Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

Archimedes at the Siege of Syracuse

The city of Syracuse, the capital of Sicily, rose to prominence in ancient history through its three famous sieges. The first of these was that long siege which ruined Athens and left Syracuse uncaptured. The second was the siege by Timoleon, who took the city almost without a blow. The third was the siege by the Romans, in which the genius of one man, the celebrated mathematician and engineer Archimedes, long set at naught all the efforts of the besieging army and fleet.

This remarkable defence took place during the wars with Hannibal. Such was the warlike energy of the Romans, that, while their city itself was threatened by this great general, they sent armies abroad, one into Spain and another into Sicily. The latter, under a consul named Appius, besieged Syracuse by sea and land. Hoping to take the city by sudden assault, before it could be properly got ready for defence, Appius pushed forward his land force, fully provided with blinds and ladders, against the walls. At the same time a fleet of sixty quinqueremes under the consul Marcellus advanced to the assault from the side of the harbor. Among these vessels were eight which had been joined together two and two, and which carried machines called sackbuts. These consisted of immensely long ladders, projecting far beyond the bows, and so arranged that they could be raised by ropes and pulleys, and the end let fall upon the top of the wall. Four men, well protected by wooden blinds, occupied the top of each ladder, ready to attack the defenders of the walls while their comrades hastened up the ladder to their aid.

There was only one thing on which the consuls had not counted, and that was that Syracuse possessed the greatest artificer of ancient times. They had to fight not Syracuse alone but Syracuse and Archimedes; and they found the latter their most formidable foe. In short, the skill of this one man did more to baffle the Romans than the strength and courage of all the garrison.

The historian Polybius has so well told the story of this famous defence, that we cannot do better than quote from his work. He remarks, after describing at length the Roman preparations,

"In this manner, then, when all things were ready, the Romans designed to attack the towers. But Archimedes had prepared machines that were fitted to every distance. While the vessels were yet far removed from the walls, he, employing catapults and balistæ that were of the largest size and worked by the strongest springs, wounded the enemy with his darts and stones, and threw them into great disorder. When the darts passed beyond them he then used other machines, of a smaller size, and proportioned to the distance. By these means the Romans were so effectually repulsed that it was not possible for them to approach.

"Marcellus, therefore, perplexed with this resistance, was forced to advance silently with his vessels in the night. But when they came so near to the land as to be within the reach of darts, they were exposed to a new danger, which Archimedes had contrived. He had caused openings to be made in many parts of the wall, equal in height to the stature of a man, and to the palm of the hand in breadth. Then, having planted on the inside archers and little scorpions, he discharged a multitude of arrows through the openings, and disabled the soldiers that were on board. In this manner, whether the Romans were at a great distance or whether they were near, he not only rendered useless all their efforts, but destroyed also many of their men.

"When they attempted also to raise the sackbuts, certain machines which he had erected along the whole wall inside, and which were before concealed from view, suddenly appeared above the wall and stretched their long beaks far beyond the battlements. Some of these machines carried masses of lead and stone not less than ten talents [about eight hundred pounds] in weight. Accordingly, when the vessels with the sackbuts came near, the beaks, being first turned by ropes and pulleys to the proper point, let fall their stones, which broke not only the sackbuts but the vessels likewise, and threw all those who were on board into the greatest danger.

"In the same manner also the rest of the machines, as often as the enemy approached under cover of their blinds, and had secured themselves by that protection against the darts that were discharged through the openings in the wall, let fall upon them stones of so large a size that all the combatants on the prow were forced to retire from their station.

"He invented, likewise, a hand of iron, banging by a chain from the beak of a machine, which was used in the following manner. The person who, like a pilot, guided the beak, having let fall the hand and caught hold of the prow of any vessel, drew down the opposite end of the machine, that was inside of the walls. When the vessel was thus raised erect upon its stern, the machine itself was held immovable; but the chain being suddenly loosened from the beak by means of pulleys, some of the vessels were thrown upon their sides, others turned with their bottoms upward, and the greatest part, as the prows were plunged from a considerable height into the sea, were filled with water, and all that were on board thrown into tumult and disorder.

"Marcellus was in no small degree embarrassed when he found himself encountered in every attempt by such resistance. He perceived that all his efforts were defeated with loss, and were even derided by the enemy. But, amidst all the anxiety that he suffered, he could not help jesting upon the inventions of Archimedes.

" 'This man,' said he, 'employs our ships as buckets to draw water, and, boxing about our sackbuts, as if they were unworthy to be associated with him, drives them from his company with disgrace.' Such was the success of the siege on the side of the sea.

"Appius also, on his part, having met with the same obstacles in his approaches, was in like manner forced to abandon his design. For while he was yet at a considerable distance, great number of his men were destroyed by the balistæ and the catapults, so wonderful was the quantity of stones and darts, and so astonishing the force with which they were thrown. The means, indeed, were worthy of Hiero, who had furnished the expense, and of Archimedes, who designed them, and by whose directions they were made.

"If the troops advanced nearer to the city, they either were stopped in their advance by the arrows that were discharged through the openings in the walls, or, if they attempted to force their way under cover of their bucklers, they were destroyed by stones and beams that were let fall upon their heads. Great mischief also was occasioned by these hands of iron that have been mentioned; for they lifted men with their armor into the air and dashed them upon the ground. Appius, therefore, was at last constrained to return back again into his camp."

This ended the assault. For eight months the Romans remained, but never again had the courage to make a regular attack, depending rather on the hope of reducing the crowded city by famine. "So wonderful, and of such importance on some occasions, is the power of a single man, and the force of science properly employed. With so great armies both by sea and land the Romans could scarcely have failed to take the city, if one old man had been removed. But while he was present they did not even dare to make the attempt; in the manner, at least, which Archimedes was able to oppose." The story was told in past times that the great scientist set the Roman ships on fire by means of powerful burning glasses, but this is not believed.

The end of this story may be briefly told. The Romans finally took the city by surprise. Tradition tells that, as the assailants were rushing through the streets, with death in their hands, they found Archimedes sitting in the public square, with a number of geometrical figures drawn before him in the sand, which he was studying in oblivion of the tumult of war around. As a Roman soldier rushed upon him sword in hand, he called out to the rude warrior not to spoil the circle. But the soldier cut him down. Another story says that this took place in his room.

When Cicero, years afterwards, came to Syracuse, he found the tomb of Archimedes overgrown with briers, and on it the figure of a sphere inscribed in a cylinder, to commemorate one of his most important mathematical discoveries.