The ballista (Latin, from Greek βαλλίστρα ballistra[1] and that from βάλλω ballō, "throw"),[2] plural ballistae, sometimes called bolt thrower, was an ancient missile weapon that launched a large projectile at a distant target.

Developed from earlier Greek weapons, it relied upon different mechanics, using two levers with torsion springs instead of a tension prod (the bow part of a modern crossbow), offering much greater efficiency over tension-based weaponry. The springs consisting of several loops of twisted skeins. Early versions projected heavy darts or spherical stone projectiles of various sizes for siege warfare. It developed into a smaller precision weapon, the scorpio,[3] and possibly the polybolos.

Ballista (PSF) vector
Illustration of a ballista being loaded and drawn

Greek weapon

The early ballista in Ancient Greece was developed from two weapons called oxybeles and gastraphetes. The gastraphetes ('belly-bow') was a handheld crossbow. It had a composite prod and was spanned by bracing the front end of the weapon against the ground while placing the end of a slider mechanism against the stomach. The operator would then walk forward to arm the weapon while a ratchet prevented it from shooting during loading. This produced a weapon which, it was claimed, could be operated by a person of average strength but which had a power that allowed it to be successfully used against armoured troops. The oxybeles was a bigger and heavier construction employing a winch, and was mounted on a tripod. It had a lower rate of fire and was used as a siege engine. With the invention of torsion spring bundle technology, the first ballista was built. The advantage of this new technology was the fast relaxation time of this system. Thus it was possible to shoot lighter projectiles with higher velocities over a longer distance.

For an oxybeles, the rules of a torsion weapon demanded that the more energy could be stored, the thicker the prod and the heavier the projectile had to be to increase the amount of stored energy delivered to the projectile. The earliest form of the ballista is thought to have been developed for Dionysius of Syracuse, c. 400 BC.

The Greek ballista was a siege weapon. All components that were not made of wood were transported in the baggage train. It would be assembled with local wood, if necessary. Some were positioned inside large, armoured, mobile siege towers or even on the edge of a battlefield. For all of the tactical advantages offered, it was only under Philip II of Macedon, and even more so under his son Alexander, that the ballista began to develop and gain recognition as both a siege engine and field artillery. Historical accounts, for instance, cited that Philip II employed a group of engineers within his army to design and build catapults for his military campaigns.[4][5] There is even a claim that it was Philip II - with his team of engineers - who invented the ballista after improving Dionysius's device, which was merely an oversized slingshot.[6] It was further perfected by Alexander, whose own team of engineers introduced innovations such as the idea of using springs made from tightly strung coils of rope instead of a bow to achieve more energy and power when throwing projectiles.[6] Polybius reported about the usage of smaller, more portable ballistae, called scorpions, during the Second Punic War.

Ballistae could be easily modified to shoot both spherical and shaft projectiles, allowing their crews to adapt easily to prevailing battlefield situations in real time.

As the role of battlefield artillery became more sophisticated, a universal joint (which was invented just for this function) was integrated into the ballista's stand, allowing the operators to alter the trajectory and firing direction of the ballista as required without a lengthy disassembly of the machine.

Roman weaponry

Hecht 090710 Ballista
Reconstructed small Roman ballista
Bal BBC1
One talent ballista (26 kg (57 lb) weight projectile) was typical for Roman era ballista. The heaviest version ever made was built by Archimedes, and used stones up to three talents (78 kg (172 lb)).[7]
047 Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traianssäule, Tafel XLVII (Ausschnitt 02)
Roman 'catapult-nest' on Trajan's Column
Harzhorn-Ereignis roemische Katapultgeschosse (Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum)
Ballista bolt heads

After the absorption of the Ancient Greek city-states into the Roman Republic in 146 BC, the highly advanced Greek technology began to spread across many areas of Roman influence. This included the great military machine advances the Greeks had made (most notably by Dionysus of Syracuse), as well as all the scientific, mathematical, political and artistic developments.

The Romans 'inherited' the torsion-powered ballista, which had by now spread to several cities around the Mediterranean, all of which became Roman spoils of war, including one from Pergamum, which was depicted among a pile of trophy weapons in relief on a balustrade.

The torsion ballista, developed by Alexander, was a far more complicated weapon than its predecessor and the Romans developed it even further, especially into much smaller versions, that could be easily carried.

