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The History of the Messenian Wars

by November 12, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Messenian Wars, which took place between Sparta and Messenia in the 8th century BC, were very crucial in the rise of Spartan society. Victory in the Messenian Wars was important in the history of Sparta, and by extension, in the history of Ancient Greece as a whole.
Background to the Messinian Wars
The Spartans were a Dorian tribe who invaded Greece from the southern Balkans. They conquered much of the Peloponnesian from the native Achaeans (1100 BC), and some Dorians settled in what became Messenia. There, they created a small kingdom and later adopted the culture of the native Achaeans. Over time, tensions developed between the Spartans and the Messenians; this was born out of a rivalry for resources as well as cultural differences. While the Spartans in Laconia may have resented the Messenian elite, who they believed betrayed their Dorian origins, many historians suggest that the actual cause of the war was the Spartans’ desperate need for more fertile land.
Ancient Messenia

Ancient Messenia

The Outbreak of Messenian War
The immediate casus belli was the theft of some cattle by a Messenian Olympic champion. This led to reprisal raids by the Spartans, during which several Laconians were killed, sparking an all-out war. The dating of the war is not known for certain, but it is thought to have begun in 743/742 BC and lasted until roughly 722 BC.
The Spartan King Alcmenes led an army of heavy infantry into Messenian territory in order to launch a surprise attack on Ampheia, an important Messenian city. Alcemes ordered his men to march by night on the city and they caught the defenders completely by surprise. The Spartans massacred the men and enslaved the children and the women.
Vase painting

Spartan Hoplites from a vase-painting

Euphaes, the king of Messenia, placed all able-bodied men under arms. He was aware that the Spartans were superior infantrymen, so he decided to rely on a strategy of field defenses. The war largely consisted of raids and counter raids during the campaign season. In 739 BC the two armies fought an inconclusive battle in a ravine not far from the capital of Euphaes.
The following campaigning season saw another pitched battle; this time the Spartans and the Messenians clashed near the destroyed city of Ampheia. The two armies were led by their respective kings, consisted mostly of heavy infantry, and also had some light skirmishers and archers. There is some controversy as to whether or not the Laconians adopted the phalanx tactics. If so, it was possibly that this was the first time that a Greek army had adopted the strategy.
Whatever the case, the fight was brutal and bloody and it lasted all day long. There was no quarter shown by either side. By evening the Spartans emerged victorious and the Messenians were in full retreat. Their king decided to return to his strategy of fixed defense and he ordered a stronghold to be built on Mount Ithome, which is over 2,400 feet high (800 meters) and located just above the capital of Messenia. It appears that King Eupales died soon after, as did his archenemy, Alchemnes.
The ruins

The ruins of Messene

War of Attrition
The Messenians were able to resist the Spartans and maintain their independence. However, they were hard pressed and every summer the Laconians would raid their land, which must have caused economic collapse and food shortages.
The Messenians sent an embassy to obtain advice from the Oracle at the Delphi, and they were ordered to sacrifice a virgin to the gods to secure their favor. According to some accounts, the Messenian sacrificed the daughter of a noble, Aristodemus. After this the fortunes of the Messenians improved, and they had a number of minor successes against the Spartans. It seems Aristodemus, the father of the girl sacrificed, was made the new Messenian king; he went on the attack, driving the Spartans completely out of his kingdom. The Messenians engaged the Spartans in a set-piece battle for the first time since their defeat at Ampheia.
Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy

Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy

The Last Phase of the Messenian War
The Messenian War had by now entered its second decade. Sparta was exhausted and was not sure of how it should proceed. It was not in their nature to give up. They emulated the Messenians and sent a delegation to the Oracle of Delphi. The delegation from Laconia was given advice by the oracle, which they followed, however what exactly they were told has not been passed down to us. Sparta possibly adopted a new tactic; they appear to have besieged the Messenian stronghold on Mount Ithome. This led to the collapse of the Messenians and their king took his own life.
Aftermath of the Messenian War
Many of the Messenians were killed, enslaved or went into exile when Sparta annexed nearly all of Messenia. The Laconians reduced the remaining Messenians to the status of helots, a form of slave. They worked the land of their Spartan masters, who had absolute power over them. The conquest of Messenia meant that Sparta grew richer and stronger, and it allowed the Spartan elite to become a class of professional warriors. The capture of Messenia allowed the Laconians to develop their unique constitution and peculiar institutions, such as the agoge, where boys trained to be warriors.
Marble statue of a Spartan king

