Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 11.

David Whitehead (tr. and ed.), Apollodorus Mechanicus: Siege Matters (POLIORKHTIKA/). Historia Einzelschrift 216. Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, 2010. Pp. 162, incl. 6 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-3-515-09710-9. Euro46.00.

Everett L. Wheeler
Duke University, Durham, NC, USA

An Apollodorus’ Poliorcetica first appears in John Lydus’ list of military writers (Mag. 1.47). Syrianus Magister, variously dated to the sixth, ninth, or tenth centuries,[[1]] criticizes the impracticality of the assault barge of an Apollodorus for crossing a river against the enemy (De Strat. 19.22-55 [Dennis]). That assault barge, although without the tower in Syrianus’ version, appears in the Poliorcetica here discussed. The work, attested by four MSS (earliest, eleventh century), belongs to a Byzantine corpus of poliorcetic texts.[[2]] An anonymous tenth-century Parangelmata Poliorcetica had already attempted to improve on Apollodorus’ Poliorcetica,[[3]] which, even earlier, one (or more?) Byzantine commentators had interpolated, converting an original text of technical drawings with commentary into a series of fantastic contraptions defying the laws of physics and replacing the original drawings with their own illustrations. The work of Apollodorus ends at 177.3 (Wescher’s numbering), but the interpolated version runs to 195.5. Traditionally, this treatise is attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus, the architect behind Trajan’s stone bridge over the Danube at Drobeta in 105, the designer of Trajan’s Forum and possibly Trajan’s Column, and (allegedly) a victim of Hadrian.

An epistolary preface introduces the work: in response to an unnamed emperor’s request to an engineer, a former comrade-in-arms, for suggestions to improve Roman siegecraft for a future campaign in territory unfamiliar to the engineer, the treatise is delivered to the emperor by one of the engineer’s assistants, prepared to clarify any obscurities in construction of the machines. Thereafter follow technical descriptions, often in obscure Greek with occasionally rare or unique use of vocabulary, of machines for assault on a hill-top city: tortoises (testudines) to protect against objects rolled down against the besiegers; 'grapevine' tortoises for approaching the besieged’s walls; tortoises for 'digging' (i.e., drilling; sapping/undermining walls is not discussed); different techniques for destroying brick and stone walls; a flamethrower (reminiscent of the Theban machine at Delium, 424 BC); tortoises with rams; a lever-type devise for quickly raising an observer above the height of the besieged’s walls; towers (essentially scaffolding 40 feet high on a base of 16 feet 2 inches), some with rams and/or an assault bridge at the top, another with a swing beam to rake defenders from the walls; means to protect the machines from hostile incendiaries; ladders, extension ladders, and other ladders -- one with a swing beam, another with a channel for dropping hot fluids on defenders, still another with a ram and/or a boarding bridge --; and an assault barge for crossing rivers.

This highly problematic text now receives its first English translation and commentary from David Whitehead, previously an interpreter of poliorcetic texts by Aeneas Tacticus and (with P. H. Blyth) Athenaeus Mechanicus.[[4]] French, German, and (most recently) Italian translations were already available.[[5]] Apart from the translation, the work is largely Whitehead’s improvements on Blyth’s 1992 discussion, an article identifying the extensive interpolations in the text and in some ways offering a more valuable overview of the treatise than this monograph.[[6]] Whitehead identifies some new interpolations (155.7-9, p. 99; 165.16, p. 111, 176.17-177.3, p. 123) and interpolations are clearly distinguished by a smaller font in the Greek text, the translation, and the commentary. But what little originality appears in this work was already published as articles.[[7]] Significant are Whitehead’s rejection of Blyth’s view that all machines with wheels are interpolations and a view of the author’s identity (see below). The commentary, chiefly textual or mechanical and only rarely historical, features debate with previous translators and commentators. Besides Blyth and Sullivan, for example, the commentary after the end of the original work at 177.3 is largely a dialogue with Otto Lendle.[[8]]

Translation and even commentary on the obscure original do not always produce clarity, nor do Whitehead’s explanations always convince. One interpolation of the so-called 'table of contents' at 139.1-2 mentions 'protection against things being raised up,' which Whitehead takes (p. 75) as a reference to the protection of the machines against hostile incendiaries (173.13-174.7). More plausibly, however, an interpolator added a reference to the use of nooses and the so-called lupus, known from Vegetius (4.23), devises for snaring the head of a battering ram and pulling it up or suspending the ram and overturning the tortoise enclosing it, but then somehow forgot that this was not discussed in Apollodorus’s text or failed to add it himself. Nor can twelve-foot ladders be taken as 'standard' (p. 122 ad 176.14, based on Polybius 9.19.5-9), as Polybius gives only a hypothetical example from an assumption of a wall ten units high.

Numerous unfortunate editorial decisions mar the work. A Loeb-style presentation of the Greek text and facing English translation is given, but it is unclear whose Greek text is reproduced -- presumably that of Schneider, as Whitehead claims not to have undertaken a new collation of the MSS.[[9]] But no apparatus criticus is given despite frequent discussions of variant readings and emendations in the commentary. Most irritating, however, as Wescher’s numbering by MS pages and lines is the standard mode of citation, lines numbers do not appear for the Greek text and the lines per MS page can often exceed ten. Nor are the MS illustrations, despite frequent reference to them in the commentary, reproduced. These illustrations, even if erroneous representations of the machines, are vital for grasping what the text describes. Rather, Whitehead offers his own drawings of only some of the devices (pp. 139-44, figs. 1-6), although fig. 4 is not signaled in the commentary. To properly understand this text and commentary, a reader must have at hand both Schneider (app. crit. and illustrations) and Sullivan (illustrations).

