5 Terrifying Weapons of the Ancient World | History Hit

5 Terrifying Weapons of the Ancient World

"The Roman fleet burn the opposite fleet down" - A Byzantine ship using Greek fire against a ship belonging to the rebel Thomas the Slav, 821. 12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Bibliteca Nacional de Madrid, V

Civilisations in the ancient world were characterised by political uncertainty and warfare. Along with expert tacticians, warring empires required sophisticated weaponry to overcome the enemy, with the latter often swinging the balance between whether a battle was lost or won. Most weapons that were used by classical or ancient civilisations will be familiar to us. For example, the Romans’ principal arms included their versions of daggers, short swords, spears and bows for hand-to-hand, battlefield and cavalry combat.

However, in addition to commonly-used handheld weapons, other, lesser-known weapons of war became more detailed and deadly, and were designed to give an unexpected advantage on the battlefield. They also allowed armies to effectively break through another’s defences more effectively, whether in direct battle or when besieging or breaking into a fortress or similar.

From fire which could burn on water to a rapid-fire crossbow, these arms highlight the creativity, ingenuity and sometimes horrific imaginations of the designers of ancient war machines. Here are five of the most deadly.

Archimedes was a master of weaponry

ancient weapons

Archimedes directing the defences of Syracuse. By Thomas Ralph Spence, 1895.

No list of inventive ancient weapons would be complete without a few examples from the amazing mind of mathematician, physician, engineer, astronomer and inventor Archimedes of Syracuse (c.287 BC  c.212 BC). Though few details are known about his life, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity, and made discoveries such as ‘Archimedes Screw’ which is still used today for crop irrigation and sewage treatment.

However, in addition to his inventions which were intended for building and creation, Archimedes devised weapons that must have been terrifying and seemed otherworldly to anyone who faced them in battle, such as projectile devices and powerful catapults that were capable of hurling rocks of up to 700 pounds (317 kilos).. These were chiefly put to the test during the Second Punic War and the Battle for Sicily in 212 BC, when the Romans laid siege to the Greek city of Syracuse. Archimedes’ array of inventions were described by Greek philosopher Plutarch.

Although the Romans took the city and Archimedes was killed, he left behind a legacy of fantastical weapons of war. Indeed, one of his most famous quotes is, ‘Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the world’. However, Plutarch was quick to state that Archimedes considered his work on weaponry as ‘ignoble and vulgar’, and there is no mention of it in the fifty scientific works he wrote.

1. Archimedes’ heat ray

Though this weapon’s existence is debatable, ancient writings describe how an invention of Archimedes was used to destroy ships with fire. Many believe that during the Siege of Syracuse, during which Archimedes died, large mirrors of polished metal were used to focus the Sun’s rays onto enemy ships, thereby setting them alight. Many ships were reported to have been sunk this way.

Modern recreations of the weapon have demonstrated mixed results regarding its effectiveness, with researchers from MIT managing to set a replica, but stationary, Roman ship alight. Other scientific investigations have concluded, however, that it would be unlikely to have been used. Furthermore, descriptions of the heat ray only emerged some 350 years later, and there is no evidence that the heat ray was ever used elsewhere, which seems unlikely if it truly was as successful as described. Nonetheless – it’s a pretty cool idea!

2. The Claw of Archimedes

A painting of the Claw of Archimedes by Giulio Parigi.

This crane-like device consisted of a jointed beam based on a rotating vertical beam or platform. At one end of the beam was a large grappling hook (also known as an ‘iron hand’) which hovered by a chain and was balanced at the other end by a sliding counterweight. The claw would drop down from a city or fortification defensive wall and down upon an enemy ship, hook and hoist it up, and then drop the ship back down again, knocking it off balance and likely capsizing it.

These machines were used prominently during the Second Punic War in 214BC. When the Roman Republic attacked Syracuse by night with a fleet of 60 ships, many of these machines were deployed, sinking many ships and throwing the attack into confusion. Combined with Archimedes’ catapults, the fleet was severely damaged.

3. Steam cannon

According to both Plutarch and Leonardo da Vinci, Archimedes invented a steam-powered device that could rapidly fire projectiles. A cannon could have been heated by sun-focusing mirrors, while the projectiles would have been hollow and filled with an incendiary fluid that was likely a mixture of sulphur, bitumen, pitch and calcium oxide. Using drawings from da Vinci, MIT students successfully built a functional steam cannon.

The shells left the cannon with a velocity of 670 mph (1,080 km/h) and measured a higher kinetic energy reading than a bullet fired from an M2 machine gun. Archimedes’ cannons would have probably had a range of around 150 metres. In spite of this recreation, it has been suggested that it is unlikely that these cannons ever existed. They would have been placed on city walls on wooden platforms, making their incendiary fluid highly dangerous, and the mixture would have likely exploded as soon as it was fired, rather than upon reaching its target.

4. Repeating crossbow (Chu-ko-nu)

The earliest extant repeating crossbow, a double-shot repeating crossbow excavated from a tomb of the State of Chu, 4th century BC. Credit: Chinese Siege Warfare: Mechanical Artillery & Siege Weapons of Antiquity by Liang Jieming / Commons.

Archaeological evidence of the existence of repeating crossbows in China has been discovered dating back as far as the 4th century BC. The design for the Chu-ko-nu was improved upon by a famous military advisor named Zhuge Liang (181 – 234 AD), who even made a version that could fire up to three bolts at once. Other ‘rapid-fire’ versions could fire 10 bolts in quick succession.

Though less accurate than single-shot crossbows and with less range than longbows, the repeating crossbow had an amazing rate of fire for an ancient weapon, and was used until as late as the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. Interestingly, though the repeating crossbow was in use throughout most of Chinese history until the late Qing dynasty, it was generally regarded as a non-military weapon suited for women for purposes such as defending households against robbers or even hunting.

The double-shot repeating crossbow. Credit: Yprpyqp / Commons.

5. Greek fire

Though technically a weapon of the early Middle Ages, Greek fire was first used in the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire around 672 AD, purportedly invented by a Greek-speaking Jewish refugee who had fled the Arab conquest of Syria called engineer Callinicus. An incendiary weapon, this ‘liquid fire’ was propelled onto enemy ships through siphons, bursting into flames on contact. Extremely difficult to extinguish, it even burned on water. It could also be thrown in pots or discharged from tubes.

Greek fire was so effective in combat that it represented a turning point in Byzantium’s struggle against Muslim invaders. Greek fire launched from tubes mounted on the prows of Greek ships wrought havoc on the Arab fleet attacking Constantinople in 673. So closely guarded was the recipe for Greek fire, that it has been lost in history. We can only speculate as to its exact ingredients.

Use of a cheirosiphōn, a portable flamethrower, used from atop a flying bridge against a castle. Illumination from the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium. 

Lucy Davidson