the most significant weapons of Ancient Greece and Rome.
The catapult had a large impact on warfare in Ancient Greece and Rome because they were accurate, powerful, and had a large impact of siege warfare. They also were able to change the political landscape and their strength let to a change in the amount of sovereign states in ancient times. Finally, with all this strength and influence, I believe the ancients knew of the importance and significance of the catapult at the time. In this paper, I will first chronicle the history and design of the catapult, showing how a simple mechanical bow evolved into very powerful and accurate weapons.
Then, I will describe the advantages of catapult, including its accuracy, strength, and affect on sieges. While discussing these, I will show how the use of the catapult changed warfare and the political climate in Ancient Greece and Rome, and give examples of their effect. Finally, I will show that these weapons are not only seen as influential in hindsight, but that the Greek and Romans of ancient times knew of their importance and consequence. However, before the significance of the catapult can be fully understood, the history of the catapult must be explained.
The first catapults were made by Dionysius, ruler of Syracuse, in 399 B. C. They mechanized the bow and arrow. These primitive weapons were not much stronger than a normal human, but they were the first building block to create extremely powerful weapons. The catapult began to increase in strength with the invention of the torsion principal which allowed the arrow to be shot much more powerfully. The principal had elastic fibers pulled as the bow was drawn out. This put even more pressure on the arrow (Foley and Soedel 2). These catapult had many component that came together to form the weapon.
An article Scientific American titled, Ancient Catapults, does a great job of describing the layout. The basic piece in the catapult was the stock, a compound beam the formed the main axis of the weapon. Along the top of the stock was a dovetail groove, in which another beam, the slider, could move back and forth. The slider carried at its rear surface a claw-and-trigger arrangement for grasping and releasing the bowstring. In front of the claw on top of the slider was a trough in which it was the arrow lay and from which it was launched. In operation the slider was run forward until the claw could seize the bowstring.
Then the slider was forced to the rear taking the string with it until the bow was fully drawn. In the earlier versions linear ratchets alongside the stock engaged pawls on the slider to resist the force of the bow. Later a circular ratchet at the rear of the stock was adopted. Forcing back the slider on the first catapults was probably done by hand, but before long the size and power of the machines called for a winch (2). Soon, the catapults began to be too big to be wielded by hand and a pedestal was constructed to hold the weapon (2).
As the catapult advanced, new engineering and math was invented to support its development. For example, engineers had to use the correct ratio between the diameter and length of the elastic bundles in the torsion springs (10). Also, formulas were invented, one even using the cube root, which was not fully understood by Greek mathematicians when invented. Even more remarkable, to create these equations, understanding of types of energy must be had, and these were not completely known until the 1700s (12). What makes these ormulas even more amazing were their use. Duncan B. Campbell wrote a paper called Ancient Catapults Some Hypotheses Reexamined. In it, he examines different aspects of the catapult that have been misunderstood. In a section where Campbell talks about the torsion principal, he explains how a specific sized arrow was used in a catapult corresponding to that size. This meant that each catapult had to be built with the final size projectile in mind. This also meant that the size of any catapult could be so a different size arrow could be used.
Campbell writes, “By the mid-3rd century, ancient artificers had decided upon an optimum set of proportions for the arrowshooting catapult, so that any given design could be scaled up to produce weapons of different calibers. The basic module was the thickness of the torsion spring, most easily expressed as the inner diameter of the washer through which the spring was fed (Campbell 684). This meant that the ancient engineers understood the required relationship between the thickness of the torsion bundles and the result that would have on the catapult.
This is amazing because their understanding of this relationship must have been so great that we’re able to predict accurately what sized catapult was needed for a specific sized projectile. However, to fully understand the engineering marvel catapults were, the torsion principle and equations used to govern the catapult must be examined. Cesare Rossi, a professor at the University of Naples, wrote a paper called Ancient throwing machines: A method to calculate their performance. In this paper Rossi investigates torsion principle. Yet after this, he does something even more significant.
Using his specialties in Mechanical Engineering, he created mathematical equations describing how the catapult worked. Cesare begins by giving a description of the torsion principal. He describes how a bundle of horsehairs were wound around two different iron bars. Once this is complete, a lever could be placed inside the bundle. When the lever was turned, the bundles would tighten and store energy. When the lever was released, it would spring back to its initial position with great force (Rossi 1). This is the basis of how a catapult worked and why it had so much power.
For the remainder of the paper, Rossi gives in great detail equations which governs the catapult. Many of these equations are very complex. Common variables include kinetic energy, elastic energy of the bundle, energy lost due to friction, mass, and moment of inertia (8). These are all very complex mathematical ideas which further show how incredible these ancient engineers were. The fact that these engineers had even a basic understanding of these principals shows how advanced they were at the time, and reveals the ingenuity of these people.
