Artillery and other weapons used by the Romans consisted ballistae (a type catapulte, battering rams, and elephants (the ancient version of a tank?).


The terminology of artillery when referring to ballistae or catapulte is confusing. Different reference sources adopt different meanings for the terms ballistae and catapulte. Here's some examples; see the bibliographic entries on the Ancient Rome page for more information on the books cited. (colors and italics are mine :–Rth)

  • From The Encyclopedia Britannica 2001 DVD:

    "The terminology of mechanical artillery is confusing. Catapult is the general term for mechanical artillery; however, the term also applies to a particular type of torsion engine with a single arm rotating in a vertical plane. Torsion engines with two horizontally opposed arms rotating in the horizontal plane . . . are called ballistae. The Romans called their catapults onagers or wild asses for the way in which their rears kicked upward under the recoil source."
  • Peddie in his book, The Roman War Machine (1994), seems to agree with The Encyclopedia Britannica (or perhaps they agree with him <g>): Ballistae have two arms; catapultae have one, and the Roman catapulta was the onager, which was more prevalent during the Principate and later.
  • Simkins in his book, Warriors in Rome (1988), agrees with the The Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Dodge in his book Caesar (1892), distinguishes between ballistae and catapultae by payload: ballistae launch stones; catapultae launch arrows. He goes on further to say that small ballistae are called "scorpions".
  • Adkins and Adkins in their book Handbook of Life in Ancient Rome (1994), agree with Dodge except that they say small catapultae are called Scorpions.
  • Warry in his book, Warfare in the Classical World (1995), seems to agree with Adkins and Adkins.

The remainder of this article will–for some sort of simplicity's sake–adopt the Encyclopedia Britannica-Peddie definition. . . .

During the Late Roman Republic, every century had a large ballista , which was used to throw stones (about the size of an orange or larger), fire pots, leaden shot, arrows, bolts, or other objects.

Such Ballistae were used, not only to defend Roman camps, but also to provide covering fire for the infantry and to lay seige to enemy fortifications.Ballistae were powered by torsion resulting from two wooden arms thrust into two thick skeins of twisted cords made of horsehair, gut, sinew, or other fibers.

The largest ballistae were twice the size of the smallest. Smaller ballistae were basically large crossbows built into a wooden support frames.

Ballistae-Scorpion Picture

The largest ballista had arms 3 to 4 feet long while the smallest had arms 2 feet long. The larger the ballista , the farther it could shoot. The range of a large ballista was greater than 411.5 meters (450 yards) with 2.7 to 3.6 kilogram (6 to 8 lb.) shot. The largest ballistae could hurl 27.2 kilogram (60 lb.) weights up to 457.2 meters (500 yards).

Sometimes ballistae were mounted on carts (carroballista ) to make them more mobile, and sometimes ballista shot was made out of baked clay so that it would shatter on impact so the enemy couldn't reuse it.

Larger ballistae , especially carroballista , could require up to 10 men (one ancient source claims 11) for loading and firing; specifically:

  • a commander,
  • an aimer,
  • two to four men to turn the winch,
  • one or two animal handlers (if it was a carroballista ),
  • two men to handle ammunition.

Smaller ballistae would, of course, take less personnel to fire. Some of the smaller ballistae were called scorpiones (scorpions). They obviously could be operated by a smaller number of soldiers. The smaller ballista's range was 300 meters or more.

Some experts estimate that the total number of artillerymen in a legion would have been around 650; but no one seems to know for sure.

Battering Rams

Battering rams were used to break down gates of fortifications or walls.

Battering Ram Picture

Rams were either mounted on wheels or suspended by ropes or chains mounted inside of a shed on wheels. The ram itself consisted of a huge beam or log of wood with a heavy cast iron tip–often in the form of a ram's head–mounted to its tip by iron bands.


Elephants had three uses in ancient warfare. They were used:

  • as a screen against enemy cavalry
  • to break the enemy line
  • to break into a fortified position (usually they didn't work too well)

The defense against elephants was to pound them with slingshot. More often than not they'd whirl around and trample their own troops.

Other Facts

  • Philo of Byzantium, in his artillery manual written circa 200 BCE, claimed that a wall would have to be 15 feet thick to withstand stones weighing up to 350 lbs.
  • The standard bolt that was sometimes launched from ballistae had a square shaft (60 to 80 mm wide or 2-3 in.) which tapered to a point.
  • In the fourth century CE, the term ballista was only used for arrow shooting machines, and the onager replaced the ballista for launching stones