Catapult: A History by Tracey Rihll (2007). Some of the best work in the history of ancient science and technology these days is being done by women. From Marianne Stern in the area of ancient glassmaking technology to Karin Tybjerg in Roman mechanics and philosophy of technology, Sylvia Berryman in ancient physics and mechanics, Astrid Schürmann in Roman mechanics and engineering, Liba Taub in astronomy and meteorology, Tamsyn Barton in astrology, Georgia Irby-Massie in alchemy, Adrienne Mayor on ancient geology and paleontology, Joyce Reynolds and Mary Beagon on Roman natural history, and of course Serafina Cuomo in ancient mathematical sciences, whom I'll be discussing next, and our present author: Tracey Rihll.
Rihll is a senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Swansea University (UK). You may recall she wrote a very good (albeit much too brief) primer on Greek Science (reviewed in my last post on this subject). Well, now she has gone to the other extreme, producing literally the most comprehensive book on ancient artillery ever written (and possibly ever to be written), and outdoing herself in every category.
Rihll tells great stories, and she tells them well. She marshals facts so numerous and thorough, from such a wide span of disciplines, as to leave almost no possibility of rebuttal, including superb and virtually complete discussions of the literary and archaeological evidence, tying both together. She covers everything you could ever want to know about ancient catapult development, from the pre-catapult days of ordinary slings and arrows, through the Hellenistic and Roman periods of advancement, and on up to late antiquity. She cites or discusses pretty much every book or article of any worth on the subject ever written. She discusses not only the history but also the science of projectile weaponry, and how the two illuminate each other, and she even links her results to broader questions of ancient technological progress and the philosophy of technology. And all this in under 380 pages.
The ancient catapult was one of the most advanced technologies ever produced before the Renaissance. Though popular imagination thinks of a catapult as some sort of medieval, one-armed tosser (more commonly known as an onager, shown to the right above), the most common catapult in antiquity (though they had onagers and probably invented them first) was the two-spring double-armed shooter (example to the left), which resembled something like a bulky and elaborate crossbow powered by what almost look like upright wood-and-rope shock absorbers. The ancient Greeks experienced a veritable arms race in the development of this vital military weapon, inspiring the earliest example of state-funded scientific research and development, with the specific aim of using technological advancement to gain a military advantage. And as Rihll shows, it changed the world.
In her study of this machine there are two things Rihll accomplishes of particular note (apart from producing a fully up-to-date synthesis of the whole of catapult history that reflects all the new developments in the field that few careful observers may already have known about from otherwise scattered reading). First, she establishes beyond doubt that catapult technology advanced considerably and importantly during the early Roman Empire (something that had often been denied), including the best case yet that they developed the metal-framed inswinger catapult, greatly magnifying power output (and leaving many modern reconstructions obsolete). Secondly, she also establishes beyond doubt the widespread use of small hand-held torsion catapults. In other words, the ancient equivalent of rifles (examples with three-foot stocks, for example, being commonplace), and even handguns (with models as small as nine or ten inches in total length).
The latter is perhaps the most astonishing. Expert observers will already have heard of growing evidence of Roman advances, but might have missed entirely the evidence of small catapults--yet as Rihll reveals, the evidence is surprisingly vast, if you know where to look for it, and what to look for. These weapons were apparently abundantly supplied in the Roman legions, and were so powerful that a typical stone-throwing smallarm could penetrate a human body with a lead bullet at a hundred yards--scaring the hell out of otherwise fearless Gauls, for example, who got totally freaked out when Roman bullets at such unbelievable range went right on into their bodies and didn't come back out again. In the modern age of firearms we take such an effect for granted, but you can imagine how terrifying it would be in a world that had never heard of such a thing.
Rihll conclusively proves that what we call a crossbow (sometimes still claimed to be a medieval invention, although the ancient Chinese had independently invented them as well) was already in existence by the time of Alexander the Great. And not merely in the form of what is technically called a bellybow (a kind of super-crossbow the sight of which would freak out the squares even today--in somewhat the same fashion, and being somewhat the same size and terrifying appearance, as the Bren Gun wielded unexpectedly by a doped-up hippy chick in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), but also in pretty much the same form known in the Middle Ages.
However, Rihll then demonstrates that the Greeks had already surpassed medieval crossbow technology by the time the Romans were arriving on the world scene. The ancients by then had weapons far more powerful, yet whose technology would be entirely forgotten in the Middle Ages. Though the ancients had and used metal springs (even in artillery), there is no conclusive evidence they had metal spring crossbows (though Rihll presents evidence of metal bows, and if you have those, why not metal crossbows?). But they might not have considered them worth the bother, since they had something better: the torsion catapult, which used springs of prepared hair or sinew that were actually much stronger than even modern springsteel (much less ancient or medieval spring metals). They were highly sophisticated machines that required considerable technical knowledge and ability to construct, but once you did, you had the most powerful missile weapon on earth before the rise of gunpowder.
