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Catapult History - History of Catapults from Archimedes to Cortez

HISTORICAL NOTES

One of the last occasions on which the trebuchet was used with success is 
described  by  Guillet  in  his  ‘Life  of  Mahomet  II.’1 This  author  writes  :  ‘At  the siege of Rhodes in 1480, the Turks set up a battery of sixteen great cannon, but the Christians  successfully  opposed  the  cannon  with  a  counter battery  of  a  new invention.2

‘An  engineer,  aided  by  the  most  skillful  carpenters  in  the  besieged  town, 
made an engine that cast pieces of stone of a terrible size. The execution wrought 
by  this  engine  prevented  the  enemy  from  pushing  forward  the  work  of  their 
approaches,  destroyed  their  breastworks,  discovered  their  mines,  and  filled  with carnage the troops that came within range of it.’

At  the  siege  of  Mexico  by  Cortes  in  1521,  when  the  ammunition  for  the 
Spanish cannon ran short, a soldier with a knowledge of engineering undertook to 
make  a  trebuchet  that  would  cause  the  town  to  surrender.  A  huge  engine  was constructed,  but  on  its  first  trial  the  rock  with  which  it  was  charged  instead  of flying  into  the  town  ascended  straight  upwards,  and  falling  back  to  its  starting-point destroyed the mechanism of the machine itself.3

Though all the projectile engines worked by cords and weights disappeared 
from  continental  warfare  when  cannon  came  to  the  front  in  a  more  or  less 
improved  form,  they--if  Vincent  le  Blanc  is  to  be  credited--survived  in  barbaric nations long after they were discarded in Europe.

This  author  (in  his  travels  in  Abyssinia)  writes  ‘that  in  1576 the  Negus 
attacked Tamar, a strong town defended by high walls, and that the besieged had 
engines  composed  of  great  pieces  of  wood  which  were  wound  up  by  cords  and screwed wheels, and which unwound with a force that would shatter a vessel, this being the cause why the Negus did not assault the town after he had dug a trench round it’.4

Plutarch,  in  his  Life  of  Marcellus  the  Roman  General,  gives  a  graphic 
account  of  Archimedes  and  the  engines  this  famous  mathematician  employed  in the defense of Syracuse.

It appears that Archimedes showed his relative Hiero II., King of Syracuse, 
some wonderful examples of the way in which immense weights could be moved 
by a combination of levers.

1    Guillet de Saint George, born about 1625, died 1705. His Life of Mahomet II. Was published in 1681. He was the author of several other works, including one on riding, warfare and navigation, termed the  Gentleman’s  Dictionary.  The  best  edition  of  this  book  is  in  English  and  has  many  very  curious illustrations.  It is dated 1705. 

2    Called a new invention because the old siege engine of which this one (probably a trebuchet) was a reproduction had previously been laid aside for many years.

3   Conquest of Mexico. W. Prescott, 1843.

4   Vincent  le  Blanc, Voyages  aux  quatre  parties  du  monde,  redig. par  Bergeron,  Paris,1649. Though the account given by this author of his travels are imaginative, I consider his allusion to the siege engine to be trustworthy, as he was not likely to invent so correct a description of one. 

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HISTORICAL NOTES

Hiero,  being  greatly  impressed  by  these  experiments,  entreated  Archimedes 
temporarily  to  employ  his  genius  in  designing  articles  of  practical  use,  with  the result that the scientist constructed for the king all manner of engines suitable for 
siege warfare.

Though Hiero did not require the machines, his reign being a peaceful one, 
they proved of great value shortly after his death when Syracuse was besieged by 
the Romans under Marcellus, 214-212. B.C.

On  this  occasion  Archimedes  directed  the  working  of  the  engines  he  had 
made some years previously for Hiero.

Plutarch writes : ‘And in truth all the rest of the Syracusans were no more 
than the body in the batteries of Archimedes, whilst he was the informing soul. All 
other weapons lay idle and unemployed, his were the only offensive and defensive 
arms of the city.’

When the Romans  appeared  before  Syracuse,  its  citizens  were  filled  with 
terror,  for  they  imagined  they  could  not  possibly defend  themselves  against  so 
numerous and fierce an enemy.

But, Plutarch tells us, ‘Archimedes soon began to play his engines upon the 
Romans and  their  ships,  and  shot  against them  stones  of  such  an  enormous  size and with so incredible a noise and velocity that nothing could stand before them. 

