For the Roman general, see Balista. For the Italian actor, see Gigi Ballista. For the sniper rifle, see FN Ballista.
One talent ballista (26 kg weight projectile). The heaviest versions could shoot up to three talents (78 kg), possibly much more.[1]

The ballista (Latin, from Greek βαλλίστρα ballistra[2] and that from βάλλω ballō, "throw"),[3] plural ballistae, was an ancient missile weapon that launched a large projectile at a distant target.

The earliest mention of ballista in literature occurs in the Bible during the reign of Uzziah around 783 – 742 BC, king in the kingdom of Judah: "And he made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal. And his name spread far abroad; for he was marvellously helped, till he was strong."[4]

Developed from earlier Greek weapons, it relied upon different mechanics, using two levers with torsion springs instead of a prod (the bow part of a modern crossbow), the springs consisting of several loops of twisted skeins. Early versions projected heavy darts or spherical stone projectiles of various sizes for siege warfare. It developed into a smaller precision weapon, the scorpio,[5] and possibly the polybolos.

Greek weapon

The early ballista in Ancient Greece was developed from two weapons called oxybeles and gastraphetes. The gastraphetes ('belly-bow') was a hand held crossbow. It had a composite prod and was spanned by bracing the front end of the weapon against the ground while placing the end of a slider mechanism against the stomach. The operator would then walk forward to arm the weapon while a ratchet prevented it from shooting during loading. This produced a weapon which, it was claimed, could be operated by a person of average strength but which had a power that allowed it to be successfully used against armoured troops. The oxybeles was a bigger and heavier construction employing a winch, and was mounted on a tripod. It had a lower rate of fire and was used as a siege engine. With the invention of torsion spring bundle technology, the first ballista was built. The advantage of this new technology was the fast relaxation time of this system. Thus it was possible to shoot lighter projectiles with higher velocities over a longer distance.

For an oxybeles, the rules of a torsion weapon demanded that the more energy could be stored, the thicker the prod had to be and the heavier the projectile, to increase the amount of stored energy delivered to the projectile. The earliest form of the ballista is thought to have been developed for Dionysius of Syracuse, circa 400 BC.

The Greek ballista was a siege weapon. All components that were not made of wood were transported in the baggage train. It would be assembled with local wood, if necessary. Some were positioned inside large, armoured, mobile siege towers or even on the edge of a battlefield. For all the tactical advantages offered, it was only under Philip II of Macedon and even more so under his son Alexander, that the ballista began to develop and gain recognition as both siege engine and field artillery. Polybius reports about the usage of smaller more portable ballistae, called scorpions, during the Second Punic War.

Since these weapons delivered lighter munitions (thus delivering less energy on impact) it is a widely held opinion that they were used more as an anti-personnel role, or to destroy lighter structures. A less accurate weapon like an onager or other single-arm artillery could hit with more force, and thus would be the more useful weapon against reinforced wood or heavy masonry.

Ballistae could be easily modified to shoot both spherical and shaft projectiles, allowing their crews to adapt easily to prevailing battlefield situations in real time.

As the role of battlefield artillery became more sophisticated, a universal joint (which was invented just for this function) was integrated into the ballista's stand, allowing the operators to alter the trajectory and firing direction of the ballista as required without a lengthy disassembly of the machine.

Roman weapon

Reconstructed small ballista
Roman 'catapult-nest' on Trajan's Column
Ballista bolt heads

After the absorption of the Ancient Greek city-states into the Roman Republic in 146 BC, the highly advanced Greek technology began to spread across many areas of Roman influence. This included the great military machine advances the Greeks had made (most notably by Dionysus of Syracuse), as well as all the scientific, mathematical, political and artistic developments.

The Romans 'inherited' the torsion-powered ballista, which had by now spread to several cities around the Mediterranean, all of which became Roman spoils of war, including one from Pergamum, which was depicted among a pile of trophy weapons in relief on a balustrade.

The torsion ballista, developed by Alexander, was a far more complicated weapon than its predecessor and the Romans developed it even further, especially into much smaller versions, that could be easily carried.

Early Roman ballistae

The early Roman ballistae were made of wood, and held together with iron plates around the frames and iron nails in the stand. The main stand had a slider on the top, into which were loaded the bolts or stone shot. Attached to this, at the back, was a pair of 'winches' and a 'claw', used to ratchet the bowstring back to the armed firing position.

The slider passed through the field frames of the weapon, in which were located the torsion springs (rope made of animal sinew), which were twisted around the bow arms, which in turn, were attached to the bowstring.

Drawing the bowstring back with the winches twisted the already taut springs, storing the energy to fire the projectiles. The bronze or iron caps, which secured the torsion-bundles were adjustable by means of pins and peripheral holes, which allowed the weapon to be tuned for symmetrical power and for changing weather conditions.

