Full Version: Ancient artillery - \'king of battle\'?
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Several of you mention passages in Roman texts that suggest siege machines were used on the battlefield.

My impression though is that the ballista, scorpion, etc., had a marginal effect on the outcome of a battle. Am I wrong? Can anyone cite a battle in which the 'artillery' devastated the enemy? I doubt the name 'king of battle' could be applied to ancient artillery- it just doesn't seem to have been that effective in battle (sieges a different story, of course).

Instead, perhaps cavalry could be called 'king of battle' and infantry 'queen of battle'...?
The 2nd Batle of Cremona:

"The troops of Vitellius had collected their artillery on the raised causeway, where there was a free and open space for the discharge of the missiles, which at first had been scattered at random, and had struck against the trees without injury to the enemy. An engine of remarkable size, belonging to the 15th legion, was crushing the hostile ranks with huge stones, and would have spread destruction far and wide, had not two soldiers ventured on a deed of surpassing bravery. Disguising themselves with shields snatched from the midst of the carnage, they cut the ropes and springs of the engine. They were instantly slain, and their names have consequently been lost; but the fact is undoubted."
Tacitus: History: Book 3 [20]

So a mixed bag, really, with the ballistae (I assume, but they may have been onagers) not being too effective - too many trees. But the onager (?) certainly was causing a lot of casualties it would seem, causing two men to go on a 'glory or death' ancient SAS attempt on it (not unusual for the era imho - see the Jewish Wars a decade or so later). The fact that Tacitus mentions their names were lost indicates he would have liked to mention their names for posterity, suggesting how seriously effectively that onager was being used.

One thing to note about onagers is they could fire the equivalent of grapeshot; lots of smaller stones for anti-personnel use, rather than one big stone as used against walls. Perhaps the less effective artillery were onagers doing so at Cremona, and were unable to penetrate the trees, which made the larger one throwing a large stone more effective at penetrating the enemy cover? Just a thought.
I think that the usefulness of artillery depends on its aim. For killing people during a battle, it must have been marginal (but cf. the use of artillery during the battle at the Jaxartes; see Greek military sub-forum). During a siege, however, things were different.

Besides, there's the psychological effect. The Museum for Roman ships in Mainz, near the Rhine frontier, has a 1:1 replica of a river ship with a missile thrower. Pretty useless against Germanic warriors, but it must have been impressive; if it did not deter barbarians, it must have encouraged Romans.
The stone-throwers at the Cremona battle weren't onagri, they were still two-armed ballistae, off-springs of the Hellenistic palintones.
The soldiers probably got under the machine's frame and cut out the sinew cord bundles protruding from the lower washers. In fact, if they were able to cut one of the bundles, the ballista would have rendered useless for the rest of battle... :roll:

Thanks for correcting me, Aitor. Would they have been used for 'grapeshot' as well, out of interest?
In the Legion of the Early Empire, each legion was supposed to have:

One Ballista for each century.
One Onager for each Cohort.

Source; "The Roman Army at War 100BC-200AD" , Adrian Goldsworthy.
The Antiqua Legio of Vegetius was no older thant IIIrd century AD. Therefore, the carroballistae were metallic-framed arrow-shooters and the onagri were probably the stone-throwers. There is some possiblility of Vegetius having simply 'translated' the older two-armed stone-thrower perhaps mentioned on his original source to the only known stone-thrower in his time (late IVth AD), the onager.
The usefulness of an onager for field operations seems doubtful, to say the least. Even if Vegetius writes that onagri were carried on charts to the battle, Ammianus says that an onager can only operate on a very solid and shock absorbing base. Given that our only (scanty) information on the onager comes from Ammianus, it is difficult to envisage a practical employ of onagri on the field... :?

It was easier for an onager to shoot grapeshot because it employs a sling. Two-armed stone-throwers used a 'bag' pushing the missile along a channel. Most probably that method, intended to aim precisely a spheric missile to a given target, ruled out grapeshot. Who knows fro sure, anyway? :wink:

Thanks Aitor. If there were no way to throw grapeshot that would explain why, apart from the single beast artillery piece, the other artillery had little effect at Cremona.