By Liang Jieming
19th June 2005
Of the world's great civilisations, only four saw the use of great siege catapults in their wars. These horrific weapons of war were the artillery of the day. The history of the catapult is both a colourful patchwork of different inventive sources as well as a combined effort of human ingenuity on a global scale. Chinese, Middle Eastern, Western and Hindu civilisations all fought against and amongst each other, employing every manner of siege engines from the lowly anti-personnel catapults to the huge medieval fortress smashers which have captured the popular imagination of today.
The word "Catapult" comes from the Greek words "kata" and "pultos" where "Kata" means downward and "Pultos" is a small circular shield. So put together, Katapultos probably means "shield crusher" or "shield piercer".
The word "Trebuchet" comes from the Old French word "Trabucher, meaning "to overturn" or "to fall-over", believed to be derived from the Latin "trabuc(h)us".
While the "Catapult" is generally used to mean anything that "catapults" a weight into the air and hence includes slings and rubberbands etc., the "Trebuchet" is used almost exclusively to mean the levered catapult as the lever swings or rather falls over to launch the projectile.
The First Catapults
Catapults have been in used by the various cultures throughout history. One very early reference to catapults comes to us from Part 2 of the Book of Chronicles (Chapter 26, verses 14 & 15) in the old testament of the Bible, during the reign of Uzziah of Judea in the late 9th century B.C. in the defence of Jerusalem.
"Uzziah provided for all the army the shields, spears, helmets, coats of mail, bows and stones for slinging. In Jerusalem he set up machines, invented by skilled workers, on the towers and the corners for shooting arrows and large stones. And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped until he became strong."
It is not immediately clear what form these "machines... for shooting arrows and large stones" were but from the distinction the passage makes between these machines and the "bows and stones for slinging" provided to the army, it does seem that they were siege engines of some sort.
We do however know that the forerunner of the giant catapults of the Medieval era, simple traction catapults based on the lever principle were already in use during the Warring States period in China in the 5th century B.C. Their description appears in the writings of Mozi, in a Mohist text under a section on Siege Warfare.
A story survives from about 500 B.C. in China. The counterbalanced bucket was common by then. ZiGong (520-456 B.C.) was wandering the south of the country when he chanced on an old man who wasn't using a counterbalanced bucket to raise water to water his fields. The elderly man refused to use it as he hauled a pail back and forth, watering his garden. He complained about the counterbalanced bucket. It was a cunning device, he said, and people who use cunning devices have cunning in their hearts. Maybe he had a point. The Chinese soon made this work-saver into a savage war machine.
Also appearing alongside the traction catapult in the Mozi, were detailed descriptions of siege crossbows. These are the first known references to siege crossbows or acruballistas in the Far East. We know that this technology was soon in widespread use, right up till the start of the Han dynasty where references to acruballistas all but disappear from Imperial records only to reappear again in the chaos of the Three Kingdoms Period.
Across to the other side of the Eurasian landmass, in Classical Greece we find that in 399 B.C. in preparation for war with Carthage, Dionysius of Syracuse gathered craftsmen from all over the Greek world to produce new or improved armaments for him. One result of these efforts was the Gastraphetes or "belly bow" powered by an especially large composite bow. This soon spawned a different principled catapult based on the power of torsion sinews, the earliest descriptions of which are found in Athens dating back to 330 B.C. from the Chalkothek on the Acropolis. Two distinct types of catapults emerged, the javelin shooting Euthytonon, and the stone throwing Palintonon.
An interesting multiple shot Ballista crops up in the 3rd century B.C. by Dionysius of Alexandria together with the Engineers working in Rhodes famous for their siege engines. There is no evidence that this machine ever went beyond the prototype stage probably due to its complexity and low power.
An account of yet another interesting catapult is found in a manuscript by Cicero who describes a steam powered concept catapult by Archimedes. This catapult was never built but Leonardo da Vinci produced drawings of this steam catapult, calling it the "Architronio" in honour of its inventor.
