For the conference on city sieges in Innsbruck in October 2023, I have been reading or skimming all the ancient Greek and Roman manuals of siege warfare. This let me finally see another theory about how the Greeks got battering rams.
Two of the three ancient instructions for building a battering ram in a movable tortoise, by Vitruvius and Athenaeus, distinguish between rams and augers or drills. The ram was suspended from above and struck smashing blows against stones or timbers, whereas the auger was supported on rollers from below and pulled into an earth wall with ropes and pulleys. Whitehead and Blyth believe that drills were the traditional Syrian weapon, that they were directed upwards at an angle like the engines in Neo-Assyrian reliefs, and that the Greeks invented the ram tortoise to attack stone walls which could resist the steady pressure of the auger. Since stone walls were rare in the Aegean before the fourth century BCE, but Greeks had rams and ram tortoises by 441/440 BCE, this timeline obviously raises a number of questions. They believe that the auger was used to create a series of holes side by side which would cause a mud-brick wall to slump forward and down. Greek tortoises did not have pivoting axles (although some had wheels which could be set in various positions 90° or 45° apart) so I am also unclear how one tortoise would create such a row of holes, given that the auger moved forward and back in its trough. I am also suspicious of rationalizing and harmonizing ancient texts which have a strong ideological agenda (Whitehead and Blyth call Diodorus Siculus ‘implicitly polemical’ when he says that the ancient Assyrians had no stone throwers, filler tortoises, or rams designed to overthrow walls, p. 80 n. 8).
On the other hand, Whitehead and Blyth do show that there was a clear technical distinction between rams and augers in the ancient Greek tradition, and the rams or augers on the Neo-Assyrian reliefs do move differently than we usually think Greek or medieval rams moved. The stone thrower and the filler tortoise are usually agreed to be Greek inventions (armies in Syria probably used temporary shelters made from bundles of reeds to protect soldiers as they shot at the defenders, filled in the ditches in front of the walls, or dug away at the walls and their foundations with picks, shovels, and prybars). The ancient Near Eastern battering ram may have been more like Greek augers than Greek rams, although wall paintings from Egypt show simple log rams being swung by hand.
Working before 2004, Whitehead and Blyth did not have the best access to research on the ancient Near East such as Jo An Scurlock on the parts of the ‘one-horned ox’ (academia.edu) or work on the Assyrian sieges of cities such as Lachish (a very new publication along these lines is Yosef Garfinkel et al, “Constructing the Assyrian Siege Ramp at Lachish: Texts, Iconography, Archaeology and Photogrammetry,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology (2021). DOI: 10.1111/ojoa.12231).
You can read another summary of Whitehead and Blyth’s theory by an actual expert at https://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2005/2005.07.63 and the full argument in David Whitehead and P. H. Blyth, Athenaeus Mechanicus, On machines (Περὶ μηχανημάτων). Historia Einzelschriften, Heft 182 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004) pp. 79-81, 174-175, fig. 7
(scheduled 21 September 2023)