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date: 01 December 2020

Athenaeus (2) Mechanicusfree

  • David Whitehead


Athenaeus (2) Mechanicus is the named author of a surviving treatise On Machines; military ones, for use in siege-warfare. The work is addressed to a ‘Marcellus,’ and nowadays orthodoxy identifies him with M. Claudius Marcellus, the short-lived (42–23 bce) nephew & son-in-law of Augustus. That in turn makes it plausible that the writer himself is Athenaeus of Seleucia-on-the-Calycadnus, a Cilician Greek intellectual known to have been in Rome in the 20s, and a contemporary, in that milieu, of Vitruvius. There is indeed material common to A.’s treatise and to sections of Book 10 of Vitruvius' On Architecture—material that, it seems, they took from their teacher Agesistratus of (?)Rhodes.

Short and not always coherent though it is, the On Machines has a two-fold importance. One is in the material mentioned already: Athenaeus and Vitruvius in tandem (together with a middle-Byzantine version of the same material) provide a succinct but useful summary history of military machinery from its beginnings to the early Hellenistic period, highlighting especially the mechanici who served Alexander the Great. But beyond that, Athenaeus offers valuable insights into late-Hellenistic culture, when an educated dilettante felt entitled to make his own contribution to such a technical genre.

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography expanded.

Athenaeus (2) Mechanicus, author of an extant treatise On machines (Περὶ μηχανημάτων‎), specifically siege-engines.

Date and Milieu

Dates for Athenaeus, stemming from proposed identifications with other bearers of this relatively common name, once used to oscillate between the late third century bce and the mid third century ce. Crucial, however, is the identification of the dignitary ‘Marcellus’ to whom the work’s sententious preface is addressed. A convergence of arguments locates this Marcellus, and hence Athenaeus himself, in the second half of the first century bce:1 (a) the obvious Marcellus then is the short-lived (42-23) M. Claudius Marcellus (see Claudius Marcellus (5) Marcus), the nephew, son-in-law, and putative heir of Augustus; and (b) a likely Athenaeus is Athenaeus of Seleucia-on-the-Calycadnus (present-day Silifke) in Rough Cilicia, mentioned by Strabo as a scholar of the Peripatetic philosophical persuasion (see Peripatetic School). He was not merely living in Rome but moving in the highest circles there in the 20s bce. Element a in this hypothesis has long been orthodox. Element b has recruited fewer overt adherents, but the full a+b position is endorsed in the two modern commentaries cited here.

The Treatise Itself

At 3667 Greek words, Athenaeus’ treatise is quite short, and, between starting and finishing with elaborate literary and intellectual flourishes, it lacks immediate coherence. Of all the modern editions of the treatise, only Whitehead & Blyth proffer an explicit division by content, into five parts:2


Preface [3.1-7.7];


Good Practice [7.8-27.6], including a section that begins by citing ‘Philo of Athens’ (in fact, pre-epitomization Ph. of Byzantium; see Philon (2)) on the construction of a filler tortoise;


Bad Practice [17.7-31.5], including case studies from the history of Chios and Ephesus to illustrate errors of scaling, up or down;


Innovation [31.6-38.13];


Epilogue [39.1-40.2].

Vitruvius and Agesistratus

Parts 2 and (most of) 3—to be precise: 9.4-28.12 Wescher–exhibit a very close affinity to Book 10 sections 13–16 of Vitruvius’ On Architecture (see Vitruvius (Pol(l)io)). This has long been recognized, as has the view that the explanation of the resemblance is not that one of these writers copied from the other. Rather, both drew on a common source, and of the two it is Athenaeus who is the more candid about it: ‘what we have learned from the mêchanikos Agesistratus about these things, we are relating in full’ (7.6–7). Vitruvius, likewise a professional engineer, preferred to slip in Agesistratus at the end of his unchronological list of twelve authorities ‘on mechanisms’ (de machinationibus) given in the preface to his Book 7. Athenaeus, seemingly a dilettante by comparison, was happy to acknowledge his important debt to Agesistratos of (?)Rhodes whose expertise he–and Vitruvius–had absorbed. (Whether they did this by reading Agesistratus or by hearing him lecture is a matter of dispute. Whitehead & Blyth argue on several counts for oral transmission. Gatto takes the opposite view, while conceding that both scenarios might be combined: in their youth Athenaeus and Vitruvius hear lectures by Agesistratus; as adults they consult a written version of them, held in the Porticus Octaviae library).3

