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Archimedes – man who put himself against Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Archimedes | Photo: Getty Images

The Greek thinker Archimedes became famous not only as the author of the exclamation “Eureka!1” (the Greek word for an unexpected discovery). It was mainly due to his ingenious inventions and innovative machines that he managed to defend Syracuse against the mighty Roman war machine for a long time.
Archimedes was born in Syracuse (a town in the south-east of Sicily) c. 287 BCE, and was educated in Alexandria.


The most famous story of his life concerns the suspicion of King Hiero II of Syracuse, that a goldsmith who was entrusted with the execution of a real gold king crown, in fact, separated part of the gold – which he left – and instead used a certain amount of silver. In those days, the only way to check if the gold product was a good test was to melt it. The ruler, however, wanted to avoid destroying the crown and instructed the scientist Archimedes to come up with an innovative method to prove whether the crown is in fact gold.

Archimedes thought about the answer for a long time. Once, taking a bath in the tub and constantly thinking about the task entrusted to him, he noticed that the individual members of his body are much lighter in the water than in the air. This led him to think that there is a definite relationship between the decrease in the weight of the body submerged and the weight of the liquid repressed by them (Archimedes’ law). Delighted by the simplicity of his own discovery, he ran naked out of the bathtub crying Heureka!, meaning I have found it!

Archimedes, to prove the truth, asked for a mass of pure gold with a crown weight. It turned out that the lump of pure gold pushes out less water than a crown of the same weight. Thus, the crown had a larger volume, but a lower density, which proved that it was not made of 100% gold. Archimedes proved the goldsmith’s falsification by showing the difference between the repressed amount of water of two objects.

Defender of Syracuse

In 214 BCE there was the second Punic war between Rome and Carthage. Italy was dominated by Hannibal’s army, which boldly plundered the Roman lands. The poor political situation in Rome caused that after the death of the ruler, the new authorities in the city decided to take the side of Carthage. On this information, the newly elected Roman consul, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, headed the 4 legions to Sicily to deal with the new opponent and give an example of how the Romans deal with those who support the enemy. The Roman army proceeded to the siege of Syracuse – the most important city of the island.

The city was distinguished by huge walls that were based on hills and rocky shore. However, what gave Syracuse the greatest advantage was the presence of Archimedes in the city and his engineering genius. Due to its innovative construction, the city resisted the Romans for several months. After the initial peace negotiations, ultimately the Romans decided to siege. They carried out attacks both by sea and land.

The first thing that Archimedes commissioned to prepare the city for defense was better spacing of ballists and catapults and their modification, so that they hurt more effectively and at further distances of the Romans with stones and other missiles. In addition, holes were made in the walls, from which archers fired their arrows.

Romans attacked the infantry which tried to smash the walls with rams. At the same time, the attack of Roman ships on which the sambuca siege engines were set was launched from the sea. These were wide piers, after which soldiers tried to break into the walls. However, Syracusan defense was effective. The favorable spacing of catapults and the use of small versions of these constructions allowed the defenders of Syracuse to attack Roman ships closer to the walls and prevent entry into defensive walls.

What’s more, Archimedes ordered to erect special cranes which would send huge stones to Roman ships and hit them with a powerful “claw” in the ship’s deck, which was then carried along with the unit over the water and dropped. As a result of these actions, Roman ships broke in half and drowned.

Siege of Syracuse. Archimedes’ amazing constructions made it possible to effectively destroy Roman ships.
Getty Images

Large losses among Roman units and amazing inventions caused that the Romans lost their courage, abandoned the siege and began blocking the city. The Carthaginian commander Himilco came to rescue Syracuse, who, however, could not bear the Roman blockade.

The fall of Syracuse

The Romans, unable to get Syracuse by force or blockade, had to seek deception. Finally, the cause of the fall of Syracuse was the betrayal of some members of the aristocracy who during the negotiations betrayed information about the badly guarded part of the fortifications, which enabled the Romans to capture the town in 212 BCE after a two-year siege.

Syracuse was completely plundered, and the inhabitants who were not the victims of the slaughter were sold into slavery by the Romans.

Archimedes himself also died, even though Marcellus had to spare him. Reportedly, Archimedes was killed by a Roman legionary in the moment of solving a mathematical problem. When the legionary entered Archimedes’ room he told him to get up immediately; however, the scientist refused, because he wanted to solve the task first. The furious soldier cut off his head. Archimedes just before his death was supposed to say noli turbare circulos meos, which means “do not blur my wheels”.

Archimedes’ death depicted on the Roman mosaic.
Getty Images

Marcellus, after hearing about the death of a Greek thinker, was deeply worried because he knew how great the Romans lost in the form of his genius. Then he ordered him to be buried with honors. At Archimedes’ request, a ball, cone and cylinder were etched on his tombstone. Cicero later recalled that he managed to find the tomb of Archimedes, who was heavily ruined and covered with plants. He then accused the inhabitants of Syracuse of not taking care of the tombstone of his eminent inhabitant.

The fighting in Sicily lasted until 210 BCE, when the island came completely under the rule of Rome. Thus, Sicily became the first overseas province of the Roman Republic.

  1. Actually in ancient Greek, this word was "Heureka!".
  • Ellie Cawthorne, How Archimedes took on the Romans, "Historyextra", 14 listopada 2016
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Kronika starożytnego Rzymu, Warszawa 1994
  • Plutarch z Cheronei, Żywoty sławnych mężów: Marek Klaudiusz Marcellus
  • John Warry, Warfare in the Classical World, 1993
  • Tadeusz Zieliński, Rzeczpospolita rzymska, Katowice 1989

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