Send in the tanks !

Ok, this time the Carthaginians hired Hero of Alexandria. He, in a moment of ingeniousness, achieved a way to transfer power from his steam engine to a wheel.

(Hero was first resurrected using black magic)

Ancient steam tank

1 - Steam engine.
2 - Tower with soldiers armed with repeating crossbow.
3 - Armored tower storing ammunition.
4 - Box like structure protecting the gearbox (a series of pulleys).
5 - Bronze tracks.


What's the effect of such a weapon on battlefield against Romans of the time?
What's the best tatical employment of this beast?
Could a platoon of such a beast defeat the whole Roman army (five tanks)?
If this is adopted instead by the Romans, could such a beast defeat the marauding hordes of barbarians?
Could this defeat the Mongols (as the Roman empire survived)?

  • Celts, Carthagineans, Goths, Mongols etc, are background. The point is about this machine and the military tatics of the era (who the romans represent the epithome).
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a literal clone of your other question. $\endgroup$ Mar 23 '15 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ I cannot change the other question without breaking the answers. $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Mar 23 '15 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ I recognize this. I was simply pointing this out :) $\endgroup$ Mar 23 '15 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ I do have to point out that your machine would be pretty vulnerable. $\endgroup$ Mar 23 '15 at 17:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think here they'd be called Tanksssssss. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Mar 23 '15 at 17:53

Could a platoon of such a beast defeat the whole Roman army (five tanks)?

Hell to the no!

Just to give you a perspective of the size of the Roman Army

  • In the Imperial Army comprised of 33 Legions. Each Legion was comprised of 5,500 men trained and disciplined to the max. That is a total of 180,000 men! Leaving it at 1 Legion vs 5 tanks, the tanks will lose. If all else fails the Romans could take a page out of World War Z (the movie) and swarm over the tanks. The people in the tank will die from overheating as the human body is good at insulating. Kentucky fried tankers!

  • To make matters worse, the Empire boasted 400 regiments of native auxiliary troops---meaning you would likely face these before Rome wasted her Legions' time on your puny army. Each regiment had 500 men in it.

In short your tanks would be buried in a sea of bodies and roasted alive from heat buildup.

What's the best tatical employment of this beast?

Psychological Warfare

Given the fact that it is not easy to manufacture I would say that you would have 1 per cohort and a couple dozen per legion to be used as psychological weapons (e.g. The barbarian yells "OMG! A friekin' God is try in' to kill us!). Why bother fighting them when you can make them run for the hills?

If this is adopted instead by the Romans, could such a beast defeat the marauding hordes of barbarians?

Not alone. See both of the above You would obviously need a supporting body of infantry to stop the bodies from piling on because 1 dude with a crossbow on the tower is NOT going to be able to keep hordes of thousands away for long.

As with all military advantages if used right it could strike terror into the hearts of the Germans, but if you look at the reason they entered Rome was to escape the Huns. If faced with the decision of near death by tank or certain death by stake though the spine (one of Atilla the Huns favorite methods of torture) I would go for the former.

Could this defeat the Mongols (as the Roman empire survived)?

It could conceivably scare the armies of the great Khans into submission.


Assuming that Hero lived about 300 years earlier than when he did so that Carthage could employ it during the Second Punic War? This is unfortunately not terribly different from the Elephants that they faced in that war; Hannibal was able to come up to the gates of Rome, and Rome auctioned off the land that Hannibal's army was camping on while he was camping on it.

So crossbows wouldn't make the difference, but a steam engine that powers the tank should be able to be switch into steam ram or drill, and so unlike elephants that might put an end to the auction and cause panic in Rome.

Again, Rome's strength in the Punic wars wasn't in having the best weapons or even the best generals, but in having the best logistics and engineers (which can actually mean they did have the best generals in a sense); as is often the case in war. They were able to hold that auction because they knew that there couldn't be a successful siege and that Carthage didn't have a real supply line; a steam tank could change things there and I fully trust Hannibal with knowing how to use it effectively; I mean Hannibal already won every single battle; killing many times basically the entirety of the Roman army, in some battles causing more casualties for Rome than the US did in the entirety of many of our bloodiest wars. So defeating the armies of Rome wasn't the problem, it was defeating the machine that was Rome; the tanks would certainly help with that.

As for Rome vs. the Barbarians; There the problem was different, Rome wasn't defeated in terms of military but in terms of social collapse, the machine that was Rome had long since fallen apart in a sense. Steam tanks would not have helped with that, but if steam power had led to an industrial revolution than the attempts at social reforms and expanding the citizenship probably would have happened; I mean that is what happened with the industrial revolution so why should it be different for Rome? If the social problems were resolved and the internal empire stabilized then the barbarians wouldn't even be an issue, regardless of steam tanks or not; Though sure steam tanks would be cool.