Siege Machinery

The principal interest and importance of Parts 2–3 lie in their chronological survey of siege machinery. This briskly proceeds from the early, rudimentary rams and tortoises built by Carthaginians) through the age of Alexander the Great (Alexander (3)) to the gargantuan, baroque creations of Hegetor and Epimachus in, apparently, the late fourth century. Most of this is set forth by Athenaeus with at least tacit approval (part 2), though evidently Agesistratus had also included some object-lessons of what to avoid (part 3), including, at 29.9–31.5, a criticism of the great Ctesibius. The quantified dimensions and other fine detail of what Athenaeus describes, when he comes to consider machines which warrant that level of detail, can be directly juxtaposed with two other versions of the same material: not only the contemporaneous one in Vitruvius but also a retrospective one in the numerous relevant sections of the tenth-century Parangelmata Poliorketika, the unknown author of which also echoes passages of Athenaeus’ Preface (and Part 4). This three-way comparison sometimes results, for us, in clarification of what the Agesistratan Ur-version might have said, though at least equally as often the discrepancies only create further obscurity, and attempts to eliminate them risk circular argument or other forms of special pleading.


Particularly tantalizing is the case of Diades, one of the several named mechanici who accompanied Alexander the Great on his eastern campaigns.4 There is no call to doubt Agesistratus’ belief that Diades–possibly a Lycian–was an engineer of a highly creative yet practical bent, who provided Alexander with at least four new designs: a borer or drill (trypanon), for use against mud-brick walls; a “raven” (korax), apparently a crane-like device for pulling down the uppermost parts of walls, especially any wooden superstructures there; an assault-bridge (epibathra) which in unspecified ways must have represented an improvement on the ones already in use (see e.g. Dionysius (1) at Motya in 397); and “portable towers” (phorêtoi purgoi in Athenaeus; turres ambulatoriae in Vitruvius, to which he appends the words “which, when dismantled, it was his practice to carry around in the army”). These last, in two sizes, sound important enough to justify particular effort on our part to understand what they looked like and how they operated. Envisaging them as having a shape something like tall, slender ziggurats and, crucially, being modular in design and construction, for ease of transport, seems to have won general acceptance.5 On the other hand, whether or not they were wheeled–as opposed to being moved, where movement was necessary, on ad hoc rollers, rafts, or skids—is contentious. (Neither Athenaeus nor Vitruvius mention wheels explicitly. That comes only in the Parangelmata: its author, when paraphrasing both Athenaeus and Apollodorus (7) on towers, takes it wholly for granted that all the towers of which they had written, Diades’ included, ran on wheels. In respect of Apollodorus’ designs the point must be conceded, so it is the Diadian towers which remain central to the issue.6)


An overarching question to which Athenaeus’ Part 2 gives rise is the extent to which, in describing the designs of Diades and his successors, he shows any capacity to differentiate between ones that would (and perhaps even did) work successfully in practice and those that were purely theoretical, pipe-dreams. Here the ultimate test-case is Hegetor’s massive ram-tortoise, with its eight-wheeled chassis and a ram fully 120 cubits (180 feet) in length. This was scornfully dismissed by A.W. Lawrence: “an absurdly ponderous one-piece battering-mantlet with a lavishly spiked front–an attempt at a prototype of the Tank–which the men inside could not move with impetus to cause damage.”7 Even Otto Lendle, the hallmark of whose two monographs (1975 and 1983) was to take ancient descriptions of siege machinery at face value, later had his doubts where Hegetor was concerned.8 Latterly Whitehead & Blyth represent an extreme of scepticism in this regard; greater willingness to trust what we are told is exhibited by others, including Callebat & Fleury and now Gatto.9