Roman legionnaires employed such portable torsion "crossbows" in various sizes, from two-man cart-mounted units (the ancient equivalent of mobile gunnery) down to man-carried units (again) equivalent to rifle or even handgun size. Of course, besides these, they also employed a whole arsenal of larger catapults that required entire crews to operate, some actually mobile (in ox-pulled carts) and others portable only after disassembly, and some of those over 35 feet in length of stock, firing stone cannonballs up to nearly two hundred pounds weight as far as 400 yards, if you weren't too particular where the missile fell, or with impressive accuracy up to 200 yards, and with sniper precision up to 100 yards or more. The Romans, taking a cue from the Greeks before them, had standardized weapon design so the maximum and effective ranges of all weapons of all sizes were more or less the same, which meant even the "handweapons" were bewilderingly powerful. Hence the freaked out Gauls.
These small torsion catapults, like all ancient catapults, could be designed to fire bolts (thick, vicious arrows) or bullets (most commonly ovoid stone or lead pellets mass produced to a loose standard in numerous calibers not very different from modern jacketless bullets) or both, as well as an array of specialized missiles for any particular occasion. Though they had a cross-shape, much like a crossbow, they did not use "bows" for their springs, but upright cylinders of rope held taught in their housings and twisted back to provide driving force to the "arms" of the catapult (and thence to the "bowstring" or "slingstring" that launched the projectile). Since pound-for-pound this mechanism was more powerful than springsteel, it was more efficient than metal bow springs, able to store massive amounts of energy in a very small space. Needless to say, the ancient torsion "crossbow" was truly a marvel to behold.
You can read all about this and tons more cool stuff in Rihll's awesome book. But don't expect a history of siege warfare or even siege weapons here. Her book's focus is squarely on only one weapon: the catapult (though with considerable attention to the changes in fortifications it inspired). But though that singular focus might suggest it would be boring, limited, and technical, it actually brings her to discuss numerous facets of ancient history, culture, society, and technology, very entertainingly, and almost always readably even for non-experts. Her discussions of the sociology of ancient weaponry alone are worth the reading, even if you think weapons themselves are dull tea.
Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity by Serafina Cuomo (2007). In this unique and interesting book, Cuomo (a professor of ancient science and technology at the University of London) analyzes ancient attitudes towards technology and craftsmen in five different ways, and in the process reveals numerous different aspects of ancient society and culture that are all in themselves well worth the read, even apart from their connection with technology. I learned much from it, and I think every chapter will leave you knowing a lot more about ancient culture that you won't have learned anywhere else.
In chapter one, Cuomo analyzes debates in Classical Athens over the definition and value of "art" or "skill" and the underlying social tensions these debates reflected (finding that craftsmen were not so marginalized as historians usually now claim); in chapter two, she analyzes how Hellenistic advancements in war technology caused an upheaval in social values that had transformed attitudes towards technology and science by the dawn of the Roman era (supplementing and corroborating Rihll in important respects); in chapter three, she analyzes how funeral iconography employed by Roman artisans can be interpreted to reflect the values and attitudes of their social class (picking one particular example: depictions of the set square); in chapter four, how the attitudes of (and toward) Roman survey engineers, and their role in resolving ancient land disputes, can (or can't) be inferred from surviving inscriptions of the early Empire; and in chapter five, how everything changed in the era of medieval decline, even amidst pockets of surviving genius within the Byzantine Empire (a treatment of the East rather than the West that is itself almost novel in the study of ancient technology, and illuminating for that very reason).
Though these five chapters are really independent essays, paradigmatic examples of how Cuomo wants to see the myriad other subjects in the history of ancient technology written, and thus very different from each other in the questions asked and aspects studied, they do carry through a common theme, each in its own way. Her main objective is to show that there was no uniform "attitude" among any class in antiquity toward technology or craftsmen, that some among the literate elite could get all snooty over it, while others could hobnob with mechanics and experts and praise their contributions to society, and a whole complex spectrum in between.
Cuomo's collection of essays is required reading for anyone who wants to understand ancient attitudes toward science and technology, and useful as well for anyone who wants to see various and fascinating aspects of ancient culture that you probably won't see summarized elsewhere (especially for laymen). In fact, in various different ways she situates technology as an inseparable part of Greco-Roman culture that has all too often been overlooked by other historians, passed off as some sort of specialization that classicists need not concern themselves with. She refutes that notion quite decisively here. And at only 210 pages it is also quite short.
