The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The rifles of Rome

I live where Rome stopped: on the south bank of the Firth of Forth. It's strange to think that there was once nothing but Roman empire all the way from here to the Sahara. Richard Carrier has recently blogged about, inter alia, a detailed history of one weapon that helped them do it: the catapult.
In her study of this machine there are two things Rihll accomplishes of particular note (apart from producing a fully up-to-date synthesis of the whole of catapult history that reflects all the new developments in the field that few careful observers may already have known about from otherwise scattered reading). First, she establishes beyond doubt that catapult technology advanced considerably and importantly during the early Roman Empire (something that had often been denied), including the best case yet that they developed the metal-framed inswinger catapult, greatly magnifying power output (and leaving many modern reconstructions obsolete). Secondly, she also establishes beyond doubt the widespread use of small hand-held torsion catapults. In other words, the ancient equivalent of rifles (examples with three-foot stocks, for example, being commonplace), and even handguns (with models as small as nine or ten inches in total length).

The latter is perhaps the most astonishing. Expert observers will already have heard of growing evidence of Roman advances, but might have missed entirely the evidence of small catapults--yet as Rihll reveals, the evidence is surprisingly vast, if you know where to look for it, and what to look for. These weapons were apparently abundantly supplied in the Roman legions, and were so powerful that a typical stone-throwing smallarm could penetrate a human body with a lead bullet at a hundred yards [...]
And yes, the Romans did use lead bullets.


This is fascinating. I love this kind of thing. (My friends still tease me about reading "The Pencil" on a ive trip to the Bahamas.) Thanks for letting me know!

Reading your comment (and because I'm in that mindset from the earlier discussion) I can't help but have a sense of deja-vu. I've often wondered - did you cast yourself as the villain in the Stone Canal? Is David Reid a mutated version - a "what-if?" version - of Ken MacLeod?

All Hail the Mighty Romans.

If they could have ever figured out how to transfer power between emperors, we'd all still be speaking Latin.

"If they could have ever figured out how to transfer power between emperors, we'd all still be speaking Latin".

Actually, they did; the empire system was quite stable, no matter how unstable any one emperor's position might have been. The only downside there came from the human and economic costs of civil wars, particularly once they became endemic. When emperors could only realistically be overthrown by coups, that was a non-issue - and once Constantine set up in nova Roma sive urbs Constantinis - Constantinople to you - (ecce, pauci apud nos linguam Latinam loquemur, etsi male) coups were locked in as more realistic than civil war clear up to the arrival of the Turks, possibly even the crusaders. Other things made Rome fall.

It sounds like a fascinating book, though I'm disappointed to see one of the amazon reviews say that the author is astonishingly ignorant of Newtonian ballistics. Have you yourself read the book? If so, how accurate an assessment is that, and if true, how much do you think it damages the book? And does it provide substantial amounts of quantitative information, preferably in tables? I have a project in the works with Steve Jackson Games for which this would be highly relevant information, if it's available—I have read Marsden, several times, but more current findings would be good.

Along the same lines, it appears that the theory about cavalrymen without stirrups not being able to do shock attacks, and about the stirrup as a major military innovation, is now being questioned. It's a shame we don't know more about how low-tech military equipment actually worked, given how important it was to the course of history. Where's a good historical materialist treatment of the means of destruction?

So who's going to write the book where time-travelling Italian Fascists give the Romans a few crateloads of AK-47s, say just before the battle of Adrianople?

whshws: No, I haven't read the book myself - maybe raise the query about ballistics in Richard Carrier's own blog comments? He has blogged several times on ancient technology (scroll down for earlier posts), and mentions an interesting book on Roman imperialism here.

fizzyboot: hah! That makes so much more sense than the scenario in The Guns of the South (a good book, by the way).

fizzyboot: That's not entirely unlike the comic series Pax Romana. I mean, they're Catholics that go back, but they've also got a hell of a lot more than Ak-47's. Well-written and worth checking out.

Rome never died, it's just resting, and this lot want to bring it back!

The whole stirrups business is not at all new. And anyone who thinks you need them for shock cavalry is pretty ignorant of the career of Alexander the Great.

Now, there might be advantages to using stirrups, but I don't know enough to fill several large books. See Wikipedia on the Trot, and it seems obvious that rising to the trot isn't a necessary technique.

