7 Common but Lesser-Known Siege Weapons from Antiquity

These amazing siege weapons were used to break the stalemates of many a siege.
Christopher McFadden

Ever since the creation of fortifications, someone, somewhere, has set their eyes on conquering them. Once defensive structures like palisades or mighty stone walls were erected, it became necessary to devise ways to overcome them. 

Enter the siege engine -- weapons designed to break down the defender's ability to withstand a besieging army. Their invention would begin an arms race between offensive and defensive weapons and tactics that exists to this very day.


Why were cities besieged?

Ever since fortified cities were built, army generals and their entourage of advisers and engineers, have sought the best ways to capture them without sacrificing too many of their own men. Likewise, defenders have tried various innovative tactics to hold off attacking armies, in hopes of breaking the siege. 

The strategy of using a near-constant hail of missiles to keep defending soldiers' heads down as your own infantry advance to scale the walls was an option, but it was hardly foolproof. However, if a fortification could not be taken through trickery, treachery, or simply threatening the defenders into opening their gates, the only option was to starve it out.

But this could take months or even years to achieve. Supplies could run out, or a relieving army could arrive to chase attackers away. 

What was needed was something to help speed things up. And so, siege weapons were developed, refined, and improved over many millennia

What are some of the most powerful siege weapons from antiquity?

And so, without further ado, here are some of the most notable siege weapons from antiquity. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Battering rams were an early development in siegecraft

siege weapons battering ram
Replica Roman battering ram, Source: Trimontium Trust/Twitter

One of the first siege weapons to ever be developed in antiquity was the battering ram. Consisting, essentially, of a massive piece of wood, they were used to literally smash open the gates of a city.

They first appear in Assyrian historical records and were quickly adopted by many ancient armies. 

In their simplest form, they would consist of a large, heavy log (often with a metal cap) carried by several brave souls. More advanced versions could be fairly intricate designs, but usually had some form of protection (a roof or armored enclosure) to defend the troops assigned with the task of attacking a city's gates or walls.

While they are usually depicted attacking a city's gates, battering rams could also prove effective against some city walls. Ancient walls tended to be weak under tension, and so, could be fractured when impacted with enough force. 

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More sophisticated versions would hold the battering ram inside a fire-resistant body, with the ram suspended using chains or ropes. 

2. Siege towers were another major development in siege technology

seige weapons siege tower
Source: Roque Gameiro/Wikimedia Commons

If the city could not be taken any other way than through force, and if the gates could not be breached, the only way in was to dig under or to scale the walls. Scaling the walls could be done in one of a few ways. 

Using ladders was one option, but these would leave attacking troops vulnerable to attack from above. They also had to get close enough to the walls, and in enough numbers, to actually erect them.

A far more sophisticated, not to mention formidable method, was to use a siege tower. This was an immense, usually wooden construction, which could be pushed towards the defending city's walls.

Once in place, ramps would drop, allowing the troops inside the tower to charge into the defending troops en masse. Siege towers have been known to be in use since the 11th Century BC and were only retired with the advent of cannons in the Middle Ages. 

3. Early flamethrowers were actually developed in ancient Greece

siege weapons flamethrower
Reconstruction of the "Boeotian flamethrower", Source: Gre regiment/Wikimedia Commons

While not particularly common in antiquity, some armies, like the Spartans, appear to have developed an early form of a flamethrower. From historical accounts of battles at Lecyhus and Delium, the attacking forces used them to set the cities' wooden battlements ablaze.

It consisted of a scooped out, iron-bound beam that had a bellow at the one end and a cauldron, hung from chains, at the other end. A bent pipe led from the beam to the cauldron, which contained lit coal, sulfur, and pitch (tar). A bellow was used to create enormous flames that burned the wooden walls and caused cracks in stone walls.

4. The onager was quite popular in ancient sieges

Eventually, armies would begin to develop ever more complex siege engines that could throw projectiles. From an early catapult developed in ancient Greece, the Romans would refine the technology to create devices like the onager.

The onager was a small catapult that used torsion. The frame held a single vertical beam, which was thrust through a thick horizontal skein of twisted cords. The cords were twisted using a windlass. When released, the cords would unwind, causing the beam to fly upwards and release a payload of stones. They were first mentioned in the mid 3rd Century AD but likely have a much earlier origin.

Because of their small size, onagers could be easily dismantled and transported by armies on the move. This enabled quick deployment during battle.

They were the precursor to the mangonel and other large catapults you are may already be familiar with.

5. The Romans heavily upgraded the ballista

siege weapons ballista
Roman ballista reconstruction, Source: Oren Rozen/Wikimedia Commons

Another tension-powered siege weapon used in antiquity was the ballista. First developed by the Greeks, it was effectively an oversized crossbow. The ballista was powered by two thick skeins of twisted cords through which were thrust two separate arms joined at their ends by the cord that propelled the missile. It fired either bolts, heavy javelins, or stones. 

It is reported that such weapons could hurl a 60-pound (27 kg) projectile up to around 500 yards (457 meters). The weapon would later be refined into the smaller carroballista and scorpio, and perhaps even the polybolos ("multi-thrower")

6. "The Claw of Archimedes" was developed to break sieges from the sea

siege weapons archimedes claw
Source: Giulio Parigi/Wikimedia Commons

It was not uncommon for ancient city walls to be festooned with catapults and other projectile weapons to keep the enemy away from the walls. But siege weapons were not only developed to fight on land. They could also be used to repel attacks from the sea.

One of these was the infamous "The Claw of Archimedes". Apparently developed to defend the walls of Syracuse, where Archimedes lived, the claw consisted of a crane-like arm with a large grappling hook attached at one end.

The claw could be dropped onto an enemy ship, and the arm would then be swung upwards, tipping the ship onto its stern. The arm was then fastened in place so the ship could not be righted.

While contemporary historians claim the device was used during the Second Punic War in 214 BC, this cannot be confirmed. However, modern experiments have tested the concept and found that it was, indeed, plausible. 

7. Archimedes also developed, so it is said, an actual "Death Ray"

siege weapons of antiquity archimedes ray
Source: Giulio Parigi/Wikimedia Commons

And finally, one of the most interesting, if true, siege weapons of antiquity was Archimedes' "Heat Ray". This device was first mentioned in the 2nd Century AD by the Roman writer Lucian of Samosata, in his account of the Seige of Syracuse between 214 and 212 BC. The account describes a device that could set fire to ships from a distance. 

Later accounts give more detail, of the use of burning glasses, or polished metal shields, that focussed the Sun's rays onto attacking ships. When focussed just right, the wooden ships would spontaneously burst into flames (aided no doubt by the fact ships of the era were often coated in pitch).

In 1973, a Greek scientist used mirrors coated in copper in an attempt to replicate the heat ray. He focussed 70 of the mirrors on a fake warship made of plywood, from around 50 meters away. The boat burned in seconds.

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