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Classics & Catapults

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Tyler Valentine was seduced by an ancient weapon.

In his senior year at the UW, the Earth and Space Sciences major was deciding on an elective course, vacillating between a class on fluid dynamics and one on ancient science. The latter, offered by the Department of Classics, would include an opportunity to build a ballista — an ancient missile weapon. Decision made.

UW senior Tyler Valentine working on his team's project, a ballista.

Tyler Valentine works on his team's project, a ballista, in the CoMotion MakerSpace on campus. Media credit: Colette Cosner

“I was leaning toward that class from the beginning,” says Valentine, who had already met the professor, Sarah Stroup, through an outreach project. “Then Sarah posted photos of a ballista that a student team built previously for the course, and that basically sealed the deal.”

Stroup dreamed up the course, STEM in the Ancient World (CLAS 314), with undergraduates like Valentine in mind. For students interested in science and technology, the class provides an intriguing introduction to the classical world. For those with a humanities background, it offers an unusual perspective on ancient texts. Students build ballistas and catapults and other ancient technologies, but they also read the works of ancient playwrights and philosophers and scientists dating back to the 7th century BCE.  

The class digs into ancient texts right away. Stroup, associate professor of classics, says the first challenge is to disabuse students of the notion that people living 2,500 years ago were less sophisticated than we are today. “Most students in this class come with virtually no background in ancient history or classics,” Stroup says, “so I need to get them over that hurdle of realizing that these people are recognizable, that it wasn’t that long ago, and that they weren’t unsophisticated.” 

In fact, as Stroup researched ancient technology for the course, she became even more impressed by advancements in the classical period. “The more I got into it, the more unnerved I became by how advanced the ancient cultures were,” she says. “Some of the work they did with glass for example — material science engineers don’t know how they did it. People who work in glass manufacturing don’t know how they did it. The sophistication is even greater than I thought, and I’ve been studying this for a long time. It’s thrilling.”

Sarah Stroup, left, talking with Katarina Kopcalic about her project.

Sarah Stroup, left, talking with Katarina Kopcalic about her team's catapult project. Media credit: Colette Cosner

Thrilling for the students as well. Katarina Kopcalic, a sophomore majoring in psychology, says the content went beyond what she could have hoped for. “I was amazed how advanced the Greeks were in their thinking,” she says. “Their works really reflect human ingenuity and a thirst for knowledge. I found it inspiring to read about.”

One scientific field that developed particularly early was astronomy. The modern star catalog is based on the ancient one, and ancient thinkers explored ways to increase the precision of observations. In the third century BCE, Archimedes already thought about the Universe in terms of light years and created a larger numerical system to calculate the size of the Universe — one of many important advances in mathematics. Technology also saw major developments, in areas from military engineering to hydraulics to materials science. 

I can tell students how complicated these ancient technologies were, but a lot of it seems simple until you try to make it.

But reading about sophisticated ancient technology doesn’t adequately convey its complexity, so Stroup includes a hands-on component in the course. Once each week, the class meets in the CoMotion MakerSpace in Fluke Hall, where students work in teams to complete a quarter-long project. Each team builds a piece of ancient technology, choosing from a list that includes ballistas, catapults, reusable wax writing tablets, water wheels, surveying tools, and more.

A team tests its onager catapult. The following week they will demonstrate it for the class.

Team members test an onager catapult one week before they will demonstrate the technology in class.  Media credit: Colette Cosner

“I can tell students how complicated these ancient technologies were, but a lot of it seems simple until you try to make it,” says Stroup. “The teams research the history and development of their chosen technology, build it, and demonstrate it at the end of the quarter. We’ve launched catapults and ballistas off the Denny Hall steps. It’s great!”

Kopcalic was on a catapult-building team, which proved more complicated than anticipated. “We wanted to follow the design that the ancient Greeks would have used, along with the materials that would be most accurate to that time,” she explains. “It was difficult to figure out what to use to launch the catapult’s arm. We had a couple of setbacks while building it, but we managed to fix it.”

Valentine chose the ballista, of course. “I’ve been doing space technology research for two years, but I was still surprised by the sophistication of ancient technology,” he says. “The ballista my group made is relatively simple compared to what would have actually existed in ancient Greece and Rome.”

A team puts the finishing decorative touches on their ballista.

Students are encouraged to consider not only function but also visual appeal when building their projects.Many teams add decorative touches, like the design on this ballista. Media credit: Colette Cosner

While those lab projects were memorable, what really inspired Kopcalic and Valentine were the philosophy texts assigned throughout the quarter. Kopcalic describes works by Aristotle and Plato as “the most challenging and most exciting” part of the class. Valentine says the readings gave him a “greater appreciation for the connection between philosophy and science, because modern society has created a dichotomy that hasn’t always existed.”

By the end of the quarter, students understand that most science and technology is not really new. Mathematics, medicine, engineering — all were fairly advanced two millennia ago. Which begs the question, why haven’t we seen more progress over the past 2000 years? To help the students understand, Stroup touches on the Middle Ages and other periods when massive amounts of information were lost.

“Students come into class thinking human progress is an unbroken line with an upward trajectory, with us at the top and the ancients down below,” says Stroup. “When they realize that’s not what happened, it leads them into a bit of a crisis. They realize things do collapse. And they worry that it will happen again.”

Awareness of the fragility of progress has made Valentine even more fascinated by the accomplishments of those that came before. “The philosophy and ethics that were taking place in ancient Greece and Rome are astounding and quite beautiful," he says, "and they were tied directly into their science.” Valentine now plans to stay at the UW longer to pursue a dual degree in the history and philosophy of science.

“I blame it on the ballistas,” he says.