According to what I understand from Pieter's answer to the question "Why didn't the Persians make and use ballistas and other kinds of artillery?", he said that since 2,000 years ago until now, artillery crew members must have been

  • big and muscular (to allow heavy lifting and stuff),
  • educated in mathematics (for aiming), and
  • educated in engineering (for maintenance and operation of the equipments)

at the same time. He also argued that in order to make artillery corps possible, the culture must accept "a big brawny man to study mathematics and architecture and tinkering instead of melee combat".

Is this true? Or could a team easily combine some grunts who did the heavy tasks and some engineers who instructed them, or some other arrangements?

2,000 years may be too broad for scope, and since the linked thread was about the Parthian Empire, let's limit the scope to the Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 CE) and its contemporaries, the Roman Republic/Empire and the Hellenistic kingdoms.

  • The Roman legions would be a good start for this. They used to have an engineer corps that maintained artillery. However, time does not allow me to find the right references right now... Sorry. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 8:34
  • Small correction - I had the Sassanids in mind, but you might as well pick the Parthians, there seems be no discernible difference in this respect. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 13:26
  • @FelixGoldberg ah, ok. Didn't Septimius Severus fought the Parthians?
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 15:53
  • Yes, that's why I think it makes little difference. Unless we posit that the Parthian decline was the reason artillery didn't catch on, but I don't find it likely. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 16:02
  • No need to limit the scope - as no actual historical research is necessary to answer question on basic physics, and basic battlefield facts. This is a rare question for which only sound logic and common sense are required for analysis. Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 4:53

1 Answer 1


Artillery comprises large, heavy engines throwing large, heavy missiles. Size is important in an artillery crew because a larger man can perform the same tasks of loading and aiming the engine faster, and longer without fatigue, than a smaller man. These are plain physical attributes of the technology being discussed.

Artillery propels missiles on a ballistic arc; a parabola if you will, though in the strictest sense that is not quite accurate. In order to be effective the missile must hit a target at a given distance, and thus it is necessary to calculate a launch angle that will result in the missile's arc intersecting the target's motion, at a moment in time when the target is occupying said location. This truly is the rocket science of the pre-calculus era. It must be calculated correctly, quickly, and under all the stresses of being in a dire life-and-death situation; battle. Yes, one smart small man can coordinate the efforts of a team of larger men; until that smaller man becomes a casualty. If one wants a reliable and robust artillery corps, every man on every crew must be capable of stepping up to the next most complicated role, at some reasonable level of efficiency; and then be able to step again at some level of efficiency.

In consequence of these basic facts, one can only have a reliable, accurate, fast-firing, and robust artillery corps if every crew member is in training, at some level, to eventually be crew-captain, section lead, and then battery commander in sequence. Not all will make it of course, but that is the career progression because no-one can predict who will be a battlefield casualty.

But, you say, just pre-calculate a table of ranges and elevation angles for each weight of missile. That sounds fine, until one remembers that this is an era when less than 5% of the population is capable of reading simple text, let alone complicated and concise artillery tables; and even fewer are numerate. There is no printing press, so each crew lead would likely have been required to make his own copy of the tables during his training. As part of learning how to read these tables, and of copying them, and of how to correct and then calculate them, he is by definition entering the intellectual elite of your society. As paper and ink and tutors and training time are expensive, any sane commander will only recruit individuals for such training who can demonstrate true talent for the work, and who are useful during training as effective crew members.

How does one properly select artillery crew then? One takes the largest 1/3 or 1/4 of the available men, and then takes the smartest 1/3 or 1/4 of those.

There is no other sane means to do it.

So frankly, any ruler who tried to form an artillery corps from other than brawny brainy soldiers would have quickly been proven unfit to rule by his peers, and have even more promptly disappeared from history.

Even more frankly, a military incompetent like Hitler can only rise to command armies of millions in an environment where an extremely effective general staff, and even more talented general officers, exists to hide his mistakes for several years. To the best of my knowledge and research, no such combination ever existed prior to the formation of the Prussian General Staff in the 1800's.

Update - Requirements to qualify for artillery training in U.S. Military:

To ... "manhandle" the standard round for the 155 Howitzer, a shell weighing 117 pounds, not simply lifting it once, but repeatedly, over a long or even an indefinite period.

Strength Requirement: Very Heavy (Lift on an occasional basis over 100 pounds with frequent or constant lifting in excess of 50 pounds.)
ASVAB Score Required: 93 in aptitude area FA (Field Artillery): Arithmetic Reasoning, Coding Skill, Mathematics Knowledge, and Mechanical Comprehension.

  • 1
    Admittedly, some of the Roman emperors come close on that last point, but even Caligula wasn't foolish enough to start a war of expansion against half the known world. Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 4:58
  • 2
    Excellent explanation. If only there were sources/citations.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 10:57
  • 3
    I don't disagree with you, but most things that are wrong are also "self-evident". There ought to be sources from the 19th century; I wonder if there is any evidence from the Roman period.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 11:49
  • 1
    One example of a possible hypothesis might be that officers were schooled, but the (enlisted) gun crew was not. Were the gun crew enlisted? Do we have evidence of enlisted men who tried to join artillery, but were refused because they lacked either brawn or brains?
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 11:53
  • 2
    @MarkC.Wallace not sure if it counts, but according to this Napoleon only had average height.
    – Louis Rhys
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 2:46

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