You are on page 1of 24

arms & armour, Vol. 12 No.

1, Spring 2015, 6789

Performance of GreekRoman Artillery

Cesare Rossi
Sergio Savino
Dept. of Industrial Engineering, University of Federico II

Arcangelo Messina
Giulio Reina
Dept. of Engineering for Innovation, University of Salento, Lecce

The main throwing machines invented and used by the Greeks and adopted,
more widely, by Roman armies are examined. The kinematics and dynamics
of both light and heavy GreekRoman artillery are used in order to accu-
rately assess its performance. Thus, a better understanding is obtained of
the tactics and strategies of the legions of the Roman Empire as well as the
reasons for some brilliant campaigns. Reconstructions of a repeating cata-
pult, considered to be the ancestor of the modern machine gun, are also
presented. The development of the mechanical design of such machines is
discussed and pictorial reconstructions proposed.

keywords ancient throwing machines, history of warfare, catapults, Roman weaponry.

It is well-known that the Roman legions took advantage of a skilled corps of e ngineers
during their campaigns. Perhaps the best example is represented by the most famous
Roman engineer: Vitruvius (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio 7080 BC to after 15 AD). He
authored the very famous engineering treatise De architectura, whose 10th book was
dedicated to the war machines. Moreover, Vitruvius probably was a high officer
(praefectus fabrum) of the corps of military engineers during the campaigns of Julius
Cesar in Gallia and in Britain.
His considerable knowledge of the field of military engineering, allowed the legions
to have a considerable advantage as far as both tactics and strategy were concerned.
In fact, the possibility of rapidly built roads allowed legions to be quickly moved,
while the wide number of different war machines including rams, siege towers and
other siege engines, throwing machines etc., gave the legions a big advantage over

The Trustees of the Armouries 2015 DOI 10.1179/1741612415Z.00000000050

68 CESARE ROSSI et al.

less technologically developed peoples that represented the largest part of the world
of those times. Among these engines, the throwing machines are particularly interest-
ing. They represented the ancient artillery, both light and heavy, and included pieces
to be used in the sieges for static warfare and pieces to be used in open field battles
as heavy artillery and as infantry support gun or battalion gun. This is why so many
authors have studied ancient throwing machines.122
Therefore, it is interesting to study both the kinematics and the dynamics of these
machines in depth in order to assess their performance, and, thus, to better under-
stand the tactics and strategies of the legions and of the Roman Empire and, conse-
quently, the development of some brilliant campaigns and battles. These engines are
described as GreekRoman since, generally, they were invented by the Greeks but
standardized for mass production and widely used by the Romans.
In addition, this study reveals that the knowledge of mechanics was surprisingly
advanced, although this field is probably less well than others because archaeological
finds are less evident, smaller and sometimes unrecognized.

The motors
First of all, it is necessary to describe the motors of these throwing machines. It is
well-known that one of the first throwing devices was the bow, which works on the
principle of flexion. Essentially, an elastic rod is flexed to store elastic energy and,
when released, the rod s this elastic energy to a projectile as kinetic energy. The early
throwing machines, capable of throwing stones and big arrows or javelins, were built
on the same principle. In Figure 1 some pictorial reconstructions of these flexion-
based throwing machines are represented1,2. In Figure 1A and 1B the pictorial recon-
struction of static flexion motor catapults are shown; in Figure 1C a gastraphetes, a
type of big crossbow, is depicted.
Throwing machines, whose motor is based on the elastic energy generated by the
flexion of a rod, cannot generally reach a high level of performance because such a
motor does not allow heavy projectiles to be thrown with a relatively high velocity.
Therefore, in the third century BC, a different kind of motor became common in
practically all the artillery pieces: the torsion motor, which was small and powerful
and provide a superior performance.
The Greeks from Syracuse developed the first catapults, as the result of engi-
neering research funded by the tyrant Dionysius the Elder in the fourth century
BC.2,3 Special mathematical and technical skills were necessary to build and main-
tain a catapult. All the surviving catapult specifications imply that an optimum
configuration was indeed reached. Archimedes, either invented or improved a
device that would remain one of the most important forms of warfare technol-
ogy for almost two millennia: the catapult. Later, during Alexander the Great's
times, catapults were the big advantage for conquering central Asia. The last
major improvement in catapult design came in later Roman times, when the basic
material of the frame was changed from wood to iron. This innovation made

figure 1 Flexion throwing machines.

possible a reduction in size, an increase in stress levels and a greater freedom of

stroke for the bow arms. The new open frame also simplified aiming, which with
the wood construction of the earlier machines had been limited, particularly for
close moving targets. Therefore such artillery pieces, powered by torsion motors,
are considered in more depth.

