How the Greeks Got Battering Rams

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Categories: Ancient
The hollow bronze head of a battering ram with a toothed striking surface and decorative rams' heads on the sides near the open back
This may have been part of the first battering ram deployed in Greece. It was made sometime in the 5th century BCE, around the time when later Greeks remembered battering rams were first deployed, and dedicated to Zeus at Olympia. Archaeological Museum, Olympia, object B2360 c/o

People who see the ancient Greeks as an especially progressive and technically advanced people have a lot to boast about, but they have to admit that their heroes were a bit backwards at siege engineering. We have pictures of battering rams from Egypt and Upper Mesopotamia dating back to the third millennium BCE, and Early Bronze Age texts which mention them from Ebla in Syria, and in the 18th century BCE petty kings like Zimri-Lim of Mari took them for granted and students in scribal colleges dutifully memorized the proper Sumerian names for all the parts, but they are absent from early Greek vase painting, absent from the Homeric epics, and absent from Greek traditions of their wars until the time of Pericles. That is about 2000 years later than the first evidence for battering rams from Syria and Egypt.

Greek stories about their early wars, and the archaeology of Iron Age Greece, make it clear that Greek soldiers were very eager to take and destroy walled cities, but apparently they were too impatient to sit outside a town for a few months while they built something the size and complexity of a small boat and pushed it through enemy fire against a wall or gate. People who admire the Greeks usually say a few words about the Assyrians as masters of siegecraft then slip into telling a triumphant story of Greek progress from humble beginnings.

Later Greeks and Romans did not know about the Mari letters or Old Kingdom tomb paintings, but they saw that their ancestors lacked the siege engines which were used in their own times, and they told two types of stories about How the Greeks Got Siege Engines.

Diodorus Siculus, 2.27.1 slightly edited translation: The rebels, elated at their successes, pressed the siege (of legendary king Sardanapallus in Ninus the legendary capital of Mesopotamia), but because of the strength of the walls they were unable to do any harm to the men in the city; for neither stone throwers, nor ditch-filling tortoises, nor rams devised to overthrow walls had as yet been invented at that time. Moreover, the inhabitants of the city had a great abundance of all provisions, since the king had taken thought on that score. Consequently the siege dragged on, and for two years they pressed their attack, making assaults on the walls and preventing inhabitants of the city from going out into the country; but in the third year, after there had been heavy and continuous rains, it came to pass that the Euphrates, running very full, both inundated a portion of the city and broke down the walls for a distance of twenty stades.

Diodorus 12.27.1 When Timocles was archon in Athens (441/440 BCE) … the Samians went to war with the Milesians because of a quarrel over Prienê, and when they saw that the Athenians were favouring the Milesians, they revolted from the Athenians, who thereupon chose Pericles as general and dispatched him with forty ships against the Samians … (12.28.3) He built also siege machines, being the first of all men to do so, such as those called “rams” and “tortoises,” Artemon of Clazomenae having built them; and by pushing the siege with energy and throwing down the walls by means of the siege machines he gained the mastery of Samos.

(There is another version of this story in chapter 27.3 of Plutarch’s life of Perikles)

Diodorus 14.41.3 At once, therefore, (Dionysius the tyrant of Syracuse) gathered skilled workmen, commandeering them from the cities under his control and attracting them by high wages from Italy and Greece as well as Carthaginian territory. For his purpose was to make weapons in great numbers and every kind of missile, and also quadriremes and quinqueremes, no ship of the latter size having yet been built at that time. … 14.42.1 In fact the catapult was invented at this time in Syracuse, since the ablest skilled workmen had been gathered from everywhere into one place. The high wages as well as the numerous prizes offered the workmen who were judged to be the best stimulated their zeal.

Diodorus wants you to know that the Assyrians and Babylonians long ago did not have battering rams, that they were invented by a Greek for another Greek in historical times, and that catapults were invented for another Greek. His contemporary Vitruvius had a different account:

Soldiers hiding behind round shields climb towards people atop a tower as a wheeled vehicle approaches it.
The warriors, seal-cutters, and scribes of Ebla had not read Diodorus, so they did not know that they were not supposed to be using wheeled siege engines yet. Several texts from this site mention the “one-horned ox” and its bronze “tongue.” Redrawing of a cylinder seal from around 2400 BCE at Ebla in western Syria. From Davide Nadali “Representations of Battering Rams and Siege Towers in Early Bronze Age Glyphtic Art.” Historiae 6 (2009) pp. 39-52

Vitruvius, On Architecture, 10.13.1-2: I have said as much as I could on these matters; it now remains for me to treat of those things relating to attacks, namely, of those machines with which generals take and defend cities. The first engine for attack was the ram, whose origin is said to have been as follows. The Carthaginians encamped in order to besiege Cadiz, and having first got possession of one of the towers, they endeavoured to demolish it, but having no machines fit for the purpose, they took a beam, and suspending it in their hands, repeatedly battered the top of the wall with the end of it, and having first thrown down the upper courses, by degrees they destroyed the whole fortress.

