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Catapult History - History of Roman and English Catapults

HISTORICAL NOTES ON ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL SIEGE
ENGINES AND THEIR EFFECTS IN WARFARE

IT is evident that a history of ancient siege engines cannot be created de novo. All 
that  can  be  done  is  to  quote  with  running  criticism  what  has  been  written  about them. 

The  first  mention  of  ballistas  and  catapults  is  to  be  found  in  the  Old 
Testament, two allusions to these weapons being made therein.

The references are :

2 Chronicles  xxvii.15,  ‘And  he1 made  in  Jerusalem  engines,  invented  by 
cunning  men,  to  be  on  the  towers  and  upon  the  bulwarks,  to  shoot  arrows  and great stones withal.’

Ezekiel xxvi. 9, ‘And he shall set engines of war against thy walls’. 
Through the latter extract is not so positive in its wording as the one first 
given, it undoubtedly refers to engines that cast either stones or arrows against the 
walls, especially as the prophet previously alludes to other means of assault. 
One  of  the  most  authentic  descriptions  of  the  use  of  the  great  missive 
engines is to be found in the account by Plutarch of the siege of Syracuse by the 
Romans 214-212 B.C.

Cesar in his Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil wars, B.C. 58-50, frequently 
mentions the engines which accompanied him in his expeditions. 

The ballistas on wheels were harnessed to mules and called carro-ballistas.
The carro-ballista discharged its heavy arrow over the head of the animal to 
which  the  shafts  of  the  engine  were  attached.  Among  the  ancients  these  carro-ballistas  acted  as  field  artillery  and  one  is  plainly  shown  in  use  on  Trajan’s Column.

According  to  Vegetius,  every  cohort  was  equipped  with  one  catapult  and 
every century with one carro-ballista ; eleven soldiers being required to work the 
latter engine.

1Uzziah.

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THE ACTION OF THE TREBUCHET

Fig. 20. -- THE ACTION OF THE TREBUCHET.
A. The arm pulled down and secured by the slip-hook previous to unhooking the rope of the windlass.  B. The arm released from the slip-hook and casting the stone out of its sling.  C. The arm at the end of its upward sweep.

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HISTORICAL NOTES

Sixty  carro-ballistas  accompanied,  therefore,  besides  ten  catapults,  a  legion. 

The catapults were drawn along with the army on great carts yoked to oxen.

In  the  battles  and  sieges  sculptured  on  Trajan’s Column  there  are  several 
figures  of  ballistas  and  catapults.  This  splendid monument was  erected  in Rome, 105-113, to commemorate the victories of Trajan over the Dacians, and constitutes 
a pictorial record in carved stone contain some 2,500 figures of men and horses. 

It  is  astonishing  what  a  large  number  of  catapults  and  ballistas  were 
sometimes  used  in  a  siege.  For  instance,  at  the conquest  of  Carthage,  B.C.  146, 120 great catapults and 200 small ones were taken from the defenders, besides 33great ballistas and 52 small ones (Livy).1

Abulfaragio (Arab historian, 1226-1286) records that at the siege of Acre in 
1191, 300 catapults and ballistas were employed by Richard I. and Philip II. 
Abbo, a monk of Saint German des Pris, in his poetic but very detailed account of 
the siege of Paris by thee Northmen in 885, 886, writes ‘that the besieged had a 
hundred catapults on the walls of the town’.2

Among  our  earlier  English  King’s  Edward  I.  was  the  best  versed  in 
projectile weapons large and small, including crossbows and longbows. 
In the Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, an account is given of 
his ‘War-wolf,’ a siege engine in the construction of which he was much interested 
and which was no doubt a trebuchet.

This machine was of immense strength and size, and took fifty carpenters 
and  five  foremen  a  long  time  to  complete.  Edward  designed  it  for  the  siege  of Stirling, whither its parts were sent by land and by sea.

Sir Walter de Bedewyne, writing to a friend on July 20, 1304 (see Calendar 
of State Documents relating to Scotland), says : ‘As for news, Stirling Castle was 
absolutely surrendered to the king without conditions this Monday, St. Margaret’s 
Day, but the King wills it that none of his people enter the castle till it is struck 
with his “War-wolf,” and that those within the castle defend themselves from the 
said “War-wolf” as best they can.’

From  this  it  is  evident  that  Edward, having  constructed  his ‘War-wolf’  to 
cast heavy stones into the castle of Stirling to induce its garrison to surrender was 
much disappointed by their capitulation before he had an opportunity of testing the 
power of his new weapon.

1 Just previous to the famous defense of Carthage, the Carthaginians surrendered to the Romans ’two hundred thousand suits of amour and a countless number of arrows and javelins, besides catapults for shooting swift bolts and for throwing stones to the number of two thousand.’ From Appian of Alexandria, a Greek writer who flourished 98-161.

2 These were probably ballistas, as Ammianus Marcellinus writes of the catapult, ‘An engine of this kind placed on a stone wall shatters whatever is beneath it, not by its weight but by the violence of its shock when discharged.’

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Catapult History - History of Roman and English Catapults
 
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