Marble statue of a Spartan king

However, the Messenians continued to resist, and they rose in a revolt known as the 2nd Messinian War, which was suppressed. Nonetheless, unrest continued. The constant threat of rebellion and the need to repress the helots meant that Sparta became a very militarized society. Sparta would not have developed as it had, if they had not been victorious in the Messenian War.
The Messenians were eventually to regain their freedom and independence in the 3rd Messenian War in the 4th century BC.

References
Pawlak, M., 2010. Boundary Dispute between Sparta and Messene. Classica & Christiana, 5(2), pp.465-478.
Pausania (1998) Description of Greece. London: Penguin

Battle of Actium (31 BC)

by November 5, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The battle of Actium was one of the most important naval battles in all of history. The victory resulted in the fall of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra and the elevation of Augustus to the position of absolute ruler of the Roman Empire. Indeed, this battle determined the direction and the fate of the Roman Empire for over five centuries.
The Background to the Battle of Actium
Rome was engulfed by civil war for decades and was fought over by a series of generals, such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar. Following the assassination of Caesar (49 BC), a political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate brought a measure of stability between his heir Octavian, Mark Anthony, and Lepidus. The Roman world and spheres of influence were divided between Octavian and Mark Anthony. The heir of Caesar controlled the Roman West and Anthony the East. Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt, became the lover of Mark Anthony and so the two effectively ruled the Eastern Mediterranean.

‘The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC’ (1672) By Laureys a Castro

A war between Octavian and Mark Anthony became inevitable when Caesar’s adopted son side-lined Lepidus, contrary to an earlier agreement. Many in Rome suspected that Mark Anthony wanted to rule the East as a separate state but nonetheless a significant party in Rome supported Anthony, as they were anxious about the ambitions of Octavian. The spark that caused the final war of the Roman Republic was Mark Anthony’s divorce of Octavia, the sister of Octavian.
Prelude to Battle of Actium
Mark Anthony moved quickly; he assembled a huge navy at Ephesus (modern Turkey) and also moved a large army into the Balkans. Many of these ships were sent by Cleopatra who later joined her partner. Anthony knew that speed was essential. He sailed his armada to the Ionian Sea and his ships found harbor in Actium, a rocky promontory. With his fleet sheltered in the bay and a large land army also assembled at Actium (now Preveza, Greece), Mark Anthony was preparing to invade Italy and to march on Rome.

Coin of Anthony and Cleopatra

Meanwhile, Octavian skillfully won support in Rome by portraying Anthony as the pawn of Cleopatra. Octavian appointed his friend Agrippa to the position of admiral to his fleet. He was a brilliant strategist and had gathered his ships in the Ionian Sea. He then attempted to blockade Cleopatra and Octavia at Actium, which made Cleopatra and her Egyptian contingent nervous; they wanted to sail back to Alexandria. Octavian learned of this and was going to let Mark Anthony and his Egyptian Queen escape, however, Agrippa urged him to attack. This forced Mark Anthony to give battle.
The Sea Battle of Actium
The two fleets met outside the Gulf of Actium on a still and beautiful morning on the 2nd of September, 31 BC. Cleopatra and her partner had over 300 ships, many of which were massive galleys complete with towers, full of archers and marines. Octavian, on the other hand, had about 250 warships, which were often smaller. Many were galleys, known as Liburnians, that had long been used by Illyrian pirates and were well suited to the waters of the Ionian Sea. Anthony’s ships had more men and were larger, but they were slow and cumbersome. One of Anthony’s general defected to the enemy and told Octavian of his battle plans. Moreover, there was a disagreement between Anthony’s and Cleopatra’s contingents.
A Liburnian galley- from the 1st century AD

