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Roman Army Catapult

A new research project sheds light on the power of the Roman army and the locations of their attack on Jerusalem in the battle that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.


New computer-based research by the Israel Antiquities Authority provided evidence for the location of the Roman ballista firing machines that bombarded Jerusalem in the summer of 70 CE and the intensity of the assault that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

On Sunday, on the Fast of the 9th of Av mourning the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) presented the results of a new research project that sheds light on the power of the Roman army, and the locations of their attack on Jerusalem in the battle that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

“The Fast of the 9th Av commemorates the day of the destruction of the Second Temple,” says IAA researcher Kfir Arbiv. “The Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, after a four-month siege and an intensive battle led by the Roman general Titus in order to conquer the city and suppress the revolt initiated by the Jews four years earlier.”

“The Romans had a well-trained massive army, equipped with the best military innovations of their day. It was a ruthless war machine,” he adds.

Arbiv systematically recorded Roman military equipment retrieved in excavations in Jerusalem, together with Dr. Rina Avner, in the Russian Compound, adjacent to the Jerusalem Municipality building, the heart of modern-day Jerusalem.

The Roman Arsenal exposed to date includes hundreds of different-sized ballista stones that were launched from sophisticated bolt-throwing machines to a distance of 100–400 m, small sling stones used by trained infantry, and catapult machines that launched spearheads for a distance of 150–200 m., and spears, swords, and arrowheads, including heavy arrowheads, that could penetrate armor.

“We know from the historical sources that the Roman army employed massive siege rams to batter the fortification walls, and siege towers that reached the height of the walls, but these have not yet been found in Jerusalem,” says Amit Reem, director of IAA Jerusalem Region.

‘Whoever Controls This Spot, Dominates the Fate of the City’

Arbiv’s research focused on the hundreds of ballista stones, and his analysis defined different sizes and weights. Some, directed against people, were launched against the walls to prevent the Jewish rebels from emerging above the walls, and other heavier ones were launched fiercely against the walls to penetrate them.

With the help of a computer, Arbiv marked the locations of all the ballista exactly where they were found. He took into account the local topography and the location of the Second Temple-period city fortification walls, and made ballistic calculations, including the launching angle, and the throwing distance of the stones.

All the data was compared to the renowned Jewish historian Josephus’ contemporary detailed descriptions of the battle, and the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem, in his book The History of the Jewish War against the Romans.

According to the research, some of the Roman army artillery machines were located in the center of the modern city of Jerusalem, in the Nahalat Hashiva area. The research also shows the probable places where the Roman army penetrated the city. The Russian Compound excavations exposed part of the Third Wall, the third line of defense that surrounded the city.

An exceptionally large concentration of ballista stones was found at one point, some broken after use. It was evident that the Roman army concentrated their efforts here, and hundreds, if not thousands of ballista stones, were directed to this spot.

“This is not surprising,” says Arbiv, “as whoever controls this spot, dominates the whole area and the fate of the city. This aligns with Josephus’ account that Titus commanded to penetrate the city from the northwestern side of the city wall.”