After that, a certain workman of Tyre, of the name of Pephasmenos, turning his attention to the subject, fixed up a pole and suspended a cross piece therefrom after the method of a steelyard, and thus swinging it backwards and forwards, levelled with heavy blows the walls of Cadiz. Cetras the Chalcedonian, was the first who added a base to it of timber moveable on wheels, and covered it with a roof on upright and cross pieces: on this he suspended the ram, covering it with bulls’ hides, so that those who were employed therein battering the walls might be secure from danger. And inasmuch as the machine moved but slowly, they called it the tortoise of the ram. Such was the origin of this species of machines.

About a hundred years later, another scholar was compiling a list of culture heroes who invented the basic artefacts of civilization:

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 7.200 (my translation): … The battle of African against Egyptian was the first to be fought with cudgels, which they called rollers (phalanges). Proteus and Acrisius invented round shields while warring amongst themselvelves, or Chalcus the son of Athamantis, body armour Messine Midias, helmet, sword, and spear the Lacedaemonians, greaves and crests the Carians, (201) bow and arrow Scythes the son of Jove, others say Perses the son of Perseus to have invented them, lances Aetolos, the javelin with thong Aetolus the son of Mars, velite spears the Tyrrenes, the same the pilium, Penethesilaus the Amazon the battle-axe, the Pisan hunting spears and (amongst spring-engines) the scorpion, the Cretans the catapult, the Syrophoenicians the ballista and sling, the bronze horn Pisaeus of the Tyrrenes, tortoises Artemon of the Clazomeninians, (202) amongst machines for walls the horse (which is now called ram) by Epius at Troy, Bellerophon was carried on horseback …

(Mesopotamians called the battering ram the “one-horned ox” or “the wooden donkey” and after they had been educated about battering rams some Greeks and Romans decided that the Wooden Horse at Troy was a battering ram … but a vase from roughly the same time as the Iliad and Odyssey shows a literal horse).

A wheeled battering ram with two spear-headed strikers and a tower climbs a ramp towards the wall of a three-leveled city while archers shoot back and forth and headless, naked corpses fall
We don’t need to speculate that poems are using metaphors to show that soldiers in the Near East used siege engines from 750 to 650 BCE. A Neo-Assyrian relief of a siege in Babylonia or Elam from the time of Tiglath-Pilser III (reigned 745-728 BCE) c/o Wikimedia Commons

When early Greek writers mention siege engines, they use vague and non-technical language. There is no reason to think that either Diodorus or Pliny had any idea of the story before the siege of Samos, and they certainly did not know of the thousands of years of sieges in Egypt and Syria before that siege. But because they did not have many sources, the kinds of stories they told tell us something about them.

Diodorus wanted the world to know that siege engines were invented by Rational Greeks, or at least by engineers working for would-be philosopher kings like Dionysius or Alexander. He repeats that message three times in different parts of his history drawing on three different main sources, and he firmly denied that barbarians had battering rams in legendary times. Whereas Pliny imagined the invention of weapons as something which took places all over the world in the misty past, and Vitruvius thought that the battering ram came from Carthage. The real invention of the battering ram took place in the Bronze Age, long before anyone could write about it in Greek. But when you think about how siege technologies finally passed from the rest of the civilized world to Greece, remember the excited Greeks giving Zeus their new weapon which had been used for about 2000 years a few days’ sail away. And remember Diodorus sticking his fingers in his ears and saying that the Greek authorities only named Greek engineers so there.

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Further Reading:

  • If you are terminally interested and have access to a rich university’s archaeology library (even we don’t have this one): Emil Kunze, “Ein Rammbock,” V. Bericht über die Ausgrabungen in Olympia (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1956) pp. 75-78
  • Yadin, Yigael (1963) The Art of War in Biblical Lands. Two volumes (McGraw-Hill: New York)
  • David Ussishkin, The Conquest of Lachish by Sennacherib. Judith Dekel, Gert Le Grange ill., Avraham Hay phot. (Tel Aviv: Institute of Archaeology, 1982)
  • Scurlock, JoAnne (1989) “Mesopotamian Battering Rams Revisited.” State Archives of Assyria Bulletin 3.2 pp. 129-131
  • Hamblin, William J. (2006) Warfare in the Ancient Near East: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History. (Routledge: Oxon).

Rams are not as often reproduced as catapults, but check out the 2005 Discovery Channel documentary “Superweapons of the Ancient World: The Ram” which builds a Roman-style ram and tests it against a wall.

2 thoughts on “How the Greeks Got Battering Rams

  1. russell1200 says:

    Well after Homer gave out the secret of the “Gift Horses” they obviously had to come up with another method. 🙂

    1. Sean Manning says:

      It must have been very frustrating: “How can we take cities other than climbing over the walls?” “I don’t know, this is hard, lets go to Egypt and learn how to build stone temples.” “Any progress on the siege thing?” “No, you know what, how about we try to get good at fighting from horses like the Lydians.” “That other city is so arrogant behind its high walls, have you figured out a way to get through them?” “No, lets invent a theory of rhetoric.” “Any luck on this city-sacking thing?” “No, lets reform the constitution of Athens to balance the interests of the rich and the poor without driving out allies into revolt, that sounds way easier.”

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