Learn About Roman Artillery

Long before the invention of gunpowder the Romans had
many different types of artillery, split into two distinct
groups. Bolt firing weapons, similar to large crossbows such
as the Ballista and stone throwing weapons like the Onager
(pictured below) which is Latin for “Wild Donkey”.
The Onager was a siege weapon, capable of throwing large
stones weighing as much as 26 Kilos great distances to
destroy enemy fortifications. One Roman chronicler, a man
called Josephus, reported on a stone “travelling a distance of
two stades” (about 368 meters in today’s measurements).
How true this is, is questionable and is probably Roman
propaganda, but nevertheless, one of these stones would go a
long way once it had bounced and rolled a few times.
If the Onager was the heavy artillery of its day then
machines such as the Ballista, Scorpio and Oxybeles were
the Roman equivalent of today’s modern sniper rifles. They
could fire a large crossbow type bolt great distances against
individual targets and would pierce armour.
The operators would use a winch system connected to a
ratchet to draw back the “bow strings”, usually made from
sinew, to create great tension which would enable the
projectile (in most cases a bolt using flights made of leather
or feathers for stability in flight) to be fired at a target with
amazing power and accuracy for the day. The skeleton of an
ancient Briton was discovered at Maiden Castle, Dorset with
the iron bolt-head from a catapult still lodged in its spine.
A Modern Sniper Rifle
Learn About Series Handout #2