Sticks and Stones (Research Paper)


Nothing sounds more Roman than hurling a 3ft bolt through the chests of several enemy soldiers at once (Kinard). The screams of pain indicate the culprit of the carnage, the ballista. The ballista made its way onto the battlefield near the first century AD and changed the landscape of war history to come (Penta, Rossi and Savino). The war innovation may be rather simple, but in the hands of the Romans, opposing forces would tremble at the thought of it (Kinard).

The ballista, developed first in the Greek empire, was created as a war machine (McNab). Julius Caesar commissioned the production of 30 ballistae per legion under his command for artillery purposes in 55BCE. The need for production emerged from the need for versatile cover fire (Kinard). Two types of ballistae existed to serve certain purposes for the Roman Empire. The first design, shooting large stones between 5-60 lbs. chosen meticulously before a battle, served siege purposes primarily, but did not fail at mutilating bodies (Kinard; Garrison). The other shot bolts. The version that shot bolts could be stationary or mounted on the back of a wagon to create a highly mobile weapon (Penta, Rossi and Savino). These bolts became favorable in comparison to the stones due to the penetrating aspect, each capable of traveling 300 m at a speed of 115 mph upon impact (Credland; Kinard).

In the technical sense, the ballista falls short from the word complex, but several technologies were needed to make it work correctly.  Both the rock throwing and bolt varieties have the same general design with slight modifications to the size of the channel, the part where the projectile sits and is ejected from (Whitehorn). The power that propels the load out of the object out of the ballista with such great force comes from the two-arm design in conjunction with the skein, made from twisted fibers such as hair or leather (Whitehorn; Credland; McNab). The machine, cocked using a set of winches on a drum pulling the string back using metal claws, implemented a tripping device for holding and releasing tension (Whitehorn). The release, in turn, sends the projectile flying out at an aggressive rate of speed and precision (Whitehorn). The precision far outdoes the catapult, also prevalent in this period making the ballista the weapon of choice for most tasks (Credland; Whitehorn).

This figure shows the main mechanisms of the bolt shooting variety of ballista (Whitehorn)


The social impact of the ballista may have meant more to its success rather than the results of warfare. The device put fear into the hearts of anyone on the other end of the death machine. Although it could not kill thousands of people in one shot, the ballista did give the Romans a psychological edge in battle (Kinard). Josephus, a Roman historian during the Roman Empire, wrote about his personal observations surrounding the device, most of which included the nauseating scenes created upon the battlefield (Kinard). People did not want to fight in the wake of the ballista. The ballista called for the need for new fighting methods as well as better fortifications (Credland; Kinard).

Word Count: 507


Credland, Arthur C. “Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey Bt. And the Study of Medieval and Ancient Projectile Weapons.” Arms & Armour 8.1 (2011): 46-88. Print.

Garrison, James V. “Casting Stones: Ballista, Stones as Weapons, and Death by Stoning.” Brigham Young University Studies 36.3 (1996): 350-62. Print.

Kinard, Jeff. “Artillery; an Illustrated History of Its Impact.” Reference & Research Book News 2007/11// 2007. Print.

McNab, Chris. “Roman Ballista.” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 2016 Autumn 2016: 23+. Print.

Penta, Francesco, Cesare Rossi, and Sergio Savino. “Mechanical Behavior of the Imperial Carroballista.” Mechanism and Machine Theory 80 (2014): 142-50. Print.

Whitehorn, J. N. “The Catapult and the Ballista.” Greece and Rome 15.44 (1946): 49-60. Print.

One Reply to “Sticks and Stones (Research Paper)”

  1. As a classical historian, I’ve become quite familiar with the usage of ballistas and ancient artillery in general. Whats impressive about the ballista is that it remained in use for centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire as an effective siege engine. There are records of it being used as late as the 13th century during the Siege of Dover in England, over 1,500 years after it was adopted by the Roman Republic from the Greeks.

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