The faded sign ‘Archimedes Technopark’ stuck up at a skewed angle but seemed to indicate the little road to the left of me, overgrown with weeds and feral cats. I couldn’t see anything but an abandoned shed and a few trees, but I’d already come a long way so kept plodding.
Siracusa calls itself ‘The City of Archimedes’ and there are a couple of monuments in his honor in town– an oversized statue of the Greek letter pi, and a bronze effigy (rather well groomed) of his eminence holding up a death-ray mirror. The mathematician who yelled ‘Eureka!’ and ran down the street in the nuddy is definitely Syracuse’s most famous son. And, why not? If you believe Polybius, he was pretty much singlehandedly responsible for terrorizing the Romans when they besieged the city in the Punic Wars (214-212 BCE):
“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.”
So, seeing as I was here in Archimedes’ home town, I wanted to know more about him. I already knew a couple of anecdotes. I especially like this one from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, translated by John Dryden:
It ceases to be incredible that (as is commonly told of him) the charm of his familiar and domestic Siren made him forget his food and neglect his person, to that degree that when he was occasionally carried by absolute violence to bathe or have his body anointed, he used to trace geometrical figures in the ashes of the fire, and diagrams in the oil on his body, being in a state of entire preoccupation, and, in the truest sense, divine possession with his love and delight in science.
Luckily, the sign I’d seen was correct; at the end of the street I reached a gate next to which was a poster showing a distinguished old man in a toga and a list of ticket prices. I pushed open the little gate and saw what looked like a big walled garden full of wooden DIY projects. I walked down a few steps to where a guy sat at a plastic table, two cats at his feet.
“One ticket please,” I said.
He carefully wrote out a receipt with a ball-point pen and handed it to me.
He pointed to a TV viewing area covered with a tin roof. “Vanessa. Black T-shirt. Behind house.”
I followed his directions and found a young woman operating a bolt-throwing catapult. She was surrounded by five Germans, all standing carefully out of shooting range. Vanessa had the tight-spiral curls, Asiatic eyes and pale complexion of a girl on an Attic red-figure vase and this was such a distracting circumstance that I didn’t immediately hear what she was saying.
Gradually my ears adjusted and I realized she was talking about the history of the weapon.
“This is a ballista. Actually, Archimedes did not invent it, though it first appeared in Syracuse earlier and then Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great improved the design. By the way, a torsion catapult is more powerful than ordinary tension catapults. The reason is these,” she pointed to flexible ropes. “The Greeks used ox sinew, and using the winch, you can make them more tight. They are like springs; the greater the torsion, the more force the missile will have.” Vanessa invited one of the German men to wind the winch. When it had wound as far as it could go, he released a little switch and the stick went sailing into the air, disturbing one of the cats.
“Here are other siege engines. There were simple catapults even in the ninth century BC in Iraq. But a new kind, we know that Dionysius hired workmen to make them for the Siege of Motya about 398BC, which was part of the Sicilian Wars between Carthage and Greek cities.”
She walked over to a little triangular house on wheels. A log hung down from the top of the triangle.
“This is a battering ram. You see the log is hung down so you can swing it and give it force. The sides are to protect the soldiers inside—sometimes they put wet animal skins on the roof so the enemies couldn’t set fire to it. Hannibal used this type of ram in the Siege of Selinus in 409 BC, also in the Sicilian Wars.”
“One of his famous machines is this. It is called the Iron Claw. Behind the wall were men who used a pulley to lift a Roman ship that came too close, or to drop it on the ship to break it.”
“When was the first clock with tickings?” Vanessa asked. “It was Archimedes’ water clock.” We moved over to two tubs of water—the one behind was higher than the one in front. “You see there are two basins. When the sun did rise, a slave would pour water into the big basin. Through the day, water dropped through the pipe into the little basin. In the little basin there is a cork floating on the water, so when the water raises, the cork moves up and it moves the clock here in front.”
Greeks were using primitive water clocks called ‘water thieves’ (clepsydra) at least since 325 BC because we know that they helped measure the length of speeches. The clocks gradually became more sophisticated to divide the day into twelve ‘hours’ and to allow for the difference of day-length throughout the seasons. In 1150, an anonymous Arab author compiled a treatise saying it was a faithful translation of Archimedes’ work On Water Clocks. We don’t know if this is true.
Vanessa then invited us to try an Archimedes screw. This is a cylinder containing a spiral-shaped blade which, when turned, can lift water, grain or other amenable substances from a low place up to higher ground. The story goes that Hieron II, after constructing The Siracusia (his ancient version of The Titanic) needed a way to pump excess bilge water and Arcimedes came up with this.
“Although it’s called the Archimedes Screw, maybe it was not him to invent it,” Vanessa explained. “In Babylon, in the gardens, they had something like this machine. And in Egypt, because sometimes there was flooding, they used it there. But maybe in Archimedes’ time, when many Greeks were in Egypt, maybe they saw it there and brought it to Syracuse.” She shrugged.
It started raining and we moved over to a couple of shiny hemispheres.
“Archimedes studied parabolas in his life. What is this? It is a parabola.” She touched the outer edge. “When the sun shines, this part is still cold.” She moved her hand to the center, “but here is hot. This is the focus point. They say that he made these mirrors out of bronze and then in the center they put quartz. Ancient scholars say when the sun came, they pointed the mirrors at the Roman ship, and it catches fire.
“Scientists now do studies and they are not sure this is true. Could the mirrors be built? Yes. So maybe he used them, but just to bother the Romans in their eyes.”
A little kitten jumped out of a bush and started prancing around the questionable weapon of mass destruction. At about the same time, it started raining quite hard. The tour was over. I was pretty interested in the whole Archimedes thing by this stage, and made my way to a bookshop in town where I could find out some more.
Much to my satisfaction, there was an accessible book called Archimedes of Syracuse by Stefano Amato. Here’s what he has to say about the burning-mirror controversy:
“It was the writer Luciano of Samosata, in the second century CE, who was the first to mention the burning of enemy ships as the work of Archimedes. Unfortunately Luciano was also the author of True History, a science-fantasy story in which characters are lifted up to the moon by a hurricane; here they meet some aliens, and when they fall back down to Earth, they end up in the belly of a whale, only to end up on an island made of cheese. So, you know, maybe his account of the siege of Syracuse is not completely reliable. Not to mention that in his Hippia, the source concerned, Luciano never mentions mirrors. All he says is: ‘[Archimedes] burned the enemy ships using his scientific knowledge.”