The Romans inherited the Greek torsion weapons of war. The Roman catapult artillery split into two distinct types, the Ballista or its smaller version, the Scopio and the Mangonel. These were not lever principled catapults but instead used the power of twisted or torsioned sinew, technology inherited from the Greeks. Building on this inherited technology, the Romans in the 1st century A.D. simplified and tilted the Greek Ballista on its side and built a one arm torsion catapult called the Mangonel, nicknamed Onager or "Kicking Donkey". This was aptly named due to the way the catapult jumped when fired though some have suggested that it could have been a codename to trick the enemies of Rome.
The name Mangonel is probably derived from the ancient Greek word "Mangonon" meaning "Engine of War". The Romans called it a Manganum which was changed by the pre-medieval French to Manganeau and subsequently by the English in about the 1300s to the term Mangonel that we know today. However, in Spain, they were commonly called almanganiqs or almajenechs from the Arabic term.
The Roman Ballista and the Mangonel were used well into the medieval era in Europe when they were superceded by first the eastern traction catapult, then the Persian counterweight trebuchet where they took root and helped hasten the end of the feudal era in Europe.
The Qin dynasty of the 3rd century B.C. China fielded wheeled versions of the early traction trebuchet. This possibly implies that wheeled versions might have been used at least in the later stage of the Warring States period too. Unfortunately other than the singular reference in the Mohist text, descriptions of early Chinese catapults are scarce and when available, rather vague on things like the form of the support frame, height, number of operators etc. References to siege crossbows and catapults seemingly vanish for the next few hundred years in the subsequent Han dynasty. This could possibly be a reflection of the times. The Han dynasty inherited a unified China from the Qin. Unlike the Warring States and the victorious Qin dynasty which emerged from that period, the Han no longer faced fortified cities and fortresses. Instead, Han dynasty warfare is characterised by the projection of Han power along its borders with large mobile armies of crossbow squads, calvary and garrison troops very similar to the incursions of the early United States army into the wilderness frontier of western North America.
An intriguing reference appears in A.D. 240. Ma Jun, a military Engineer of the Three Kingdoms Period, somewhat dissatisfied with the single shot catapult, proposed a multiple shot catapult based on a flywheel/ferris-wheel type construction. This strange catapult through theoretically possible would probably have been practically unfeasible for its time, and probably never went beyond the trial stage.
References to the "Xuanfeng" or Whirlwind catapult first arose in the Age of Fragmentation. This simple catapult was the direct descendant of the Mohist catapults of the Spring & Autumn/Warring States periods. For the next thousand years, the Xuanfeng was the mainstay of the Chinese artillery, the super-weapon that aided the expansion of Chinese dynasties at the expense of their neighbours. However, sometime in the middle of the Tang dynasty, the need must have arose for larger scaled catapults as is evidenced in the sudden appearance of references and illustrations of the HuDunPao and the "4-footed" trebuchet in military manuals and writings. This was possibly a consequence of the increasing incidence and significance of enemy fortified cities in the north, from the open nomadic steppes to the mountainous Korean peninsula.
During the Tang dynasty's founding years, in its siege of the Sui capital in A.D. 617, 300 catapults were said to have been deployed by the Engineer-General Tian Maoguang. Then again in a Tang dynasty siege of Pyongyang in A.D. 668 during the last year of the campaign against Koguryo, it is written that XuanFeng catapults were used to bring the city to its knees.
The Chinese developed a whole series of catapults. They ranged from the light "sniper" version "Xuanfeng (Whirlwind) catapults to medium range HuDun (Crouching Tiger) catapults to heavy "4-footed" catapults and open framed hinged counterweight trebuchets not unlike the European versions, which were capable of hurling a whole range of rather inventive projectiles. Anything from simple boulders, rocks, diseased animals, human heads, shrapnel clay balls, to exploding grenades would be thrown.
Chinese acruballistas also grew in complexity from the simple single bow of the Warring States to multibow affairs. These employed multiple bows to scale up the power of the acruballista. No one is sure when the transition to multiple bows was made but by about the 5th century A.D., multibow acruballistas began to make an appearance though only coming into widespread use from the 8th to 11th centuries A.D. Known generically as Chuangzi Nu or "Little Bed Crossbows" for the bed-like frame used, two distinct forms can be discerned. They were the Shoushe Nu or "Hand Shot" double-bow Acruballista and the SanGong Chuangzi Nu or "Triple-bow Little Bed" Acruballista.