Early Roman ballistae

The early Roman ballistae were made of wood, and held together with iron plates around the frames and iron nails in the stand. The main stand had a slider on the top, into which were loaded the bolts or stone shot. Attached to this, at the back, was a pair of 'winches' and a 'claw', used to ratchet the bowstring back to the armed firing position.

The slider passed through the field frames of the weapon, in which were located the torsion springs (rope made of animal sinew), which were twisted around the bow arms, which in turn, were attached to the bowstring.

Drawing the bowstring back with the winches twisted the already taut springs, storing the energy to fire the projectiles. The bronze or iron caps, which secured the torsion-bundles were adjustable by means of pins and peripheral holes, which allowed the weapon to be tuned for symmetrical power and for changing weather conditions.

The ballista was a highly accurate weapon (there are many accounts of single soldiers being picked off by ballista operators), but some design aspects meant it could compromise its accuracy for range. The maximum range was over 500 yards (460 m), but effective combat range for many targets was far shorter.

The Romans continued the development of the ballista, and it became a highly prized and valued weapon in the army of the Roman Empire.

It was used, just before the start of the Empire, by Julius Caesar during his conquest of Gaul and on both of his campaigns in subduing Britain.

First invasion of Britain

The first of Caesar's invasions of Britain took place in 55 BC, after a rapid and successful initial conquest of Gaul, in part as an expedition, and more practically to try to put an end to the reinforcements sent by the native Britons to fight the Romans in Gaul.

A total of eighty transports, carrying two legions, attempted to land on the British shore, only to be driven back by the many British warriors assembled along the shoreline. The ships had to unload their troops on the beach, as it was the only one suitable for many miles, yet the massed ranks of British charioteers and javeliners were making it difficult.

Seeing this, Caesar ordered the warships – which were swifter and easier to handle than the transports, and likely to impress the natives more by their unfamiliar appearance – to be removed a short distance from the others, and then be rowed hard and run ashore on the enemy’s right flank, from which position the slings, bows and artillery could be used by men on deck to drive them back. This manoeuvre was highly successful.
Scared by the strange shape of the warships, the motion of the oars, and the unfamiliar machines, the natives halted and retreated. (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, p.99)

Siege of Alesia

A four-wheeled carroballista drawn by armored horses, from an engraving illustrating a 1552 edition of the war-machine catalog De Rebus Bellicis (c. 400)

In Gaul, the stronghold of Alesia was under a Roman siege in 52 BC, and was completely surrounded by a Roman fortification including a wooden palisade and towers. As was standard siege technique at the time, small ballistae were placed in the towers with other troops armed with bows or slings. The use of the ballista in the Roman siege strategy was also demonstrated in the case of the Siege of Masada.[4]

Ballistae in the Roman Empire

During the conquest of the Empire, the ballista proved its worth many times in sieges and battles, both at sea and on land. It was even used to quell riots. It is from the time of the Roman Empire that many of the archaeological finds of ballistae date. Accounts by the finders, including technical manuals and journals, are used today by archaeologists to reconstruct these weapons.

After Julius Caesar, the ballista was a permanent fixture in the Roman army and, over time, modifications and improvements were made by successive engineers. This included replacing the remaining wooden parts of the machine with metal, creating a much smaller, lighter and more powerful machine than the wooden version, which required less maintenance (though the vital torsion springs were still vulnerable to the strain). The largest ballistae of the 4th century could throw a dart further than 1200 yards (1,100 m). The weapon was named ballista fulminalis in De Rebus Bellicis: "From this ballista, darts were projected not only in great number but also at a large size over a considerable distance, such as across the width of the Danube River."[8] Ballistae were not only used in laying siege: after AD 350, at least 22 semi-circular towers were erected around the walls of Londinium (London) to provide platforms for permanently mounted defensive devices.[9]

Eastern Roman Empire

Israel Batch 2 (50)
Ballista stones found at excavation site in Jerusalem

During the 6th century, Procopius described the effects of this weapon:

But Belisarius placed upon the towers engines which they call "ballistae". Now these engines have the form of a bow, but on the under side of them a grooved wooden shaft projects; this shaft is so fitted to the bow that it is free to move, and rests upon a straight iron bed. So when men wish to shoot at the enemy with this, they make the parts of the bow which form the ends bend toward one another by means of a short rope fastened to them, and they place in the grooved shaft the arrow, which is about one half the length of the ordinary missiles which they shoot from bows, but about four times as wide...but the missile is discharged from the shaft, and with such force that it attains the distance of not less than two bow-shots, and that, when it hits a tree or a rock, it pierces it easily. Such is the engine which bears this name, being so called because it shoots with very great force[10]

