Archimedes, a Greek who lived in the Sicilian port of Syracuse in the third century BC, was an ingenious inventor, best known for shouting “Eureka!” after inspiration struck.
When Archimedes’ hometown was attacked by the Roman army and navy in 215 BC, the old inventor designed a number of war machines to fight back. Archimedes’ devices at the siege of Syracuse soon became legendary, and were chronicled by later historians Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch.
How Archimedes Defended the Walls of Syracuse
According to the historians, the Romans at Syracuse were repelled by a wide variety of clever devices. Archimedes had prepared large catapults for flinging stones of several hundred pounds to repel the attackers from a distance, and smaller, short-range engines for when they managed to get closer.
Into the walls Archimedes had cut a number of arrow-loops through which archers and “small scorpions,” small missile-engines possibly like crude crossbows, shot at the Romans.
Moreover, Archimedes had built contraptions into the walls themselves: these were great beams that would remain hidden until swinging out over the top of the walls and dropping heavy stones or grappling hooks onto any attackers that got too close.
Archimedes Destroys Roman Ships
The deluge of missiles from the city’s catapults also kept Roman ships at bay. But even when the Romans tried to sneak their ships to the city walls at night, shots from the arrow-loops decimated the sailors, while stones dropped from the walls smashed the ships.
Archimedes also employed cranes, which would drop grappling-hooks onto the ships, seize and lift their bows from the water, and then release them, overturning, capsizing, or filling them with sea-water.
The Roman soldiers became terrified and fled “whenever they saw a bit of rope or stick of timber projecting a little over the wall”, convinced that Archimedes was about to unleash some fantastic new weapon upon them. As a result, the Roman commanders resigned themselves to a long siege, and it would be three years before the city finally fell.
Later Myths About Archimedes’ War Machines
Despite some exaggeration, all that Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch describe is plausible. But the story that Archimedes set the Roman ships on fire appears to be a later invention, as it is not found in the classical historians.
The first mention of it occurs in Lucian (c. 120–180 AD), who only states that Archimedes was able to burn the ships by artificial means. One variation tells of Archimedes using an elaborate combination of mirrors or polished shields to focus the sun’s rays on the Roman ships like a giant magnifying glass. This version, however, can be traced back only as far as to Galen (130–200 AD).
Leonardo da Vinci claimed to have read how Archimedes, while in Spain, had employed some form of Greek Fire – a mixture of burning liquids – in naval warfare; possibly that is to what Lucian referred. However, Greek Fire did not come into regular use until the seventh century AD.
It is likely that myths of Archimedes had, over the centuries, grown to the point where he received credit for weapons that were invented long after his death. That is a testament to the creativity of the Greek inventor who held off the most powerful army of his day for so long.
- Mark C. Bartusis, The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society, 1204-1453, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
- E. J. Dijksterhuis, Archimedes, trans. C. Dikshoorn, Ejnar Munksgaard, 1956.
- Livy (Titus Livius), Ab Urbe Condita, trans. Frank Gardner Moore, Harvard University Press, 1961.
- Plutarch, “Life of Marcellus,” Plutarch’s Lives, trans. Bernadotte Perrin, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917.
- Polybius, The Histories, trans. W. R. Paton, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923.