A Ballistic Revolution For The Greeks

Nathaniel Dekin

Richard Hirsh

History of Technology

October 13, 2018

Siege warfare in the ancient world was very different for the attacking force who only had a small handful of basic and challenging tactics they could use. These ranged from using battering rams to digging tunnels and even building ramps out of earth to gain elevation over a fortress.1 Tactical mindsets quickly changed when a new era of siege weapons emerged in ancient Greece in the 4th century. These weapons were catapults, military machines that hurled projectiles, that quickly became a great force on the battlefield.2 There were many different types of catapults that emerged but by far the one that was the most interesting is the ballista.

The first catapult saw creation in a small town called Syracuse in Greece by the Greek elder Dionysius. The innovation underwent development during the two-year siege of Syracuse, in which Dionysius and several Greek engineers came together to create a weapon to end the long conflict.3 The result resembled a large crossbow called a Gastraphete which enabled the Greeks to end the siege of Syracuse, allowing them to take the city. Impressed with its design, the Greeks created a larger version of the weapon called the ballista.4

When the ballista became a formidable weapon, two types were created that each launched different munitions. The “Lithobolos,” which fired large stones and the “Katapeltēs oxybelēs,” which fired large bolts. Both of these weapons were capable of impressive accuracy with ranges of up to 300 meters.5 The ballista functioned by having two spoked cranks at the rear of the machine which pulled back the weapons large bow.6 The spokes enabled only two men were needed to operate the weapon. The ballista then fitted with a projectile, launched it by releasing the tension of the bow. When released, a bolt could severely weaken the walls of enemy forts and could also pierce armor with ease, making the weapon a terror for the opposing soldiers.5

The ballista had a significant impact on the military powers of the time such as Alexander The Great, who was the first person to use the weapon in battle. Alexander used the ballista to support troops on the ground, and sieges allowing the Greeks to capture civilizations with ease. Due to the effectiveness of this technology, warfare began to change resulting in civilizations adapting their battle strategies and creating weapons similar to the ballista, such as the Roman Scorpio ballista.6

However, the ballista did have a series of flaws. It was difficult to construct, meaning that there would be a limited number during wartime and the firing rate of the weapon was considerably slow. It is because of its strengths that the ballista was a significant weapon and an important part of siege warfare. Although, the weapon probably played a smaller role in the expansion of empires due to its limited numbers and flaws.


(480 words)



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2.”Catapult.” Dictionary.com. Accessed October 17, 2018. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/catapult.

8.Alexander, Leigh. “The Origin of Greek and Roman Artillery.” The Classical Journal 41, no. 5 (1946): 208-12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3291885.

9.Khera, Khushal, Anmol Bhatia, Sanjay Kumar, and Shailesh Mahawal. “Design & Manufacturing of a Simple Catapult.” Inpressco.com. October 31, 2014. Accessed October 17, 2018. http://inpressco.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Paper33810-3813.pdf.

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