The Spread of Catapult Technology
The Chinese Xuanfeng, spread into the Middle East in and about the 6th century A.D. and may have been responsible in part for the sudden explosion of Islamic conquests outwards in a expanding circle for the next few centuries. In an excerpt from "Medieval Siege Weapons (2) - Byzantium, the Islamic World & India A.D. 476-1526 (New Vanguard 69)", David Nicolle talks about light Middle Eastern traction catapults and gives us a glimpse into the effectiveness of the light traction catapult as well as a very good description of how they would have been used and fired.
"Nicknames such as 'The Bride' and 'The Long Haired One' reflect the numerous pulling ropes attached to the other end of the beam. Accounts of a siege of Mecca during a civil war in 692 include a description of how such a manjaniq was used. Here the 'shooter' tucked up his long robes, picked up a rock, placed it in the sling and then ordered the team of rope-men to pull. Later information indicates that the 'shooter' did not release his hold on the sling immediately but judged his moment against the tension of the 'pullers'. As a result an experienced 'shooter' with a disciplined team of 'pullers' could achieve astonishing accuracy especially when, as we know from written and archaeological evidence, the missiles were shaped to a specific weight. Al-Baladhuri's account of the Arab siege of Daybul in what is now southern Pakistan in 712 describes how the Muslim commander, Muhammad Ibn al-Qasim, had a manjaniq called 'The Bride', which was operated by 500 men - probably an exaggeration. As al-Baladhuri wrote: 'There was at Daybul a lofty budd (temple or perhaps even a statue of the Buddha) surmounted by a long pole and on this pole was a red flag which unfurled over the city.' During the course of regular correspondence between Ibn al-Qasim and Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf, commander of Islamic forces in the east, Hajjaj advised that Ibn al-Qasim should:
Fix the manjaniq and shorten its foot and place it in the east (of the budd). You will then call the manjaniq-master and tell him to aim at the flag-staffâ¦ So he brought down the flag-staff and it was broken.
This remarkable shot so demoralised the garrison that the city soon fell. Numerous other mentions of the manjaniq in Islamic sources of the 7th-11th centuries show that the weapon was used against defenders on a wall, parapets, buildings inside a fortification and against ships attempting to break a blockade."
The first mention of traction catapults in Europe comes from Byzantium. In A.D. 587 the Avars, with the help of traction catapults, besieged and took the fortress of Appiareia in what is now northern Bulgaria. The Byzantine historian Theophylactus Simocatta wrote that the Avar learned about siege engines from a captured Byzantine soldier by the name of Bousas;
"Bousas taught the Avars to construct a certain siege machine, for they (the Avars) happened to be most ignorant of such machines, and he built the helepolis to hurl missiles. Soon thereafter the fortress was leveled, and Bousas collected judgment for their inhumanity, having taught the barbarians something frightful, the technology of besieging. Thence the enemy captured effortlessly a great many of the Roman cities by making use of this original device."
Bousas said that in exchange for his life, he constructed for the Avars a siege engine called a "Helepoleis" or "City Taker" (a heavy trestle-framed traction catapult).
We then find that ten years later, John the Archbishop of the Byzantine city of Thessaloniki in A.D. 597, describes the siege of Thessaloniki by Avaro-Slavic forces with fifty large traction trebuchets that hurled "great stones". In his account, he calls the big traction trebuchets "petroboles" or "rock throwers" and the smaller machines "lithoboles" or "stone throwers".
However, it is also possible that the Avars, due to their interactions with the Northern Wei of China, already know of traction catapults independently from Byzantium. David Nicolle in his book "Attila and the Nomad Hordes" published by Osprey states that the Byzantines copied new versions of "beam-sling mangonel siege machines" from the Avars who were driven from the northern frontiers of China only a few decades earier.
Due to a distinct lack of mention of traction catapults prior to this written account by Theophylactus, of the two scenarios, the diffusion of levered principle catapult technology is actually more probable to have been from the Avars to Byzantium than the other way around.
