Siege Machines

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Siege Machines

Postby Marcus Minucius Audens » Thu Jul 21, 2016 7:03 pm

>>>> Roman vs Greek Siege Machines <<<<

During the Punic wars many advances in siege warfare, had been investigated, improved upon and used. One of the areas of discovery and usage was the use of “throwing machines.” Machines that were able to lift and throw a sizable missile (usually stone) into or over a fortifications curtain wall. During these wars the Greeks had quite a large “fleet’ and variety of such weapons. Surprisedly, the Romans virtually had to either borrow of take by virtue of ‘requisition’ all such machines from villages and cities nearby where the actual siege would be conducted. The Romans were also able to build such machines from materials found in the siege area. Of course, neither borrowing or building, on the spot, would give the Romans a large amount of these machines. Just what are we talking about here? In the period, there were the ballistae, scorpion, and the onager. The Ballistae and Scorpion were torsion-machines for the use of propelling small stones or arrows. The onager was a catapult that was used for throwing larger stone and was mobile. One example to show the difference between the usage of siege machines between the Roman and the Greeks is the Siege of Oreus in BC 200, a city on the coast of Euboea, Greece. The Romans laid the siege with the Greek King Attalus of Pergamum. Livy writes the following about the siege:

“. . . .the Romans and Attalus attacked Oreus on different sides: the former directed their assault against the citadel which faced the sea, whilst Attalus directed his toward the hollow between two citadels where a wall separated one portion of the city from the other. And as they attacked at different points, so they employed different methods. The Romans brought their “vineae” (a shed made of poles and brushwood and covered with raw hides) and battering rams up close to the wall, protecting themselves with their shield-roof; the king’s troops poured in a hail of missiles of every description from their ballistae and catapults. They hurled huge pieces of rock, and constructed mines, and made use of every expedient which they had found useful in a former siege. (1), (2)”

The result of the siege effort was that it is said that the Romans broke through the wall as a result of their battering ram breaching the said wall. This example shows that the Roman’s approach to siege warfare in this instance was superior, but it is also an indication that the Roman’s did not possess the siege machines to use against the city. The Greek’s superiority in field artillery did not gain them first entrance, but the artillery fire against the citadel was very effective.

When the Roman decided to lay siege to the Greek town of Ambracia in BC 189, the Romans showed that they could try a great number of different action against the city, but had a relatively few methods or machines to back up their attacks. When the Romans made their decision to put the city to siege they followed a well-known traditional manner of preparation. First of all they constructed a ring of Roman camps around the target. Then the next step was join those camps with lines of “contravallations” (The external circular fortification by the army of the besiegers for protecting their rear) and a “circumvallation” (line of fortifications built by the besiegers to prevent the besieged from breaking out of the fortress and provide a defense against possible sorties). Following these preparations the Romans developed five stations for breaching the walls with battering rams, at the same time. They also used a “Corvas Demoltor” (Pole and hook to pull down stones making up the wall) to break down the curtain walls. The besieged city returned the energy by many sorties of troops from the city and opposed the Romans with every defense. The Romans then turned to undermining in an attempt to breach the walls from underground, but the city discovered this and drowned the Roman miners with a countermine. Finally the Romans withdrew having exhausted their efforts to take the city. (3)

It was Julius Caesar who was the first Roman Commander to certify that the artillery unit was a regular unit in his army and he used the artillery to protect his wagon trains.
During the period of the Gallic War (BC 58-50) the Roman Army under the command and tutelage of Julius Caesar, began to show a much greater variety of materials and methods in their siegecraft which included; undermining, embankments, siege towers, veneae, and throwing machines. These great improvements showed the Romans to be the most technically advanced in siege field warfare, however, it was the perseverance and patience of the Romans which seemed to be the most valuable of their siege warfare success.

Respectfully Submitted;
Marcus Audens

(1), (2) Livy, 31, 46, 10;
(3), Livy, 38, 3.9, 38.7; Polybius, 21, 26-32.


>>Livy, “The History of Rome,” London, 1905;
>> Polybius, “The Histories,” Cambridge & London, 1927-1954;
>> Vegetius, “Flavius Renatus, Epitoma Rei Militaris, 2nd Revised Edition," New York, 1990
Marcus Minucius Audens

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