A Liburnian galley- from the 1st century AD

When the battle commenced Agrippa cleverly used the ballista and other missile weapons on his ships. He would launch hit and run attacks against the smaller vessels. Eventually, Anthony was forced to leave the protection of Actium Bay and sought to engage with Octavian’s fleet. This led to an all-day battle. During the fighting, the ships were used rather like platforms from which archers and marines fought each other. They would often board the enemy ships and engage in brutal hand to hand combat.
Sometimes ballistae would sink a ship, but this was not common. Many more were set on fire during the fighting by flaming projectiles. Most of the larger galleys were equipped with rams (rostra) and ships would ram into other vessels to damage or sink them. Agrippa had invented a grappling hook that was fired from a ballista, which allowed ships to be boarded more effectively and gave Octavian’s fleet a real advantage. Thousands were killed or drowned as the battle raged.

A ballistae

There are two main theories as to how the Battle of Actium developed. Many argue that Anthony was winning the battle at this stage, however, the Egyptian contingent, apparently under orders, decided to sail for Alexandria. It had not really taken part in the battle. When the Egyptians began to sail away, it caused Anthony to panic and this led to the loss of many ships. There are others who argue that Anthony was defeated in the sea battle and he fought a rear-guard action to allow his beloved Cleopatra to escape to her kingdom.
Whatever the reason, by the evening of the 2nd of September, Mark Antony’s navy was in full retreat. Octavian did not follow him as he was saving sailors and soldiers from sinking ships and the sea. The following day the heir of Julius Caesar seized the camp of Anthony and the majority of his enemy’s army surrendered to him without a fight.
The Aftermath of the Battle of Actium
Cleopatra's Death

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. (Public Domain).

Mark Anthony and Cleopatra made it safely back to Egypt. Cleopatra tried to sign a separate peace with Octavian, but he refused; he wanted to parade her in his Triumph. Anthony and Cleopatra’s allies began to abandon them and soon they realized that their position was hopeless. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra both committed suicide rather than be taken alive.
Octavian became the first Roman Emperor. His victory at Actium was the death-knell of the Roman Republic.
References
Lange, C. H. (2011). The battle of Actium: a reconsideration. The classical quarterly, 61(2), 608-623.

SPQR: A Symbol of Rome

by September 23, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We have all come across the abbreviation or emblem SPQR, in books, museums, and monuments. Did you ever wonder what it meant? SPQR is an abbreviation for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus. These words became a symbol of Rome and the Roman people. While they are well-known even today, very few people actually know what they stand for… or what was their significance. What exactly is the meaning, history and the importance of the abbreviation Senātus Populusque Rōmānus?
Mosaic SPQR

Detail from the mosaic floor in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan

SPQR: What does it stand for?
In Latin, Senātus means “Senate”, Populusque refers to the people of Rome and Rōmānus is “Roman”. SPQR, therefore, is an abbreviation for the Roman Senate and People. This was an important legal and political phrase, illustrating legal thinking on sovereignty and the origin of political power and legitimacy.
The phrase suggests that all power comes from the people of Rome. This reflects the democratic nature of the Roman Republic and its rejection of monarchy and is very similar to the modern conception of popular sovereignty in present-day democracies. However, the people who were the source of sovereignty in Rome was much narrower and only represented free, affluent, males.
SPQR Arch

