Ancient Catapults

By Werner Soedel and Vernard Foley Scientific American, March 1979, pp. 150 - 160 In 399 B.C. Dionysius the Elder, ruler of the Greek colony of Syracuse in Sicily, prepared his city for a long war with Carthage by undertaking search and development program. Utilizing such now familiar techniques as the assembly of large teams of specialists, the division of labor to break down the tasks into manageable units, and the provision of financial and psychological incentives. Dionysius clearly aimed from the outset at the production of novel weapons. Out of the program came quadriremes and possibly quinqueremes, ships with the equivalent of four or five banks of oars and so with more potential power behind their rams than the standard three bank triremes. Dionysius' engineers also devised the first catapults.

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The Ballista

The Roman engineers wanted a bigger machine with a greater range, so in 50 b.C., they invented the ballista. The ballista was, unlike the Greek Catapulta, built almost entirely out of wood. The ballista used an older spring frame type that was more powerful as the arms could travel further, but it was also more expensive so it was used primarily for big stone throwing machines. The ballista also had the ratchet device on the outside, made out of steel. It was larger than the catapulta, in fact, some of the machines were the biggest ever made in the Roman period! They were also very expensive, because of the size and of the older, but more powerful spring frame.

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Greek Artillery

Ancient Greek Artillery Technology: From Catapults to the Architronio Canon - 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. Thegastraphetes 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.

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