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date: 06 February 2023



  • Jonathan Coulston


  • Greek History and Historiography
  • Science, Technology, and Medicine
  • Roman History and Historiography

Evidence for Greek and Roman artillery comes from the surviving technical treatises, incidental historical and subliterary references, and, most importantly, finds of both machine-fittings and projectiles. The latter at present date from the 2nd cent. bce to the 4th cent. ce.

In 399 bce artificers of Dionysius (1) I apparently invented the first artillery piece (Diod. Sic. 14. 42. 1). The gastraphetēs shot arrows only, and somewhat resembled an early medieval crossbow. Propulsion force was supplied by a composite bow, which, being too powerful for a man to draw by hand, was bent by means of a slide and stock. Later gastraphetai, some of which were stone-throwers, used a winch and had a stand. Torsion catapults appeared around 340 bce, possibly invented by Philip (1) II's engineers. Stock, winch, and base remained much the same, but two springs, bundles of rope made from animal sinew and held at high tension in a metal-plated wooden frame, now provided propulsive power. Torsion machines improved continuously in efficiency through the Roman period. From c.270 bce a technical literature of calibrating formulae and standard dimensions developed (see Ctesibius; Heron; Philon (2). However, torsion catapults did not supersede the large non-torsion types before the later 3rd cent. and small composite machines continued into the late Roman period.

The torsion katapeltēs oxybelēs shot arrows or bolts only, the lithobolos hurled stone-shot (weights of ten minae to three talents). Both types had a maximum effective range well in excess of 300 m. (330 yds.). Reproductions of a two-cubit (approx. 100-cm./40-in.) machine employing horsehair springs have reached 387 m. (423 ft.). Modifications devised between 200 and 25 bce are reflected in machines described by Vitruvius, and by fittings from Ephyra, Mahdia, and Ampurias.

Each imperial Roman legion had integral artillery specialists and workshops to design, manufacture, repair, and deploy its c.70catapultae and ballistae (Cf. 1st-cent. ce Cremona finds; also ILS2034). The small but powerful engines illustrated on Trajan's Column and described by Heron of Alexandria (chiroballistra), with all-metal frames, were probably developed in the 1st cent. ce. They continued in use into the late Roman period, as evidenced by finds from Lyons, Gornea, and Orsova, and the accounts of Vegetius, Procopius, and Mauricius. Small, hand-held weapons with wooden or metal frames (manuballistae) are represented by a 1st-cent. find from Xanten. By the 4th cent. ce the one-armed, stone-throwing onager was also developed.

Artillery figured most prominently in sieges, especially those associated with Rome's eastern wars, and its use may have spread to the Sasanids through Roman contacts. Whilst Onomarchus and Alexander (3) the Great used artillery in the field, lack of mobility restricted it before the Roman period when weapons were mounted on wheeled vehicles (carroballistae). Long range made artillery a valuable naval weapon (e.g. Demetrius (4) off Salamis (2) and Agrippa at Naulochus). See fortifications; siegecraft, greek and roman; war, art of, greek and roman.


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