Arch of Septimius Severus top inscription

Senātus, the main political and deliberative assembly in Rome, actually means ‘assembly of old men’. The Senate was initially a council of elders who had to guide the people of Rome during war and peace. The S in SPQR is an indication of the prominent role of the Senators in the Republic and later Empire.
Senātus and the Populus Rōmānus, are sovereign when combined and both are the pillars of the Roman state. This indicated that the Roman Senate and the people had to work together for the welfare of the Republic and later the state.
SPQR became an emblem of Rome because it encapsulated the Roman political system. The abbreviation became a source of pride for many citizens of the Republic and later the Empire. This is because they believed that their system was the source of their freedom and greatness.
SPQR – As an emblem
The initials were also an important emblem in the Roman army. The legions Aquila (eagle) was their military standard and they were extremely important to legionnaires. They would fight to the death to ensure that they did not fall into the hands of the enemy. Indeed, the capture of an eagle was considered to be a national disgrace and shame.
Every Aquila had a cloth with the words SPQR and many also had the initials stamped on them. This was to indicate that the legion was loyal to the Senate and the People of Rome. It was to remind the legions for whom they were fighting.
A modern recreation of a Roman standard.

A modern recreation of a Roman standard.

Republican and Imperial coins often carried the abbreviation for centuries. High-value coins typically had SPQR stamped on them, in part to show that they were legal tender. Many buildings that were built around the Empire were dedicated to the Roman People and Senate by using the abbreviation SPQR.
The letters were often used to portray the power and the glory of the Empire or the Republic and were extremely important as a symbol in pre-literate societies. SPQR was so ubiquitous in the Roman provinces because it was a way of reminding the local populace of who was in charge.
Public building

SPQH – Hamburg Rathaus

The History of SPQR
The emblem is not as old as it is commonly assumed. The abbreviation only became widely used in the 80s BC. Before this, the emblem of the Roman Republic was simply Roma.
The abbreviation was adopted at this time because of the political environment; the Roman Republic was riven by political violence between popular and aristocratic factions. Moreover, the provincials had revolted during the Social War, in pursuance of their demands for citizenship in the Social War. The abbreviation was possibly used in the 80s BC as a call for unity among all the factions that were tearing the Republic apart.
Sketch SPQR

“Superiority of the warrior class. State 2.” Etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, (University of Toronto)

After the Fall of the Roman Republic, Octavian, later Augustus, kept the emblem. This was to demonstrate continuity with the past, even though Augustus was creating an Imperial system. Successive Emperors continued to use the emblem on documents and buildings for the same reason.
The emblem continued in use until the 4th century AD. It was gradually phased out over a period of time beginning from the reign of Constantine the Great. This was a deliberate policy on the part of Christian Emperors and part of their attempts to Christianize the Empire, as SPQR was associated with the paganism of the Roman past.
However, SPQR was revived in the Middle Ages as a symbol of liberty and democracy and indeed it can still be seen today in many public buildings.

Pithecusae: Island of Firsts

by September 3, 2019

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Home to thermal springs and verdant landscapes, the idyllic island of Ischia also houses the first Greek settlement in all of Europe. Enterprising pioneers from the Greek island of Euboea, founded the colony in the mid-eighth century BCE, naming it Pithecusae from the Greek word pithekos meaning “ape” or “monkey.” But was the island truly named for monkeys?
Situated in the Bay of Naples, Pithecusae was never inhabited by apes or monkeys, leading some scholars to speculate that its name may come instead from the Greek word pithekizo which meant “to monkey around.” Another thought is that this term was used derisively by mainlanders to refer to the speculative and profiteering islanders who originally hailed from the Athens environs, over seven hundred miles away.
Modern day Ischia