The missiles were able to penetrate body-armour:

And at the Salarian Gate a Goth of goodly stature and a capable warrior, wearing a corselet and having a helmet on his head, a man who was of no mean station in the Gothic nation, refused to remain in the ranks with his comrades, but stood by a tree and kept shooting many missiles at the parapet. But this man by some chance was hit by a missile from an engine which was on a tower at his left. And passing through the corselet and the body of the man, the missile sank more than half its length into the tree, and pinning him to the spot where it entered the tree, it suspended him there a corpse.[11]

Cheiroballistra and manuballista

The cheiroballistra and the manuballista are held by many archaeologists to be the same weapon. The difference in name may be attributable to the different languages spoken in the Empire. Latin remained the official language in the Western Empire, but the Eastern Empire predominantly used Greek, which added an extra 'r' to the word ballista.

The manuballista was a handheld version of the traditional ballista. This new version was made entirely of iron, which conferred greater power to the weapon, since it was smaller, and less iron (an expensive material before the 19th century), was used in its production. It was not the ancient gastraphetes, but the Roman weapon. However, the same physical limitations applied as with the gastraphetes.


031 Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traianssäule, Tafel XXXI (Ausschnitt 01)
Roman cart-mounted carroballista

The carroballista was a cart-mounted version of the weapon. There were probably different models of ballista under the cheiroballistra class, at least two different two-wheeled models and one model with four wheels. Their probable size was roughly 1.47 m width, i.e., 5 Roman feet. The cart system and structure gave it a great deal of flexibility and capability as a battlefield weapon, since the increased maneuverability allowed it to be moved with the flow of the battle. This weapon features several times on Trajan's Column.


Ancient Mechanical Artillery. Pic 01
Reproductions of ancient Greek artillery, including catapults such as the polybolos (to the left in the foreground) and a large, early crossbow known as the gastraphetes (mounted on the wall in the background)

It has been speculated that the Roman military may have also fielded a 'repeating' ballista, also known as a polybolos. Reconstruction and trials of such a weapon carried out in a BBC documentary, What the Romans Did For Us, showed that they "were able to shoot eleven bolts a minute, which is almost four times the rate at which an ordinary ballista can be operated".[12] However, no example of such a weapon has been found by archaeologists.

Archaeology and the Roman ballista

Ballista Ampurias Schramm
Metal components of the Ampurias Catapult, found in 1912 in the Neapolis of Ampurias
Balista Cluj Museaum
Metal components of a 4th-century ballista

Archaeology, and in particular experimental archaeology has been influential on this subject. Although several ancient authors (such as Vegetius) wrote very detailed technical treatises, providing us with all the information necessary to reconstruct the weapons, all their measurements were in their native language and therefore highly difficult to translate.

Attempts to reconstruct these ancient weapons began at the end of the 19th century, based on rough translations of ancient authors. It was only during the 20th century, however, that many of the reconstructions began to make any sense as a weapon. By bringing in modern engineers, progress was made with the ancient systems of measurement. By redesigning the reconstructions using the new information, archaeologists in that specialty were able to recognize certain finds from Roman military sites, and identify them as ballistae. The information gained from the excavations was fed into the next generation of reconstructions and so on.

Sites across the empire have yielded information on ballistae, from Spain (the Ampurias Catapult), to Italy (the Cremona Battleshield, which proved that the weapons had decorative metal plates to shield the operators), to Iraq (the Hatra Machine) and even Scotland (Burnswark siege tactics training camp), and many other sites between.

The most influential archaeologists in this area have been Peter Connolly and Eric Marsden,[13] who have not only written extensively on the subject but have also made many reconstructions themselves and have refined the designs over many years of work.

Middle Ages

With the decline of the Roman Empire, resources to build and maintain these complex machines became very scarce, so the ballista was supplanted initially by the simpler and cheaper onager and the more efficient springald.

Though the weapon continued to be used in the Middle Ages, it faded from popular use with the advent of the trebuchet and mangonel in siege warfare.

