On the Possible Near Eastern Origins of the Catapult

The generally accepted history of the catapult holds that it was first invented in the Greek city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in 399 BC. The Syracusan general Dionysius I had led a military coup in 405 BC that overthrew Syracuse”s democratically elected government and installed himself as a dictator. His first acts as dictator were to put Syracuse’s society and economy on a war footing. Dionysius planned to go to war with Carthage, who controlled the western half of Sicily, and seize total control of the island.

In order to do this, the Syracusans sought new weapons. Dionysius brought in engineers from around the Greek world to work on new technology. The Greeks in Italy had previously invented an early crossbow called the gastraphetes, which had superior range to a manually drawn bow. Dionysius’ engineers took this a step further and created arrow and stone-throwing machines to be used in assaulting Carthaginian fortifications.[1]

An early Greek catapult, basically a scaled-up crossbow.

These early catapults developed into the double-armed torsion catapults used all over the ancient Mediterranean world (the Chinese developed catapults independently at around the same time). They were used by the Romans, Greeks, Carthaginians, Macedonians and all the Hellenistic kingdoms. Some catapults grew to very large sizes and packed enormous destructive power.

Yet, there are indications here and there that the Syracusans were not the first to come up with the idea of using levers, springs and torque to fling boulders at their enemies. Several vague clues from ancient writers indicate that the idea of the catapult might have a more eastern origin.

The first comes from the Biblical book of Chronicles’ record of the reign of King Uzziah of Judah. Uzziah reigned for 52 years in the mid 8th century BC. During his reign Judah undertook a large-scale military buildup, including improving the fortifications of Jerusalem. As part of the fortifications, he “made devices invented for use on the towers and on the corner defenses so that soldiers could shoot arrows and hurl large stones from the walls.”[2]

The word translated “devices”  is the Hebrew chishshabown, which simply means “inventions” and doesn’t really help us here.[3] The general argument from those who believe the Greeks invented the catapult is that the author of Chronicles was applying terms from his own day (after the return from the Babylonian exile in 538 BC) to an ancient primitive machine from 200 or more years ago that he did not have a contemporary word for.[4] Standing by itself, this passage doesn’t tell us much about ancient Near Eastern catapults.

At about the same time in the mid 8th century we have a description of the Egyptian Pharaoh Piye’s siege of Hermopolis which states that the attacking Egyptian army included “hurlers.” This has often been taken to mean slingers, but the word has a hieroglyphic determinative in front of it which indicates that it was made out of wood. Unfortunately, that is all that we know. We don’t know what a “hurler” was except that it was made out of wood and hurled things.[5]

But there is more. The Macedonian author Polyainos (writing in the 2nd century AD) recorded that during the Persian siege of Peleusium in 525 BC the Egyptians defended the walls with catapults:

They advanced formidable engines against the besiegers, and hurled missiles, stones, and fire at them from their catapults. To counter this destructive barrage, Cambyses ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises, and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The Egyptians immediately stopped their operations, out of fear of hurting the animals, which they hold in great veneration.[6]

However, as Polyainos wrote this 700 years after these events took place, it is entirely possible that he got some things wrong. An older source comes from the 1st century AD Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, author of the ancient encyclopedia Natural History, records that the ballista (stone-thrower) was invented by the Phoenicians.[7] Leigh Alexander has proposed that the ballista was invented by Assyria, then adopted by the Phoenicians and Judeans, and was transmitted from Phoenicia to Carthage, where Dionysius’ engineers copied it in 399 BC.[8]

The problem is, all of these descriptions simply state that catapults existed. They describe the siege engines using terms from the author’s own time in Hebrew, Latin or Greek: ballista, catapulta, etc. Some of them describe what the machines did, which was throw stones. But none of them describe what the machines looked like or how they worked. We have no idea if what Pliny calls a ballista from ancient Phoenicia was the same thing as a ballista in his day. Without any depictions to work with, the textual evidence can only take us so far.

So we must turn to archaeology. There are several finds that will shed some light on this puzzle. The first comes from Palaepaphos, an ancient city in Cyprus which was besieged by the Persians in 498 BC. Here in 1984 excavators found 422 rounded stones, which were flat on one side. The stones were of various sizes, weighing between 4 1/2 to 48 lbs (2-22 kg). Most weighed between 9-13 lbs (4-6 kg). They were all found outside the walls. The flat side does not seem to have been the result of an impact and remains a mystery. Elisabeth Erdmann published a report that proposed that the rocks were shot at the city walls by Persian catapults. The counter-proposal is that they were dropped from the walls on the heads of attackers.[9] Without further evidence nothing more can be said.

Some of the mysterious Palaepaphos balls.

