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date: 17 November 2019


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, horsehair, or human hair, 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 bolts only (main calibres: one to four bolt), 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.). Schramm reached 387 m. (423 ft.) with a full-size reproduction of a two-cubit (approx. 100-cm./40-in.) machine employing horsehair springs. 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. ceCremona 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. 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. 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.


E. W. Marsden, Greek and Roman Artillery: Historical Development (1969).Find this resource:

E. W. Marsden, Greek and Roman Artillery: Technical Treatises (1971).Find this resource:

D. Baatz, Bauten und Katapulte des römischen Heeres (1994).Find this resource:

M. C. Bishop and J. C. N. Coulston, Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome (2006).Find this resource:

T. Rihill, The Catapult. A History (2007).Find this resource:

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