Roman siege tower with battering ram
Lecture 20: Machines at War – Siege Towers and Rams
Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From the Catapult to the Pantheon
Dr Stephen Ressler (2013)
This lecture focuses on siege warfare technology, which first appeared in Mesopotamia in the second millennium. Its purpose was to breech the sturdy stone and mud baked defensive walls surrounding most cities. Various siege methodologies included
- Ladders, siege towers or earth embankments enabling invaders to climb over city walls.
- Battering rams to break through them
- Tunneling under them
- Blockading cities to deprive them of food and water
- Deception or treachery (eg bribing someone to open the gate for you)
The Persians, Assyrians, Macedonians and Roman were all masters of siege warfare and used all five approaches.
Classical era Greeks engaged in little siege warfare because the typical polis couldn’t afford siege machinery. Athens preferred blockading enemy cities (cutting off food and water) to formal sieges. Other poleis preferred to engage their enemies through open military/naval offensive maneuvers.
During his war against Carthage* in the fifth century BC, Dionysius of Syracuse** created the classical world’s first military think tank to develop siege towers to compete with those of his Carthaginian enemies. Under Alexander the Great and his father Phillip II, the Macedonians considerably refined the siege technology.
Ressler uses computer modeling to demonstrate the Heliopolis of Posedonius Alexander deployed in 350 BC. The monstrosity was 100 feet tall and rolled on 9 foot diameter wheels. Inside the Heliopolis were a battering ram, interior staircases leading to upper levels, a portable drawbridge and platforms for archers to fire from.
When enemies thwarted the Heliopolis by surrounding their walls with impassible ditches, Alexander responding by building a ditch filling tortoise on wheels. The outer shell of the vehicle shielded the warriors inside. The ram tortoise of Hegetor incorporated a battering ram.
Initially relying on scaling ladders to climb over city walls, after 200BC Roman legions opted for ramped embankments instead. The latter were built of wood and earth and covered by hide covered wooden frames (to protect warriors from counterattack). The Romans also used these ramps to move their siege machines and battering rams into position (which meant they could use smaller and more mobile siege towers),
Roman earthen ramps with hide covered frames. Two of the ramps have siege towers adjacent to the wall.
*Carthage was a Phoenician colony near modern day Lebanon, and it’s believed the Phoenicians learned about siege technology from the Persians.
**In modern day Sicily
Film can be viewed free with a library card.
Pingback: The Engineering Secrets of Greek and Roman Catapults | The Most Revolutionary Act