The torsion motor

This motor consisted of a strong wooden square frame, reinforced by iron straps,
divided into three separate sections. The central section was used to insert the shaft
of the weapons, whereas the sides were for the two coils of twisted rope. These coils
were made by a bundle of elastic fibres: bovine sinews, horsehair or womens hair23;
the latter natural fibres had the best mechanical properties and were the most widely
used. In Figure 2, a motor of a Roman catapult is shown; on the left a specimen found
in Xantem, Germany, is reported, in the middle a pictorial exploded view1,2, and a
bundle of fibres on the right.
Design rules and concepts were practised extensively by the engineers of ancient
times leading to machine design from single machine elements to the design of a
machine as a whole system. One of the main steps was represented by the estab-
lishment of the optimum ratio between the diameter and the length of the coil.13
Inside the coils, arms were fitted; at the other end of each of the arms, a rope was
affixed, like the ends of an archery bow. The last major improvement in catapult
design was achieved during the Roman Empire when the most stressed components
70 CESARE ROSSI et al.

figure 2 Propulsor of a Roman catapult: remains found at Xantem, Germany (left) and
reconstruction (right).

of these machines were made by metal (iron and bronze) allowing a reduction in
size, an increase in the maximum stress levels and greater freedom of travel for the
bow arms.3
The design of GreekRoman throwing machines was based on a module, i.e. the
diameter of the modiolus marked in Figures 2 and 3. Probably, the first ancient scien-
tist who stated the relationship between the weight of the projectile and the modulus
diameter was Archimedes of Syracuse. From Philon of Byzantium24 to Vitruvius,25
all the throwing machines designers and theoreticians say that this relationship is:

D = 1.1 3 100 m (1)

where D is the diameter of the modiolus (hence of the hair bundle) in digits
(1 digit 19.5 mm)
m is the mass of the projectile in minae (1 mina 431 g).
According to ancient engineers, (e.g. Philon of Byzantium and Vitruvius), the
design of the machines was modular: all the main components and parts were sized
as a multiple or a sub-multiple of a modiolus. Thus, even if only a part of an ancient
machine is found, it is still possible to evaluate the weight of the projectile and its
energy. That is to say, once the diameter of the modiolus was stated as described, all
the other main dimensions of the machine were referred to this dimension. Figure 3
shows a scheme of a ballista and a particular of the frame with the modioli.

figure 3Schematic
drawing of a ballista.

As for the design of this machine, Vitruvius24 is meticulous in giving the ratios
between the diameter of the modiolus and all the other main dimensions of the
A = 7D,
B = 3+ D,
C ~ 0.5D (this datum is deduced by some relicts),
E = 1D,
F = 4D,
d1 = 9/16D, diameter of the arm near the bundle, and
d2 = 7/16D, diameter of the arm near the rope.
From the results, we deduce that the bundle length L was 7 times its diameter D.
If we consider that about D of the hair bundles are reasonably blocked in the
modioli, we can consider that the coil of fibres that really were twisted by the arm A
had a ratio L/D = 0.5.
The L/D ratio between the length of the bundle and its diameter was decisive for
obtaining the maximum energy from the bundle itself. Figure 4 summarizes some
of the results on a model of the fibres bundle.1,5 In the upper part of Figure 4 the
maximum bundle torsion (beyond the tensile stress limit) as a function of L/D ratio
is reported. In the lower part of Figure 4, the energy that is possible to store in a
bundle is reported as a function of the bundle rotation for a few L/D ratios and for a
given value of the Youngs modulus. In Figure 4, the maximum elastic energy which
corresponds to a given stress limit is also reported. All the graphs were obtained
considering the same bundle volume, i.e. bundles in which it was possible to store
the same energy; that is to say, the horizontal line marked with Emax represents the
elastic energy that corresponds, for each bundle, to a rotation over which the external
hair stress exceeds the proportionality limit.
If operating arm rotation angles and bundle L/D ratios are considered for ballis-
tae and catapults, from Figure 4 it is possible to conclude that those machines were
designed with ancient engineers having a thorough understanding of the mechanics
72 CESARE ROSSI et al.

figure 4 Effect of
varying the bundle
L/D ratio.

of those devices. From Figure 4, it is evident that the higher the L/D ratio, the wider
the arm rotation must be in order to store the maximum possible elastic energy in
the bundle. Moreover, from the figure it is noted that the lower the L/D ratio, the
greater the slope of the curve. As far as this aspect is concerned, we can observe that
steeper slopes correspond to a faster release of energy when throwing the projectile.
This last aspect is similar to what happens for firearms where, with heavy projectiles,
slow burning powders are used whereas with light projectiles, quick burning powders
are used. This suggests that high L/D ratios for the bundle could have been used for
machines throwing heavier projectiles and, perhaps, with higher efficiency.

