Apollodorus of Damascus (c. 100 AD), “On military engineering”

A tweet by Gareth Harney drew my attention to a collection of ancient works on siegecraft, transmitted together in the Byzantine period, with splendid illustrations.  As with all technical texts, they probably were altered somewhat along the way.

One of these is the Poliorcetica by Apollodorus of Damascus.  He was an important Roman engineer in Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia, and he was responsible for the great bridge over the Danube, as Procopius tells us.  He designed Trajan’s forum, and may be responsible for Trajan’s column and the Pantheon.  But Cassius Dio (69.4, online here) tells us that he was a practical, plain-spoken man; and that Hadrian first demoted and then executed him:

But he first banished and later put to death Apollodorus, the architect, who had built the various creations of Trajan in Rome — the forum, the odeum and the gymnasium. 2. The reason assigned was that he had been guilty of some misdemeanour; but the true reason was that once when Trajan was consulting him on some point about the buildings he had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted with some remark: “Be off, and draw your gourds. You don’t understand any of these matters.” (It chanced that Hadrian at the time was pluming himself upon some such drawing.)

3. When he became emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man’s freedom of speech. He sent him the plan of the temple of Venus and Roma by way of showing him that a great work could be accomplished without his aid, and asked Apollodorus whether the proposed structure was satisfactory.

4. The architect in his reply stated, first, in regard to the temple, that it ought to have been built on high ground and that the earth should have been excavated beneath it, so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position, and might also have accommodated the machines in its basement, so that they could be put together unobserved and brought into the theatre without anyone’s being aware of them beforehand. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella. 5. “For now,” he said, “if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so.”

When he wrote this so bluntly to Hadrian, the emperor was both vexed and exceedingly grieved because he had fallen into a mistake that could not be righted, and he restrained neither his anger nor his grief, but slew the man.

The introductory letter of the Poliorceta is ascribed to Hadrian in the Bologne manuscript, but Whitehead has argued that the work was in fact dedicated to Trajan.

Here is a sample page from the work, depicting a seige tower.  It is taken (via Wikimedia) from MS. Paris BNF 2442 (siglum P), fol. 97v.

MS Paris BNF 2242, fol. 97v. Via Wikimedia

I thought a little bibliography might be helpful, as it look a little searching to find the basic stuff, like editions and translations.

The principal manuscripts (from Wescher) seem to be:

  • M = Paris BNF suppl. gr. 607 (10th c.), f.33r-45v, 59r-61v.  CatalogueDigitised Manuscript.  This manuscript originated at the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos, and was brought to Europe by Minas Minoides in 1843.  The opening with the incipit is lost.
  • V = Vatican gr. 1164 (11th c.), folios 119r-136v; but the ms has been refoliated and so actually starts on f.118r.  Digitised Manuscript.
  • P = Paris BNF gr. 2442 (11th c.).  Curiously this does not seem to be online, nor any of the dozen copies of it.

Wescher states (p.137) that the fragment in the 16th century Bologne manuscript (“cod. graec. S. Salvatoris 587”), copied by Valerianus Albinus, apparently attributes the work to Hadrian.

The editions of the Greek text known to me are:

  • C. Wescher, Poliorcetique des Grecs: traités théoriques – récits historiques, Imprimerie impériale(1867).  This analyses the manuscripts.  Online here.  This seems to be the first critical edition, although the drawings of the images are curiously bad sometimes.
  • R. Schneider, Griechische Poliorketiker, t. I [Abhandl. der königlichen Gesellschaft der Wiss. zu Göttingen, philol.-hist. Klasse, n. s., 10, 1], Berlin (1908), pp. 8-50, l. 12, et pl. I-XIV).  No analysis of the manuscript tradition, but a German translation, and plates.  Online here (but only in the USA, thanks to predatory German publishers).

There are at least three translations:

  • David Whitehead, Apollodorus Mechanicus, Siege-matters (2010).  This I have not seen.
  • E. Lacoste, “Les Poliorcetiques d’ Apollodore de Damas composées pour l’Empereur Hadrien,” Revue des Études Grecs 3 (1890) 230-81.  Online at Persee here.
  • Schneider’s edition contains a facing German translation.

There is a very good article on the work:

  • P.H. Blyth, “Apollodorus of Damascus and the Poliorcetica”, GRBS 33 (1992), p.127 f..  Online here.

I thought it might be interesting to look at the opening portion of the text, in the Vatican gr. 1164, and in Wescher’s edition.  I had to look several times to be sure that this was the same text!

Vat. gr. 1164, fol. 118r. Beginning of Apollodorus, Poliorcetica.

And now Weschler:

Interesting to see Hadrian, or perhaps Trajan, addressed as “despota”!


4 thoughts on “Apollodorus of Damascus (c. 100 AD), “On military engineering”

  1. Hi Roger,
    I have a copy of Whitehead’s translation of Apollodorus. The writing on siegecraft is actually fairly short- covering only 16 pages of Greek text.
    Whitehead prints the interloped sections in a smaller font to distinguish them the original text.

    Interestingly, Whitehead dismisses (very briefly) the account of Apollodorus’s execution in the introduction (pp 19-20) as an anecdote designed to illustrate Hadrian’s vanity. He has some references to other scholars to back him up and does the whole scholarly consensus thing.

  2. Hi Again,
    The book is 162 pages. The introduction is 20 pages long (pages 15 to 34), the text and translation is 32 pages long (pages 36 to 67) and the rest is commentary and index.

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