Modern day Ischia

Which begs the question, why on earth would settlers from Euboea, a sea-faring island to the east of Athens, be interested in colonizing what was then the westernmost boundary of the Mediterranean?
The Metal of Choice
In order to answer this question definitively, it is important to understand what was occurring in ancient Greece at the time. Never known for its arable land, the farmland shortage became pronounced during the population explosion of the Archaic Age. It was from the eighth through the sixth centuries BCE that colonizing other lands became fashionable to the intrepid ancient Greeks.
Although the rich fertility of Pithecusae’s volcanic soil was desirable to the Euboean settlers, more alluring to the Iron Age colonists were its ample iron ore reserves. In the eighth century BCE, iron was the new bronze and the adventurous settlers were willing to travel far and wide for their current metal of choice.
Because of its protected, well-positioned harbor along with its vast resources, trade networks were bountiful in Pithecusae. The island traded heavily not only with their mainland neighbors of Campania, Apulia, Etruria and Latium but also with the Near East and Carthage, amongst others. Throughout Greek settlements, Pithecusae was recognized as having the widest-range of objects from the farthest reaches of the Iron Age Mediterranean.
The Cup of Nestor?
Today, chief among Pithecusaean objects of interest is a seven-inch cup, originally made on the island of Rhodes and dated to around 750 BCE. Battered and diminutive, at first glance this artifact is unimpressive, but upon closer inspection an engraving can be found that has sparked no small amount of interest in the academic community.
the "cup of Nestor"

The “Cup of Nestor”

The etching, believed to have been scribbled in Pithecusae around 725 BCE, is not only the earliest example we have of Greek writing, more compelling still is that this is the first example we have of Greek poetry! Two of the three lines of text are in Homeric hexameter and refer to Nestor, a character from Homer’s Iliad:
“I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway Desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.”
Ironically, the earliest recorded evidence we have of Homer’s epic hymn is in the form of a joke. Both as a pun demonstrated by its modest size as in The Iliad Nestor’s cup was notorious for being too heavy to lift; and as a bawdy quip as the reference to Aphrodite bespeaks. That eighth century Greeks living on the edge of Magna Graecia could jest about the Homeric legends testifies to how deeply ingrained, even prosaic, Homer’s narratives must have been. Undeniably, The Iliad was originally composed as an oral hymn, to be sung or recited, possibly as early as 1200 BCE with its written format believed to have been penned anywhere from 725 BCE to 634 BCE.
As a result of the discovery of the etching on this obscure cup in the backwaters of ancient Greece, some scholars now argue that the date of Homer’s poem must be pushed back for knowledge of his verses to be as common as this cup attests.
Homer recites poem

Homer recites a poem

Sadly, in contrast to its amusing engraving this cup has a more sobering epilogue; it was discovered in the grave of a ten-year old boy offered by his father in a funeral pyre. Doubly tragic is that the young lad, who was in death its final recipient, would never know the adult delight the cup’s inscription signified. The somber conclusion of this cup’s destiny is a reminder that in the Greek world omnipresent death was humor’s dark companion.
Which brings us to the fate of Pithecusae; in a land of firsts with a population boasting ten thousand at its zenith in 700 BCE, why was this plucky Greek settlement not better known? While it was the rich volcanic soil that initially lured the Greeks to settle the island of Pithecusae, the reason for its demise lies also in the soil’s combustible origins.
According to geographer and historian Strabo (64 BCE to 24 CE), severe volcanic and earthquake activity impacted Pithecusae’s acclaim leading one classical scholar to term it “the lid of a cauldron.” Indeed, due to its geological volatility, an exodus ensued and Pithecusae’s bustling trade was eventually transferred to the nearby Greek settlement of Cumae on the southern Italian mainland. Most historians agree that by 500 BCE the settlement of Pithecusae was all but destroyed by a volcanic eruption of Mount Epomeo, the island’s largest volcano.
Perhaps in a fitting Homeric denouement, the fiery fate of Nestor’s Cup foreshadowed the incendiary collapse of the once burgeoning land from which it sprung.

The Battle of Nisibis: Parthia VS Rome

by August 23, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Battle of Nisibis (217 AD) was the last battle between the Roman and the Parthian Empire. They had battled each other regularly for almost three centuries. This two-day battle was a particularly brutal and bloody one.
Parthian horse archer