It makes me wonder how many of our assumptions come from quite parochial thinking.

Dave, my understanding is that it is rather hard to sit in your saddle and actively spear someone without using stirrups. Easier to throw things at the enemy from horseback. Do you know what Alexander the greats Cavalry did? thats one area I'm not actually interested in, so don't haev the Osprey book for.

The utopian socialist World State in H.G. Well's "A Modern Utopia". Was supposed to derive from an alternate timeline where the Roman Empire never fell:

"...The differences of condition, therefore, had widened with each successive year. Jesus Christ had been born into a liberal and progressive Roman Empire that spread from the Arctic Ocean to the Bight of Benin, and was to know no Decline and Fall, and Mahomet, instead of embodying the dense prejudices of Arab ignorance, opened his eyes upon an intellectual horizon already nearly as wide as the world."

Do you know what Alexander the greats Cavalry did?

Generally speaking they operated on the flanks of the infantry line. The infantry (essentially pikemen with REALLY long spears) would pin the enemy down while the cavalry would go around the sides and deliver the decisive, routing blow. Skirmishers, light cavalry and other irregulars operated out to the extreme sides and front, reserves of light infantry kept to the rear, and "hypaspists" some sort of elite heavy infantry were probably devoted to important and miscellaneous tasks.

Alexander's personal cavalry contingent, the Hetairoi, served on the right flank, while less prestigious adjuncts and allied cavalry forces would cover the left side of the phalanx. The Macedonian cavalry was armed primarily with a long lance, and with a sword as a backup. They were not particularly heavily armored, certainly not by comparison to Eastern elite cavalry like cataphracts, but by all accounts the Alexandrian cavalry epitomized discipline and horsemanship.

So yes, cavalry charges could be quite devastating in Classical times, but Alexandrian cavalry was exceptionally good, and part of an exceptionally well coordinated combined-arms force.

Guthrie, from memory:-

- There are statues and friezes showing Alexander in cavalry action. He and his men were lightly armoured if at all, and were thrusting short spears with an overhand downward motion. That wouldn't have unseated them, if they were willing to let go, since they weren't receiving the impact of their bodies in a charge.

- Stirrups became more necessary with armoured cavalry, which in turn only became practical with a heavier breed of horse (from Media, oddly enough), around the end of the Roman Empire.

- Chariots had mostly allowed heavy infantry to get into action quicker, like APVs, so heading off surprise raids; they were only practical on open ground, but that was precisely what raids aimed at anyway, for reaving cattle, general looting, and wreaking havoc (i.e. destroying crops and infrastructure). Things like Boadicea's chariot were being used for special needs that they hadn't been developed for - Roman armies.

- Even during the pacification after the Norman Conquest, heavy cavalry wasn't fully developed. I think I've seen that overhand move still in use in (images of) the Bayeux Tapestry, and William Rufus fought with dismounted knights, Norseman style, when he took Carlisle from the Scots. Axes, maces and morningstars could be used in that period, e.g. by Bishop Odo (who used a mace so as not to spill blood, good Christian that he was).

- Fully armoured cavalry needed steep fronts and rears to their saddles as well as stirrups to keep their seats when charging with couched lances. This style survives in western saddles, so cattle can be roped.

- However, deep saddles restrict the other movements and tactics, so the modern style saddle came in during the 17th century, imitating the Turks by way of the Poles, to allow other cavalry tactics. At first these included riding in and out of range to shoot arrows and, later, large horse pistols or carbines - the caracole. With infantry improvements in the late 17th century that became obsolete, leaving sabre work and light lance work (the flag near the end of the lance was to stop it going in too deep to pull out, and to allow the lancer to run his hand along the shaft until he reached it and could get a better grip on it to pull it out).

- Stirrups became shorter in the 19th century to allow jockeys to rise in the saddle, which lets the horse gallop better.

Well, people are using Roman saddles. At least, ones that are the best guess available, which work without stirrups and match the archaeology.

Roman cavalry saddle

And Lunt Roman Ford at Baginton near Coventry is one place they use the things.

Stirrups change the dynamics of using weapons on horseback, particularly if combined with a big solid saddle.

It's not that you can't thrust with a lance from horseback without them, or use a bow; it's just a lot harder, less efficient, and requires a relatively higher degree of training in horsemanship.