The torsion artillery

The term torsion artillery is used to refer to those throwing machines whose motor
was the torsion elastic bundle described in the previous paragraph. First of all, a few
words must be said about terminology. The word catapult comes from the Greek
( = through and = shield). During the Roman Empire the word catapulta
was used for a machine that throws darts, while the word ballista (from the Greek
= to throw) was used for a machine that throws balls. During the Middle
Ages the words were used with the opposite meaning: ballista for a dart throwing
machine and catapult for a ball throwing one. Another throwing machine was part
of the GreekRoman armies: the onager. In contrast to the previous machines that
gave to the projectile a rather smooth trajectory, the onager (in Latin onagrum) had
a high-arcing ballistic trajectory. Finally, it must be said that ballistae and catapults,

from a mechanical and architectural point of view, were quite similar, having the
same mechanical architecture represented in Figure 3. The onager, however, was
rather different.

The ballista
Figure 5 shows a pictorial reconstruction of the ballista,1,2 according with the data
by Vitruvius.25
Around the second century BC, Biton of Byzantium tells about an important
improvement in throwing machine design. According to several authors,8,20,21 many
machines begin to be built having a new design often called palintone, from the
ancient Greek root (palin) that means newly. In these new machines, the arms
are mounted inside the mainframe, whereas in traditional machines (called euthytone)
the arms were outside the mainframe. The palintone design, obviously, allowed larger
rotations of the arms with the probable advantages reported above. Figure 6 shows
schemes of the euthytone and of the palintone design.
In Figure 7, a pictorial reconstruction of the great ballista, the remains of which
were found in Hatra (actually al-Hadr in Iraq) is represented.8 The latter was a gigan-
tic machine designed to throw very heavy projectiles (up to 33 kg for some relics)
and, according to what was computed in Figure 4, its arms had a wider rotation.
Moreover, from the relics, it was found that the bundle casings were designed for
bundles having an approximate L/D ratio of 9.8, 20

figure 5Pictorial
reconstruction of the
ballista of Vitruvius.
74 CESARE ROSSI et al.

figure 6Schemes
of A the euthytone
and B the palintone

figure 7 Pictorial reconstruction of

the great ballista of Hatra.

Using the information that Vitruvius gives about its dimensional design, kinematic
and dynamic models of such machines were obtained1,5 and, thence, the elastic energy
stored in the bundle was calculated, giving a measurement of the performance of these
machines. The results1,5 showed that these machines threw stones having a muzzle
velocity of about 104 m s1 for the euthytone and about 124 m s1 for the palintone.
The projectile trajectories from this type of machine were computed by using a
simple model for the air drag force R:

R= Cv V2A v (2)
where Cv is the drag coefficient for a rough sphere 0.5, is the mass density of the
air = 1225 kg m3, V is the speed (module with its unit vector v) of the projectile,
and A is the area of the projectiles cross section.

The differential equations governing the motion can be obtained by projecting

along the classical horizontal rightward, x(t), and vertical upward direction, y(t), the
following vector equation:

m a (P) + Cv VA V(P) m g = 0 (3)
where P is the vector configuring the position of the projectile for any instant of time.
Equation (3) was numerically solved. Equations 13 were applied in the following

Euthytone ballista
A medium-sized ballista consisted of a throwing projectile having a mass of 10 Roman
minae = 4.31 kg in the form of an almost spherical stone of about 149 mm diameter.
Because the computed initial velocity of 100 m s1 was almost the maximum value for
such a machine in very good condition, it seemed more realistic, for a machine used
in battle, to consider an initial velocity of 95 m s1 giving an initial energy of about
10% lower than the maximum energy that the machine could achieve.
Table 1 gives examples of range figures, including the angle of elevation , the
range, the maximum height reached by the projectile, the velocity at the impact Vf,
the angle at the impact , and the time of flight Tf for elevation angles of 5, 10,
20 and 30. Figure 8 shows the trajectories for the same conditions.

Palintone ballista
For the palintone, a 10% decrease in the maximum energy was also considered,
thus the projectile initial velocity was assumed to be 118 m s1. Because this
machine architecture was often conceived for large machines, a 40 minae = 21.55 kg
projectile consisting of an almost spherical stone having about 254 mm diameter
was considered. Table 2 and Figure 9 give the corresponding range figures and
As for the terminal effect of those projectiles, it is interesting to observe the holes
produced by stone balls thrown against the walls of the city of Pompeii8 during
Lucius Cornelius Sillas siege in 89 AC. One such hole is shown in Figure 10; each
ruler mark is 10 cm, so the holes have a diameter of almost 150 mm, i.e. the same as
the projectile considered for the example given in Table 1 and Figure 8.

figure 8Trajectories
for the euthytone
(axes expressed in
76 CESARE ROSSI et al.


