Caltrops of WWI

Watch Your Step! Don’t Tread on the Caltrop, A Weapon with a Pointed History

(Read the article on one page)

There is a cunning and deadly device that used by armies in the past, and up to the present day. It’s a weapon mostly overlooked but is yet brilliantly effective—the caltrop. The caltrop (or calthrop) is a crude, cheap, iron ball with spikes. It is an anti-personal weapon used to slow down troops on foot, horses, war elephants, and even tires on small vehicles. Bigger versions were used against tanks and water landing craft.

Caltrops came with three prongs, or even four, and to use the weapon required no skill at all, other than watching where you stepped once you placed it! Simply scatter in the vicinity of your intended host, and they’ll find it. Once the enemy marched over them, great yowls of anguish could be heard. Stepping on one could cause a nasty puncture-wound for the enemy marching or to the cavalry accompanying them, which could lead to infection or death if not treated hastily.

Designed by Nature, Employed by Man

The name caltrop is said to mean “star thistle,” which is said to be a weed whose spikey seeds performed similarly to the weapon itself, painfully piercing deeply into the feet of careless pedestrians. The Greeks called it “tribolos” due to its shape. The Romans called it “tribulus” but it was called “murex” as well, for it looked like the shell of a mollusk.

Thumbtack-like Tribulus terrestris nutlets are a hazard to bicycle tires, feet, and ancient armies.

Thumbtack-like Tribulus terrestris nutlets are a hazard to bicycle tires, feet, and ancient armies. ( Public Domain )

The origins of the weapon are a mystery. However, some have pointed out that the first use of the weapon was at the Battle of Arbela (also known as the Battle of Gaugamela) in 331 BCE.

Watch your step! Darius’ flight at The Battle of Gaugamela

Watch your step! Darius’ flight at The Battle of Gaugamela (detail) (Luis García / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Macedonian author Polyaenus wrote about the event 500 years later, making the claim that Darius III placed many of these small nasty devices in front of his army to deter the oncoming forces of Alexander the Great. Nevertheless, Alexander was able to maneuver around this obstacle, making his way through the Persian lines, and thus winning the battle. As for that being the first time the weapon was used, that cannot be confirmed, but it should be noted that Polyaenus does not mention this device as new, and the passage in question suggests that the Macedonian army must have been familiar with the weapon.

When Alexander the Great died, the caltrop became a fan favorite among his various Hellenistic successors who battled for the throne of Alexander. Many of the caltrops at the time were made of wood with metal spikes and is said they were used very extensively in battle and were deployed long before the battle was to take place. It is also mentioned that sometimes there was just too many of them! Such that the army that deployed them restricted their own movement in battle. So, they were very effective against enemy infantry and cavalry— including those who placed them there in the first place.

Julius Caesar Seizes the Caltrop, Changes it to his Advantage

Besides the Hellenistic monarchs who used and abused the device, the Romans also adopted this practical weapon and made it as flexible as the army that deployed them. However, the Romans made a slight change to the caltrop. During the siege of Alesia in 52 BCE, Julius Caesar took the caltrop concept and remade it into something that fit his needs. Instead of a ball with spikes, he took the spike concept, placed them in wooden blocks, and thus they became known as “goads”. Just as effective as the caltrop, the goad would serve the same practicality as the caltrop, and quite possibly may have been cheaper to build.

Roman caltrop at Westfälisches Museum für Archäologie, Herne, Germany

Roman caltrop at Westfälisches Museum für Archäologie, Herne, Germany (Bullenwächter/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Roman writer Vegetius mentions their use against chariots:

“The armed chariots used in war by Antiochus and Mithridates at first terrified the Romans, but they afterwards made a jest of them. As a chariot of this sort does not always meet with plain and level ground, the least obstruction stops it. And if one of the horses be either killed or wounded, it falls into the enemy's hands”…

READ MORE… 

Like this Preview and want to read on? You can! JOIN US THERE  with easy, instant access  ) and see what you’re missing!! All Premium articles are available in full, with immediate access.

For the price of a cup of coffee, you get this and all the other great benefits at Ancient Origins Premium. And - each time you support AO Premium, you support independent thought and writing.

Comments

How can a 3-prong caltrop work? I think they are always 4-pronged. With a 4-prong, there are always 3 points on the ground and one pointed up. With a 3-prong, all the points would be on the ground, or so it seems to me.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

DNA molecule representation
By sequencing the ancient genomes of 15 individuals from different parts of Africa, researchers reporting in the journal Cell on September 21 have reconstructed the prehistory of humans on the continent, going back thousands of years. The findings shed light on which human populations lived in eastern and southern Africa between 8,000 and 1,000 years ago, the researchers say.

Myths & Legends

Illustration of a sea serpent. Credit: Tina Leyk / deviantart
More humans have walked on the moon than have been to the deepest parts of planet Earth and although the oceans cover 70% of Earth’s surface, we only know around 1% of the seafloor. Many a mystery surrounds the deep blue and this is the remarkable story of a cryptozoological enigma which washed up on Scotland's northern shores in the 19th century.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article