See also

  • Harpax
  • 床弩 - in Chinese case


  1. ^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert. "Ballistra". A Greek-English Lexicon – via Perseus Tufts.
  2. ^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert. "Ballo". A Greek-English Lexicon – via Perseus Tufts.
  3. ^ Warry, John (1995). Warfare in the Classical World: War and the Ancient Civilisations of Greece and Rome. London, United Kingdom: Salamander Books Ltd. p. 178. ISBN 0-8061-2794-5.
  4. ^ a b Gabriel, Richard (2007). Soldiers' Lives through History: The Ancient World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 127. ISBN 0313333483.
  5. ^ McGowen, Tom (2006). Alexander the Great: Conqueror of the Ancient World. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers. p. 24. ISBN 9780766025608.
  6. ^ a b Gurstelle, William (2004). Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. p. 51. ISBN 1556525265.
  7. ^ Soedel, Werner; Foley, Vernard (March 1979). "Ancient Catapults". Scientific American. 240 (3): 120–28.
  8. ^ De Rebus Bellicis, Chapter XVIII: ballista fulminalis. Note: The modern width of the Danube is 1.5 km. During the Roman Empire, it was unlikely to have been less than 1.1 km, bearing in mind that Trajan's Bridge is known to have been longer than 1.1 km.
  9. ^ "Visible Roman London: City wall and gates". Museum of London Group. Archived from the original on 19 February 2015. Retrieved 19 February 2015.
  10. ^ Procopius, Gothic war, chapter XXI
  11. ^ Procopius, Gothic war, chapter XXIII
  12. ^ Hart-Davis, Adam Discovering Roman Technology BBC History 17 February 2011. Accessed 21 November 2013
  13. ^ Marsden, E.W. (1971). Greek and Roman Artillery. Technical Treatises (Oxford). Reprinted 1999 by Sandpiper


External images
Reenactor with manuballista, Retrieved 6 February 2008
Trigger of the polybolos, retrieved 6 February 2008
Side elevation of the polybolos, retrieved 6 February 2008
From above with magazin removed, retrieved 6 February 2008
Another view of the trigger, retrieved 6 February 2008
  • Caesar (tr Handforth), 1982, The Conquest of Gaul, London: Penguin Books
  • Campbell, D; 2003, Greek and Roman Artillery 399 BC – AD 363, Osprey
  • Connolly, P; 1975, The Roman Army, Macdonald Educational
  • Connolly, P; 1998, Greece and Rome at War, Greenhill Books
  • Feugère, M; 2002, Weapons of the Romans, Arcadia
  • Goldsworthy, A; 2003, The Complete Roman Army, Thames and Hudson
  • Marsden, E.W; 1971, Greek and Roman Technical Treatises, Clarendon
  • Warry, J. ;1995, Warfare in the Classical World, Salamander Books Ltd., London: United Kingdom. ISBN 0-8061-2794-5
  • Wilkins, A; 2003, Roman Artillery, Shire Archaeology

External links

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Balista or Ballista (died c. 261), also known in the sources with the name of "Callistus", was one of the Thirty Tyrants of the controversial Historia Augusta, and supported the rebellion of the Macriani against Emperor Gallienus.

Ballista FC

Ballista Futbol Club is an association football team that plays in Luquillo. They currently play in the Puerto Rico Soccer League.


The ballistocardiograph (BCG) is a measure of ballistic forces on the heart. Ballistocardiography is a technique for producing a graphical representation of repetitive motions of the human body arising from the sudden ejection of blood into the great vessels with each heart beat. It is a vital sign in the 1–20 Hz frequency range which is caused by the mechanical movement of the heart and can be recorded by noninvasive methods from the surface of the body. It was shown for the first time, after an extensive research work by Dr. Isaac Starr, that the effect of main heart malfunctions can be identified by observing and analyzing the BCG signal. Recent work also validates BCG could be monitored using camera in a non-contact manner.

One example of the use of a BCG is a ballistocardiographic scale, which measures the recoil of the persons body who is on the scale. A BCG scale is able to show a persons heart rate as well as their weight.

The term ballistocardiograph originated from the Roman ballista, which is derived from the Greek word ballein (to throw), a machine for launching missiles, plus the Greek words for heart and writing.


Carroballista was an ancient, cart-mounted ballista, a type of mobile field artillery. According to the Roman author Vegetius (Epitoma rei militaris II.25), each legion had 55 carroballistae (one per century) which were arrow/bolt-shooter of the cheiroballistra type. Vegetius tells us that each carroballista was carried by mules and operated by one contubernium (i.e. ten private soldiers commanded by one decanus). Surviving representation of a carroballista are from the bas-reliefs of Trajan's Column (Scene XL and Scenes LXV/LXVI) and the Column of Marcus Aurelius.