(deg) Range (m) hmax (m) Vf (m s1) (deg) Tf (s)

5 141.6 3.3 79.8 5.6 1.6

10 252 12.3 70 12.3 3
20 406.2 43.7 59.7 27.1 6
30 491 87.3 56.9 41.3 8.4


(deg) Range (m) hmax (m) Vf (m/s) (deg) Tf

5 221 5.1 110.7 5.5 2
10 396.5 19.2 89.1 12 4
20 645.1 68.7 76.6 26.5 7.5
30 785.5 137.6 73 40.5 10.6

figure 9Trajectories
for the large Palintone.

The Catapult, the Scorpio and the Carrobalista

As previously reported, the term catapult refers to a machine that throws big darts or
javelins but, substantially, there were no significant differences between the mechani-
cal architecture of the ballistae and the catapults.
Small catapults, used as light field artillery pieces, were called by the Romans
scorpio, literally scorpion, probably because its arrows acted like the stinger of that
animal. Among these relatively small machines, two were particularly interesting: the
repeating catapult and the carroballista.

The repeating catapult

The repeating catapult was among the ancestors of modern machine guns, being a
truly automatic weapon. It was described by Philon of Byzantium610 and can be
considered as a futuristic automatic weapon that throws 481 mm long darts. The
machine was attributed to Dionysius of Alexandria and was, apparently, used around
the first century BC; it was part of the arsenal of Rhodes that may be considered as
a concentration of the most advanced mechanical kinematic and automatic systems

figure 10 Holes caused by the impact of ballistae projectiles.

of the time, many of which show working principles and concepts that are still con-
sidered modern.
The machine was described in modern times by Bernardino Baldi,29 but the first
studies on it were carried out by a German officer, Erwin Schramm,30 who built a
model of it at the beginning of the XX century giving unquestionable demonstration
of its potential during the testing performed before the Kaiser. There were some later
proposed studies on this device.6,7,31 All the reconstructions proposed have almost the
same working principle. In the first phase of the working cycle, the operators had to
turn the windlass in a direction to charge the weapon and at the end of this phase the
missile was thrown. The operators then turned the windlass in the opposite direction
in order to carry the mechanism back to the starting configuration. With this way of
operating, among other things, once one cycle was started, it was difficult to stop or
to pause it because, in the first half of the cycle, the torsion motor was charged and no
non-return device could be used because the windlass had to be free to rotate in both
directions. Such a working principle had some disadvantages: it was not efficient, it
was difficult to operate during a battle and it was dangerous for the operators.
Conversely, a mechanism that was operated by turning the windlass always in the
same direction of rotation and the presence of a non-return mechanism could have
greatly simplified all the operating sequence by the operators, increasing both the rate
of fire and the working safety. Thus, it would have been possible to stop the work-
ing sequence at any stage. Finally, the whole mechanism would have been automatic
from a wider point of view.
Therefore, we proposed a rather different reconstruction and working cycle,2,10
based on the translation of the original description by Philon of Byzantium.6,7 It
should be pointed out that ancient Greek has no technical terms: for instance in
Ta Filonos Belopoika 75, 3334 the chainmail is called , little brick, and the
teeth of the chainmails are called , fin. Hence, the description left to us by
Philon, although readily understood, was not written to eliminate all doubt because
it lacks a technical glossary and an analytic style.
78 CESARE ROSSI et al.

figure 11 Pictorial reconstruction of

the automatic catapult.

A pictorial reconstruction of the repeating catapult is shown in Figure 11. The

repeating device consisted of a container holding within it a number of arrows, a
cylinder feeding device and movement chain.
Figure 12 shows another pictorial reconstruction with some details of the mecha-
nism. The details that permit operation of the whole cycle by rotating the windlass
always in the same sense of rotation are shown. According to Philon and to other
authors reconstructions, the arrows A were located in a vertical feeder M (Figures 13
and 14) and were transferred one at a time into the firing groove by means of a rotating
cylinder C activated alternatively by a guided cam, in turn activated by a slide. The
guided cam is represented by a helical groove in the rotating cylinder in which a pin
connected to the slide is located. Hence, a simple rotation of the crank was sufficient to
move the cylinder, the slide, the slide hooking mechanism and the trigger mechanism.
The cycle repeated automatically without interruption or inverting the rotation of
the sprocket until the magazine was empty, a magazine that could be reloaded without
suspending firing. In Figure 12, the slide S and the pentagonal wheels P are also repre-
sented. The difference between our reconstruction of this device and the previous ones is
mainly in the reload sequence: it was previously supposed that the crank handles had to
reverse the rotation for each strike, whereas we have assumed the direction of rotation
was always the same. This seems more realistic because, in this way, the ratchet could
have worked correctly and the rate of fire could have been maintained quasi constant.
Figure 13 also shows the feed mechanism compared with the one of the Gatling
machine gun; the latter is considered as the first (1862 U.S. patent) machine gun and

figure 12 Details of the mechanism.

