The Rise of the West

Editorial credit: Kisov Boris /


When the catapult was invented, the Western Greek world was still in the era of the city-state. A city-state was a single-city kingdom that had influence over its surrounding territory. It had its own religion, politics, and army, and indeed to the Greeks politics was religion. Participating in the city’s political affairs was only granted to citizens. Political participation was seen as a religious duty.

Athens had desired to transcend its status as a mere city-state and expand into an empire, but it got into a war with Sparta from 431 BC to 404 BC, called the Peloponnesian War, and lost. The war all but ruined Athens. Nevertheless, undeterred by the ruination of Athens, other city-states in the area desired greater power, too. One of them was Carthage, a city-state located on the northern coast of Africa. It wanted to take over the island of Sicily and the cities there, including Syracuse.


Carthage attacked Syracuse around 406 BC, but its invasion was held back by the Greek tyrant who ruled the city, Dionysius I. Carthage brought various siege engines to battle against Syracuse, including battering rams and siege towers. They were required because Syracuse was surrounded by walls, and Carthage was trying to bring those walls down.

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It failed, and Dionysius ended up striking a peace treaty with Carthage in 405 BC. But Dionysius didn’t plan to stay at peace. He used the peace treaty to his benefit to gather his army’s strength. He prepared an invasion against the center of Carthaginian influence in the area, the city of Motya, in 397 BC.

Now, Motya was unique because it was an island city enclosed by walls. It was well protected and hard to attack. But Dionysius had gained insight from the Carthaginian siege machines and used it to overcome this problem. He combined the large scale and power of the siege machines with the gastraphetes, an early crossbow used by the Greeks at the time, creating the ballista, or catapult.

Carthage sent a fleet of ships to help defend the city and deflect the assault by Dionysius. However, Dionysius used the catapult to defeat Carthage’s naval force by firing missiles at them from the shore. Caught off guard and totally surprised by this new development, Carthage was incapable of defending against the new device. Carthage abandoned the battle and sailed home, leaving Motya to be captured by Dionysius…


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