The Important Role of Siege Engines in the Ancient Macedonian Army | History Hit

The Important Role of Siege Engines in the Ancient Macedonian Army

Detail from Antonio Tempesta, "Alexander Attacking Tyre from the Sea, from The Deeds of Alexander the Great", 1608.
Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Along with his Macedonian infantry and cavalry, King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, saw great potential in the development and reform of siege equipment. His reign, which saw the expansion of Macedon’s domains in the northeast of the Greek peninsula, also marked the beginning of a new epoch in siege warfare.

From early on in his reign, Philip had a keen interest in the use of siege machinery to aid him in capturing cities – most notably at Amphipolis in 357 BC, where he used both battering rams and siege engines to breach the enemy’s walls. Seeing its effectiveness, it was probably not long after this that Philip created his own special engineering corps within his reformed army. They were tasked specially with constructing various siege engines such as siege towers, battering rams and catapults.

Although once again we do not know for certain, scholars presume the headquarters of this corps was in Pella, which likely soon became an arsenal for military machinery.

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The engineering corps quickly became a critical part of Philip’s army and they soon got used to constructing and operating various siege engines. One such engine was the Oxybeles.


Image Credit: Arz, user on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 / History Hit

The oxybeles was an improvement on the gastraphetes mechanical bow that had originated in Sicily at the start of the 4th Century BC. Its mechanical bow remained the same as the gastraphetes but it differed by being mounted onto solid frames. The crew used non-torsion winches to pull back the bow’s arms to give it more power. As a result, it could fire bolts up to 300 yards.

Although the oxybeles was not created in Macedon, it was quickly brought there by Philip to aid his siege warfare. Evidence suggests that Philip used the oxybeles during his siege of Olynthus in 348 BC and continued to use them throughout his reign.

Polyidus and siege warfare

Philip’s engineering corps would make advancements to siege warfare due mainly to one man. His name was Polyidus, a Thessalian. Polyidus was Philip’s chief engineer for much of his reign. Once again, limited evidence survives but it appears Polyidus made significant improvements to both the ram and siege tower, increasing their effectiveness and portability.

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Yet Polyidus’ greatest achievement was his creation of the torsion catapult. Prior to 350 BC, catapults such as the gastraphetes and oxybeles were non-torsion and fired bolts against defenders on the wall rather than the walls themselves. Polyidus changed this. In around 340 BC, the Thessalian developed torsion springs and supporting frames for the catapults. These springs gave the catapult a much greater propulsive power than the oxybeles and were used to hurl projectiles at enemy fortifications.

These torsion catapults could also be placed on top of siege engines, from where they could fire down on defenders. They were called, katapeltai Makedonikoi or ‘Macedonian catapults’ as Philip and Polyidus were the first to develop them. Philip would use these new machines during his siege of Byzantium in 340 BC, although the siege in the end proved unsuccessful. Following Philip, his son Alexander would make the torsion catapults even more powerful.

Hellenistic artillery tower.

Image Credit: Public Domain

The best engineering unit in the world

We cannot understate Polyidus’ importance to Macedonian siege developments. Not only did his treatise on the use of machines in war become a key military text of the Hellenistic period, but he also trained a new generation of mechanical engineers.

Among his proteges was a certain Diades, who would go on to serve under Alexander and make further developments to siege warfare. Although Alexander’s sieges were more successful and awe-inspiring than Philip’s, it was the crucial developments of Philip and Polyidus that resulted in Alexander having the best engineering unit in the world on his accession.

During his reign, Philip had completely revolutionised Hellenic warfare. Infantry, cavalry and machinery – he had reformed all. The days of heavily-armed phalanxes being the dominant factor in victory were over. A new era in armies and tactics had begun. His son, Alexander, would be sure to take advantage.

Tags: Philip II of Macedon

Tristan Hughes