I mean it was internal problems that halted the expansion of Rome where it did, not external; taking the rest of Scotland, conquering all of Germany, conquering Parthia and holding it, these things were well within the economic and military capabilities of Rome. Likewise with many of the Chinese empires.

My best bet is that steam powered tanks in warfare leads to steam powered mining equipment and steam powered factories and railways; and probably an expansion of citizenship and maybe eventually an end to slavery (possibly). That the military was all about the mines and the roads already and had professional engineers means building steam railways would be something that they would be all about, and improved transportation, production, and communication would unite the empire more than stable trade and roads already did.

  • $\begingroup$ I would mention that it would give a physiological edge. I am sure it is too slim to make worth-while, but should be noted. "Look at that giant devil they have in their army! We're ****ed $\endgroup$ Mar 23 '15 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Dustin - I'm not too sure... The Romans weren't afraid of much. They would have seen a big, different looking siege engine and just figured out a way to break it. $\endgroup$
    – m t
    Mar 23 '15 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ @mt I would think that they would design a duplicate or better yet capture and reverse-engineer one as they did with the Carthaginian trireme which was better suited for naval warfare---then Rome got ahold of one..... $\endgroup$ Mar 23 '15 at 17:58

Okay, well...

First of all the steam engine would be too advanced for the barbarians to use against the Romans. Steam engines are fairly complex machines. If you don't use them correctly they can explode, fizzle out, corrode, or just otherwise stop working. Then you have to have a huge supply train of wood to keep it burning.

Furthermore, reading a bit about Hero's Aeolipile, it is clear that it was a proof of concept, but wouldn't scale up very well to handle the weights that you are talking about. The thing would still be incredible slow and heavy (due to all of the metal, water, wood, ammo, etc.). The Romans would still be able to easily outmaneuver it or simply destroy it with heavy siege weapons (like onagers).

Building the device alone would likely bankrupt the barbarians, as they didn't have the kind of economy that could support such things, let alone building five or six of them. The Romans might be a better candidate for building such a machine, but from what I can tell, the machine looks so impractical that the Romans would likely never bother.

In short, unless you are talking about transplanting some in depth knowledge of metalworking, industry, and the kind of advanced technology that allowed for the industrial revolution to the barbarians, it is HIGHLY unlikely they could build a machine that would win a war against Rome (or anyone for that matter).

If it HAD been possible to just make a machine that would win battles, the Romans (or Egyptians, or Greeks, etc.) would have done it and conquered the world.

Sorry, but I think you are looking for a silver bullet that just doesn't exist.

  • $\begingroup$ Rome did conquer the world, as much as they actually ever cared to. $\endgroup$
    – John_H
    Mar 23 '15 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ Not quite... The germans held them back and Rome decided it just wasn't worth it to keep going. Ditto for the Parthians. Rome likely would have kept going, except that internal squabbles and the strength of external foes prevented them from doing so. However, if their technology made their external foes a non-issue, I think they would have kept going. $\endgroup$
    – m t
    Mar 23 '15 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ Rome at times did conquer both the germans and Parthia, it was much more internal problems that prevented their expansion rather than the strength of the germans or of Parthia. $\endgroup$
    – John_H
    Mar 23 '15 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ Rome conquered part of Germany and part of Parthia. Both factions caused HUGE losses in various battles against the Romans. Granted, internal strife was a major cause, but the simple fact that the external foes existed, AND had the military might to oppose them, caused the Romans to stop where they did. $\endgroup$
    – m t
    Mar 23 '15 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose had they been able to say that "Whatever happens, we have got: The Maxim gun, and they have not." then the existence of internal difficulties wouldn't have been very relevant. $\endgroup$
    – John_H
    Mar 23 '15 at 17:45


As none answered my question, i will do so.

If you think that steam power was too far out of reach for the roman era, you might be surprised how close they came to it.

In order to explain that, i will have to delve into the reasons why England was able to develop a steam powered industry :

1 - Due to mercantilism, they had a large consummer market to feed and accumulated a lot of capital. 2 - The invention of water powered loom allowed large quantities of cloth to be produced to be sold on the asiatic markets. 3 - Their population was relatively small, they could not count on slave labour. 4 - They sided against slave labour because this would increase the potential market for their products in places like Latin America. 5 - The economical balance of Europe vis a vis Asia was favourable towards Asia, due to its large population and capacity to produce consequent of this.

This lead to a urgent need to increase productivity in England in order to balance out the commerce with asiatic countries. First they used water powered looms, but this was dependent on nearby source of water (rivers) with enough capacity to generate work. As the labour was not slaved, they had a somewhat bigger cost. This lead to the quick introduction of the steam power as soon as it was invented. The steam power was able to increase iron production, loom production etc, everything that the British sold abroad.

