The Death of Archimedes

In the third century BC Syracuse was the leading city of Sicily and one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. Admired for its wealth and praised for the beauty of its buildings, the city had links to Alexandria, an intellectual centre for the arts and sciences. Under its enlightened ruler, Hiero II, Syracuse was an ally of Rome to which it supplied both grain and naval support.

Syracuse was the home of Archimedes, who was a brilliant mathematician and engineer, and a relative of Hiero’s. After studying in Alexandria, Archimedes provided Hiero with a series of practical solutions to everyday problems. He invented a screw contained in a spiral watertight tube, which when turned, raised water up the tube to a higher level. It became an important tool for use in irrigation. Asked by Hiero to calculate the quantity of gold in his crown, Archimedes solved the problem in his bath by realising that an object can be measured by how much water it displaces. According to the legend, after this revelation, Archimedes sprang out of his bath and ran down the street crying “Eureka!” Another of his innovations was the use of leverage to move heavy objects. Employing a system of pulleys, he succeeding in dragging a ship across a beach simply by turning a handle. Hiero put Archimedes’s engineering skills to use in upgrading the city’s defences.

After Hiero died in 216, a pro-Carthage faction seized control in Syracuse, repudiating the previous alliance with Rome. This was a critical time during the war between Carthage and Rome for control of Sicily. For Romans, the island was crucial to its security and they sent an army led by a seasoned commander, Marcellus, to take Syracuse.

The siege of Syracuse lasted from 214 to 212 BC with the Romans kept at bay by the ingenious defensive weapons invented and deployed by Archimedes. When Roman ships sailed across the harbour to attack the city’s walls, they faced a barrage of missiles fired from giant catapults. Roman infantry approaching Syracuse by land met volleys of shot from smaller catapults. Huge crane-like arms swung out from the city’s battlements to overturn ships or to sink them with boulders. Most frightening of all was the giant mirror which reflected the sun’s rays onto the wooden ships setting them alight. According to Plutarch, Marcellus, when reviewing these defensive measures, said that they might as well give up fighting this mechanical giant who was hurling so many different missiles at them and for a while he halted the attacks.

However, Roman persistence paid off, and eventually soldiers penetrated the defences when Syracusans were celebrating the festival of Artemis. The Hexaplon Gates to the north-east were opened and Marcellus with his army entered the city. Once the citadel of Ortygia fell, through the treachery of a Spanish mercenary, Syracuse was in the hands of the Romans. The city was then handed over to the Roman troops for looting, as compensation for the deprivations and losses suffered during the siege. In the chaos that followed, a soldier came across Archimedes engrossed in his studies, making calculations in the sand. When challenged, Archimedes refused to move until he had completed his calculations, whereupon the soldier flew into a rage, drew his sword and killed him. Marcellus, who is supposed to have ordered his troops to spare Archimedes, was deeply affected by his death and arranged for Archimedes’ relatives to be looked after. This was the official version of events, as reported with minor variations, by Cicero, Livy and Plutarch.

Upon reflection, one may reasonably question this version of events. Was the death of Archimedes really a random act of violence? Or was it an assassination? The reasons for considering assassination are as follows. Rome was implacable towards its enemies, making examples of cities and individuals who defied them. Archimedes was well known to have masterminded the defence of Syracuse, delaying the Romans for months, and causing many casualties. If Marcellus had really wanted to save Archimedes, he could have sent guards to protect him at his home, as he reportedly did for Syracusans who had supported Rome. If the troops had been ordered to spare Archimedes, why did the soldier not check his identity before killing him? The fact that Archimedes was engaged in making calculations should have provided a clue as to who he was. Also, Archimedes would have made an awkward prisoner. A man widely respected for his scientific knowledge, representing the best Greek tradition, he had nevertheless shown himself to be an enemy of the Roman state. How much easier to have him quietly despatched than held as a high profile and controversial prisoner. Then, after the killing, by looking after the relatives of Archimedes and carrying out his wishes for burial, Marcellus emerged as a man of honour who upheld Greek values. While there is no evidence to support the assassination theory, scepticism towards the convenient official version raises the possibility of a cover up. The ancient writers who reported the story were largely writing for a Roman audience and could be expected to maintain the official line.

The site of Archimedes’ tomb has been the subject of speculation for centuries. In the archaeological park in Syracuse lies a monument called the Tomb of Archimedes. Why it retains this name is a mystery, for everyone agrees that it is a columbarium-style of burial chamber from the later Roman period. Cicero, who visited Syracuse in 75 BC, claimed to have discovered the real tomb near the Agrigentine Gate, covered in brambles. He had the area cleared and the tomb restored. On the tomb was the image of a sphere and a cylinder. Apparently, Archimedes had expressed the wish to have these symbols of his treatise carved on his tomb. Attempts in recent times to locate this tomb have failed due to the expansion of the modern city. It lies in the periphery of Syracuse, probably at the start of the road to Floridia, the SS 124, beneath a modern development.

Archimedes’ reputation has gone from strength to strength and today he is generally regarded as the greatest mathematician of the ancient world. His mathematical work, which was not well known in his lifetime, received wider recognition when it was circulated in the sixth century AD. It became hugely influential, making Archimedes the founding father of modern mathematics, a position comparable to Plato in philosophy.

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