The Siege of Syracuse


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Archimedes and his Famous Walls of Syracuse

an artistic interpretation:
Archimedes by Jusepe de Ribera

(1591-1652) Museo del Prado
(Madrid, Spain)

Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, built the ingenious defenses of the city of Syracuse which so successfully kept out the Romans until the city let its guard down. Polybius describes some of these defenses:

But Archimedes had constructed artillery which could cover a whole variety of ranges, so that while the attacking ships were still at a distance he scored so many hits with his catapults and stone-throwers that he was able to cause them severe damage and harass their approach. Then, as the distance decreased and these weapons began to carry over the enemy's heads, he resorted to smaller and smaller machines, and so demoralized the Romans that their advance was brought to a standstill. In the end Marcellus was reduced in despair to bringing up his ships secretly under cover of darkness. But when they had almost reached the shore, and were therefore too close to be struck by the catapults, Archimedes had devised yet another weapon to repel the marines, who were fighting from the decks. He had had the walls pierced with large numbers of loopholes at the height of a man, which were about a palm's breadth wide at the outer surface of the walls. Behind each of these and inside the walls were stationed archers with rows of so-called 'scorpions', a small catapult which discharged iron darts, and by shooting through these embrasures they put many of the marines out of action. Through these tactics he not only foiled all the enemy's attacks, both those made at long range and any attempt at hand-to-hand fighting, but also caused them heavy losses.

The General History Of Polybius V3

The city of Syracuse was finally sacked by the Romans in spite of the splendid defenses of Archimedes. When the city was taken he was intently working despite the uproar around him.

Livy relates how he was killed:

The city was turned over to the troops to pillage as they pleased, after guards had been set at the houses of the exiles who had been in the Roman lines. Many brutalities were committed in hot blood and the greed of gain, and it is on record that Archimedes, while intent upon figures which he had traced in the dust, and regardless of the hideous uproar of an army let loose to ravage and despoil a captured city, was killed by a soldier who did not know who he was. Marcellus was distressed by this; he had him properly buried and his relatives inquired for--to whom the name and memory of Archimedes were an honor.

The History of Rome from Its Foundation, Books XXI-XXX (Penguin Classics); Book XXV.3 

Ancient Rome

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