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p1138 Tormentum

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1138‑1139 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

TORMENTUM (ἀφετήριον ὄργανον), a military engine. All the missiles used in war, except those thrown from the sling [Funda], are projected either by the hand alone or with the aid of elastic substances. Of elastic instruments the bow [Arcus] is still used by many nations. But the tormentum, so called from the twisting (torquendo) of hairs, thongs and vegetable fibres (Polyb. IV.56), has fallen into disuse through the discovery of gunpowder. The word tormentum is often used by itself to denote engines of various kinds (Cic. ad Fam. XV.4; Caes. B. C. III.44, 45, B. Alex. 10; Liv. XXII.11; Vell. Pat. II.82; Curt. IV.9.16).º Often also these engines are specified separately under the names of Balistae and Catapultae, which names however most commonly occur together in the accounts of sieges and other military operations, because the two kinds of engines denoted by them were almost always used in conjunction. [Helepolis.] The balista (πετροβόλος) was used to shoot stones (Ovid. Trist. I.2.48; Lucan, VI.198; Non. Marc. p555, ed. Merceri), the catapulta (καταπέλτης, καταπελτική) to project darts, especially the Falarica [Hasta], and a kind of missile, 4½ feet long, called trifax (Festus, s.v.). Whilst in besieging a city the ram [Aries] was employed in destroying the lower part of the wall, the balista was used to overthrow the battlements (propugnacula, Plaut. Bacch. IV.4.58‑61; ἐπαλξεῖς), and the catapult to shoot any of the besieged who appeared between them (Diod. XVII.42, 45, XX.4888). The forms of these machines being adapted to the objects which they were intended to throw, the catapult was long, the balista nearly square, which explains the following humourous enumeration by Plautus (Capt. IV.2.16) of the three μηχαναί, the application of which has just been explained.

"Meus est balista pugnus, cubitus catapulta est mihi,
Humerus aries."

In the same armament the number of catapults was commonly much greater than the number of balistae (Non. Marc. p552, ed. Merceri; Liv. XXVI.47). Also these two classes of machines were both of them distinguished into the greater and the less, the number of "the less" being much more considerable than the number of "the greater." When Carthago Nova, which had served the Carthaginians for an arsenal, was taken by the Romans, the following p1139were found in it: 120 large and 281 small catapults; 23 large and 52 small balistae (Liv., l.c.). Three sizes of the balista are mentioned by historians, viz. that which threw stones weighing half a hundred-weight (τριακονταμναίους λίθους, Polyb. IX.34),º a whole hundred-weight (balista centenaria, Non. Marc. l.c.; λιθοβόλος ταλαντιαίος, Polyb. l.c.; Diod. XX.86), and three hundred-weight (πετροβόλος τριτάλαντος, Diod. XX.48). Besides these, Vitruvius (X.11) mentions many other sizes, even down to the balista which threw a stone of only two pounds weight. In like manner catapults were denominated according to the length of the arrows emitted from them (Vitruv. X.10; Schneider, ad loc.). According to Josephus, who gives some remarkable instances of the destructive force of the balista, it threw stones to the distance of a quarter of a mile (B.J. III.7 §19, 23; cf. Procop. Bell. Goth. I.21, 23). Neither from the descriptions of authors nor from the figures on the column of Trajan (Bartoli, Col. Traj. tab. 45‑47) are we able to form any exact idea of the construction of these engines. Still less are we informed on the subject of the Scorpio or Onager, which was also a tormentum (Vitruv. X.10; Liv. XXVI.47; Amm. Marcell. XX.7, XXIII.4). Even the terms balista and catapulta are confounded by writers subsequent to Julius Caesar, and Diodorus Siculus often uses καταπέλτης to include both balistae and catapults, distinguishing them by the epithets πετροβόλοι and ὀξυβελεῖς (XIV.42,º XX.48, 83, 86, XXI.4).

The various kinds of tormenta appear to have been invented shortly before the time of Alexander the Great. When horse-hair and other materials failed, the women in several instances cut off their own hair and twisted it into ropes for the engines (Caes. B. C. III.9; Veget. de Re Mil. IV.9). These machines, with those who had the management of them, and who were called balistarii and ἀφεταί (Polyb. IV.56), were drawn up in the rear of an advancing army, so as to throw over the heads of the front ranks. In order to attack a maritime city, they were carried on the decks of vessels constructed for the purpose (Diod. XX.83‑86; Tacit. Ann. II.6).

The meaning of tormentum as applied to the cordage of ships is explained on p790A.


For a different meaning altogether of the word tormentum, in the sense of torture, see Smith's second article Tormentum.


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