|Catapult History - Ancient Roman Catapults
It is, indeed, impossible to find a complete working plan of any one
old weapons, a perfect design being only obtainable by consulting many
authorities, and, it may be said, piecing
together the details of construction they
We have no direct evidence as to when the engines for throwing projectiles
It does not appear that King Shalmaneser II. of Assyria (859-825 B.C.)
any, for none are depicted on the bonze doors of the palace of Baliwat,
now in the
British Museum, on which his campaigns
are represented, though his other
weapons of attack and defense are clearly shown.
The earliest allusion is the one in the Bible, where we read of Uzziah,
reigned from B.C. 808-9 to B.C. 756-7.
‘Uzziah made in Jerusalem engines
invented by cunning men, to be
on the towers and upon the bulwarks,
to shoot arrows and great stones withal.” (2 Chronicles xxvi. 15.)
Diodorus tells us that the engines were first seen about 400 B.C.,
when Dionysisu of Syracuse organized
his great expedition against the
Carthaginians (397 B.C.) there was a genius among the experts collected
over the world, and that this man
designed the engines that cast stones
From the reign of Dionysius and for many subsequent centuries, or till
the close of the fourteenth, projectile-throwing engines are constantly
by military historians.
But it was not till the reign of Philip of Macedon (360-336 B.C.) and
his son Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) that their improvement
attended to and their value in warfare fully recognized.
As before stated, the Romans adopted the engines from the Greeks.
Vitruvius and other historians tell us this, and even copy their descriptions
of them from the Greek authors, though too often with palpable inaccuracy.
To ascertain the power and mechanism
of these ancient engines a very
close study of all the old authors who wrote about them is essential,
with a view to
extracting here and there useful facts
amid what are generally verbose and
There is no doubt that the engines made and used by the Romans after
conquest of Greece (B.C. 146), in
the course of two or three centuries
became inferior to the original machines previously constructed by the
Greek artificers.There efficiency chiefly suffered
because the art of manufacturing their important
parts was gradually neglected and allowed to become lost.
FIG. 2. – A SIEGE.
Criticism.-The picture is open to the spectator in order that he
may see both defenders and besiegers at work.
The besieged have just cast a stone from a catapult. The stone
is falling on the movable tower belonging to the attacking side. From Polybius.
For instance, how to make the skein of
sinew that bestowed the very life
and existence on every projectile-casting engine of the ancients.
The tendons of which the sinew was composed, the animals from which
was taken, and the manner in which it was prepared, we can never learn
Every kind of sinew, or hair or
ropes, with which I have experimented,
either breaks or loses its elasticity in a comparatively short time,
if great pressure
is applied. It has then to be renewed at no small outlay of expense
Rope skeins, with which we are obliged to fit our models, cannot possibly
strength and above all in elasticity, skeins of animal sinew or even
The formation of the arm or arms of an engine, whether it is a catapult
its single upright arm or a ballista with its pair of lateral ones
is another difficulty
which cannot now be overcome, for we have no idea how these arms were
sustain the great strain they had to endure.
We know that the arm of a large engine was composed of several spars
wood and lengths of thick sinew fitted longitudinally, and then bound
broad strips of raw hide which would afterwards set nearly as hard
and tight as a
sheath of metal.
We know this, but we do not know the secret of making a light and flexible
arm of sufficient strength to bear such a strain as was formerly applied
to it in a
catapult or a ballista.
Certainly, by shaping an arm of
great thickness we can produce one
will not fracture, but substance implies weight, and undue weight prevents
from acting with the speed requisite to cast its projectile with good
A heavy and ponderous arm of solid
wood cannot, of course, rival in
lightness and effectiveness a composite one of wood, sinew and hide.
The former is necessarily inert and
slow in its action of slinging a stone,
while the latter would, in comparison, be as quick and lively as a
When the art of producing the perfected machines of the Greeks was
they were replaced by less effective contrivances.
If the knowledge of constructing the great
catapult of the ancients in its
original perfection had been retained,
such a clumsy engine as the medieval
trebuchet would never have gained popularity.
The trebuchet derived its power from the gravity
of an immense weight at one end of its pivoted arm tipping up the other
end, to which a sling was attached for throwing a stone.
As regards range, there could be no comparison between the efficiency
Catapult History - Ancient Roman Catapults