In the mixing pot of the Middle East, the Xuanfeng had joined a distinguished line-up of Middle Eastern Mangonels and Ballistas, adopted after the fall of the Roman empire via Byzantium. There, knowledge of Roman siege technology was kept alive throughout the European "Dark Ages" which except for a few notable exceptions, was an era dominated by strict religious fundamentalist dogma. The widespread reintroduction of these lost arts of making siege engines was to come only later when Christian Crusaders began marching into the Middle East to reclaim the "Holy Land" that was Jerusalem. Feverishly copying Islamic texts and ideas, the knowledge they brought back to Europe revitalised the European world, seeding the way for the blossoming of new ideas and innovation not just in the field of siegecraft.
Early painting/drawings of European catapults look uncannily similar to the Tang dynasty "XuanFeng" catapult as can been seen in a sketch in the "Chronicle of Petrus de Eboli ca. A.D. 1180". The earliest known depiction however, of a European traction catapult is a wall painting from the palace of Piandjikent, Transoxania. (Hermitage Museum, Leningrad) and is from the 7th-8th centuries A.D.
In the 11th century A.D. a new form of javelin firing catapult, the "torsioned" Springald emerged in the Middle East and in Byzantine. Known by the Arabs as the "qaws al-lawlab", we find that the Portuguese used just such as machine in A.D. 1184, killing Muwahid Caliph Abu Yaqub in defense of the town of Santarem. Its compact cart-like frame made it ideal as a defensive weapon on top of fortifications. A simplification of the Roman Ballista, the "torsioned" Springald spread into Iberia by the mid-13th century A.D when references to the "Ballista de torno" appear.
A separate and larger type of catapult, the single armed "tensioned" Springald also appears at about the same time. This catapult was probably an indigenous European invention, a retrograde and primitive form of catapult based on the flexure of a wooden plank to propel a javelin forward. We find few references to the "tensioned" Springald in continental Europe with most references to be found on the British Isles. Not much is know about this form of catapult but it seems to have been confined to a purely defensive role, firing through defensive slits on top of battlements much like that of the "torsioned" Springald.
These two forms of Springalds flourished briefly side by side with the increasingly powerful levered principled catapults, probably filling the function as a close ranged support weapon.
Strangely enough, despite the constant exchange of ideas and trade between the Japanese islands and that of mainland Asia, catapults never took root in Japanese warfare. Japanese warfare remained relatively small scaled and castles were breached more often than not via direct infantry assaults with scaling ladders and siege towers or from internal subterfuge than from the use of catapults. What we know of Japanese offensive siege weaponry seems to have been based on the Oyumi which was a large siege crossbow, possibly of indigenous design. However, no illustrations or complete descriptions of the Oyumi have survived and we can only guess at the type and form of this mysterious weapon. Japanese warfare remained low-leveled reminiscent of Chinese Warring States warfare of the 5th-3rd century B.C. until the introduction of cannon from both Spanish and Portuguese warships in the 16th century A.D.
In India, there is very little known about siege weaponry in Indian warfare though it would not be inconceivable to think that the fortresses and elephant armies of Indian dynasties employed some type of siege weapons in their wars. Much of what is available come from Muslim sources and are almost unanimous in their assertion that the Islamic invasions of the 8th centuries onwards saw the first introduction of catapults into the Indian subcontinent.
A source from the History of Pakistan states;
"Islam was first brought in by Arabs in early eight century. At that time, the religion itself was only about a century old. In 711 AD Mohammad Bin Qasam, a brilliant 19 year-old Arab general from Basra (Iraq) marched into Pakistan by way of Persia and Balochistan with the army of 60,000 men. He employed a method of warfare never before seen in the subcontinent - large carriage-drawn catapults capable of hurling heavy stones and missiles across the distances of about 200 yards. He marched all the way to Nerun (Hyderabad) where he engaged Raja Dahir, the local Hindu ruler and his massive army of 20,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Mohammad Bin Qasim defeated Raja Dahir with contemptuous ease."
There is however a reference which disputes this claim. King AjÃ¡tasattu (493 - 462 B.C.) of the Magadhan empire, in a battle ca. 478 B.C. against the republican states of the Lichchhavis used a type of catapult called the Mahaashilaakantaka. Jain texts describe its use together with a covered "tank" chariot which helped the King win his war. However, the type or form of this catapult are as yet undetermined or researched. Catapults in India suffer from a scarcity of information.