The stones overturned and crushed whatever came in their way, and spread terrible 
disorder through the Roman ranks.  As for the machine which Marcellus brought 
upon  several  galleys  fastened  together,  called sambuca1 from  its  resemblance  to the musical instrument of that name ; whilst it was yet at a considerable distance, 
Archimedes discharged at it a stone of ten talents’ weight and, after that, a second 
stone and then a third one, all of which striking it with an amazing noise and force 
completely shattered it.2

‘Marcellus  in  distress  drew  off  his  galleys  as  fast  as  possible and sent 
to  his  land  forces  to  retire  likewise.  He  then  called  a  council  of  war,  in

1 Sambuca. A stringed instrument with cords of different lengths like a harp. The machine which Marcellus  brought  to  Syracuse  was  designed  to  lift  his  soldiers--in  small  parties  at  a  time  and  in  quick succession--over  the  battlements  of  the  town,  so  that  when  their  numbers  inside  it  were  sufficient  they might open its gates to the besiegers. The soldiers were intended to be hoisted on a platform, worked up and down by ropes and winches. As the machine was likened to a harp, it is probable it had a huge curved wooden arm fixed in an erect position and of the same shape as the modern crane used for loading vessels. 
If the arm of the sambuca had been straight like a mast, it could not have swung its load of men over a wall. Its further resemblance to a harp would be suggested by the ropes of which were employed for lifting the platform to the summit of the arm, these doubtless being fixed from the top to the foot of the engine.

2  It is, I consider, impossible that Archimedes, however marvelous the power of his engines, was able  to  project  a  stone  of  ten  Roman  talents  or  nearly 600 lbs.  in  weight,  to  a  considerable  distance! Plutrach probably refers to the talent of Sicily, which weighed about 10 lbs. A stone of ten Sicilian talents, or say 100 lbs., could have been thrown by a catapult of great strength and size.Though the trebuchet cast stones of from 200 lbs. to 300 lbs. and more, this weapon was not invented till long after the time of Archimedes. 

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HISTORICAL NOTES

which it was resolved to come close up to the walls of the city the next morning 
before  daybreak,  for  they  argued  that  the  engines  of  Archimedes,  being  very 
powerful and designed to act at a long distance, would discharge their projectiles 
high  over  their  heads.  But  for  this  Archimedes  had  been  prepared,  for  he  had engines  at  his  disposal  which  were  constructed  to  shoot  at  all  ranges. 

When, therefore the Romans came close to the wall, undiscovered as they thought, they were assailed with showers of darts, besides  huge pieces of rock  which fell asit were  perpendicularly  upon  their  heads,  for  the  engines  played  upon  them  from every quarter.

‘This obliged the Romans to retire, and when they were some way from the 
town  Archimedes  used  his  larger  machines  upon  them  as  they  retreated,  which made  terrible  havoc  among  them  as  well  as  greatly  damaged  their  shipping. 

Marcellus,  however,  derided  his  engineers  and  said,  “Why  do  we  not  leave  off contending with this geometrical Briareus, who sitting at ease and acting as if in 
jest has shamefully baffled our assaults, and in striking us with such a multitude of 
bolts at once exceeds even the hundred-handed giant of fable?”

‘At  length  the Romans were  so  terrified  that,  if  they  saw  but  a  rope  or  a 
beam  projecting  over  the  walls  of  Syracuse,  they  cried  out  that  Archimedes  was leveling some machine at them and turned their backs and fled.’

As  Marcellus  was  unable  to  control  with  the  machines  directed  by 
Archimedes  and  as  his  ships  and  army  had  suffered  severely  from  the  effects  of these  stone- and  javelin-casting  weapons,  he  changed  his  tactics  and  instead  of besieging the town he blockaded it and finally took it by surprise.

Though,  at  the  time  of  the  siege  of  Syracuse,  Archimedes  gained  a 
reputation  for  divine  rather  than  human  knowledge  in  regard  to  the  methods  he employed  in  the  defense  of  the  city,  he  left  no  description  of  his  wonderful engines, for he regarded them as mere mechanical appliances which were beneath his  serious  attention,  his  life  being  devoted  to  solving  abstruse  questions  of  mathematics and geometry.

Archimedes  was  slain  at  the  capture  of  Syracuse,  B.C.  212,  to  the  great 
regret of Marcellus. 

The following extracts from Josephus, as translated by Whiston, enable us 
to form an excellent idea of the effects of great catapults in warfare :

(1) Wars  Of  the  Jews,  Book  III.,  Chapter  VII .- The  siege  of  Jotapata,
A.D 67. ‘ Vespasian then set the engines for throwing stones and darts round about 
the city ; the number of the engines was in all a hundred and sixty. . . .  At the 
same  time  such  engines  as  were  intended  for  that  purpose  threw  their  spears
buzzing forth, and stones of the weight of a talent were thrown by the engines that 
were prepared for doing so. . . 

‘But still Josephus and those with him, although  they  fell  down  dead  one 

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Catapult History - History of Catapults from Archimedes to Cortez
 
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