The second find is a singe stone ball from Phocaea, a Greek city on the coast of Asia Minor that was besieged by the Persians in 546 BC. This stone ball was roughly round, with no flat side. It also weighed 48 lbs (22 kg). This seemed to argue against it being thrown at enemies from atop the wall, indicating it may have been shot at them instead. But its shape means that it could have been rolled off the wall as well, so once again nothing is definitive.[10]

For our third piece of evidence, we have to dig deeply into a book published in 1849. Austen Henry Layard published sketches of the excavations of the Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh show this relief of an assault on a fortress: [11]

Layard's drawing of a Assyrian palace relief from Nimrud.

Now, this relief hasn’t been studied much, because there are far more interesting and complex reliefs. I can’t find out what happened to the original or if it has been lost, looted or forgotten in the basement of the British Museum. In the upper right corner, there is a siege ramp with two tall things on the ramp. The defenders are trying to set the tall things on fire. There appear to be uneven rocks or building stones in the air near the tall things.

Close-up of the alleged "catapults."

Based on this vague image, George Rawlinson wrote this fanciful description:

Besides battering-rams, the Assyrians appear to have been acquainted with an engine resembling the catapult, or rather the balista of the Romans. This engine, which was of great height, and threw stones of a large size, was protected, like the ram, by a framework, apparently of wood, covered with canvas, felt, or hides. The stones thrown from the engine were of irregular shape, and it was able to discharge several at the same time. The besiegers worked it from a mound or inclined plane, which enabled them to send their missiles to the top of the ramparts. It had to be brought very close to the walls in order to be effective—a position which gave the besieged an opportunity of assailing it by fire. Perhaps it was this liability which caused the infrequent use of the engine in question, which is rare upon the earlier, and absent from the later, sculptures.[12]

At the risk of overstating the obvious, there is absolutely nothing in this image that looks like a catapult at all. The best that can be made of this engine based on these pictures is that it is a siege tower built on the ramp to allow the people inside the tower to shoot down onto the walls. No throwing arms or anything indicating a catapult are visible. As this image is stationary, we cannot tell if the rocks are being thrown at the walls, or from the walls and at the towers.

One common argument against a Near Eastern origin for the catapult is that the technology does not seem to have spread. If the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians and Phoenicians had rudimentary catapults, why don’t we hear more of them? After 399 BC, catapults quickly spread all over the Mediterranean world, why not earlier? Tracy Rihll notes that Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) describes numerous sieges, goes into detail about siege tactics, and yet does not mention any catapults. On the other hand, the Greeks were slow learners in siege warfare, adopting inventions such as the battering ram at a far later date than their invention in the Near East.[13]

When we look at the sum total of evidence we have nothing that definitively indicates that torsion catapults were used anywhere in the world before 399 BC. Dionysius’ engineers’ place in history seems secure for now.

Layard drawing of an Assyrian relief from Nimrud, showing boulders being used as a weapon.

But what of our few textual accounts of rock-throwing inventions as well as the stones from Palaepaphos? The idea of dropping rocks off the tops of walls onto people’s heads is probably as old as the ideas of walls and rocks. It takes no special genius to figure that one out. But what about some sort of primitive devices for manipulating, dropping or even throwing these rocks? Could something like this be the origin of the above anomalies that have been thought to suggest catapults?

We have evidence from Assyrian palace reliefs of stones being dropped from walls on defenders.[14] Another example comes from the Biblical book of Judges:

Next Abimelek went to Thebez and besieged it and captured it. Inside the city, however, was a strong tower, to which all the men and women—all the people of the city—had fled. They had locked themselves in and climbed up on the tower roof. Abimelek went to the tower and attacked it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull.[15]

It is also well known that people in the ancient Near East made extensive use of levers and other simple machines for moving heavy things. The counterweight crane or shaduf was a common irrigation tool for thousands of years in the ancient Near East and is still in use today. Since dropping stones appears to have been a common tactic, it is not a great leap to imagine that defenders of cities could have used similar cranes mounted on city walls to lift and drop larger rocks than could be thrown by hand. A crane could solve the problems of lifting such rocks over the battlements and could give a few feet of extra range.

An Egyptian Shaduf used to water a garden. From the Tomb of Ipuy at Deir-el-Medina, reign of Rameses II, mid 13th century BC.

This is not the same thing as a counterweight catapult or trebuchet, which was invented in China in the 4th or 5th century BC but did not reach the Mediterranean world until the 6th century AD.[16] Building a counterweight catapult that will actually fling a projectile requires a much more advanced knowledge of physics and forces in motion than building a crane.