The Evolution of Catapults
The AyyÃ»bid Sultanate (A.D. 1169-1250), Kurds who rose to power in the area around Mosul are believed to have been the first to adapt the traction catapult and invent the hinged counterweight catapult, though hybrid weighted traction trebuchets were already in sporadic use throughout Europe and the Middle east by then. It was these hinged counterweight catapults from Islamic world that spread into Europe and into China. The Chinese name for hinged counterweight catapults translates loosely to something like "Muslim catapult" owing to the Muslim Engineers the Mongols brought with them to China on their campaigns.
Saladin in A.D. 1187 in his siege of Jerusalem against European Crusaders, saw the first pictorial documented use of hinged counterweight Catapults in history in al-Tarsusi's treatise written in A.D. 1199 in Alexandria for Saladin which even then, already alluded to the fact that these were not new inventions.
Tantalising accounts of intermediate fixed counterweight catapults however, had already appeared in and about the turn of the 12th century. Paul Chevedden writes in "The Invention of the Counterweight Trebuchet" that based on the nomenclature of period accounts, the possibility exists that Byzantine Engineers were already experimenting and building fixed counterweight catapults as early as the siege of Tyre by Frankish Crusaders in A.D. 1124. Earlier still is a possible "first" emergence of this technological advancement in Nicaea in A.D. 1097 when Emperor Alexios I was engaged in the development of large trebuchets, Helepoleis of several types;
"and most of them were not fashioned according to conventional designs for such machines but followed ideas which he had devised himself and which amazed everyone."
There is one more tantalising mention of a possible candidate for a counterweighted trebuchet in Europe in the 12th century A.D. but the descriptions remain controversial and obscure. The Danish historian Saxo writes that King Erik Emune used trebuchets at the siege of Haraldsborg near Roskilde in A.D. 1131. The Danes who at the time had little knowledge of siege warfare used Saxons to build and handle the engines. That it was a catapult is not in dispute. The controversy is in the range of the trebuchet mentioned. In Saxo's account, the range of the machine is given at 200m which is beyond the range of even the largest traction trebuchets though it could still only have been a weighted traction trebuchet instead of a true counterweighted trebuchet.
What we do know conclusively however, is that the first documented use of hinge counterweighted trebuchets in Song dynasty China was in A.D. 1273 during the Mongol siege of Xiangyang. The Song dynasty quickly adapted their existing traction catapults into similar hinged counterweight trebuchets but couldn't counter the new Mongol terror weapon from the middle east.
The 12th-13th century A.D. was a period of rapid catapult development in the Far East. The catalyst for this sudden surge in new catapult forms was the Mongol invasions and the incorporation of the relatively new technology of hinged counterweight trebuchets into the Mongol war machine. The desperate defenders of the Song dynasty were quick to learn the new techniques. Many new forms and hybrid forms emerged, adaptations of existing Song dynasty traction catapults to incorporate buckets and stone weighted bags by beleaguered Chinese Engineers. Despite the Song dynasty's rapid absorption of the new catapult ideas, it was too little too late. The Song dynasty crumbled not long after, a mere 6 years after the first introduction of the new terror hinged counterweight catapults into the battlefield at the siege of the twin cities of Xiangyang and Fangyang.
In A.D. 1232 however, an earlier story survives from the Jin Dynasty of a possible independent development of the counterweight catapult. The Jin commander Qiang Shen, in his defense of Luoyang from the Mongols,
"invented a trebuchet called the 'Arresting Trebuchet' (E Pao), which was used to prevent (the enemy) from overrunning (his position). Only a few men were needed to work it, yet (with this engine) great stones could be hurled more than 100 paces, and there was no target which it did not hit right in the middle."
Although the Mongol army eventually raised the siege, this inventive commander died in the following year, followed by the Jin Dynasty two years later, so apparently the design was not transmitted southward to the beleaguered Song dynasty.
No one has been able to find the first documented instance of when hinged counterweight trebuchets were first introduced into Europe but it is generally agreed that the earliest documented descriptions of hinged counterweight catapults in Europe was the siege of Dover Castle in England by the French under Prince Louis who landed a French Army at Thanet in support of the rebel barons against King John in A.D. 1216.