A catapult is a ballistic device used to launch a projectile a great distance without the aid of explosive devices—particularly various types of ancient and medieval siege engines. In use since ancient times, the catapult has proven to be one of the most effective mechanisms during warfare. In modern times the term can apply to devices ranging from a simple hand-held implement (also called a "slingshot") to a mechanism for launching aircraft from a ship.


The cheiroballistra (Greek: χειροβαλλίστρα) or manuballista (Latin), which translates in all its forms to "hand ballista", was an imperial-aera Roman siege engine. Designed by Hero of Alexandria and mostly composed of metal (the spring mechanism and the skeins), it shot bolts that were smaller than those in other forms of ballistae and generally made of metal. It was the next major improvement after the scorpio.The name of the weapon is composed of the Greek words for 'hand' and 'shooter' implying that portable versions might also have existed, similar to crossbows.

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FN Ballista

The FN Ballista is a sniper rifle developed by FN Herstal. The company states that the Ballista's design compares with the Remington MSR, the Armalite AR-30, and the Accuracy International AWM. The Remington MSR was selected as the winner of the PSR competition.

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Gigi Ballista (1 December 1918 – 2 August 1980) was an Italian film and television actor. He appeared in 60 films between 1961 and 1980.

Harry Sidebottom

Harry Sidebottom is a British author and historian, best known for his two series of historical novels the Warrior of Rome, and Throne of the Caesars. He will publish The Last Hour a new stand alone novel featuring Ballista, the hero of the Warrior of Rome series, in March 2018. He is Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at St. Benet's Hall, Oxford, and lecturer at Lincoln College.

List of medieval weapons

The following is a list of Wikipedia articles of the types of weapons that were in use during the post-classical historical period (roughly between the mid 1st to mid 2nd millennia AD).


The mangonel, also called the traction trebuchet, was a type of trebuchet or siege engine used in China starting from the Warring States period, and later across Eurasia in the 6th century AD. Unlike the earlier torsion engines and later counterweight trebuchet, the mangonel operated on manpower pulling cords attached to a lever and sling to launch projectiles. Although the mangonel required more men to function, it was also less complex and faster to reload than the torsion powered ballista and onager which it replaced in early Medieval Europe.


The oxybeles (Greek: οξυβελής) was a weapon used by the Ancient Greeks starting in 375 BC. The word is derived from Ancient Greek: οξύς (oxys = sharp, pointed) and βέλος (belos = artillery). The weapon was basically an oversized gastraphetes, a composite bow placed on a stand with a stock and a trigger. It was supplanted by the scientifically engineered ballista. The difference between the two is the use of torsion power by the ballista. The most notable use of the oxybeles was under Alexander the Great's rule.


Polybolos was an ancient Greek repeating ballista reputedly invented by Dionysius of Alexandria, a 3rd-century BC Greek engineer at the Rhodes arsenal, and used in antiquity. Philo of Byzantium encountered and described the polybolos, a catapult that like a modern machine gun could fire again and again without a need to reload. Philo left a detailed description of the gears that powered its chain drive, the oldest known application of such a mechanism, and that placed bolt after bolt into its firing slot.


Titus Fulvius Junius Quietus (died 261) was a Roman usurper against Roman Emperor Gallienus.

Roman siege engines

Roman siege engines were, for the most part, adapted from Hellenistic siege technology. Relatively small efforts were made to develop the technology; however, the Romans brought an unrelentingly aggressive style to siege warfare that brought them repeated success. Up to the first century BC, the Romans utilized siege weapons only as required and relied for the most part on ladders, towers and rams to assault a fortified town. Ballistae were also employed, but held no permanent place within a legion's roster, until later in the republic, and were used sparingly.

Julius Caesar took great interest in the integration of advanced siege engines, organizing their use for optimal battlefield efficiency.

Top Ballista

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A trebuchet (French trébuchet) is a type of catapult, a common and powerful type of siege engine which uses a swinging arm to throw a projectile.

The traction trebuchet, also referred to as a mangonel at times, first appeared in Ancient China during the 4th century BC as a siege weapon. It spread westward, probably by the Avars, and was adopted by the Byzantines in the mid 6th century AD. It uses manpower to swing the arm.

The later counterweight trebuchet, also known as the counterpoise trebuchet, uses a counterweight to swing the arm. It appeared in both Christian and Muslim lands around the Mediterranean in the 12th century, and made its way back to China via Mongol conquests in the 13th century.

Ancient mechanical artillery and hand-held missile weapons
Generic phrases
Crew-served arrow-shooters
Crew-served stone-projectors
Hand-held weapons

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