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A Multidisciplinary Re-evaluation of the Fabrication and Operation of the 4th Century CE Roman Artillery Engine Known as the Onager

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Novel Teaching Methods in a Multidisciplinary Context

Tagged Division

Multidisciplinary Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.70.1 - 26.70.21



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Paper Authors


Willard W. Neel Virginia Military Institute

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Willard Wayne Neel, Ph.D., PE, Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the Virginia Military Institute. He has degrees in physics and mechanical engineering from the University of South Florida and N.C. State University, respectively. Besides teaching for the past forty six years he is interested in ancient and medieval technology.

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Jon-michael Hardin P.E. Virginia Military Institute

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A Multidisciplinary Re-evaluation of the Fabrication and Operation of the 4th Century CE Roman Artillery Engine known as the OnagerA multidisciplinary project combining historical and engineering analysis was conducted at XCollege since it was felt that research that combines aspects of liberal arts and engineeringcould promote the development of broader critical-thinking skills for engineering students thancould be gained by research that focuses solely on engineering skills. In this project, studentsused the techniques of experimental archaeology to investigate the 4th century CE Romanartillery engine called a scorpion, otherwise known as the onager.This type of device was described by Ammianus Marcellinus in the 4th century as a horizontaltorsioned-rope-powered engine having a single throwing arm with a sling. While Ammianus’narrative description of the onager provides about the only useful information that we haveabout the onager, it lacks both detailed information and drawings. Therefore, significant ‘gaps’exist in our understanding of the design and functionality of this type of device due to the scanthistorical descriptions and the lack of any extant archaeological artifacts related to it. Typically,historians face the sometimes daunting task of bridging such ‘gaps’ for these types of devices.However, the techniques of experimental archaeology, based on the principles of physics andengineering, are being increasing used to bridge these ‘gaps’.For this multidisciplinary project the students first conducted a careful analysis of existinghistorical sources to determine the indicated technical and physical characteristics andconstraints of the onager. They then used relevant engineering theory and computationalmodeling to analyze potential designs that could satisfy those determined characteristics andconstraints. Lastly, they fabricated and tested a likely design to determine if it did, indeed,satisfy the determined characteristics and constraints.In this paper, the author will discuss the technical and pedagogical approach and results of thismultidisciplinary student project.

Neel, W. W., & Hardin, J. (2015, June), A Multidisciplinary Re-evaluation of the Fabrication and Operation of the 4th Century CE Roman Artillery Engine Known as the Onager Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23411

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