The main history of the catapult ends with the Romans and their use of iron. Because the Romans used iron instead of wood, they were able to make their catapults smaller yet even more powerful. Plus, the bow could be moved more easily which made aiming the bow even easier (9). The catapult has a long and interesting history. What started as a mechanical weapon little stronger than a man, turned into one of the most powerful and deadly weapons of ancient times. But what made these weapons so dominating? The catapult had many advantages over other weapons. One of the biggest advantages of catapults was its accuracy.
Catapults were able to hit a target many times in a row. This meant they could cause considerable damage to defenses such as battlements on top of walls or siege armor (Foley and Soedel 3). The accuracy of catapults played a large importance in war, and was a great threat to the enemy. Because catapults could target specific areas, they were able to consistently terrorize the enemy, without fail. One example of this was at the siege of Avarieum in 52 B. C. Julius Caesar writes, “A bolt from a catapult pierced him ; and he fell dead. Another man stepped across his prostrate body, and took his place.
He too was struck: but in a moment a third was doing his work, and presently a fourth;” (Caesar 145). The men in this quote were going to the same spot over and over again, and were repeatedly getting hit by the catapult. This shows how the catapult could consistently, and accurately, hit a target. Because the catapult was so accurate, it could easily be used as a weapon as it would most likely hit its intended target. Obviously catapults would be able to hit a large wall, but surprisingly, their accuracy allowed them to defend walls and hit small targets as well.
Cassius Dio was a Roman consul who wrote a history of Rome. He wrote about the effect catapults could have on people outside the walls at a siege of a city named Harta. It was thus the Byzantium had been fortified: and in addition there were engines in the greatest variety along the entire length of the wall. Some, for example, hurled rocks and wooden beams upon any who drew near, and others discharged stones and other missiles and spears against such as stood at a distance, with the result that over a considerable area none could come near them without danger” (Dio 75,11).
This shows that catapults were accurate enough for people to be in danger if they were near. Dietwulf Baatz, a roman archaeologist, wrote a paper titled Recent Finds of Ancient Artillery in which he discusses the siege of Harta. He explains that catapults can shoot projectiles very far and they were so accurate that some would even hit the bodyguards of the Romans. He also says that the city survived against multiple sieges from the Romans (Baatz 9). What was most amazing about these sieges was the city used catapults.
Baatz writes, “The use of artillery by the defenders of Harta is both remarkable and uncommon… (9)”. Although catapults were often used to break down walls, there are rarely used to defend them. The fact that Harta used catapults for defense, and that this use was extremely effective, shows how the accuracy and power of the catapult made it an extremely advantageous weapon. Although the example above shows catapults being used for defense. This was rare and they were much often used the other way around. And this leads to perhaps the biggest influence catapults had, its effect on siege warfare.
Before catapults, cities were relatively well protected by walls, however this started to change when catapults were used. Barton C. Hacker, a curator and historian at the National Museum of American History wrote a paper titled Greek Catapults and Catapult Technology: Science, Technology, and War in the Ancient World. The paper is rooted in four different questions: “Why… were catapults so successful, so widely adopted? What role, if any, did Greek science lay in the development of catapults? What were the consequences of a highly developed catapult technology? (Hacker 36). It terms of siege warfare, Hacker writes, “Greek siege techniques reached a previously unparalleled level of efficiency. Alexander of Macedon was able to take walled towns with a regularity and rapidity unknown in the Greek world before his time” (41). Hacker explains why this is in more detail. He said that although Alexander had strong and brave troops, he would not have been able to take a city, as similar leaders and troops had never been able to before. This was because city defences were much stronger that the weapons offenders had to break them.
If an attack was unable to destroy defensors or their walls, they would often sustain large casualties (42). The catapults, however, created a solution to this problem. Catapults were not able to knock down properly constructed walls. They were still however able to help a siege. This was because they could easily destroy the thinner battlements on top of the walls. This meant the defenders would be exposed and therefore unable to hurt the enemy below. Because the enemy was now free from attack, they were able to ram the walls without hindrance from the defenders above (Foley and Soedel 6).
This weapon allowed sieges to become effective and a good strategy in warfare. Before the catapult, Greek cities did not want to risk losing a siege as this would have caused great damage to their army. Therefore, seigies were not that common as the danger was too high (Hacker 42). But this all changed with the catapult. Because seigies turned in favor of the offender, armies were more inclined to engage in a siege, and this caused a large change in warfare, as sieges went from being rare, to common and ffective. Yet the catapult did not only change warfare. It also changed the political landscape of Ancient Greece. Hacker argues that the reason Greek city-states were able to stay autonomous was that their fortifications could withstand a siege from an enemy state. He also believe that the ability for the besieger to have an equal chance at victory created “larger political units” (46). He bases his argument on example of this happening in Ancient Greece.
He writes, “Some weight must be given to the development of torsion catapults in accounting for the augmented regularity with which Alexander and his successors, both Hellenistic and Roman, were able to take walled cities. This new ability, in turn, was a factor in the establishment of kingdom and empire” (46). Hacker’s argument is effective. It makes sense that there would be a correlation between Alexander’s use of catapults and effective siege warfare, and the size of his empire. This shows that the catapult did not only change warfare, but also changed the political landscape.