figure 13 Details of the mechanism (left and centre); Gatling gun mechanism (right).
80 CESARE ROSSI et al.

figure 14Technical
drawing of the repeating

its working principle is still used for modern aircraft automatic weapons. Figure 14
shows a technical drawing of the device.10 From a ballistic perspective, the speed of
firing must have been an average of five strokes per minute, very little compared with
modern automatic weapons, but certainly impressive for that time.
In order to compute the performance of such a machine, according to ancient
engineers,24,25 calculations were made starting from the length of the arrow S. The
diameter D of the modiolus is:

D = S/9(4)

The ratios between the diameter of the modiolus and all the other main dimen-
sions of the machine are the same as those already considered. For the arrow weight,
reasonable values are between 100 and 150 g.
Figure 15 shows the projectile velocity plotted versus the arm position for arrow
weights of 100, 150 and 200 g with a cross section of a circle of 32 mm diameter1. The
air drag coefficient in equation 2 was assumed to be Cv =0.35; the performance was
computed by using equation 3. The results are summarized in Table 3. The ballistic
trajectories of such a small scorpio are reported in Figure 16.

figure 15Projectile
velocity as a function
of the arm position.

figure 16Trajectories
for a repeating catapult
(small scorpio).


(deg) Range (m) hmax (m) Vf (m/s) (deg) Tf (s)

5 70.6 1.6 60 5.2 1.1
10 132.5 6.1 56 11 2.2
20 229.1 22.8 50.8 23.5 4.3
30 289,8 46.9 48.8 36 6.2

The carroballista
The carroballista was the first example of an infantry support gun (or battalion gun)
that was much later developed in modern (eighteenthtwentieth century) warfare.
Figure 17 shows some pictures of this machine from the Trajan and Marcus Aurelius
columns and from De Rebus Bellicis (an anonymous treatise of the IVV century AD).
From a historical point of view, the Roman imperial carroballista was developed
in the first century AD and represents the earliest example of mobile artillery. It
was very similar to the cheirobalistra or manubalista,8,14 but was mounted on a cart
in order to provide a quick deployment of the artillery piece to give close support
to infantrymen. This explains why, according to several reports,8,32,33 each of the
Imperial Roman Legions was equipped with about 24 of these machines. Moreover,
such a lightweight, powerful and, in particular, highly movable war machine was
probably developed after four Roman Legions were surprised in an ambush in the
82 CESARE ROSSI et al.

figure 17 A and C: Trajans column; B Aurelian column; D: De Rebus Bellicis (Trans. XVI Sec.)

figure 18 Bas relief and scheme of the carroballista.

forest of Teutoburgo;33 such highly movable and powerful machines would have been
decisive in such conditions. Thus, the carroballista was an effective example of an
infantry support gun in the open field. It is also surprising to consider the modernity
of the concept that consisted of providing the legions with a battalion gun for close
support about 1900 years ago.
Based on some of our previous studies1,2,5 and on those of others,8,14,15,32 we assume
that this ballista (Figure 18) was based on a palintone design shown in Figure 6B.

figure 19 Schematic diagram of the


As it shown in a previous study,5 this design, having the arms inside the main frame
of the machine, is more efficient because the rotation angle of the arms is wider than
that of a euthytone. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume such a design for a machine
that had to develop sufficient power in small dimensions. The main dimensions of
the machine suggested previously8,14,18,32,33 are given in Figure 19; moreover, the most
probable torsion motor of these machines was made by a helical torsion spring,22 as
shown in Figure 19. This type of motor was compatible with the technology at that
time and was small and powerful enough. For such a machine, an initial velocity of
104 m s1 was computed for a projectile of 200 g.34
In order to evaluate the projectile range, we considered two possible projectiles: a
200 g lead ball 32 mm in diameter, and a bolt having about the same mass and cross
section, similar to those reported in Figure 20.
Trajectories for the bolt for an initial velocity of 104 m s1 are given in Figure 21,
which shows that the trajectories are rather flat. Thus, there is a high probability of
hitting the target even when there are some errors in estimating the real distance of
the target itself.
Tables 4 and 5 give the range figures for a lead sphere and a bolt, respectively.
For comparison, 650 J is the energy of a 3.6 g bullet fired by a NATO 5.56 45 cal.
ordnance rifle at 300 m from the muzzle, whereas 500 J is the energy of a 8 g bullet
at the muzzle fired by 9 19 cal. NATO ordnance pistol. Because those modern bul-
lets are much lighter than the ballista projectile, their translational momentum, hence
the shock at impact, is much lower than the projectiles thrown by the carroballista.

