Who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
Our hero is Archimedes of Syracuse, a Greek scholar, mathematician, engineer, and inventor, who would come to be world renowned for his practical application of geometrical concepts. Archimedes was at his best when presented with a seemingly impossible problem - such as how to drain his dear king's largest ships of excessive water, or how to determine the percentage of gold in a piece of royal jewelry - his solutions to these questions resulted in the still used Archimedes screw design and a breakthrough in the understanding of how density affected water displacement. Other accomplishments of his include advancing the understanding of water buoyancy, the invention of various pulley and lever systems, mathematical proofs that described the volume of spheres and cylinders and he even invented a primitive odometer. This was a very busy guy.
Archimedes' mastery of mathematics and mechanical design would be put to the ultimate test when, in 214 B.C., a Roman army showed up at the gates of Syracuse intent on capturing the city at all costs.
The Siege of Syracuse
Syracuse was a important Greek coastal city on the island of Sicily. While Archimedes worked on his mathematical proofs and in his spare time solved the King's most pressing engineering problems, the city elite of Syracuse debated endlessly whether they should side with the Carthaginians or the Romans in the Punic Wars. Syracuse happened to be located about halfway between Rome and Carthage and so was naturally of important strategic value to both powers.
Map of Rome, Carthage and Syracuse during the First Punic War.
In 214, the decorated Roman General, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, arrived at Syracuse with a combined land and sea invasion force that included numerous vessels (sambucas and siege ships) specially designed to besiege a coastal city. The Romans anticipated an easy victory. They would attack the walls at all sides, overwhelm the defenders and capture the city within days. The pro-Carthaginian factions would be purged and Rome would secure control of the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately for the Romans, Archimedes had been tasked with overseeing the city's defenses two years before by his friend and patron, the King of Syracuse. Naturally, Archimedes attacked this as yet another math problem. How do you destroy the Roman siege machines before they can breach the walls?
The first line of defense of course was distance. Hurtling rocks at an attacking enemy was nothing new but Archimedes was able to devise ballistas and catapults that could hurl rocks and timbers weighing as much as 700 pounds. Archimedes' designs allowed for various distance settings, greatly enhancing ranged effectiveness. At various spots along the wall, special slits were built to house scorpios (miniature sniper-style ballistas). To the Roman army, it seemed as if the walls of Syracuse itself were assaulting them.
These ranged artillery weapons were greatly effective at reducing the number of attacking ships and holding them at bay but when the remaining Roman vessels fully closed distance to the very walls of the city and prepared to deploy their ladders and siege bridges, another solution was needed to turn them away.
The Claw of Archimedes
Imagine being on a siege ship approaching a city’s fortifications. Just as you are within distance of the city walls, an enormous wooden arm dangling over the wall swivels to intercept your ship. On the end of the arm is a chain with a grappling hook on its end. Once the grappling hook has hitched onto the front or side of your vessel, the long arm is retracted, actually pulling your ship up and out of the water by its bow, capsizing it completely or submerging it underwater. This was the work of the legendary Claw of Archimedes, which was deployed during the siege to wreck havoc among the Roman ships.
Many Roman Historians reference these contraptions, including Polybius (c. 200-118 BC), in the Universal History:
“...a grappling-iron attached to a chain would be let down, and with this the man controlling the beam would clutch at the ship. As soon as the prow was securely gripped, the lever of the machine inside the wall would be pressed down. When the operator had lifted up the ship's prow in this way and made her stand on her stern, he made fast the lower parts of the machine, so that they would not move, and finally by means of a rope and pulley suddenly slackened the grappling-iron and the chain. The result was that some of the vessels heeled over and fell on the sides, and others capsized, while the majority when their bows were let fall from a height plunged under water and filled, and thus threw all into confusion.”
The Claw as it turns out is actually a viable design and has been recreated in a variety of different ways. Given Archimedes knowledge of geometry and engineering, its entirely plausible he could have supervised their construction at Syracuse. The Claw is referenced consistently in the ancient sources so I'm inclined to believe that such weapons were indeed used with great success during the siege.
However, the Romans did not stop coming. With the Carthaginian army engaged on the Italian peninsula, no reinforcements were in route to save Syracuse. They would have to rely on Archimedes and his inventions to save the city.
The Archimedes Death Ray
Now, whether you want to believe this next part is up to you. But another almost entirely unbelievable weapon said to have been deployed by Archimedes during the siege was a giant parabolic mirror (constructed perhaps by aligning plates of metal) that could reflect and concentrate the sun’s rays directly at Roman ships, lighting them on fire. That’s right, Archimedes allegedly harnessed the power of the sun to fend off the Romans. Here is one written account from Roman historian, Dio Cassius (AD 155–235), writing about the event centuries later in his comprehensive Roman History, which he spent 22 years researching and writing.
“At last in an incredible manner he burned up the whole Roman fleet. For by tilting a kind of mirror toward the sun he concentrated the sun's beam upon it; and owing to the thickness and smoothness of the mirror he ignited the air from this beam and kindled a great flame, the whole of which he directed upon the ships that lay at anchor in the path of the fire, until he consumed them all.”
Many historians consider this weapon to be a fanciful myth. I mean, who would believe that this guy constructed an actual death ray? Still, the story pops up in a number of sources (though it's notably absent from others, including that of Plutarch) so I'm inclined to believe that at least something happened to cause a large number of Roman ships to spontaneously catch fire outside of Syracuse, rays of the sun reflected off mirrors or not.
There have been modern attempts to construct an Archimedes-style sun ray using materials that would have been available at the time, but those efforts have mostly fallen short (with a few exceptions), or else researchers have concluded that it would be far easier to set a ship on fire with flaming arrow for instance, so why bother with mirrors? However, none of these recreations have had access to Archimedes' actual design (if it did exist) so I am not prepared to say that such an weapon was impossible. There is also a possibility that some easily combustible materials, such as a binding tar, made the ships easier to light on fire, which modern recreations might omit. If such a device were possible in this ancient world, Archimedes was probably one of the only humans alive who could have constructed it.
Archimedes Dies by Roman Hands
For two years the Roman army attempted to take the city but were repelled again and again by the defenses designed by Archimedes. Eventually, Marcus Claudius Marcellus wisely decided to switch up his tactics. During a city festival for Artemis which distracted the defenders, a small party of Roman soldiers scaled the wall and took control of the outer city from within. It was then only a matter of time before all of Syracuse was firmly in Roman hands.
But the Roman general was so impressed by Archimedes and his achievements not only in science but also in war that he insisted that Archimedes was not to be harmed. Shortly after the Romans broke through, Marcus Marcellus requested that Archimedes be brought before him. The Roman soldier tasked with this fairly simple mission found Archimedes in deep concentration working on what else, a math problem. When interrupted by the soldier sent to fetch him, Archimedes allegedly said: “Do not disturb my circles,” inspiring the angered soldier to run Archimedes through with his sword. Marcellus was most displeased with the murder and had Archimedes buried with honors. A seal representing one of his most famous mathematical proofs was engraved on his tomb.
The Death of Archimedes (via nyu.edu)
In the end, our bully won out and our math nerd was defeated. However, Archimedes' contributions to math, science, and engineering have lived on long after his death. The story of his wondrous inventions deployed in the defense of Syracuse are the stuff of incredible legend and remains one of finest examples of human ingenuity, dedication and perseverance.
Nerds of the world unite!