The ballista was a highly accurate weapon (there are many accounts of single soldiers being picked off by ballista operators), but some design aspects meant it could compromise its accuracy for range. The maximum range was over 500 yards (460 m), but effective combat range for many targets was far shorter.

The Romans continued the development of the ballista, and it became a highly prized and valued weapon in the army of the Roman Empire.

It was used, just before the start of the Empire, by Julius Caesar during his conquest of Gaul and on both of his campaigns in subduing Britain. Both attempted invasions of Britain and the siege of Alesia are recorded in his own Commentarii (journal), The Gallic Wars (De Bello Gallico).

First invasion of Britain

The first of Caesar's invasions of Britain took place in 55 BC, after a rapid and successful initial conquest of Gaul, in part as an expedition, and more practically to try to put an end to the reinforcements sent by the native Britons to fight the Romans in Gaul.

A total of eighty transports, carrying two legions, attempted to land on the British shore, only to be driven back by the many British warriors assembled along the shoreline. The ships had to unload their troops on the beach, as it was the only one suitable for many miles, yet the massed ranks of British charioteers and javeliners were making it difficult.

Seeing this, Caesar ordered the warships – which were swifter and easier to handle than the transports, and likely to impress the natives more by their unfamiliar appearance – to be removed a short distance from the others, and then be rowed hard and run ashore on the enemy’s right flank, from which position the slings, bows and artillery could be used by men on deck to drive them back. This manoeuvre was highly successful.
Scared by the strange shape of the warships, the motion of the oars, and the unfamiliar machines, the natives halted and retreated. (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, p.99)

Siege of Alesia

In Gaul, the stronghold of Alesia was under a Roman siege in 52 BC, and was completely surrounded by a Roman fortifications including a wooden palisade and towers. As was standard siege technique at the time, small ballistae were placed in the towers with other troops armed with bows or slings.

A four-wheeled carroballista drawn by armored horses, from an engraving illustrating a 1552 edition of the war-machine catalog De Rebus Bellicis (c.400)

Ballistae in the Roman Empire

During the conquest of the Empire, the ballista proved its worth many times in sieges and battles, on sea and on land. It was even used to quell riots. It is from the time of the Roman Empire that many of the archaeological finds of ballistae date. Accounts by the finders, including technical manuals and journals, are used today by archaeologists to reconstruct these weapons.

After Julius Caesar, the ballista was a permanent fixture in the Roman army and, over time, modifications and improvements were made by successive engineers. This included replacing the remaining wooden parts of the machine with metal, creating a much smaller, lighter and more powerful machine than the wooden version, which required less maintenance (though the vital torsion springs were still vulnerable to the strain). The largest ballistae of the 4th century could throw a dart further than 1200 yards (1,100 m). The weapon was named ballista fulminalis in De Rebus Bellicis: "From this ballista, darts were projected not only in great number but also at a large size over a considerable distance, such as across the width of the Danube River."[6] Ballistae were not only used in laying siege: after AD 350, at least 22 semi-circular towers were erected around the walls of Londinium (London) to provide platforms for permanently mounted defensive devices.[7]

Eastern Roman Empire

During 6th century, Procopius described the effects of this weapon:

But Belisarius placed upon the towers engines which they call "ballistae". Now these engines have the form of a bow, but on the under side of them a grooved wooden shaft projects; this shaft is so fitted to the bow that it is free to move, and rests upon a straight iron bed. So when men wish to shoot at the enemy with this, they make the parts of the bow which form the ends bend toward one another by means of a short rope fastened to them, and they place in the grooved shaft the arrow, which is about one half the length of the ordinary missiles which they shoot from bows, but about four times as wide...but the missile is discharged from the shaft, and with such force that it attains the distance of not less than two bow-shots, and that, when it hits a tree or a rock, it pierces it easily. Such is the engine which bears this name, being so called because it shoots with very great force[8]

The missiles were able to penetrate body-armour:

And at the Salarian Gate a Goth of goodly stature and a capable warrior, wearing a corselet and having a helmet on his head, a man who was of no mean station in the Gothic nation, refused to remain in the ranks with his comrades, but stood by a tree and kept shooting many missiles at the parapet. But this man by some chance was hit by a missile from an engine which was on a tower at his left. And passing through the corselet and the body of the man, the missile sank more than half its length into the tree, and pinning him to the spot where it entered the tree, it suspended him there a corpse.[9]

Cheiroballistra and manuballista

Main article: Cheiroballistra

The cheiroballistra and the manuballista are held by many archaeologists to be the same weapon. The difference in name may be attributable to the different languages spoken in the Empire. Latin remained the official language in the Western Empire, but the Eastern Empire predominantly used Greek, which added an extra 'r' to the word ballista.

The manuballista was a handheld version of the traditional ballista. This new version was made entirely of iron, which conferred greater power to the weapon, since it was smaller, and less iron (an expensive material before the 19th century), was used in its production. It was not the ancient gastraphetes, but the Roman weapon. However, the same physical limitations applied as with the gastraphetes.


