The death of Archimedes during the Siege of Syracuse

Archimedes of Syracuse(c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC) was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. Archimedes is generally considered to be the greatest mathematician and inventor of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time.

The Siege of Syracuse by the Roman Republic took place in 214-212 BC, at the end of which the city of Syracuse, located on the east coast of Sicily, fell. The Romans stormed the city after a protracted siege giving them control of the entire island of Sicily. During the siege, the city was protected by weapons developed by Archimedes.

A Roman force led by the General Marcus Claudius Marcellus consequently laid siege to the port city by sea and land. The city of Syracuse, located on the eastern coast of Sicily was renowned for its significant fortifications, great walls that protected the city from attack and among the Syracuse defenders was the mathematician and scientist Archimedes.

The city was fiercly defended for many months against all the measures the Romans could bring to bear. Realising how difficult the siege would be, the Romans had brought their unique own devices and inventions to aid their assault. These included the Sambucae, a floating siege tower with grappling hooks, as well as ship mounted scaling ladders that were lowered with pulleys onto the city walls. Despite these novel inventions, Archimedes' devised defensive devices to counter the Roman efforts including a huge crane ( the Claw of Archimedes) operated hook that was used to lift the enemy ships out of the sea before dropping them to their doom. He also created a giant mirror (Heat ray) that was used to deflect the powerful mediterranean sun onto the ships sails, setting fire to them. These measures, along with the fire from ballistas and onagers mounted on the city walls, frustrated the Romans and forced them to attempt costly direct assaults.

The successes of the Syracusians in repelling the Roman siege had made them overconfident. In 212 BC, the Romans received information that the cities inhabitants were to participate in the annual festival to their goddess Artemis. A small party of Roman soldiers approached the city under the cover of night and managed to scale the walls to get into the outer city. Killing the few guards on duty, the Roman soldiers were then reinforced by more men and then stormed the relaxing Syracusians as they slumbered and opened the city gates to the rest of their forces.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus had ordered that Archimedes, the well-known mathematician - and possibly equally well-known to Marcellus as the inventor of the mechanical devices that had so dominated the siege - should not be killed. Archimedes, who was now around 78 years of age, continued his studies after the breach by the Romans and while at home, his work was disturbed by a Roman soldier. Archimedes protested at this interruption of his work and coarsely told the soldier to leave; the soldier, not knowing who he was, killed Archimedes on the spot.

According to the popular account given by Plutarch, Archimedes was contemplating a mathematical diagram when the city was captured. A Roman soldier commanded him to come and meet General Marcellus but he declined, saying that he had to finish working on the problem. The soldier was enraged by this, and killed Archimedes with his sword.

Plutarch also gives a lesser-known account of the death of Archimedes which suggests that he may have been killed while attempting to surrender to a Roman soldier. According to this story, Archimedes was carrying mathematical instruments, and was killed because the soldier thought that they were valuable items. General Marcellus was reportedly angered by the death of Archimedes, as he considered him a valuable scientific asset and had ordered that he not be harmed. The last words attributed to Archimedes are "Do not disturb my circles", a reference to the circles in the mathematical drawing that he was supposedly studying when disturbed by the Roman soldier.

The tomb of Archimedes carried a sculpture illustrating his favorite mathematical proof, consisting of a sphere and a cylinder of the same height and diameter. Archimedes had proved that the volume and surface area of the sphere are two thirds that of the cylinder including its bases.

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