Parthian horse archer

The Background to the Battle of Nisibis
Caracalla was one of the bloodiest tyrants ever to rule Rome. He murdered his own brother and massacred the inhabitants of Alexandria. He was possibly mad and believed himself to be a second Alexander the Great. In 216 AD Parthia was convulsed by a civil war between King Atrabanus V and his brother. Caracalla decided to take advantage of this, to seize more territories. He first cunningly offered to marry the daughter of Artabanus V, but the Parthian monarch rejected his proposal.
Caracalla used this refusal as a pretext to invade Parthian lands, in the process he broke a peace treaty between the two states. He invaded what is now Northern Iraq and devastated it and committed many atrocities before he retreated back into Roman territory, for winter. Caracalla had become increasingly unpredictable and his inner circle feared him greatly. The Prefect of the Praetorian Guard Macrinus killed the crazed tyrant and seized the throne in April 217.
Caracalla

A bust of the Emperor Caracalla

The Battle of Nisibis
Artabanus and the Parthians were enraged by Caracalla’s outrageous behavior. The Parthians invaded Roman territory. As the new emperor Macrinus had no military experience, he sought a diplomatic solution. The Parthian monarch and his men, however, wanted revenge. It should be noted that they did not know that Caracalla was already dead and that there was a new Emperor.
The two armies met in the Armenian Highlands, near the city of Nisibis, in what is now Eastern Turkey. Macrinus’ army was mainly infantry based while the Parthians were overwhelmingly cavalry. The Romans had legionnaires, archers and skirmishers, largely javelin throwers. The Parthians had heavily armored horsemen, known as cataphracts, precursors to medieval knights, and javelin throwers riding camels.
The Romans were positioned on sloping ground. The heavily armored troops were lined up in a defensive line, while the cavalry and light troops guarded their flanks.
Bust of Macrinus

Bust of Macrinus

On the first day, Artabanus reminded them of the recent atrocities committed by the Romans and then ordered them to attack. The camels, cavalry and light troops of the Parthians advanced and made some gains, inflicting heavy casualties on the Romans light troops, mainly Auxiliaries.
Macrinus’ forward units retreated but as they did, they left crow’s feet behind them. These were pointed steel devices which the Parthians camels and horses stood on. This led to terrible injuries and many riders were killed after being thrown from their saddles. The Parthians were not deterred. Their famous mounted archers fired volley upon volley of arrows on the Roman lines. This continued until dark; the death toll was very high and the moans of the dying could be heard throughout the night.
The morning of the second day, the battle opened up with the Parthians camel-back javelin throwers inflicting heavy casualties on the Romans. By the late morning, the heavy cavalry of the Parthians attacked the mainline of the Romans. However, at close quarters the heavy Roman infantry was able to beat back the attackers. Macrinus’ army had no relief as the Parthians, furious at the crimes committed by Caracalla, were in a frenzy. They wanted Roman blood.
A modern re-enactor dressed as a   Cataphract

A modern re-enactor dressed as a Cataphract

Seeing that a frontal assault was getting him nowhere, Artabanus ordered an attack on the flanks. This heavy cavalry almost succeeded in pushing back the flanks of the Romans. However, Macrinus’ men extended their line and Moorish javelin throwers helped to inflict heavy casualties on the Parthian cataphracts and camel-riders. This saved the Romans from being encircled and potentially annihilated.
By the end of the second day, there were dead men, horses, and camels all over the battlefield. They were piled so high that in places the Parthian cavalrymen could not move.
The Roman Emperor was desperate, his men had sustained heavy casualties and he believed that his army might not be able to withstand a third day of near-suicidal enemy attacks.
A diplomatic compromise to The Battle of Nisibis
Macrinus was a shrewd political operator and he came up with an ingenious plan to save his forces. He sent a delegation to Artabus and explained that Caracalla was now dead and that he was fighting the man who had killed him. Therefore, Macrinus stated that Artabus had no more reason to fight and that he had already been avenged. Artabus had lost many men and many of his cavalry had become restless, as they were far from home.
Coin of Artabus IV

