- The Catapult: A History
To start with, this is a very good book, though not primarily military history. Tracey Rihll, who teaches classics and ancient history at the University of Wales, is best known as a historian of Greek science. Because catapults are by far the best documented of ancient technologies, she argues, studying them offers an unusual entry into understanding the practice of science and technology in antiquity. Although Rihll discusses military matters only for the purpose of clarifying aspects of technical development, she does so with a high degree of competence, deftly weaving together politics, strategy, military organization, weaponry, and fortification in a persuasive narrative. Rihll's style throughout is relaxed, even in places colloquial, but generally clear and straightforward. [End Page 1219]
Rihll structures The Catapult as a chronological narrative, spanning the millennium from 399 BC to roughly the sixth century AD. Beginning with a survey of catapult ancestry, bows, and slings, she proceeds to describe the Syracusan invention of the bow-catapult, initially a hand weapon, in 399 BC. Rihll then reviews the documentary, military architectural, and archaeological evidence for catapult diffusion during the usually ignored sixty-year period between the invention of the bow-catapult and the first torsion catapult, which she argues was the sling-derived monagkon (the one-armed machine that the Roman later termed onager), the amalgamation of which with the bow-catapult produced the classic two-armed models, the robust stone-thrower, then the lighter dart-shooter. She also argues for the continued development of hand-held catapults and makes a case for the mainly undocumented existence of small torsion catapults. Hellenistic technical treatises by Ktesibios (usually attributed to Heron of Alexandria, identified by Rihll as merely the editor of the earlier writer's text), Philon of Byzantium, and Biton reveal the standardization of catapults in a few stable and reliable designs, based on the experimental work of Hellenistic scientists and their development of mathematical methods to reproduce the machines. Roman field armies regularly deployed catapults, a practice that persisted throughout antiquity and even later.
Rihll's Catapult is in some sense a popularization of, and commentary on, E. W. Marsden's magisterial but aging volumes on Greek and Roman Artillery (1969, 1971). In addition to the classical sources and modern work, Rihll draws especially on the considerable archaeological material uncovered in the past quarter century to augment Marsden's primarily textual analysis. In my opinion, Rihll sometimes stretches her sources unduly to achieve a lively narrative, as in chapter 2, where she presents Diodoros Siculus, the notoriously anecdotal and uncritical compiler of the first century BC, as a reasonably reliable source for the events surrounding the invention of the catapult in 399 BC, despite the three centuries and more that separated events and writer, because both were Sicilian. To keep the story flowing, she rarely discusses counter-evidence, especially evident in chapter 5 on hand-catapults. Oddly in a book about technology, her verbal explanations of technical processes or machine workings sometimes struck me as unclear—terse, opaque, or confusing. Such flaws seem minor against the achievement of a solid, up-to-date, and readable account of the classical world's most intriguing military technological innovation.