I know balistas, scorpions, and other war machines were used for sieges, but I'm wanting to know if they were ever used as offensive weapons for field battles. I've heard about the Battle of Jaxartes, but couldn't really find much information about the use of them in the battle. I would really appreciate any information you might have on the subject.


4 Answers 4


From Wikipedia:

Several attempts to use artillery in the field are recorded but they were mostly unsuccessful, except when the artillery could be deployed in some protected place. For example, in the Battle of Jaxartes Alexander used catapults to clear the further bank of the river.


This article seems to be well-researched, and cites mostly contemporary sources.


There are carvings of wagon mounted "carroballista" (artillery) shown on Trajans Column in Rome. Trajans column is a commemoration of the Emperor Trajans conquest of Dacia and shows his Legions and their equipment carved in great detail. Being mounted in wagons would suggest the Carroballista were highly mobile and could be deployed in the field to fire missiles at the enemy.



Romans didn't even use archers that much. They relied heavily on their very well trained infantry; and history shows that they could adapt to nearly any situation effectively. Any other troop types were auxilia kept for situational backup. It wasn't until the late period that other troops dominated the field. Artillery is slow and vulnerable to attack. A battlefield is always moving around and it takes specialised skill and calculation to use artillery. So, it's letting fly at a charging enemy long distance with wind and poor accuracy at play, recalculating every shot as they move; or firing over your allies heads, in which case you need high ground without obscurities or a vulnerable flank position. The Romans of course had a highly trained standing army with specialised units. Medieval armies were not so, other than later mercenaries. But the same issues applied.
Therefore, artillery was best used in siege warfare, against a large,still target. It was impractical elsewhere and mainly a tool of intimidation and a show of power in the field.


The Romans used ballistae and catapults all the time in battle. I've even got high definition video:

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The catapult is in the back, the ballista are the items in the front with the arrows coming out of them. This is out in the field (notice trees in background).

  • So this isn't just Hollywood getting it wrong? Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 23:39
  • 2
    No, this is Hollywood paying ancient history consultants big bucks to authentically re-enact a Roman battle. Some Roman history classes include Gladiator in the syllabus. Not only that, there is an entire book called "Gladiator: Film and History" published by Oxford University Press detailing the historical elements represented in the movie. Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 23:43
  • The head academic consultant for the movie, Kathleen Coleman, is a chaired professor of classics at Harvard and one of the top historians in the world on Roman culture. Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 23:47
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    Still, Hollywood has been known to take liberties with historical truths if they got in the way of a story. So this can be only a starting point for further research, as @TylerDurden pointed out.
    – o.m.
    Commented Oct 4, 2015 at 8:29
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    I doubt that Roman battles were filmed:-) Screenshots from 20s century movies cannot be used as arguments here.
    – Alex
    Commented Oct 4, 2015 at 14:22

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