End of an Era
In China, the hinged counterweight trebuchet, despite its power didn't last as long as in Europe because of the early rise of gunpowder weapons. During the abovementioned siege of Xiangyang by the Mongols, the hinged counterweight trebuchet was already sharing the limelight with Song dynasty rockets and early versions of the gun. In Europe, the hinged counterweight had its heyday owing to the longer lag between the earlier introduction of the hinged counterweight to Europe and the later introduction of gunpowder based cannon to Europe compared to that of the far east.
However, even in Europe, the pole position of the Catapult couldn't last. The arrival of efficient gunpowder weapons herald the end of the catapult's dominance in the battlefield, bringing to a close an interesting chapter in the annals of human warfare. Large and cumbersome, the great siege catapults of yesteryear soon gave way to the technologically superior weapons of the gunpowder age.
Nevertheless, the image of the catapult persists even till today. The siege engine continues to seize the popular imagination and never fails to bring out a sense of awe and astonishment, appearing periodically in the mass media of the day, in films, in print and in catapult re-constructions by âMedievalâ clubs of catapult enthusiasts the world over.
Copyright 2005 Leong Kit Meng
All rights Reserved
1. "Archery Traditions of Asia", Stephen Selby, 2003 Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defense
2. "Armies of the Ancient Near East: 3,000 B.C. to 539 B.C.", Nigel Stillman & Nigel Tallis, 1984 Wargames Research Group
3. "Attila and the Nomad Hordes", David Nicolle, 1990 Osprey Publishing
4. "Besieged: An Encyclopedia of Great Sieges From Ancient Times to the Present", Paul K. Davis, 2001 ABC-CLIO Inc
5. "Chinese Warfare - The Paradox of the Unlearned Lesson", Ralph D. Sawyer
6. Expansion of Islam & Military Campaign : http://www.witness-pioneer.org/vil/Article..._al_khattab.htm
7. "Great Ages of Man - Ancient China", Edward H. Schafer, 1977 Time-Life International
8. "Heavenly Creations - Gems of Ancient Chinese Inventions", 1998 Hong Kong Museum of History
9. Jain Texts
10. "Medieval Siege Weapons (1) Western Europe AD 585-1385", David Nicolle, 2002 Osprey Publishing
11. "Medieval Siege Weapons (2) Byzantium, the Islamic World & India AD 476-1526", David Nicolle, 2003 Osprey Publishing
12. National Museum of Pakistan : http://www.caroun.com/Museums/Pakistan/Nat...ofPakistan.html
13. "Samurai", Mitsuo Kure, 2001 Tuttle Publishing
14. "Science and Civilisation in China", Volume 5, Part 6, Section 30, Joseph Needham & Robin D.S. Yates, 1994 Cambridge University Press
15. "Siege Weapons of the Far East (1)", Stephen Turnbull, 2001 Osprey Publishing
16. "Siege Weapons of the Far East (2)", Stephen Turnbull, 2002 Osprey Publishing
17. "Technology and War - From 2000 B.C. to the Present", Martin van Creveld, 1991 Free Pr
18. "The Complete Art of War", Sun Tzu & Sun Pin, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer, 1996 Westview
19. "The Genius of China: 3000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention", Robert K. G Temple, 1986 Simon and Schuster
20. "The Genius That Was China", John Merson, 1990 The Overlook Press
21. "The Invention of the Counterweight Trebuchet: A Study in Cultural Diffusion", Paul E. Chevedden, 2000 Dumberton Oaks Papers 54
22. The King James Bible
23. "The Warring States (473-221 B.C.) - The Modern Period in Ancient China", Lei Hai-tsung, 1943 War Area Service Corps
24. "Warlords of China 700 B.C. to A.D. 1662", Chris Peers, 1998 Sterling Publishing
25. "Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D." Erik Hildinger, 1997 Spellmount
26. "Wubei Zhi", Mao Yuanyi, 1621
27. "Wujing Zongyao" Zeng Gongliang & Ding Du, 1043
Edited by Liang Jieming, 31 July 2005 - 10:09 AM.