The onager
The onager was a rather mysterious ancient war machine, about which there is very
little information available in the ancient literature. Even Vitruvius25 does not mention
it. Some detail about a monoanchon can be found in the 5th book, named Belopoeica,
of the treatise on the mechanics Mechanike syntaxis (Compendium of Mechanics) by
Philo of Byzantium (ca. 280 BC ca. 220 BC); it is described as a throwing machine
having only a big arm instead of two little arms.24 No further mention is found until
the fourth century AD when Ammianus Marcellinus (325/330after 391) describes it
in detail and names it onagrum,34 from the latin onagrus meaning donkey, probably
because its working principle was similar to the kick of a donkey.
It is interesting to recall that inside the city of Pompeii, for instance, several stone
balls were found that were larger than the holes on the walls that were made by the
impact of the projectiles thrown by the ballistae. Those big balls had been thrown
84 CESARE ROSSI et al.

figure 20 Roman bolts: A. The only intact specimen of a Roman ballista bolt ever discov-
ered was excavated in Dura Europos, Syria,; B. A mod-
ern reconstruction weighting about 195 g; C. A bolt head found at Ham Hill, Great Britain by
Dr Chris Evans, from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Photo by, Yale University Art Gallery,
from Greek and Roman Artillery 399 BCAD 363, by Duncan Campbell, http://hillforts.466ad. and

figure 21Trajectory
of the bolt.

by the onagers of Silla and had jumped over the walls of Pompeii during the siege in
89 BC.25 A pictorial reconstruction of the onager is shown in Figure 22 and the work-
ing principle of the machine is given in Figure 23.
The onager comprised a single arm (A in Figure 22) that is inserted into a bundle of
yarns made from woman hairs.111,23 This bundle is the torsion motor of the machine,


Elevation angle (deg.) Range (m) Vf (m s1) Impact energy (J)

5 165 84.4 712

10 290 72.5 526
15 385 65.3 426


Elevation angle (deg.) Range (m) Vf (m s1) Impact energy (J)

5 172 89.3 797

10 310.6 79.4 630
15 421 72.7 529

figure 22Pictorial
reconstruction of the
onager and detail of
the linkage of the

figure 23Working
principle of the
86 CESARE ROSSI et al.

which gives an elastic couple (C in Figure 23) to the arm. On the other end of the arm,
a sling holds the projectile. One of the sling ropes is fixed to the arm and the other
rope is linked by means of a ring that is put on a pin (F in the detail of Figure 22);
the axis of this pin can be set with a desired angle with respect to the axis of the
arm. Finally, a capstan rotates the arm to charge the torsion spring and, hence, the
machine. When the trigger is pushed, the arm is released and it rotates because of
the couple given by the torsion motor. The projectile is released by the sling when its
ropes are approximately aligned with the pin axis because in this condition the ring
of the sling climbs over the pin. Thus, by changing the angle , the initial throwing
angle of the projectile and its initial velocity can both be set.
In order to evaluate the performance of an onager, a machine having the following
dimensions was considered: length of the arm, 2.2 m; length of the sling, 1 m; weight
of the projectile, 17.44 kg (=40 Roman minae), comprising a stone sphere of approxi-
mately 237 mm diameter. A mathematical model of tise machine was developed and,
by solving the differential equations, the dynamical behaviour of the machine itself
was computed. In turn, this allowed the projectile initial velocity to be calculated
under several different working conditions. Finally, the range figures were computed
by means of equations 2 and 3.
The range of this throwing machine could be adjusted both by changing the angle
and by changing the bundle torque, that is to say by releasing the arm from a dif-
ferent starting position. To illustrate this, two examples, varying the releasing angle
and the bundle torsion are reported:

Ranges by varying the releasing angle

The results in Table 6 and Figure 24 refer to the same bundle torsion (und = 110),
and different r (i.e. by assuming a different releasing angle between the finger and
the arm). In the range figure tables, in addition to the range, the following data are
reported: r arm angular position when the projectile is released; V0 projectile initial
velocity; projectile initial direction; hmax maximum height reached by the projectile;
Vf projectile velocity at the impact; and the angle of the projectile at the impact.

Ranges by varying the bundle torsion

The results in Table 7 and Figure 25 refer to almost the same angle between the
finger and the arm but the range is varied by changing the bundle torsion (und).

figure 24Onager
trajectories, und =110.

From the previous tables and figures, it is possible to observe that this war machine
was capable of effective performance allowing a considerable projectile to be thrown
with sufficient energy to clear the walls.
Moreover, it is interesting to note that, generally, the range could be adjusted by
changing the angle ; on the other side, the range can be also adjusted by changing
the bundle torque obtaining flatter trajectories than previously. If a comparison with
modern howitzers can be made, we could conclude that the methods of adjusting the
range essentially corresponds to both a variation of the gun barrel elevation and of
the weight of the firing charge.

