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Bill Thayer

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 p133  Aries

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp133‑134 of

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

[image ALT: A woodcut showing 4 men battering down a stone wall with a wooden beam that at the end of it has an actual sculptured head of a ram. It represents the Roman battering ram or Aries.]

A′RIES (κριός), the battering-ram, was used to shake, perforate, and batter down the walls of besieged cities. It consisted of a large beam, made of the trunk of a tree, especially of a fir or an ash. To one end was fastened a mass of bronze or iron (κεφαλή, ἐμβολή, προτομή), which resembled in its form the head of a ram. The upper figure in the annexed woodcut is taken from the bas-reliefs on the column of Trajan at Rome. It shows the  p134 aries in its simplest state, and as it was borne and impelled by human hands, without other assistance. In an improved form, the ram was surrounded with iron bands, to which rings were attached for the purpose of suspending it by ropes or chains from a beam fixed transversely over it. See the lower figure in the woodcut. By this contrivance the soldiers were relieved from the necessity of supporting the weight of the ram, and they could with ease give it a rapid and forcible motion backwards and forwards.

The use of this machine was further aided by placing the frame in which it was suspended upon wheels, and also by constructing over it a wooden roof, so as to form a "testudo" (χελώνη κριοφόρος, Appian, Bell. Mith. 73; testudo arietaria, Vitruv. X.19), which protected the besieging party from the defensive assaults of the besieged. Josephus, who gives a description of the machine (B. J. III.7 §19), adds, that there was no tower so strong, no wall so thick, as to resist the force of this machine, if its blows were continued long enough. The beam of the aries was often of great length, e.g. 80, 100, or even 120 feet. The design of this was both to act across an intervening ditch, and to enable those who worked the machine to remain in a position of comparative security. A hundred men, or even a greater number, were sometimes employed to strike with the beam.​a

The aries first became an important military engine in the hands of the Macedonians, at the time of Philip and Alexander the Great, though it was known at a much earlier period (comp. Thuc. II.76). Vitruvius speaks (l.c.) of Polydus, a Thessalian, in the time of Philip, who greatly improved the machine, and his improvements were carried out still further by Diades and Chaereas, who served in the campaigns of Alexander the Great. The Romans learnt from the Greeks the art of building these machines, and appear to have employed them for the first time to any considerable extent in the siege of Syracuse in the second Punic war. [Helepolis]

Thayer's Note:

a Procopius, although a late author, gives a more detailed description of the battering ram, B. G. V.21.6 ff. Thomas Hodgkin gives another translation of the same passage in Italy and Her Invaders, V.166 n.

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Page updated: 17 May 20