Rare Medieval Manuscripts On Ancient War Machines Are Now Online

The British Library has just added several Greek manuscripts to its online collection, including a lavishly illustrated, 16th century compilation of treatises on warfare, which detail the science and tactics of siegecraft.

Such ancient works on military machines were a source of fascination during this era, not only because of their historic interest, but also as a source for modern inventions to be used in contemporary warfare.


The manuscript includes the writings of several classical authors, including Apollodorus of Damascus, who was a Roman architect and engineer of the late 1st to early 2nd century AD. As Emperor Trajan's architect and military engineer, he was responsible for Trajan's Forum and possibly Trajan's Column, and he produced several designs for siege machines. Above is an illustration on the construction of a testudo or tortoise, which protected attackers as they filled in ditches near the wall of a fortress. A siege tower or ram could then be brought into position and used to launch an attack onto the walkway, aided by missile fire from the higher levels of the tower.

Diagrams of one such mobile siege engine (above) appear in Bitons' De Constructione Bellicarum Machinarum et Catapultarum (On the Construction of Warlike Engines and Catapults). As the British Library notes:

The tower was usually rectangular, with four wheels and a height roughly equal to that of the wall; it was sometimes higher to allow archers to stand on the top and fire into the fortification. The tower was made chiefly of wood, but sometimes there were metal components as well. They were both unwieldy to manoeuvre, and slow to assemble, and consequently were usually constructed at the siege site. They were considered a "last resort" to be used only if defenses could not be overcome by ladder assault, mining or ramming. Sometimes siege towers themselves incorporated other devices, including artillery, rams, and dropbridges.


In the mid 10th century AD, Apollodorus' work was updated and supplemented by an anonymous author, "Heron of Byzantium." His instructional manual, the Parangelmata Poliorcetica, was written for the non-specialist — adding more information and explanations on such devices as the battering ram.


To shield the soldiers from attack, they often built a covering shed, in which they hung a thick trunk on chains suspended from a beam above. The front was tapered into a blunt point capped with iron. Sometimes the shed was covered with animal pelts or earth to make it fireproof. According to the author, the shed should be fixed to the ground while the ram was being used to prevent both skidding and strain on the axles from the weight of the moving apparatus. This would also increase the strength of the impact on the walls.

To see more images, visit the website of the British Library.


Share This Story