Marcellus Overcomes Archimedes’ Super-weapons and Captures Syracuse

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But in Sicily, at the time of which I speak, his first proceeding, after wrong had been done him by Hippocrates, the commander of the Syracusans (who, to gratify the Carthaginians and acquire the tyranny for himself, had killed many Romans at Leontini), was to take the city of Leontini by storm. He did no harm, however, to its citizens, but all the deserters whom he took he ordered to be beaten with rods and put to death.

Hippocrates first sent a report to Syracuse that Marcellus was putting all the men of Leontini to the sword, and then, when the city was in a tumult at the news, fell suddenly upon it and made himself master of it. Upon this, Marcellus set out with his whole army and came to Syracuse. He encamped near by, and sent ambassadors into the city to tell the people what had really happened at Leontini; but when this was of no avail and the Syracusans would not listen to him, the power being now in the hands of Hippocrates, he proceeded to attack the city by land and sea, Appius leading up the land forces, and he himself having a fleet of sixty quinqueremes filled with all sorts of arms and missiles. Moreover, he had erected an engine of artillery on a huge platform supported by eight galleys fastened together,1 and with this sailed up to the city wall, confidently relying on the extent and splendour of his equipment and his own great fame. But all this proved to be of no account in the eyes of Archimedes and in comparison with the engines of Archimedes.

To these he had by no means devoted himself as work worthy of his serious effort, but most of them were mere accessories of a geometry practised for amusement, since in bygone days Hiero the king had eagerly desired and at last persuaded him to turn his art somewhat from abstract notions to material things, and by applying his philosophy somehow to the needs which make themselves felt, to render it more evident to the common mind.

For the art of mechanics, now so celebrated and admired, was first originated by Eudoxus and Archytas, who embellished geometry with its subtleties, and gave to problems incapable of proof by word and diagram, a support derived from mechanical illustrations that were patent to the senses. For instance, in solving the problem of finding two mean proportional lines, a necessary requisite for many geometrical figures, both mathematicians had recourse to mechanical arrangements, adapting to their purposes certain intermediate portions of curved lines and sections.

But Plato was incensed at this, and inveighed against them as corrupters and destroyers of the pure excellence of geometry, which thus turned her back upon the incorporeal things of abstract thought and descended to the things of sense, making use, moreover, of objects which required much mean and manual labour. For this reason mechanics was made entirely distinct from geometry, and being for a long time ignored by philosophers, came to be regarded as one of the military arts.

And yet even Archimedes, who was a kinsman and friend of King Hiero, wrote to him that with any given force it was possible to move any given weight; and emboldened, as we are told, by the strength of his demonstration, he declared that, if there were another world, and he could go to it, he could move this.

Hiero was astonished, and begged him to put his proposition into execution, and show him some great weight moved by a slight force. Archimedes therefore fixed upon a three–masted merchantman of the royal fleet, which had been dragged ashore by the great labours of many men, and after putting on board many passengers and the customary freight, he seated himself at a distance from her, and without any great effort, but quietly setting in motion with his hand a system of compound pulleys, drew her towards him smoothly and evenly, as though she were gliding through the water.

Amazed at this, then, and comprehending the power of his art, the king persuaded Archimedes to prepare for him offensive and defensive engines to be used in every kind of siege warfare. These he had never used himself, because he spent the greater part of his life in freedom from war and amid the festal rites of peace; but at the present time his apparatus stood the Syracusans in good stead, and, with the apparatus, its fabricator.

[15] When, therefore the Romans assaulted them by sea and land, the Syracusans were stricken dumb with terror; they thought that nothing could withstand so furious an onset by such forces. But Archimedes began to ply his engines, and shot against the land forces of the assailants all sorts of missiles and immense masses of stones, which came down with incredible din and speed; nothing whatever could ward off their weight, but they knocked down in heaps those who stood in their way, and threw their ranks into confusion.

At the same time huge beams were suddenly projected over the ships from the walls, which sank some of them with great weights plunging down from on high; others were seized at the prow by iron claws, or beaks like the beaks of cranes, drawn straight up into the air, and then plunged stern foremost into the depths, or were turned round and round by means of enginery within the city, and dashed upon the steep cliffs that jutted out beneath the wall of the city, with great destruction of the fighting men on board, who perished in the wrecks.

Frequently, too, a ship would be lifted out of the water into mid–air, whirled hither and thither as it hung there, a dreadful spectacle, until its crew had been thrown out and hurled in all directions, when it would fall empty upon the walls, or slip away from the clutch that had held it. As for the engine which Marcellus was bringing up on the bridge of ships, and which was called ‘sambuca’ from some resemblance it had to the musical instrument of that name, while it was still some distance off in its approach to the wall, a stone of ten talents' weight was discharged at it, then a second and a third; some of these, falling upon it with great din and surge of wave, crushed the foundation of the engine, shattered its frame–work, and dislodged it from the platform, so that Marcellus, in perplexity, ordered his ships to sail back as fast as they could, and his land forces to retire.

