Sunday, 7 October 2012

No gunpowder? So what




The standard 15lb ballistae, although larger models
 could fire 60lb projectiles the same distance

Considering the ancients had already invented the wheel, sailing ships, fine art and war on an industrial scale, most historians tend to claim the big jump made between the Roman era and the Renaissance was the invention of gunpowder. It is believed gunpowder made its way from China to Arabia, India and Europe during the 13th and 14th-centuries, revolutionising warfare where ever it went. What is largely forgotten about the medieval era, is that battlefield technology had fallen to a very low ebb compared to the Roman era of conquest, and despite the changes gunpowder wrought, in reality all it was doing was bringing a different means to the same end. It would take more than five hundred years of development before modern artillery could match the range and accuracy of Roman stand-off weaponry, and firing rates weren't matched until the twentieth century. The simple fact is, almost until the rise of Napoleon, a Roman legion with its ten torsion powered ballistae - firing 15lb stone or lead projectiles 500-yards every 30-seconds, and sixty torsion powered three-span scorpions - firing three-foot long darts 600-yards every 20-seconds - could out shoot and out batter any post-Renaissance army or fortress, gunpowder or not. Both the scorpion and the ballistae could be rotated and elevated to change aim in moments, and the ballistae could also fire wooden or clay mortars filled with 'Greek Fire', bringing similar devastation to exploding shells. So did gunpowder make a difference? Not as big as you might think. In many respects, Roman torsion technology remained the better choice of weapon in cost, transport, re-supply, accuracy, ease of use, firing rates, range and crew safety until the industrial revolution allowed the mass production of cannons and firearms.     

A Scorpion and Onager side by side...later known as the Mangonel - the Onager was the only Roman era torsion weapon to survive in use to the medieval period - despite being the least accurate and most basic artillery piece in the Romans used.