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In 1980 E.P.Thompson published an interesting paper called *Barbarian Invaders and Roman Collaborators *. Among other subjects he consdiers there the leakage from Rome to its enemies of technical knowledge needed to construct and deploy ancient artillery pieces:

But soldiers and others might also give the enemy technical knowledge which had not previously been available to them, especially knowledge of how to construct and use the dreaded Roman artillery, the ballistae of var­ious kinds. When Septimius Severus defeated one of his rivals in 194 numbers of the defeated troops fled to Persia; and some of these men were technicians. They settled down in Persia and not only taught the Persians how to use weapons which they had not used before but also showed them how to make these weapons for themselves. The result was that the Persians had higher hopes of victory now than formerly when they engaged the solid ranks of a Roman army; and the historian who reports this matter looks upon it with grave concern.

However, quite puzzlingly, artillery just didn't quite catch on with the Persians or others, as Thompson himself notes a bit later:

But although we hear of deserters and prisoners handing on this knowledge to the Persians and others, we never hear that the Persians and the others absorbed this skill into their general military techniques, so as to be able to apply it on their own account when there were no obliging prisoners and deserters with them to give them instruction. In spite of what had happened in 194 we never hear in later ages that the Persians could make and use ballistae on their own account. I do not know why this should have been so. Not all ballistae can have been very difficult to make and use, for we possess a letter in which a bishop tells us that he was engaged in making one and proposed to use it. If a bishop could do so, why not Alaric or Attila or their henchmen?

Perhaps with the Huns and other tribes artillery didn't fit into their notions of warfare, but it does seem very strange that the Persians neglected this arm. So I am still puzzled.

Maybe the Persians had a warrior code that precluded widespread use of artillery? (Hard to believe, as they had set so much store by arrows). Or maybe a prosaic lack of good wood is the crux of the matter?

Has the issue been studied by later historians?

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1 Answer 1

Artillery was a big man's trade as much 2,000 years ago as it is now, or was in Napoleon's age. Whether it is lugging the shells around today, or winding the windlass then, strength is vital for a better rate of fire, and strength derives from physical size.

Further, in addition to a team of gorillas to man the piece, a gun layer (or two, as a spare) is required for each piece to properly range it so that the fire hits the enemy instead of harmlessly striking the ground before or behind them. This crew member would also have been the engineer responsible for maintenance and repair of the piece.

In order to have a sizeable artillery corps a nation must have a culture where it is acceptable for a big brawny man to study mathematics and architecture and tinkering instead of melee combat. It must also have educational institutions capable of properly training such individuals.

I suspect that the Persians simply didn't expend enough effort in peacetime to build the necessary infrastructure, making them permanently dependent on captured Romans and Greeks in wartime.

Update: According to this source (The Roman Army at War: 100 BC - AD 200, Goldsworthy, page 61) regarding the Parthians:

Although the king controlled the army, it was recruited on a feudal basis from the noble families and their retainers. ... Contingents served together under their own leaders and in most instances seem to have been loyal to them, following them into exile The greater nobles often possessed both the ability and the will to challenge the king for the throne or support one of his relatives in doing so.

References by the above:

  • The Political History of Iran under the Arsacids by A. Bivar
  • The Political History of Parthia by N. C. Debevoise
  • The Parthians by M. Colledge
  • The History of Ancient Iran and The Heritage of Persia by R. N. Frye.
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Fascinating hypothesis but can you adduce some hard evidence for it? –  Felix Goldberg Sep 22 '13 at 20:54
@LouisRhys: History is nothing more nor less than analysis of general observations on the past. If you dispute my observations, please state how and why, and we can unsheathe references. –  Pieter Geerkens Sep 23 '13 at 3:00
For example, you seem to imply that the Persian culture has different attitude towards big man studying mathematics (compared to the Greeks or the Romans), if this is true, can you support this by explanation or reference? Also, can you elaborate on "I suspect that the Persians simply didn't expend enough effort in peacetime to build the necessary infrastructure"? –  Louis Rhys Sep 23 '13 at 3:31
@LouisRhys: I'm working on it. Initial reading on their cataphracts, and the culture that supported them, suggests some validity to my supposition, but is still too fragmentary to present here yet. Their cataphract culture seems to have been similar in many ways to feudal Europe, where it certainly was true that a big man was expected to engage in manly pursuits (think Henry VIII), unlike for example feudal Japan where it was expected that a Samurai would be a more rounded individual. –  Pieter Geerkens Sep 23 '13 at 3:54
The combination of brawny and brainy is pure fantasy. Utterly ahistorical. The grunts would team up to do the heavy lifting, the guys on horseback would tell them what to lift and where and how to point the thing, the same as it was with Napoleonic artillery. Napoleon's artillery corps certainly wasn't an elite corps of hulking mathematicians, but they were very well drilled in the teamwork required for efficient artillery maneuver and deployment. –  RI Swamp Yankee Sep 25 '13 at 12:33

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