The lack of historical commentary is also regrettable, particularly if Apollodorus of Damascus is the author. A brief endnote (pp. 136-37) discusses the treatise in relation to scenes on Trajan’s Column, but essentially only recycles Lendle’s views on Apollodorus’ machines and siege operations on the Column and Septimius Severus’ Arch. A recent major monograph (2005) on the Dacian Wars, disputing some of Lendle’s views, is unknown.[[10]] Larger issues concerning Roman siegecraft, ancient military theory, and the need for updated doctrine are not raised.

Finally, the question of the attribution of the treatise to Apollodorus of Damascus must be addressed. Blyth, rejecting the epistolary preface as a literary device, believed it to be a real letter to Trajan: Apollodorus of Damascus was the preface’s young assistant sent to Trajan with the treatise in hand; the work of his master survived among Apollodorus’ papers. Whitehead, likewise accepting the preface as an authentic letter, postulates a different scenario. As the preface records joint military service of the author and the emperor on multiple occasions ('battles'), in the mid-70s Apollodorus, a coeval, met Trajan, then a military tribune under his father the Syrian governor. Hence (by-passing for brevity additional arguments) the treatise must date c. 100 on the eve of Trajan’s First Dacian War.

But epistolary prefaces to technical treatises are quite common and, despite Blyth’s arguments, the preface’s vagueness could equally be a sign of forgery rather than familiarity. The passage on technical vocabulary (138.13-17), which Whitehead concedes (p. 73) is essentially lacking in the treatise, could be a variant on the topoi in technical treatises of writing for 'beginners' and the author’s own stylistic inadequacies. Even more problematic is the author’s reference (138.9-12) to joint service in 'battles' with the emperor. 'Parataxis' does not mean 'campaign,' as Blyth and Whitehead would wish, and (contrary to Whitehead) the passage could be read as proof of the author’s service under the emperor. Whitehead accepts the view of Pliny’s Panegyric on Trajan as a vir militaris before assuming the purple, but this view is now contested, as practically nothing is known of Trajan’s career before he marched from Spain with the VII Gemina in 89 to help put down Saturninus’ revolt in Germania Superior. A supposed Parthian victory of Trajan’s father in Syria is most obscure -- certainly no siege operations or major battles were involved -- and if Apollodorus was with Trajan in a conjectured governorship of Pannonia in the early 90s, then the author could hardly claim unfamiliarity with the Middle Danube. Further, Dacia under Decebalus, a real state, scarcely represents the fickle barbarians of 138.4-5, nor does Transylvania lack timber, as the preface envisions. Blyth and Whitehead (p. 22) assume Roman ignorance of Dacia, somehow forgetting Domitian’s Dacian war (84-89). For what it is worth, the anonymous Parangelmata (1.9-10 Sullivan) claims Apollodorus wrote the treatise for Hadrian, a view easily argued away.

Although the language of the uninterpolated parts of the treatise may salvage a second- or third-century date, this reviewer is not convinced that the preface is an authentic letter to Trajan and that this treatise, unattested before John Lydus in the sixth century, should be attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus, not known for literary activity, unless Procopius (Aed. 4.6.13 on the Drobeta bridge - - no title given) be invoked. Whitehead merits thanks for making this problematic work and its enigmatic author available to a larger audience of Anglophone readers.


[[1]] Whitehead erroneously claims (pp. 18 n.7, 132) that P. Rance ('The Date of the Military Compendium of Syrianus Magister [Formerly the Sixth-Century Anonymus Byzantinus]' BZ 100 [2007] 701-37) dates him to the ninth century, but the earliest MS dates 959 and Rance waffles between the ninth and the tenth.

[[2]] C. Wescher (ed.), Poliorcétique des grecs: traités théoriques, récits historiques (Paris 1867).

[[3]] See D. Sullivan (ed.), Siegecraft: Two Tenth-Century Instructional Manuals by 'Heron of Byzantium' (Washington, D.C. 2000).

[[4]] Aineias the Tactician: How to Survive under Siege (London 2001[2]); Athenaeus Mechanicus: On Machines (PERI\ MHXANHMA/TWN). Historia- Einzelschriften 182 (Stuttgart 2004).

[[5]] A. La Regina et al., L’Arte dell’Assedio di Apollodoro di Damasco (Milan 1999).

[[6]] P. H. Blyth, 'Apollodorus of Damascus and the Poliorcetica, GRBS 33 (1992) 127-58. Whitehead’s unseemly insinuations (pp. 10, 23-24 with n. 31, 32) that the GRBS editors unjustifiably demanded revisions of Blyth’s submission brings into the public forum confidential editorial decisions. The reviewer, one of the editors of Blyth’s paper, takes exception to such allegations and defends the published version as far superior to that originally received.

[[7]] See Whitehead’s 'Apollodorus’ Poliorcetica: Author, Date, Dedicatee,' in H. M. Schellenberg et al. (edd.), A Roman Miscellany: Essays in honour of Anthony R. Birley on his Seventieth Birthday (Gdansk 2008) 204-12; 'Fact and Fantasy in Greek Military Writers,' AAntHung 48 (2008) 139-55.

[[8]] Texte und Untersuchungen zu technischen Bereich der antiken Poliorketik (Wiesbaden 1983).

[[9]] R. Schneider, Griechische Poliorketiker, Abh. Göttingen 10.1 (Berlin 1908).

[[10]] A. Stefan, Les guerres daciques de Domitien et de Trajan: Architecture militaire, topographie, images et historie, ColEFR 353 (Rome 2005); cf. E.L. Wheeler, 'Rome’s Dacian Wars: Domitian, Trajan, and Strategy on the Danube, Part I,' Journal of Military History 74 (2010) 1185-227.