Then, in a council of war, it was decided to come up under the walls while it was still night, if they could; for the ropes which Archimedes used in his engines, since they imparted great impetus to the missiles cast, would, they thought, send them flying over their heads, but would be ineffective at close quarters, where there was no space for the cast. Archimedes, however, as it seemed, had long before prepared for such an emergency engines with a range adapted to any interval and missiles of short flight, and through many small and contiguous openings in the wall short–range engines called scorpions could be brought to bear on objects close at hand without being seen by the enemy.

[16] When, therefore, the Romans came up under the walls, thinking themselves unnoticed, once more they encountered a great storm of missiles; huge stones came tumbling down upon them almost perpendicularly, and the wall shot out arrows at them from every point; they therefore retired.

And here again, when they were some distance off, missiles darted forth and fell upon them as they were going away, and there was a great slaughter among them; many of their ships, too, were dashed together, and they could not retaliate in any way upon their foes. For Archimedes had built most of his engines close behind the wall, and the Romans seemed to be fighting against the gods, now that countless mischiefs were poured out upon them from an invisible source.

[17] However, Marcellus made his escape, and jesting with his own artificers and engineers, ‘Let us stop,’ said he, ‘fighting against this geometrical Briareus, who uses our ships like cups to ladle water from the sea, and has whipped and driven off in disgrace our sambuca, and with the many missiles which he shoots against us all at once, outdoes the hundred–handed monsters of mythology.’

For in reality all the rest of the Syracusans were but a body for the designs of Archimedes, and his the one soul moving and managing everything; for all other weapons lay idle, and his alone were then employed by the city both in offence and defence.

At last the Romans became so fearful that, whenever they saw a bit of rope or a stick of timber projecting a little over the wall, ‘There it is,’ they cried, ‘Archimedes is training some engine upon us,’ and turned their backs and fled. Seeing this, Marcellus desisted from all fighting and assault, and thenceforth depended on a long siege. And yet Archimedes possessed such a lofty spirit, so profound a soul, and such a wealth of scientific theory, that although his inventions had won for him a name and fame for superhuman sagacity, he would not consent to leave behind him any treatise on this subject, but regarding the work of an engineer and every art that ministers to the needs of life as ignoble and vulgar, he devoted his earnest efforts only to those studies the subtlety and charm of which are not affected by the claims of necessity. These studies, he thought, are not to be compared with any others; in them the subject matter vies with the demonstration, the former supplying grandeur and beauty, the latter precision and surpassing power.

For it is not possible to find in geometry more profound and difficult questions treated in simpler and purer terms. Some attribute this success to his natural endowments; others think it due to excessive labour that everything he did seemed to have been performed without labour and with ease. For no one could by his own efforts discover the proof, and yet as soon as he learns it from him, he thinks he might have discovered it himself; so smooth and rapid is the path by which he leads one to the desired conclusion.

And therefore we may not disbelieve the stories told about him, how, under the lasting charm of some familiar and domestic Siren, he forgot even his food and neglected the care of his person; and how, when he was dragged by main force, as he often was, to the place for bathing and anointing his body, he would trace geometrical figures in the ashes, and draw lines with his finger in the oil with which his body was anointed, being possessed by a great delight, and in very truth a captive of the Muses.

And although he made many excellent discoveries, he is said to have asked his kinsmen and friends to place over the grave where he should be buried a cylinder enclosing a sphere, with an inscription giving the proportion by which the containing solid exceeds the contained.

[18] Such, then, was Archimedes, and, so far as he himself was concerned, he maintained himself and his city unconquered. But during the progress of the siege Marcellus captured Megara, one of the most ancient cities of Sicily; he also captured the camp of Hippocrates at Acrillae and killed more than eight thousand men, having attacked them as they were throwing up entrenchments; furthermore, he overran a great part of Sicily, brought cities over from the Carthaginians, and was everywhere victorious over those who ventured to oppose him.

Some time afterwards he made a prisoner of a certain Damippus, a Spartan who tried to sail away from Syracuse. The Syracusans sought to ransom this man back, and during the frequent meetings and conferences which he held with them about the matter, Marcellus noticed a certain tower that was carelessly guarded, into which men could be secretly introduced, since the wall near it was easy to surmount.

When, therefore, in his frequent approaches to it for holding these conferences, the height of the tower had been carefully estimated, and ladders had been prepared, he seized his opportunity when the Syracusans were celebrating a festival in honour of Artemis and were given over to wine and sport, and before they knew of his attempt not only got possession of the tower, but also filled the wall round about with armed men, before the break of day, and cut his way through the Hexapyla.

When the Syracusans perceived this and began to run about confusedly, he ordered the trumpets to sound on all sides at once and thus put them to flight in great terror, believing as they did that no part of the city remained uncaptured. There remained, however, the strongest, most beautiful, and largest part (called Achradina), because it had been fortified on the side towards the outer city, one part of which they call Neapolis, and another Tyche.

— Plutarch, Life of Marcellus 14–18 (translated by B. Perrin)