Essays on Science and SocietyBEYOND THE IVORY TOWER

The Sinews of War: Ancient Catapults

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Science  06 Feb 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5659, pp. 771-772
DOI: 10.1126/science.1091066

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Although they were probably already used in ancient Mesopotamia, catapults became increasingly common in the Mediterranean area from the 4th century B.C. Their design was improved over time through a combination of trial-and-error and geometrical procedures. By the 1st century A.D., it was possible to compile accurate tables of specifications for catapults of different size, and to build engines capable of hurling heavy projectiles at a distance of more than a hundred meters. In her essay, Cuomo asks who the men behind these machines were. What motivated the ancient military engineers, and how did they relate to their artifacts? And who did they work for? The author shows that ancient catapults provide unique insights into the interface of science and war, theory and practice, politics and knowledge.