Coin of Artabus IV

He demanded that Macrinus cede a province to the Parthians. However, the Roman Emperor was a better diplomat than soldier and was able to secure an end to the war simply by paying a huge sum of gold. The Parthians soon withdrew to their own lands, and they are widely seen as the victors in the battle.
Aftermath of The Battle of Nisibis
Macrinus was defeated in battle and executed by a distant relative of Caracalla in 218 AD. His young son was also murdered by the new Emperor, Elagabalus.
Artabus V is often regarded as the victor of Nisibis. However, he soon faced a major revolt by the Sassanians in what is now Iran. The Sassanians, under Ardashir, defeated Artabus V. Ardashir went on to take over the Parthian Empire and is considered to be the founder of the Sassanian Empire.
The Battle of Nisibis was to prove the last battle between Rome and Parthia. However, the Romans were to fight a new and more formidable enemy: the Sassanians.

The Machine Gun of Ancient Greece

by August 16, 2019

By DHWTY, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The polybolos (which may be translated literally as ‘multiple thrower’) was a type of weapon used in the ancient world. The polybolos has been described as a sort of ballista / catapult that was capable of firing several projectiles before needing to be reloaded. That’s why it’s sometimes referred to as an ancient machine gun.
Polybolos: Improving on the Catapult
Whilst the catapult was likely to have been used since the 9th century BC (based on a relief from Nimrud), it was during the 4th century BC that the catapult began gaining popularity throughout the Mediterranean. In the Greek world, early catapults were large bows that relied on winches to draw the weapon back for firing. It may have been during the time of Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great) that tight bundles of sinew / rope that functioned as ‘springs’ were used to replace the bow arms of the catapult. These catapults relied on torsion to fire their projectiles, and could either be used to fire arrows, like their predecessors, or be modified so that heavier projectiles, such as stones, could be hurled at enemy defenses.
Catapult

Engraving of thirteenth-century catapult for throwing Greek fire. (Public Domain)

The polybolos was a further improvement on the catapult technology that existed at that point of time. The polybolos is commonly believed to have been invented during the 3rd century BC by Dionysius of Alexandria, a Greek engineer who was working at the arsenal of Rhodes. During that time, the Rhodians had a particular interest in artillery, and were keeping abreast with the latest developments in this aspect of warfare. This was aided by their close relation with Ptolemaic Alexandria. It was at Rhodes that Philo of Byzantium, a Greek engineer and writer on mechanics, encountered and inspected a catapult made by Dionysius of Alexandria. This is recorded in Philo’s Belopoeica (a treatise on artillery), and our knowledge of the polybolos is derived from this piece of writing.
Polybolos

An automatic catapult, perhaps what a polybolos could have looked like

Features of the Polybolos Catapult
Unlike the standard catapults / ballistae of the day, the polybolos could fire multiple projectiles before it needed to be reloaded. There were flat-linked chains on each side of the polybolos, which ran over pentagonal prisms at each end of the chain’s loop. It has been speculated that these prisms worked as inverted gears. By having a soldier turn the windlass attached to the rear prism, bolts could be locked, loaded and fired automatically. These projectiles were fed into the polybolos via a magazine that was attached to a rotating tray. This gave the polybolos a higher rate of fire than other ancient artillery pieces. For instance, a modern reconstruction of this weapon was found to have a firing rate of at least three times that of a standard scorpion (another artillery piece used by the Roman army).
Parts of a polybolos.

Parts of a polybolos.

Using the Polybolos Catapult to Attack
The polybolos was used mainly against enemy personnel, rather than against defensive structures such as walls or towers. One of the reasons contributing to this is the fact that the polybolos was able to lock on to a target. This, however, may also be a disadvantage of the weapon. An ancient writer is recorded to have complained that the polybolos was too accurate. The lack of dispersion in the shot pattern meant that using this piece of equipment to kill human units was an overkill.
A 19th century reconstruction of a polybolos by a German engineer by the name of Erwin Schramm, for example, was reported to have been so accurate that the second bolt fired from the weapon was able to hit its target, and in the process, split the first bolt.
Schramm’s reconstruction of a polybolos, in the Saalburg, Germany

Schramm’s reconstruction of a polybolos, in the Saalburg, Germany