Part 4, in any event, seemingly moves away from reliance on Agesistratus (there being no Vitruvian counterpart to this material); and when, finally, Athenaeus declared that his proud objective has been not merely to presented meritorious inventions, in this field, made by others but to add to them himself (31.11–32.2), even scepticism can find no solid grounds for disbelieving him. Three principal ideas are put forward: the pithêkion, apparently meaning “little ape” rather than “little barrel,” but either way, a device (perhaps involving nets or gimbals) for stabilizing ship-borne machines when they are deployed in choppy seas; a–rather than the—single forewheel (protrochos) “for every tortoise and every machine,” to allow it to be steered at an angle; and the carchêsion, a sort of universal-joint that enables a crane or hoist (broadly reminiscent of Diades’ korax) with a grasping device at its apex to move forwards and backwards, right and left, up and down. Following these, somewhat anti-climactically, come two suggestions for the benefit of troops who are attacking a city wall: extra-large caltrops (triboloi) to protect them, when advancing uphill, against boulders and suchlike being rolled down upon them; and the mysteriously-named (?)aretê-tortoise with a flat front that can fit snugly against a wall once the wall has been reached.10


In sum, Athenaeus’ On Machines is an odd hybrid of a work; a complex late-Hellenistic cultural artefact. It is rhetorically packaged (the Preface is especially wordy, taking up 15% of the treatise as it stands), and it shows occasional flashes of polemic against detractors potential or actual. It contains at its core a body of valuable material that can shed light both on siegecraft during the age of Alexander and the Successors (especially such items as Diades’ mobile assault-towers, which could be carried in kit form and put together on modular principles when required) and also on subsequent developments. And these developments are to be discerned in real-life siege warfare and, besides, in the intellectual responses to it. The ancient world did not have our (by and large) clear-cut distinctions between theoretical and practical, military and civilian, feasible and aspirational. The context was more fluid. It is in that context that we meet, and must on some level accept, Heath Robinsonian conceptions like Hegetor’s ram-tortoise alongside the almost equally impressive but (in most instances) workable contrivances devised by Archimedes for the defence of his native Syracuse in 213-211: Polyb. 8.3–7; Plut. Marc. 14–19. And it is in that context too that Athenaeus would probably have been baffled by our wish to make absolute differentiations between ideas that were his, or Agesistratus’, or Diades’. In his own estimation, without doubt, he was making a valid contribution to an ongoing body of theory and practice.

Modern Work

The modern era of work on Athenaeus begins with Wescher. Schneider provided a translation and substantive notes, in German, and his is the text available on the on-line TLG.11 Whitehead & Blyth, rescuing the treatise from the near-oblivion—save for (e.g.) Marsden—into which it had fallen since Schneider, translated it for the first time into English, proffered the first line-by-line commentary in any language, and devoted special attention in the commentary to the practicability (or otherwise) of the machines described.12 Gatto’s is now the complete modern edition, with a newly-established text (drawing on more manuscripts than before) and textual notes, Italian translation, and topic-driven chapters qua commentary.


  • Callebat, Louis, and Fleury, Philippe, eds., Vitruve. de l’architecture, livre X. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1986.
  • Cichorius, Conrad, “Das Werk des Athenaeus über Kriegmaschinen,” in Römische Studien: historisches epigraphisches literaturgeschichtliches aus vier Jahrhunderten Roms, 271–278. Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner, 1922 (and reprinted elsewhere).
  • Gatto, Maurizio. Il Peri Mechanematon di Ateneo Meccanico. Edizione critica, traduzione, commenta e note. Roma: Aracne, 2010.
  • Lawrence, Arnold W. Greek Aims in Fortification. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Lendle, Otto. Schildkröten: antike Kriegsmaschinen in poliorketischen Texten. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1975.
  • Lendle, Otto. “Antike Kriegsmaschinen.” Gymnasium 88 (1981): 330–356.
  • Lendle, Otto. Texte und Untersuchungen zum technischen Bereich der antiken Poliorketik. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1983.
  • Marsden, Eric W. Greek and Roman Artillery: Technical Treatises. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • Schneider, Rudolf. Griechische Poliorketiker mit den handschriftlichen Bildern herausgegeben und übersetzt, III: Athenaios, Über Maschinen. Berlin, Abh. der königl. Gesellsch.der Wissensch. zu Göttingen, phil.-hist. Klasse, 1912.
  • Wescher, Carl. Poliorcétique des Grecs. Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1867.
  • Whitehead, David. “Alexander the Great and the mechanici.” In East and West in the World Empire of Alexander: Essays in Honour of Brian Bosworth. Edited by Pat Wheatley and Elizabeth Baynham, 75–91. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Whitehead, David, and Philip H. Blyth. Athenaeus Mechanicus, On Machines: Translated with Introduction and Commentary. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2004.