Ballista: Definition, History & Facts

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  • 0:04 Definition and Facts
  • 1:09 Significance
  • 2:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

The ballista was a weapon invented by Greeks, used by Romans, and perfected during the Middle Ages in Europe. In this lesson, learn about the history and use of this weapon.

Definition and Facts

Would you believe that a weapon could have such an influence that it determined how women styled their hair? It's true, the ballista was so important in European history that women adjusted their hair styles to ensure the weapon was always ready to use! So, what was a ballista and why was it important?

A ballista was a weapon invented by the ancient Greeks to launch an object a considerable distance. Think of the ballista as a crossbow mixed with a catapult. The two wooden arms that stick out of the sides are connected to ropes. When the arms were pulled back, the ropes twisted around a wench, building tension. Once the tension was released by letting go of the arms, the ropes unwound and the object launched into the air.

Sharpened wooden sticks, darts, and stones were all used as missiles in the ballista. The best ballistae (the plural of ballista) could launch a 60-pound object approximately 500 yards.

The Greeks invented the ballista and later the Romans adjusted it to meet their needs (around 400 BCE). Beginning approximately 800 years later during the Middle Ages, the ballista was reintroduced throughout Europe. During this time, it was primarily used by the French.


Now that you know a little about the ballista and how it worked, you're probably wondering how it affected hair styles at the time! Well, remember the ropes that were used to build tension? Those ropes were made of human hair or animal sinew, which are tendons or ligaments. The pieces needed to be long and strong, so women grew their hair long in case a rope snapped and needed to be replaced! During the time, this was seen as an act of patriotism. Since women could not be soldiers, this was their way of contributing to the war efforts of their country.

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