Author Topic: Fantastical war machines and where to find them.  (Read 797 times)


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Fantastical war machines and where to find them.
« on: May 14, 2017, 06:13:16 PM »
During my arcane researches for pursuits both professional and hobby-tastic, I have encountered a few oddities over the years. Today I discovered an engine of war which reminded me very much of the Empire’s infamous Helstorm Rocket Battery, and thought I ought to present it here to my fellow wargamers.

It appears upon page 132 of Bishop John Wilkins treatise entitled ‘Mathematical Magick, or, the WONDERS That may be Performed by Mechanical Geometry in two Books: Concerning Mechanical  Powers, Motions. Being one of the most Easie, Pleasant, Useful (and yet most neglected) part of MATHEMATICS Not before treated of in this Language.’

After considering the amazing feats performed by ‘that famous engineer’ Archimedes in ancient times, utilising war machines of incredible strength and effectiveness to destroy an entire war fleet at the siege of Syracuse, it moved onto chapter XVIII, concerning the ‘Catapulte, or Engines for Arrows’, and revealed this marvellous, mechanical monstrosity …

I can see exactly what is meant to happen here, but have to admit that I had my doubts about the practicality of such an engine, thinking that the tensions required and shock delivered in use might be asking a little too much of the material construction, and that even should it hold itself together then the arrows might most likely simply be shattered by the impact of the bent board.

BUT upon reading the bishop’s words, I did start to wonder whether I should think twice before adopting such an incredulous and dismissive attitude. After all, he wasn’t explaining but rather ‘explicating’, which sounds to be a much more acceptable process. For a start, many authors have described said marvellous engines, and one such, Polybius, ‘is an Author noted to be very grave and serious in his discourse; [who]does solemnly promise in one place that he will relate nothing but what either he himself was an eye-witness of, or else what he had received from those that were so’ … and that he was himself born ‘not above thirty years after the siege of Syracuse.’ Still, being of a most sceptical mind, such as is the modern way, I remained unconvinced that Archimedes could indeed be so ’extraordinarily subtil [sic] and ingenious above the common sort of men.’

Reading on, however, I was astonished to learn that such engines might hurl ‘enormes’ (milstones) or ‘sepulchrales’ (tombstones), and that the author Athenaeus mentioned a ballista that could throw weights of 3 talents (360 lbs), while Archimedes apparently cast a stone onto one of Marcellus’ ships weighing 10 talents (that’s a whopping 1200 lbs). Could it be true, I thought? Yet even while reeling from the mental imagery of such a feat, only a few lines later I learned that despite a cannon royal (the biggest ‘modern’ artillery piece) shooting no more than a 64 lb roundshot, the Turks at Constantinople – and this on the word of no less than an archbishop – did use a gunpowder piece that launched a shot of equal weight to that claimed for Archimedes! Of course, I was less surprised to read that such a mighty cannon required 150 yoke of oxen to haul it!

And yet, still I doubted, for I am a cautious fellow not known for rash decisions or silly pronouncements. Not me, not never, no way. Then … only one chapter later I was astonished to read the following:

Concerning ‘Catapulte’ launching spears: ‘they did carry with so great a force … (saith Ammianus) … that the weapons discharged from them were sometimes (if you can believe it) set on fire by the swiftness of their motion.’ I believe it, my Lord bishop. I believe it.

Furthermore: ’Tis related of the Turkish bow that it can strike an arrow through a piece of steel or brass two inches thick.’ … whether shot … ’vertically, horizontally or transversally’

And, if your stomach can take it, at the siege of Jotapata, ’A great bellied woman walking about the city on the daytime, had her child struck out of her womb, and carried half a furlong from her. A soldier standing by his Captain Josephus, on the wall, had his head struck off by another stone sent from these Roman engines, and his brains carried three furlongs off.”

Arrows bursting into flame from the heat created by their sheer velocity, and brains cast not one, not two, but three furlongs away! And here I was thinking I had been playing a fantasy wargame all these years!