What the roman society lacked ?

1 - It was a slave labour society. All work was done by slaves. 2 - There was no need to increase productivity because the whole production chain was under roman autorithy, there was no competition. Romans solved competition via conquest. If Aegyptus had grain to feed Rome, conquering it was a solution, instead of competing with it.

But, there was a specific era during Roman empire where the influx of slaves decreased due to the decrease of Roman expansion. In some areas, there was already the use of water power to move machines.

This means that the Hero of Alexandria machine (an very early steam engine based on a reaction turbine) could very well be ressurected to provide power where it was not found.

So, with history in hindsight, we could very well see a steam powered "tank" in ancient era.

The machine

A big wood burning boiler is connected to a reaction turbine that spins quickly. This turbine is connected to a series of pulleys that turn rotation speed into torque. All the rotating elements are constantly lubricated by olive oil. This torque is applied into a bronze made chain that contacts the ground, moving the machine.

Over this "engine", a tower rises above ground 4 meters. On the top, a repeating ballista is placed and feed and aimed by a group soldiers.

The sheer ammount of firepower and aparrent invulnerability of the machine allows one to siege castles and break soldier formations. At the same time, the machine allows a good capacity to deal with horse archers from the asia.

Tatical use

A group of five of those machines is positioned in front of the infantry battle line. Cavalry protects the flanks, infantry comes behind the machine a la WW1.

The roman soldiers organize themselves as a traditional row and file of infantry armed with square shields and swords.

The machines advance. The romans try to bring archers to the front line in order to hit the soldiers manning the ballistas. But, as the machines get closer, a quick burst of arrows decimate roman archers who retreat behind the shield wall. The machines advance towards the cowering roman soldiers who break ranks and try to scape for their lives.

Now the accompanying infantry overtake the machines and attack the retreating deorganized roman soldiers.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Mar 23 '15 at 20:37

Biggest limiting factor will be simple. No roads! One of the key advances the Romans implemented was roads. Long straight roads. Up until then, roads were more temporary and definitely not straight. Europe was forested, especially in the celtic and German lands...It's really debatable if such a creation could ever get into a conflict with it's restricted mobility.

Vs Romans - Romans became masters of siege and their legions possessed a pretty wide degree of tools that would put this tank out of commission. Onagers and Ballistics were relatively common place in a legions ranks...between this artillery fire and archers to kill off the people manning the guns on this steam tank, I really don't see this tank doing much good vs romans. Roman archers loved their fire arrows as well...a wooden tank will burn. I would suggest a platoon of 5 of these would either fall to the onagers/seige weaponry, or burn...with very limited casualties to the roman side.

My image of the battle: The Celtic druids summon the Roman god Icarus and attach wings to the bottoms of these tanks to fly them though the forests and rough terrain so they can get to the battle front. The Roman legion stands across a wide open, flat, and really smooth battle field allowing the tanks the best mobility they could have. The range on repeating ballista's is no where near that of a full ballista or onager and the Romans open up with their artillery while the beast crawls over this ideal terrain. The Roman Ballista's could throw an iron tipped spear some 50 meters per second, which could impale a tree. Seeing the wooden beasts, the Onagers change their ammo over and hurl gigantic pots of greek fire oil towards the tanks, coating the tank in oil and turning them into wooden ovens. The Roman archers, also big fans of fire, light up their arrows and continue to set the tanks ablaze. Romans dub the machine 'the celtic oven' and abandon it's design.

  • $\begingroup$ Your criticism is blinding you. Would it be hard to put a onager, a scorpio, a flamethrowed etc on the top of this machine ? Certainly not. This is a steam powered tower, smaller than a castle tower, but able to hold similar weapons that castle towers can hold, and MOVE. $\endgroup$
    – Jorge Aldo
    Mar 23 '15 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ @JorgeAldo - It would be difficult...an Onager translates to 'wildass' due to the kickback it causes. The Romans were masters of siege at their time...you are attempting to counter an army specializing in destroying structures such as towers by creating a moving tower. If you removed 'roman' from this question and targeted pretty much anyone else in the era (mongols included) you'd get a different answer. Regardless of who they are fighting, the mobility of this tank is badly hindered just due to the terrain (light to heavy woods) that much of Europe saw. $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Mar 23 '15 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ I do think that Carthage having steam tanks in the second punic war or Parthia at various times could have made a difference. It just requires having a general who knows how and when and for what to use them and being able to support the tanks as needed. $\endgroup$
    – John_H
    Mar 23 '15 at 20:03

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