An overview of all the artillery of the Greek and Roman armies is presented; these
war machines were used from the third century BC until the fall of the Roman Empire

figure 25Onager
trajectories, r = 95.


r () V0 (m s1) () Range (m) hmax (m) Vf (m s1) ()

65 35.72 73.99 63.8 57.3 33.9 74

75 43.66 65.1 132.2 74.6 40.2 67
85 52.3 52.5 229.7 80.1 45.7 55.5
95 61.4 32.46 293.5 50.5 50.6 36.7

r () V0 (m s ) () Range (m) hmax (m) Vf (m s1) ()

75 29.1 29.69 71.4 10.4 27.7 30.6

85 37.67 30.64 118.7 18.1 34.8 32.3
95 46.78 31.5 179.5 28.9 41.5 34
105 56.41 32.18 252.8 42.3 47.7 35.8
115 66.57 32.71 337.2 59.3 53.4 37.6
88 CESARE ROSSI et al.

and some of them survived until the Middle Ages. Examples of the performance
of these ancient artillery pieces are based on the functional reconstruction of these
machines that allowed their kinematics and dynamics to be obtained. The perfor-
mance of these machines showed their reliability and sometimes their surprising
efficiency. The authors hope that this study provides a useful contribution to the
understanding of ancient warfare.

C. Rossi, Ancient Throwing Machines: a Method 15
A. Iriarte, The Inswinging Theory, Gladius, 23
to Compute Their Performances, Mechanism and (2003), 11140.
Machine Theory, 113 (2012), 51. 16
D. Baatz, Recent Finds of Ancient Artillery,
C. Rossi, F. Russo, and F. Russo, Ancient Engineers Britannia, 9 (1978), 117.
Inventions Precursors of the Present. Series: 17
M. C. Bishop and J. C. N. Coulston, Roman mili-
History of Mechanism and Machine Science, Vol. 8. tary equipment from the Punic Wars to the fall of
(Dordrecht: Springer, 2009). Rome (London: B. T. Batsford, 1993). See reviews of
T. G. Chondros, Archimedes (287212 BC) History this book by Boris Rankov in The Classical Review
of Mechanism and Machine Science 1, Distinguished (New Series), 44 1994), 13738, and by Matthew
Figures in Mechanism and Machine Science, Their Bennett, Roman Military Equipment Greece and
Contributions and Legacies, Part 1. Edited by Rome (Second Series), 41 (1994), 7981.
Marco Ceccarelli, University of Cassino, Italy 18
R. Harpham and D. W. W. Stevenson, Herons
(Dordrecht Springer, 2007). Cheiroballistra (A Roman Torsion Crossbow),
T. G. Chondros, The Development of Machine Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, 40
Design as a Science from Classical Times to Modern (1997), 1317.
Era. Proceedings of HMM 2008, International 19
V. G. Hart and M. J. T. Lewis, Mechanics of the
Symposium on History of Machines and Onager, Journal of Engineering Mathematics, 20(4)
Mechanisms (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008). (1986), 34565.
C. Rossi and S. Pagano, Improvement in Ballistae 20
V. G. Hart and M. J. T. Lewis, The Hatra Ballista:
Design from Eutitonon to Palintonon: A Study on A Secret Weapon of the Past? Journal of Engineering
the Mechanical Advantages, Journal of Mechanical Mathematics, 67 (2009), 26173.
Design, Transactions of the ASME, 135 (8) (2013), 17. 21
M. Lahanas, Ancient Greek Artillery Technology
E. W. Marsden, Greek and Roman Artillery from Catapults to the Architronio Cannon, avail-
Historical Development (Oxford: Oxford University able at <
Press, 1969). CatapultTypes.htm>.
E. W Marsden, Greek and Roman Artillery: 22
P. G. Molari, G. Angelini, A. Canzler and P. Sannipoli
Technical Treatises (Oxford: Oxford University P. 2012. Ricostruzione della balista imperiale
Press, 1971), pp. 10684. Romana un piacevole viaggio fra fantasia, storia,
F. Russo, Lartiglieria delle legioni romane (The tecnologia e progettazione, University ofBologna,
Artillery of the Roman Legions, in Italian). Ist ed. 2012. p. 40. DOI 10.6092/unibo/amsacta/3306.
(Rome: Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, 2004). 23
Appianus Alexandrinus, Wars against Carthage,
F. Russo, Tormenta Navalia. Lartiglieria navale liber VIII, 160 A.D.; available in English at <https://
romana (Rome: USSM Italian Navy, 2007).
C. Rossi and F. Russo, A reconstruction of the ianus%2C%20of%20Alexandria%22>.
GreekRoman repeating catapult, Mechanism and 24
Philo of Byzantium (III Century BC) Mechanike syn-
Machine Theory, 45 (1) (2010), 3645. taxis (Compendium of Mechanics), in particular
F. Russo, Le baliste dellImpero. Cenni storici, reperti, that part called Belopoeica where torsion artilleries
tavole ricostruttive. Vol. 18: La grande Balista di are described.
Hatra. Ed. ESA (Naples: ESA, Torre del Greco (2009). 25
Vitruvius, De Architectura, liber X, c. 15 B.C.; avail-
E. Shramm, Die antiken Geshtzen der Saalburg, able in English at <
1918. Reprint (Bad Homburg: Saalburg Museum, Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Vitruvius/home.html>.
1980). 26
Qiang Xiao, Jeff Schirer, Fred Tsuchiya and Dehua
W. Soedel and V. Foley, Ancient Catapults, Yang. Nanotensile Study of Single Human Hair
Scientific American, 240 (1979), 15060. Fiber. Hysitron Incorporated 10025 Valley View
A. Iriarte, Pseudo-Herons cheiroballistra a(nother) Road, Minneapolis MN 55344. Available at: <www.
reconstruction: I. Theoretics, Journal of Roman
Military Equipment Studies, 11 (2000), 4775. f.pdf>.

