The Stone Throwers of Onomarchus
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The Stone Throwers of Onomarchus

Classicists and Assyriologists spend a great deal of time and energy editing ancient texts, debating which version to use, and carefully noting which they have chosen. A debate about the use of catapults in fourth-century BCE Greece has reminded me why this matters.

Polyaenus wrote a book on tricks and ruses in the second century CE, and one of his anecdotes explains how the Phocaen leader Onomarchus lead Philip of Macedonian into a trap circa 350 BCE. He hid some of his forces on ridges on either side of his army then ordered his phalanx to retreat between these hidden soldiers. When the Macedonians pursued, they found themselves under attack from high ground on all sides. The oldest manuscripts say that Onomarchus placed stones and stone throwers (petrous kai petrobolous) on the ridge. In Greek as in English, “stone throwers” can be either men or machines, and people interested in ancient artillery have debated which Onomarchus would have used. The general feeling is that this is too early for the leader of a small community to have a large train of stone throwing engines, that hiding catapults would have been difficult, and that ancient catapults had trouble shooting downhill. A famous authority on Greek artillery, Marsden, has been criticized for saying that Polyaenus wrote “stone throwing machines” rather than “stone throwers.”

A paraphrase of Polyaenus from the sixth to ninth century, however, says that Onomarchus stationed “infantry and stone throwing machines” (pezous kai petrobolous mēchanas) on the heights. The notes to the 1887 Teubner edition of Polyaenus says that the editor of the previous Teubner edition had followed the paraphrase. It is likely that Marsden had read either the previous Teubner editon or the note in the 1887 one but forgot to mention that the manuscripts disagree.

Edit 2016-11-25: The fateful page of Marsden's book.  "Concealing infantry and stone-throwing engines on the heights, he lead other units down to the partially enclosed plains beneath" agrees perfectly with the Greek of the Byzantine excepts but not with what the main editor thinks Polyaenus himself wrote.
Edit 2016-11-25: The fateful page of Marsden’s book. “Concealing infantry and stone-throwing engines on the heights, he lead other units down to the partially enclosed plains beneath” agrees with the Greek of the Byzantine excepts but not with what the main editor thinks Polyaenus himself wrote.

This doesn’t really help us know what Polyaenus meant, because the paraphraser often reworded his source to make it clearer, but it does remind me why it is important to check the notes to a Greek text and to cite exactly which version one uses.

(The citations are Polyaenus, Strategemata 2.38.2 and Anonymous, Excerpta Polyaenei 36.3 in the TLG text; for a recent discussion of the different versions see the Aris and Philips edition and translation of Polyaenus; an old translation of Polyaenus is here; for Marsden’s loose citation see Greek and Roman Artillery: Historical Development (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969) p. 59).

Edit 2016-11-24: Here is the Greek text of Polyaenus 2.38.2 from the 1887 Teubner edition of Polyaenus by Eduard Wölfflin:

Ὀνόμαρχος Μακεδόσι παρατασσὸμενος ὄρος μηνοειδὲς κατὰ νώτου λαβὼν καὶ ταῖς ὲκατέρωθεν κορυφαῖς έγκατακύψας πέτρους καὶ πετροβόλους προῆγε τὴν δύναμιν ές τὸ ὑποκείμενον πεδίον. ὡς δὲ οἱ Μακεδὸνες ἀντεποίντες ἠκροβολίσαντο, οἱ Φωκεῖς προσεποιήσαντο φεύγειν ἐς τὰ μέσα τοῦ ὄρους. οἱ μὲν δὴ Μακεδόνες θυμῷ καὶ ῥύμῃ διώκοντες ἐπέκειντο, οἱ δὲ ἀπὸ τῶν κορυφῶν τοὺς πέτρους βάλλοντες συνέτριβον τὴν Μακεδονικὴν φάλαγγα. …

– – – – –
… || 8 πεζοὺς καὶ πετροβόλους μηκανὰς Η: Polyaenum scriptorum fuisse μηχανήματα admonuit W

Edit 2016-11-30: One modern scholar who follows the 1887 Teubner text and interprets the petroboloi as men not machines is Pritchett, The Greek State at War, Vol. 5 pp. 29, 30.

Edit: 2019-07-01: Another distinguished historian gives no indication that the problem exists: Everett L. Wheeler, “Review of Roel Konijnendijk, Classical Greek Tactics: A Cultural History,” Ancient History Bulletin Online Review 9 (2019) p. 41 {link} “Perhaps desperation causes K’s conversion into light infantry of the stone-thrower artillery (Polyaen. Strat.2.38.2), shooting from heights on the flanks, not from the rear.” Turning petroboloi into either men or machines requires alchemy, the Greek word can refer to either.

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2 thoughts on “The Stone Throwers of Onomarchus

  1. Some Thoughts on Rose Mary Sheldon’s “Ambush” (2012) – Book and Sword says:

    […] 133, 134 the “stone-throwing machines‘ of Onomarchos again! The original MS have […]

  2. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Allmighty, but inexperienced me, translated for first time passage as men throwing stones and stone throwers. I also thought about passage if men (pezús) in Byzantine version weren’t crew for petroboloi. For second try I was reminded by some article for Byzantine excerpta and I have used translation as stones and stonethrowers. I always thought, that if author meant men throwing stones by hands or slings (slingers) he would write sphendotai…

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