Friday, May 20, 2011

May 20, 212 BC – Archimedes Taken Captive by the Romans

The Siege of Syracuse had dragged on for two years as the Romans worked to dislodge a key ally of their nemesis, the Carthaginians. While the Romans held advantages at land and sea, Syracuse was defended by the genius of Archimedes, credited as the greatest mathematician and inventor of the Classical Age. His siege engines had kept the powerful Roman navy from successful attacks despite their sambuca, floating siege towers with hooks that would allow troops to easily scale any seawall. The genius of Archimedes, however, allowed the Syracusans to fight back with the famed Claw of Archimedes, a large crane using a hook to lift, capsize, or break up enemy ships. Psychologically devastating was the legendary heat ray powered by carefully arranged mirrors and good weather, allowing the Syracusans to scorch any Roman ship in line of sight.

Unable to take the city by direct assault or even establish a tight enough blockade to keep supplies from coming in, the Roman siege became a humbling stalemate. The populace waited for reinforcements from Carthage, who were already stressed with a shortage of troops for the fighting in Spain. There seemed no great hurry as the Romans were held at sea and the land stiffly defended, so the Syracusans simply went about their business. As the second year dragged on, the city carried out its annual Mounikhia festival of the goddess Artemis. After stuffing themselves on moon-round, open-faced tortillas and spring wine, the city settled to slumber, and the Romans made a cunning attack. A small band managed to scale the wall at night, kill the remaining guards, and open the gates for a full Roman invasion. The outer city quickly fell, and the rest of the Syracusans escaped to the center citadel, where they prepared to hold out again.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus, commander of the Roman forces, ordered that Archimedes be found and brought to him unhurt. While the Romans rampaged the city, Archimedes is said to have scarcely noticed, instead focusing on his mathematical work. A soldier found an old man and demanded he come with him to Marcellus, but Archimedes replied, “Do not disturb my circles!” Just before the enraged soldier struck down the old man, his centurion stopped him and told Archimedes they would wait. They sat for hours while the septuagenarian worked until he finally exclaimed another famous “Eureka!” and went with the soldiers to Marcellus, one of the few willing to listen to the prattling geometry of a mathematician.

Archimedes’ work at the end of his life is credited with the creation of calculus. The famous story of his discovery of buoyancy by placing a phony golden crown into water while comparing its mass to a solid block of gold created a roundabout solution to the matter of density calculation for complex solids, but Archimedes wanted to do it purely through numbers. Using the Method of Exhaustion as he had while calculating pi, he found it applicable to any physical system, a mathematical groundwork that would make possible the coming age of technology. It would be his last great contribution to mankind as the inventor would die two years later under house arrest in Rome, designing weapons to counter the Carthaginian invasion of Italy. In fact, the defeat and capture of Hannibal at Herdonia in 210 BC would be credited to Archimedes’ harpoon-ballistae disrupting Hannibal’s tactically advantaged position.

Calculus would be the greatest in a list of incredible inventions from Archimedes. Born in Syracuse, young Archimedes traveled to Alexandria, the center of knowledge of the Classical world. There, he studied with the greatest mathematicians of the day and even went a step further to applying the mathematics toward engineering. He invented the Archimedes Screw, a tilted, rotating plane that could easily raise liquids or grains. His work with the lever caused him to point out the effectiveness of a fulcrum with, "Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth." Other works included block-and-tackle, differential gears, and an odometer.

Though Archimedes had passed, the Romans knew how to adapt captured culture. The Scipio family, famous and wealthy with Scipio Africanus’ victory at Zama, funded the Archimedium, believed to be the first engineering school in the Western world. There, applications for Archimedes’ math would be studied, advancing sciences such as optics, metallurgy, physics, chemistry, navigation, and astrology. Over the course of the next two centuries, Rome would grow in leaps through devices such as the compass, telescope, and water pump, which revolutionized the mining industry and enabled the development of the steam engine. As with all science, the Romans sought out its military applications, and soon Roman steam-powered armored carts would be seen on patrol from the coal fields of Britain to the forests of the Rus to the hills of Persia and across the sands of the Sahara.


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In reality, Archimedes was slain at the end of the siege of Syracuse by the soldier outraged at his impertinence toward a commanding officer. He would be largely forgotten, with even his tomb bearing the famous sphere-inscribed-cylinder emblem being overgrown and ignored until Cicero rediscovered it in 75 BC. Some 1500 years later, however, the surviving works of Archimedes would be crucial to the Renaissance, influencing thinkers such as Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.

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