27 33
L. Tonelli, Tecnologia Tessile Fibre tessili, filat- F. Russo and F. Russo, La lezione di Teutoburgo,
ura, Vol. 1 (Milan: Hoepli, 1950). Archeo, 295 (2009), 5461.
28 34
F. Manna, Note sulle funi Metalliche (Naples: F. Penta, C. Rossi, and S. Savino, Mechanical
Unviersity of Naples, 1966). behavior of the imperial carroballista, Mechanism
B. Baldi, Heronis Ctesibii Belopoeka, hoc est, and Machine Theory, 80 (2014), 14250.
Telifactiva. Augusta Vindelicorum, typis Davidu Ammianus Marcellinus (IV Century A.D.) Res
Frany. 1616. Available at < gestae.
internetCulturale.php? F. Russo F. 2011. Attenti allasino. Archeo, 311
A17%3AFI0029%3A324104&teca=Museo+Galileo>. (2011), 9095.
30 37
E. Shramm, Die antiken Geschtze der Saalburg C. Rossi, Guest editorial. On Designs by Ancient
Soedel and Foley, 15060. Engineers, Journal of Mechanical Design,
Molari P. G. 2013. Dal fregio della Colonna Transactions of the ASME, 135(6) (2013), 12.
Traiana argomenti per ricostruire la balista impe-
riale romana, Proceedings of Colonna Traiana All web addresses have been rechecked by accessing
MCM Accademia di Romania in Roma 78 June on 26 March 2015.
2013. In press

Notes on contributors
Cesare Rossi graduated in 1973, focusing on humanities. In 1979, he received the
Mechanical Engineer Degree cum Laude at the University of Napoli Federico II,
and became Professor of Mechanics for Machines and Mechanical Systems there in
2000. His main research activities are on the topics of tribology, rotor dynamics,
mechanical vibrations, chaotic motions in mechanical systems, robot mechanics,
and video applications for robotics. For several years he has researched the history
of engineering and cooperates with other researchers in the field mainly involv-
ing Technology in the Classic Age (in which he has taught PhD courses at other
Italian universities. He is currently Chair of the IFToMM, Italy and a member of its
Permanent Commission for the History of Mechanism and Machine Science.
Arcangelo Messina received the Mechanical Engineer Degree cum Laude at
Politecnico di Bari in 1991, and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. He became
Professor of Mechanics for Machines and Mechanical Systems at the Universit del
Salento, Italy in 2006. His main research activities are on the topics of mechanical
vibrations, composite materials, mechatronic systems, signal processing in mechanical
systems, damage detection and modal analysis.
Giulio Reina received the Mechanical Engineer Degree cum Laude at Politecnico di
Bari in 2000, and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. He became Assistant Professor
of Mechanics for Machines and Mechanical Systems at the Universit del Salento,
Italy, in 2005. His research focuses on the topics of field robotics, vehicle dynamics,
and vision systems in robotics.
Sergio Savino received his Mechanical Engineer Degree at the University of Napoli
- Federico II in 2001, and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. Currently Research
Assistant of Mechanics for Machines and Mechanical Systems at the University of
Napoli - Federico II, his main areas of research are video applications for robotics,
and the history of mechanism and machine science.
Correspondence to Cesare Rossi. Email:
Copyright of Arms & Armour is the property of Maney Publishing and its content may not be
copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's
express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for
individual use.