Roman cart-mounted carroballista
Main article: Carroballista

The carroballista was a cart-mounted version of the weapon. Probably there were different models of this cart-mounted ballista of the cheiroballistra class, at least two different two-wheeled models and one model with four wheels. Their probable size was 1.47 m width, i.e., 5 Roman feet. The cart system and structure gave it a great deal of flexibility and capability as a battlefield weapon, since the increased maneuverability allowed it to be moved with the flow of the battle. This weapon features several times on Trajan's Column.


Main article: Polybolos

It has been speculated that the Roman military may have also fielded a 'repeating' ballista, also known as a polybolos. Reconstruction and trials of such a weapon carried out in a BBC documentary, What the Romans Did For Us, showed that they "were able to shoot eleven bolts a minute, which is almost four times the rate at which an ordinary ballista can be operated".[10] However, no example of such a weapon has been found by archaeologists.

Archaeology and the Roman ballista

Metal components of the Ampurias Catapult, found in 1912 in the Neapolis of Ampurias
Metal components of a 4th-century ballista

Archaeology, and in particular experimental archaeology has been influential on this subject. Although several ancient authors (such as Vegetius) wrote very detailed technical treatises, providing us with all the information necessary to reconstruct the weapons, all their measurements were in their native language and therefore highly difficult to translate.

Attempts to reconstruct these ancient weapons began at the end of the 19th century, based on rough translations of ancient authors. It was only during the 20th century, however, that many of the reconstructions began to make any sense as a weapon. By bringing in modern engineers, progress was made with the ancient systems of measurement. By redesigning the reconstructions using the new information, archaeologists in that specialty were able to recognize certain finds from Roman military sites, and identify them as ballistae. The information gained from the excavations was fed into the next generation of reconstructions and so on.

Sites across the empire have yielded information on ballistae, from Spain (the Ampurias Catapult), to Italy (the Cremona Battleshield, which proved that the weapons had decorative metal plates to shield the operators), to Iraq (the Hatra Machine) and even Scotland (Burnswark siege tactics training camp), and many other sites between.

The most influential archaeologists in this area have been Peter Connolley and Eric Marsden, who have not only written extensively on the subject but have also made many reconstructions themselves and have refined the designs over many years of work.

Middle Ages

With the decline of the Roman Empire, resources to build and maintain these complex machines became very scarce, so the ballista was supplanted initially by the simpler and cheaper onager and the more efficient springald.

Though the weapon continued to be used in the Middle Ages, it faded from popular use with the advent of the trebuchet and mangonel in siege warfare. The crossbow supplanted it as a precision weapon. They all were simpler to make, easier to maintain (no anointment) and much cheaper.

See also


  1. Werner Soedel, Vernard Foley: “Ancient Catapults”, Scientific American, Vol. 240, No. 3 (March 1979), p.120-128 (121ff.)
  2. Ballistra, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, at Perseus
  3. Ballo, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, at Perseus
  4. 2 Chronicles 26:15
  5. Warry, J. (1995). Warfare in the Classical World. pp 178. Salamander Books Ltd., London: United Kingdom. ISBN 0-8061-2794-5
  6. De Rebus Bellicis, Chapter XVIII: ballista fulminalis. Note: The modern width of the Danube is 1.5 km. During the Roman Empire, it was unlikely to have been less than 1.1 km, bearing in mind that Trajan's Bridge is known to have been longer than 1.1 km.
  7. "Visible Roman London: City wall and gates". Museum of London Group. Archived from the original on 19 February 2015. Retrieved 19 February 2015.
  8. Procopius,Gothic war,chapter XXI
  9. Procopius,Gothic war,chapter XXIII
  10. Hart-Davis, Adam Discovering Roman Technology BBC History 17 February 2011. Accessed 21 November 2013


External images
Reenactor with manuballista, Retrieved 6 February 2008
Trigger of the polybolos, retrieved 6 February 2008
Side elevation of the polybolos, retrieved 6 February 2008
From above with magazin removed, retrieved 6 February 2008
Another view of the trigger, retrieved 6 February 2008
  • Caesar (tr Handforth), 1982, The Conquest of Gaul, London: Penguin Books
  • Campbell, D; 2003, Greek and Roman Artillery 399 BC – AD 363, Osprey
  • Connolly, P; 1975, The Roman Army, Macdonald Educational
  • Connolly, P; 1998, Greece and Rome at War, Greenhill Books
  • Feugère, M; 2002, Weapons of the Romans, Arcadia
  • Goldsworthy, A; 2003, The Complete Roman Army, Thames and Hudson
  • Marsden, E.W; 1971, Greek and Roman Technical Treatises, Clarendon
  • Warry, J. ;1995, Warfare in the Classical World, Salamander Books Ltd., London: United Kingdom. ISBN 0-8061-2794-5
  • Wilkins, A; 2003, Roman Artillery, Shire Archaeology

External links

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