For many avid readers and pop culture enthusiasts, Sunday evening marked an important date this spring: the premier of the long-awaited, much-anticipated Game of Thrones, season 6. Based on George R. R. Martin’s popular novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, the series follows the complex lives and trials of characters who struggle to survive in the dangerous “game of thrones,” where the only options are victory or death. This fantasy world is plagued by war, civil unrest, religious uprising, corrupt politics, dark magic, and more war. These conflicts create a desperate need for weapons, fortresses, and machines of war.
Most, if not all, of these weapons and war machines are inspired by ancient prototypes from our own world history. Vitruvius’s De architectura is an important record and source of modern day knowledge of Roman architecture, design, and military machines. Vitruvius (c. 90–c. 20 BCE) was a Roman military engineer and architect who designed and built structures for the Roman Empire. He served as the military’s head engineer and architect under Julius Caesar from 58 to 51 BCE.
Written sometime between 30 and 20 BCE, De architectura is the culmination of Vitruvius’s time as a Roman military engineer and his travels throughout Greece, Asia, North Africa, and Gaul. It is a treatise combining the history of ancient architecture and engineering along with his personal experience and advice. The work is comprised of ten books that range from the ideal education of an architect (book one) to the optimal layout of a private home (book six) to machines and gadgets (book ten). Book ten includes detailed instructions for building and using catapults, ballistae, siege engines, and other military machinery.
The oldest surviving copy of De architectura dates to the 8th century, and the first printed copies were produced in Rome in 1486. This particular edition (1567) is the first of its kind, a Latin edition annotated by Daniele Barbaro (1514-1570). It includes illustrations by architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), which were originally produced for Barbaro’s 1566 Italian translation.