This would explain the stones at Palaepaphos and Phocaea. The stones at Palaepaphos would be found outside the walls not because they were shot at the walls but because they were dropped off of them. The flat side of each stone could be related to how the stones were picked up and carried by the crane.

To return to Uzziah’s stone throwers, the Hebrew word translated “shoot” or “hurl” is yarah. The word was used to describe the action of shooting an arrow, but it also was used to describe throwing objects (such as dice or other objects for casting lots), or to rain falling from the sky.[17] This isn’t inconsistent with the idea that Uzziah’s engineers mounted some sort of crane on the walls for dropping boulders on anyone below.

It should be noted here that all the above evidences for Near Eastern catapults, with the exception of the Nimrud relief, portray catapults being used in a defensive manner. The Egyptians and Uzziah’s alleged stone throwers were used to defend a city under siege. This is in line with using a crane to drop stones from the walls of a city. If the sources described using catapults to assault a city, this would be another matter since cranes would be largely useless for this type of thing – unless they were mounted in a siege tower higher than the walls. Cranes could potentially be mounted inside siege towers on top of a siege ramp in an attempt to drop stones onto the wall. This may be what we are seeing with the siege towers in the Nimrud relief.

As to why depictions and accounts are so rare, the obvious explanation is that it just wasn’t a very good weapon system and wasn’t widely used. It would also have been highly specialized, useful only on top walls when the enemy came underneath.

This is all speculative of course, with no hard evidence to back it up. But, it is a hypothesis to test in the future as new discoveries come to light.


[1] Baron C. Hacker, “Greek Catapults and Catapult Technology: Science, Technology, and War in the Ancient World” Technology and Culture, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan., 1968), 34-44; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Perseus, trans. by C.H. Oldfather. 1989, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.01.0084 (accessed July 24, 2011), 14.42.1.

[2] 2 Chronicles 26:15, New International Version.

[3] Blue Letter Bible. “Dictionary and Word Search for chishshabown (Strong’s 2810)“. Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2011. 24 Jul 2011. < http:// www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H2810&t=KJV >

[4] This view is expressed in Tracy E. Rihll, The Catapult: A History (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2007), 28.

[5] Alan R. Schulman, “Military Organization in Pharaonic Egypt,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. I, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 298-299.

[6] Polyaenus, Strategems, Attalus.org, trans. by R. Shepherd. 1793, http://www.attalus.org/translate/polyaenus.html (accessed July 24, 2011), 7.9.

[7] Duncan B. Campbell, Besieged: Siege Warfare in the Ancient World (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006), 29; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Perseus, trans. by John Bostock. 1855, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=7:chapter=57&highlight=balista (accessed July 24, 2011), 7.57.

[8] Leigh Alexander, “The Origin of Greek and Roman Artillery,” The Classical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 5 (Feb., 1946), 208-212.

[9] Campbell, Besieged, 27-28; Rihll, The Catapult , 29-30.

[10] Campbell, Besieged, 29.

[11] Austen Henry Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh: From Drawings Made on the Spot; Together with a Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, Including Bas-Reliefs from the Palace of Sennacherib and bronzes from the Ruins of Nimroud; from Drawings made on the Spot During a Second Expedition to Assyria, Vol, 1, 1849, Plate 19.

The work can be found at: http://echo.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/home/search?searchSimple=Layard%2C+Austen%20Henry

[12] George Rawlinson, The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, or, the History, Geography and Antiquities of Chaldea, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Parthia and Sassanian, or New Persian Empire, Vol.  1 (New York: Worthington, 1875), 275.

[13] Rihll, The Catapult, 30; Paul Bentley Kern, Ancient Siege Warfare (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Pres, 1999), 105.

[14] Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh, Plate 66.

[15] Judges 9:50-53 (NIV).

[16] Paul E. Chevveden, “The Hybrid Trebuchet: The Halfway Step to the Counterweight Trebuchet,” in On the Social Origins of Medieval Institutions: Essays in Honor of Joseph F. O’Callaghan (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1999), 179-181.

[17] Blue Letter Bible. “Dictionary and Word Search for yarah (Strong’s 3384)“. Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2011. 25 Jul 2011. < http:// www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3384&t=KJV >

Image Sources: (Banner) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Assyrian_Attack_on_a_Town.jpg; Rawlinson, The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, Vol. 1, Plate CXI; (Body) http://civilianmilitaryintelligencegroup.com/?p=3814; Campbell, Besieged, 29/F.G. Maier, Swiss-German Archaeological Expedition Palaepaphos; Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh, Plate 19 (and closeup); Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh, Plate 66; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ipuy_shaduf.jpg

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One response

  1. This is a remarkable and well researched article. It sheds light on the military history of ancient Israel.

    September 20, 2013 at 8:54 AM

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