I should note that I disagree with her mildly on some few issues that will become clear in my own future book The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire, but also on one particular issue that I won't address there (as it falls outside the period my book will cover): her theory that engineering must have gained in prestige in the Byzantine Empire because engineers seem then to be increasingly and almost exclusively found among the governing elite (rather than coming up from the ranks of the ancient equivalent of the educated middle class, as had been the dominant case in previous eras). This is a non sequitur, and fails to be supported by other evidence (especially when compared with evidence for the previous period). I suspect what had actually happened was a worsening decline in the education system, such that only the highly privileged (and well-positioned) elite could get the requisite education to become a competent engineer--or worse, those outside the upper elite increasingly lost interest or faith in the pursuit of engineering as any sort of worthwhile goal, forcing a few keen minds in the aristocracy to take it up themselves simply to get things done.
Apart from her lone theory of a rise of prestige for engineers that I find untenable, she otherwise demonstrates several elements of decline in the engineering industry in the more advanced Byzantine Empire, already in the early Middle Ages, and her treatment of late antiquity is solid and informative. Every chapter, in fact, has something valuable or even essential to offer, and serves as a nice sampler of how to do history even when it's hard.
Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity by David Sedley (2008). This is a brilliant work, another series of Sather Lectures that astounds and defines a field, as so many have before, and it will, like the books above, become required reading for anyone interested in ancient cosmology, Presocratic philosophy, or the early origins of scientific thought. In fact, even though this book treats only one specific subject (Greco-Roman theories of the origin of physical and biological order in the universe, and ancient debates surrounding those theories, and the underlying assumptions behind those debates), it is so vastly superior to M. Rosemary Wright's Cosmology in Antiquity (reviewed in my last post on this subject) that I recommend reading Sedley's Creationism instead, at least for a start.
This book's relevance to the history of science is clear throughout, bearing not only on the transition from mythic to naturalistic explanation in the Presocratic era, but also on continuing debates thereafter between godless and divine theories of cosmic design, all the way into the Roman era. Sedley, a renowned expert in Hellenistic philosophy (who as Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Cambridge has recently been carving out an additional reputation as an expert on the Presocratics), includes chapters analyzing in detail the cosmogonic and biogenic theories (as far as we can reconstruct them) of Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Socrates, Plato, The Atomists, Aristotle, The Stoics, and finally (though most briefly) Galen.
This book does not discuss Jewish, Christian, or any other religious theory of creation, and it isn't comprehensive even among the pagan philosophers. However, it does discuss the most prominent godless theories of cosmogenesis (among the ancient atomists, from Democritus to Epicurus and Lucretius, though Sedley rightly proves they did not propose evolution theory as we understand it, despite what some have said) and what was in effect a form of ancient Deism or Pantheism (among the Stoics and possibly Galen). He also decisively proves the novel thesis that all ancient theories (apart from those of the atomists) were fundamentally religious, in the philosophical sense that they all incorporated intelligent design at some level. And yet ancient theories were surprisingly diverse in the many ways this was imagined to have occurred, thus challenging modern monolithic thinking among creationists as to what the options really are. Even the atomists advanced theories that do not correspond at all with modern evolution theory and yet rationally entail evident design without, in fact, any design at all.
But the most revolutionary (and yet entirely persuasive) proposal of this book is that most of the Presocratic cosmologies, often thought to have eliminated the divine (by scholars who thus imagine the Presocratic philosophers as the progenitors of modern naturalism and scientific atheism, as in a sense they are), actually instead subordinated the divine to rational scientific theory. Instead of radically splitting with mythological and sacred narratives, the Presocratic cosmologists concluded that God or gods were still involved, but the creation process could only be properly inferred from the available empirical evidence, and not learned from oracles, revelation, or sacred tradition. This led to increasingly naturalistic explanations that gradually replaced divine fiat and "just so" stories with appeals to intelligible systems of cause and effect. Thus scientific thinking originated within pagan religious thought, and continued living there quite comfortably.
But apart from that revelation and its implications, the best thing about this book are all the crazy, bizarre, interesting stories and examples that Sedley digs up from ancient sources, including arguments on both sides that were sometimes so sophisticated you can still hear them being voiced today, as well as cosmological assumptions that are entirely alien now, and yet were so pervasively embraced then that early Christianity can only be understood in light of them.
This book reads well, apart from a few places where Sedley delves into technicalia, though in the worst case of this he takes the trouble to warn the reader and advises those less interested to skip the technostuff and get right back to the gripping story.