Ancient Greek Artillery Technology from Catapults to the Architronio Canon

”Archimedes,” said Lucius, “we know that without your war machinery Syracuse wouldn’t have held out for a month; as it is, we’ve had a rough two years because of them. Don’t think we soldiers don’t appreciate that. They’re superb machines. My congratulations.”
Archimedes waved his hand. “Please, they’re nothing really. Ordinary hurling mechanisms—mere toys, that’s all. Scientifically, they have little value.
Karel Capek, Apocryphal Tales

Bows (the first machine invented by man?) were used at least since 8000 BC according to cave paintings in 'les Dogues' (Castellón, France). Probably bows were invented much earlier (around 20000 BC). The word Catapult comes from the Greek words kata and peltes. (Kata means downward and peltes describes a small shield ). Catapult means therefore shield piercer. Catapults were first invented about 400 BC in the Greek town Syracus under Dionysios I (c. 432-367 BC). The Greek engineers first constructed a comparatively small machine, the gastraphetes (belly-bow), a version of a crossbow. The gastraphetes is a large bow mounted on a case, one end of which rested on the belly of the person using it. When the demands of war required a faster, stronger weapon, the device was enlarged, and a winch pull-back system and base were added.
Technology of Catapults (belopoietic from belos (arrow or it is better to say a bolt) and poiw make) was a key part of ancient mechanics, a branch of mathematics that also included fortification building, statics, and pneumatics.

Many, though, have begun the construction of weapons of the same size, and have made use of the same system of rules, the same types of wood, and the same amounts of iron, and have kept to the same weight, yet of these some have made machines that throw their missiles far and with great force, while those made by others have lagged behind their specifications. When asked why this happened, the latter have been at a loss for an answer. So it is appropriate to warn the prospective engineer of the saying of Polykleitos the sculptor: perfection, he said, comes about little by little [para mikron] through many numbers. And in the same way, as far as concerns our science, it happens that in many of the items that go to make up the machine a tiny deviation is made each time, resulting in a large cumulative error.
Philo Mechanicus

Later, weapons fired by torsion bars powered by horsehair and ox tendon (the Greeks called this material neuron ) springs could fire arrows, stones, and pots of burning pitch along a parabolic arc. Some of these machines were quite large and heavy and this were thus mounted on wheels to improve tactical mobility and deployment. The production method is not known.

Flexion based Artillery

Oxybeles (Οξυβόλος) (Greek word that means bolt shooter)


The Gastraphetes (γαστραφέτης), a form of primitive crossbow that fired a wooden bolt on a flat trajectory along a slot in the aiming rod. Main components (syrinx / pipe and diostra / slider). Could reach a bow length of 15 feet and could fire a stone of 40 pounds some 200 to 300 yards. Mainly known from Heron of Alexandria references. It was used successfully during the siege of Motya, a Carthaginian island fortress on the west end of Sicily, in 397 BC and Greek engineers improved further the capabilities of the device reaching its physical limitations. The army of Dionysius I surprised the Carthaginias with the newly developed gastraphetes with its larger range. The desciption of Heron of Alexandria is based on an older by Ctesibius.

Torsion based Artillery

The principle of torsion was probably discovered by artificers working in Macedonia under Philip II and Polyidus between 353 and 341 BC. There exists no hint of torsion catapults before Philip's reign. Ath the siege of Perinthus and Byzantium (340 BC) Philip deployed torsion arrow-shooting catapults. Marsden, Invention of the catapult

Torsion catapults probably around 340 BC. Inscriptions from the Chalkothek on the Acropolis of Athens mentions torsion spring catapults at about 330 BC. Oxybeles could pierce a shield and armor of warrior in 400 meter distance.

It was Philip of Macedon who first organized a special group of artillery engineers within his army to design and build catapults. Philip's use of siegecraft allowed Greek science and engineering an opportunity to contribute to the art of war, and by the time of Demetrios I (305 B.C.), known more commonly by his nickname "Poliorcetes" (the Besieger), Greek inventiveness in military engineering was probably the best in the ancient world.

Alexander the Great used catapults in a completely different way -- as covering artillery. Alexander's army carried prefabricated catapults that weighed only 85 pounds. Larger machines were dismantled and carried along in wagons. Alexander's engineers contributed a number of new ideas. Major Greek cities adopted the use of catapults and owned a park of torsion artillery.

Palintonon or Ballista

Cheiroballista (Two lever)

The Cheiroballistra (called Manuballista by the Romans), a device that hurls arrows over a large distance. Some say that it was actually written around 100 AD (after Heron). As an inventor Apollodorus of Damascus is proposed working for the Roman army.

In this particular engine, the springs are stretched in two separate metal casings. A metal stud was attached the top of each of the field frames, to hold them together. Another stud was attached to the bottom of the field frames and the base of the engine, to hold the spring casings in place (Marsden 209). Heron's cheiroballistra represents the most advanced two-armed torsion engine used by the Roman army.


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