Prior to the stirrup, you had to use your legs to hang on to the horse. A Celtic-style four horn saddle would give you some resistance to being pushed backward off the horse, but none to a push from the side.

Stirrups give you "all around" stability in the saddle. You can then use weapons much as someone does from the ground; with the gut and leg muscles fully involved, and using your foot as a bracing point. You can also use your legs to move your torso without worrying about falling off the horse.

The medieval war-saddle had a high, padded wooden cantle at the back. This cradled the hips of the man-at-arms and supported his lower back, and it was that which primarily absorbed the rearward thrust when the couched lance struck, not the feet in the stirrups, though they certainly helped.

The cantle was stronger than the back of the guy using it. Hence in medieval manuscripts you often see a lancer thrown backward violently and bending-in-reverse at the point where the cantle ends, which I imagine was exceedingly painful.

The Romans did indeed have crossbows (of a sort) and various types of highly-efficient catapults, tho' they never did get the trebuchet. (A medieval Western improvement of a Chinese idea.)

However, they didn't use the smaller ones much as infantry weapons. As the equivalent of field artillery, yes; as infantry weapons equivalent to rifles, no, not very often.

Their primary reliance was on the javelin and sword, backed up by slingers and by specialist units using the highly efficient middle-eastern compound laminate bow.

The bow is generally speaking a better weapons system than the crossbow, or miniaturized torsion catapult. This is primarily because it stores and transfers energy more efficiently, and has a much higher rate of fire. Also arrows are aerodynamically superior to lead sling shot, or to the short stubby crossbow bolt.

The drawback is the operator. Crossbows are fairly easy to learn to use; a little more difficult than a musket, but not much.

Bows, either the longbow or the compound, require much, much more training -- and it has to be continuous, since the conditioning and muscle skills drop off sharply if not kept up. This is doubly so for the bow vs. the musket.

Hence having lots of really good archers requires either a style of life where use of the bow is part of ordinary living -- Asian steppe nomads, for example -- or a very stringently enforced training program, like that of medieval England.

Medieval English armies had a weapon nearly as effective as a breech-loading rifle, but it was a constant struggle to train enough good archers.

It required an enormous infrastructure to keep them in the field, too -- for example, every village in the country had to pluck the flight-feathers of its geese and turn them over to the royal armories to use as fletching.

A typical 4000-man force of longbowmen could shoot off 60,000 arrows in one minute -- a thousand a second or more, into an enemy packed in shoulder to shoulder and many ranks deep.

That meant using hundreds of thousands in a big battle. Much of the wagon-train carried spare arrows, and there was an elaborate system for rushing them forward to the bowmen.

By way of contrast, an infantryman at Waterloo would have fired less than 40 rounds in the course of the entire day, on average. His weapon was slower-firing (two rounds per minute as opposed to 15)and had a shorter effective range (100 yards vs. 200) than the one his many-times-great grandfather carried at Dupplin Moor or Agincourt.

Thanks to Mr. Stirling (loved the Change World Series - I live in Portland,OR and volunteer at the Multnomah County Central Library) for a full explanation of the need for stirrups.

One is inclined to ask: If there were hand held catapults, it's difficult to imagine being able to aim them accurately without stirrups?

The other thing that comes to mind is that the historians' current emphasis must need some serious revision. My limited recollection of ancient history says that there is virtually no mention of the technology described above.

Clearly, the existence of such technology would give the Roman Legions vast advantages over any potential enemies. The addition of brilliant military leaders, from Gaius Maius through Marcus Aurelius, was very much the icing on the cake.

This whole subject is fascinating and quite illuminating.

Richard York (The White Rose)

There is a pretty unambiguous cheiroballista on the Arch of Trojan, which is a cart-portable two-man weapon. I can't imagine that anything that small would have been useful against substantial structures, so the Romans at some point must have been using fairly sophisticated long-range crew served anti-personnel weapons.

IIRC the historian Josephus gives a more in-depth breakdown of the torsion weapons that the Roman Army used at its prime, including the details of how the weapons were integrated into the chain of command, etc. Needless to say, the bulk to the power in a Roman legion came from their exceptionally well disciplined heavy infantry, while torsion gizmos would have been most useful in a siege, which was something the Romans positively excelled at. Being able to pick off a few defenders per day with these machines would pay enormous dividends over the course of a several year long siege.

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