If you are not up to date with Game of Thrones series seven, turn away now, there will be dark spoilers ahead…
For those of you who are reading on, we’ve got a bit of a history lesson crossed with fantasy for you regarding the Game of Thrones anti-dragon crossbow (much larger than our own crossbows, which you can find here). I know it’s a bit away from our usual style of writing, but you know, it’s Game of Thrones!
The anti-dragon weapon, known as the Scorpion, was created by Qyburn, the hand to Queen Cersei Lannister and all-round mysterious scientific weirdo… The Scorpion is essentially an oversized crossbow, which would be used to fire giant bolts at the winged beasts.
Qyburn demonstrates how the machine would take down a dragon by test-firing it at a dragon skull underneath King’s Landing (which is essentially like firing a Weihrauch HW100 air rifle at an egg, but who are we to judge…), much to Cersei’s delight. We even get to see the weapon in action when Bronn uses it in that surprise attack before it gets burnt to a crisp by Drogon (see below).
Now, in the world of Game of Thrones, this weapon may seem a bit anti-climactic, but Scorpion is actually based on real history and is known by a different name – a ballista.
This form of catapult is based on 2,500-year-old technology and closely resembles the very first pieces of artillery ever made on Earth. This form of ballista dates back to 398/7 BCE, when King Dionysius of Syracuse attacked the walled town of Motya on the island of Sicily, in what turned out to be a very long and bitter siege.
The Syracusans brought their ships very close to the town walls, landing them on the beaches outside the town. The Motyans tried to counterattack, but according to the Greek historian Diodorus, something kept them at bay.
Diodorus said: “[The Motyans] were held back by a great quantity of flying missiles. The Syracusans slew many of the enemy by using from the land the catapults which shot sharp pointed missiles. Indeed, this weapon caused great dismay, because it was a new invention at the time.”
The original machines created by Dionysius were essentially oversized bows and arrows, with the bow being built from wood and animal parts such as horns and cartilage. While these devices worked pretty well, they did have their downsides:
It wasn’t until 332 BCE that the ballista became perfected, thanks to the catapult engineers of Alexander the Great. They realised that the bows had reached both their power and distance limits, so they came up with a new idea.
Instead of using a bent bow, they used the spring from tightly-strung coils of rope. When the ends of a rope loop are fixed and twisted, the coiling rope resists the rotation and pushes back in the opposite direction. So, a bundle of strong, tightly-strung rope coils could store and release a lot of energy; the tighter the coil, the bigger the projectile it could fire.
Once they had completed their masterpiece, they named it a “ballista”, which used two vertical bundles of rope made from animal tendons or hair, strung extremely tightly. Wooden “throwing” arms were then inserted between the two rope bundles that made up the spring.
When it was used in battle, artillery men would winch back the arms, load a stone or metal-tipped arrow and release the trigger. With an almighty crack, the rope would uncoil and launch the arrow at the target, thanks to the release of all that stored up, deadly energy.
This weapon would end up becoming a mainstay of the Roman Empire, but after that collapsed, many of the resulting kingdoms lacked the means for its upkeep. However, it still found its way into decisive battles and was usually used against stationary items such as castle gates or walls (not quite a dragon…), but rare occasions saw them used as antipersonnel weapons.
In 885, a Viking horde led by Rollo sailed up the river Seine in an attempt to invade Paris. Legend says that a mere 200 French soldiers withstood the siege of 30,000 Danes for almost a year, forcing them to give up and bypass the city.
But notable in this siege is the eyewitness account of the French monk, Abbo Cernuus, who described the use of ballistae by the French leader, King Odo, in his poem ‘Wars of the City of Paris’.
Abbo’s account, originally penned in Latin, describes how a particularly skilled user named Ebolus used his machine rather successfully against the attacking Vikings, and makes the following joke:
“With a single spear, he skewered seven Danes all at once; And in jest, he said to his men to take them to the kitchen.”
Many other medieval siege weapons were invented over the years, such as the more precise crossbow, the Springald (a smaller ballista), and most notably, the trebuchet, ballistae eventually became obsolete but never disappeared completely.
You may well see these weapons re-built in museums, even containing some real parts if you are lucky. But they live on through fantasy fiction, helping to keep the memory of the weapon’s 1,700-year reign very much alive!
Screenshot courtesy of Sam A./YouTube