Catapult Makers: Rock Stars of Antiquity

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
February 5, 2004

Ancient catapults were state-of-the-art weapons of unequalled power—but how powerful were the military engineers who created them?

"Both the engineers and their achievements were an important part of ancient society," writes Serafina Cuomo, of Imperial College London's Centre for the History of Science. "In antiquity," she added, "catapults not only changed the art of war, but also inaugurated a new era in the relations between political power and technical experts."

Cuomo's recent interpretation, entitled The Sinews of War: Ancient Catapults, is published in the February 6 issue of the journal Science.

Science on the Ancient Battlefield

The making of catapults, known as "belopoietics" (poietike meaning "making of"; belos meaning "projectile or projectile-throwing device") required an ingenious combination of geometry, physics, and technology.

The fearsome machines terrorized battlefields and sieges until the proliferation of gunpowder. Their power was impressive and terrifying. Roman catapults could hurl 60-pound (27-kilogram) boulders some 500 feet (150 meters). Archimedes' machines were said to have been able to throw stones three times as heavy.

The origins of the catapult are unknown. They appear in the historical record as early as a 9th-century B.C. relief from Nimrud in modern-day Iraq.

Early Greek catapults were large bows that included winches able to draw the weapon for firing.

At some point, possibly under Phillip II of Macedonia (382-336 B.C.), father of Alexander the Great, bow arms were replaced by tight bundles of sinew or rope which functioned as "springs."

By the 4th century B.C. catapults were quickly becoming popular throughout the Mediterranean. That technological creep may have stemmed from events like those depicted in a popular ancient story of Dionysius—ruler of the Sicilian city of Syracuse.

In 399 B.C., according to the account of Diodorus of Sicily, Dionysius gathered craftsmen from all the cities in his domain. Motivating them with high wages, gifts, and personal praise, he spurred them to construct great numbers and types of weapons. Cuomo describes the strategy as "an inspiring example of policy-driven research."

But was that gathering of top technical minds really responsible for increasing and dispersing knowledge of catapult-building?

Continued on Next Page >>


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