Throughout recorded history – and perhaps ever before that – warfare has always been a significant part of the human condition. War tactics, strategies and weaponry have gone a long way since the ancient times, but it cannot be denied how much the ingenuity of ancient civilizations have plenty to do with the way modern warfare has been molded into what it is now.
For our purpose of exploring this fascinating subset of human history, here are five ancient superweapons of the ancient world.
1. Claw of Archimedes
Also known as the “Iron Hand,” the Claw of Archimedes was an ancient weapon which is believed to have been used prominently during the Second Punic War in 214 BC, when the Roman Republic attacked Syracuse with a fleet of 60 quinqueremes – which were heavy warships extensively used during the Hellenistic era – under Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Archimedes designed several units of this machine to defend the seaward portion of Syracuse’s city wall against amphibious assault.
Though its exact nature remains unclear, the accounts of ancient historians describe it as a sort of crane equipped with a grappling hook that was able to lift an attacking ship partly out of the water, which then either suddenly dropped the ship or caused it to capsize. These machines were deployed when the Roman fleet approached the city walls of Syracuse at night, and they managed to sink many ships and throw the attack into confusion. Historians like Livy attributed heavy Roman losses to these “claw” machines devised by Archimedes.
The helepolis, which translates into English as the “Taker of Cities” is the Greek name for a movable siege tower. It was essentially a large tapered tower – with each side measuring about 130 feet or 41.1 meters high, and 65 feet or 20.6 meters wide – and was manually pushed into battle. It rested on eight wheels, each of them measured 15 feet or 4.6 meters high and was equipped with casters which allowed direct and lateral movements. The machine weighed heavy at 160 tons and required 3,400 men working in relays to move it.
The most famous helepolis was invented by Polyidus of Thessaly and was improved by Demetrius I of Macedon and Epimachus of Athens for the Siege of Rhodes in 305 BC. The siege tower they created was supposedly the greatest and most remarkable engine of its kind that was ever erected. However, when the siege failed, the Helepolis along with other siege engines were abandoned, and the people of Rhodes melted them down to build a statue of their patron god, Helios. This statue came to be known as the “Colossus of Rhodes” and was among the ancient Seven Wonders of the World.
The Hwacha may be best described as a type of early multiple rocket launcher developed in Korea and was primarily used as a defensive weapon by its army to protect its borders but was also utilized in the field of battle. This weapon consists of a two-wheeled cart and a mounted board with several holes. Each of these holes was a field with a “singijeon” which roughly translates to “magical machine arrows.” These arrows were propelled by a tube of gunpowder attached onto its shaft. Its earliest versions were capable of firing up to 100 arrows each time it was ignited, but the design was later improved to allow up to 200 arrows to be fired in each round.
During the last decade of the 16th century AD, the Korean peninsula was threatened by Toyotomi Hideyoshi of Japan, and the Japanese invaded Korea with the intention of conquering the entire peninsula. One of the greatest victories achieved by the Koreans during the Imjin War was the Battle of Haengju, which took place on Feb. 12, 1593. According to historical records, the battle involved 3,000 Koreans defending a hilltop fortress against an army of 30,000 Japanese soldiers. Despite the staggering numerical odds, the Koreans managed to emerge victorious, and became one of the first major Korean triumphs during this war. Their success is largely attributed to the use of around 40 units of the Hwacha.
4. Archimedes’ Death Ray
Ancient Greek and Roman historians recorded that during the siege of Syracuse in the Second Punic War, Archimedes also constructed a burning glass to set the Roman warships which were anchored within bow and arrow range on fire. This “Death Ray” allegedly worked by focusing the rays of the sun using mirrors, similar to the Nazi’s take on the death ray concept more than 2000 years later.
The weapon is believed to have consisted of several highly-polished mirrors held by troops along the city walls, which focused the sun’s rays on oncoming Roman ships. By focusing these rays, they were able to create a point of intense heat that set these ships on fire. An alternate version of this weapon was a single, large parabolic mirror, which is similar to the modern concept of a laser gun, incinerating whatever it was aimed at.
The story of Archimedes’ Death Ray has been heavily debated and a number of attempts to recreate it have been made over the years. TV’s MythBusters attempted to replicate the feat and failed to do so, dismissing the ancient superweapon as nothing more than a myth. However, there were some attempts that have apparently been successful, such as the 1973 experiment by a Greek engineer that caused a mock-up ship 160 feet away to burst into flames within seconds, and MIT’s 2005 experiment which used mirrors in parabolic arrangement to set a replica of a Roman ship on fire.
5. Greek Fire
Also known as “Sea Fire,” Greek Fire, as mentioned in literature, was a weapon invented in the 7th century AD by the Byzantine Empire. According to the historian Theophanes, it was invented by the Greek architect Kallinikos, a former resident of Heliopolis who resided in Baalbeck. However, this claim is still very much debated, with some historians believing that Greek Fire was actually discovered in Constantinople by a group of chemists from an Alexandrian school.
This superweapon was some kind of special sticky liquid that was used in land battles during sieges and naval battles. Soldiers would use a firing tube to spray the liquid that would engulf their target in flames. Greek fire was also so potent that it could even burn on water. Once Greek fire set its target ablaze, it was very difficult to extinguish. This potent weapon gave the Byzantines an edge over their enemies in warfare and was a closely guarded secret of the empire. However, it was also a kind of double-edged weapon: if they used it correctly, the Byzantines managed to turn the tide of many battles with it; but if they weren’t careful, they could also end up burning their own troops with the flames.
The exact Byzantine formula of Greek Fire had been lost long ago along with the fall of the empire, though copies were created by others over the centuries but failed to completely replicate it. According to many historians and experts, the original Greek Fire probably contained ingredients such as crude oil, bitumen, naphtha, resin and sulfur. Its use required great caution and technical skill that only selected soldiers specially trained to handle the liquid were allowed to use them during battles.
In the olden times, there was no limit to the genius and ruthlessness the ancient people infused in their creation of diabolical and destructive weapons of war. These five ancient superweapons we have mentioned along with many others that were not enumerated in this list are still heralded as remarkable tools for warfare which serve as a reminder of their creators’ genius and whose legacies have reverberated even in the 21st century.