Most weapons that were used by classical or ancient civilisations will be familiar to us. For example, the Romans’ principal arms included their versions of daggers, short swords, spears and bows. Here, however, we will focus on some of the lesser-known weapons of war. These arms highlight the creativity, ingenuity and sometimes-horrific imaginations of the designers of ancient war machines.
Archimedes Was a Master of Weaponry
No list of inventive ancient weapons would be complete without a couple of examples from the amazing mind of Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC). Though famous for academic pursuits and a range of non-military inventions, Archimedes came up with a few weapons that must have been terrifying and seemed otherworldly to anyone who faced them in battle.
Besides these less conventional weapons, Archimedes is credited with inventing impressive projectile devices and powerful catapults that were capable of hurling rocks of up to 700 pounds (317 kilos).
1. Archimedes’ Heat Ray
Though this weapon’s existence is debatable, ancient writings describe how an invention of Archimedes was used to destroy ships with fire. Many believe that during the Siege of Syracuse, during which Archimedes died, large mirrors of polished metal were used to focus the Sun’s rays onto enemy ships, thereby setting them alight. Modern recreations of the weapon have demonstrated mixed results regarding its effectiveness.
2. The Claw of Archimedes
This crane-like device utilised a large grappling hook that was suspended from a long arm. The claw would drop down from a city or fortification’s defensive wall and down upon an enemy ship, hook it and hoist it up before dropping the ship back down again, knocking it off balance and perhaps capsizing or sinking it.
3. Steam Cannon
According to both Plutarch and Leonardo da Vinci, Archimedes invented a steam-powered device that could rapidly fire projectiles. Using drawings from da Vinci, MIT students successfully built a functional steam cannon. The shells left the cannon with a velocity of 670 mph (1,080 km/h) and measured a higher kinetic energy reading than a bullet fired from an M2 machine gun.
4. Repeating Crossbow (Chu-ko-nu)
Archaeological evidence of the existence of repeating crossbows in China has been discovered dating back as far as the 4th century BC. The design for the Chu-ko-nu was improved upon by a famous military advisor named Zhuge Liang (181 – 234 AD), who even made a version that could fire up to three bolts at once. Other ‘rapid-fire’ versions could fire 10 bolts in quick succession. Though less accurate than single-shot crossbows and with less range than longbows, the repeating crossbow had an amazing rate of fire for an ancient weapon. Its use continued as late as the Sino-Japanese war of 1894 – 1895.
5. Greek Fire
Though technically a weapon of the early Middle Ages, Greek fire was first used in the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire around 672 AD, purportedly invented by Syrian engineer Callinicus. An incendiary weapon, this ‘liquid fire’ was propelled onto enemy ships through siphons, bursting into flames on contact. Extremely difficult to extinguish, it even burned on water.
Greek fire was so effective in combat that it represented a turning point in Byzantium’s struggle against Muslim invaders. So closely guarded was the recipe for Greek fire, that it has been lost in history. We can only speculate as to its exact ingredients.