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?

3 Answers 3


Ballistae and other ancient pieces of "artillery" are siege engines. Their primary purpose is to provide fire support within the context of laying siege to a town or fortress; the heavy bolts could lay waste to wooden fortifications (especially the kind of light mobile protection against archers). Siege weapons are heavy, very slow to move, and have a low firing rate. As such, it was extremely rare for such weapons to be used for anything else than sieges.

There are very few documented uses of artillery in field battles; the most ancient is the battle of Jaxartes in which Alexander the Great ordered the use of some siege engines to clear the opposite river bank, from which archers were giving trouble to crossing Macedonian troops. The involved weapons are often designated as "catapults" but were most probably firing bolts. The first documented use of rock-lobbing weapons as field artillery is much later, under command of Mongol general Subutai, who used such engines to, again, clear a river bank from crossbowmen who were threatening crossing troops (at the battle of Mohi, in 1241). In all these cases, the same pattern is present: some army is involved in a pitched battle; it also has some catapults available, meant for an ulterior siege of some town; a brilliant general notices a situation where the catapults could be of some use, and proceeds to do it. This is always exceptional, and reported as such. Crucially, no army sets out with catapults designed for field usage.

We must make an exception for light one-man catapults like the Roman scorpio, which really is a crossbow on a tripod. Up to the Renaissance, the role of "field artillery" (as it is understood nowadays) was fulfilled by light infantry with javelins, slings and bows (and, in the Roman case, scorpios). These specialized troops would move fast across the battlefield, spread out, and harass heavy infantry or cavalry. Cannons finally replaced them, when their increased firing range began to make up for their lack of mobility.

Thus, an ancient army would not have included ballistae or equivalent unless it planned siege warfare. But siege warfare requires more than siege engines; it involves earthworks, logistics, architecture specialists... in one word, it needs engineers. Romans were famed for their expertise in that area; the same does not apply to other armies of that time. In particular, the "Persians" from the days of Septimius Severus were actually Parthians, originally a nomadic people from central Asia. The core of their army would be mounted archers. This is, again, a common strategic historical pattern: siege warfare is something that is learned from experience, after encountering an opponent who knows a good deal more on the subject.

So the lack of artillery in the Persian armies is not really a problem of building the weapons themselves; it more is a question of warfare doctrine. Persians would not have much use of catapults alone, until they knew how to conduct sieges, knowledge that they acquired, indeed, from the Romans.


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? Sep 22, 2013 at 20:54
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    @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. Sep 23, 2013 at 3:00
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    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, 2013 at 3:31
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    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. Sep 25, 2013 at 12:33
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    You laugh and snicker when I suggest correlations between body size and military trade; yet there is a reason why so many cavalry officers were accepted as pilots in WWI. Pilots had to be no larger than average size, and preferably a bit smaller, to fit in the cockpits of the day, and cavalry officers had to fit roughly the same size criteria to not over-burden the mounts of the day, and be accepted into the cavalry. Sep 26, 2013 at 3:06

The main impediment for a nation like the Persians is the relative lack of a standing army. The Persians were a feudal state. In order to go to war "big time" with the Romans, the King of Kings would have to convince his district "kings" to send contingents to join his own household troops. If the KofK's was a weak one, nobody would show up and the Romans could run rampant, as shown in the several cases of Roman armies sacking the capital, Ctesiphon.

These feudal contingents were mostly cavalry, notoriously reluctant to do heavy lifting, and were dispersed themselves between wars. Engineering requires some training and discovery, and much crafting and practice. Without a standing army, this is nearly impossible to keep going. Even Rome, with a much stronger tradition of work, limited their sieges to blockades such as the 10 year siege of Veii, or the case of Nola in the Social War. After the growth of the long term army under Caesar in Gaul, and in the Empire the amount of engineering action grows dramatically. The professional armies of the Empire had the coherency and time to develop these skills, and the work ethic to get the job done in the field.

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