Archimedes between Carthage and Rome

"Don't disturb my circles."

"Don't disturb my circles."

Above you see a 78-year-old Greek man drawing mathematical diagrams into the sand, a split second before a Roman soldier stabbed him to death in a war against Carthage. The old man’s name, of course, is Archimedes, and when the Romans ran toward him he apparently said, simply, “Don’t disturb my circles.”

I have been thinking about how to illustrate for you, in one terse but punchy anecdote, the essence of the Hellenistic era that I wrote about in the previous post. And this is it.

Remember: This was an era when 1) two mighty powers, Carthage and Rome, clashed and changed our world forever and 2) the entire known world, including Carthage and Rome, was simultaneously taking its cultural, linguistic, artistic, scientific and aesthetic cues from the Greeks. (Oh, and it was the era that forms the backdrop to the main story in my forthcoming book, a book that is really about the ups and downs in your life.)

But why this moment, the stabbing of Archimedes?

Because it was a microcosm of the larger situation. Consider:

  • Archimedes was stabbed in 212 BCE, just as Hannibal, the Carthaginian commander who is my main character, was in Italy, killing Romans (he killed about one quarter of all free Latin men at the time!).
  • The Romans, who were losing, were worried that Sicily, the ethnically Greek island between Italy and Carthage which they had wrested from Carthaginian control in a previous war might go over to Carthage again, thus giving Hannibal a base for supplies and reinforcement and sealing their likely fate: extinction.
  • So the Romans, while fighting Hannibal in Italy itself, attacked and laid siege to the Greek city of Syracuse on Sicily, once a Roman ally but now flirting with Carthage.
  • But Syracuse, a proud and ancient Spartan Corinthian colony, was a more refined–ie, Hellenistic–culture than either Rome or Carthage. It was Greek, rich, old, full of art and learning. And it was the home of Archimedes!
  • Archimedes, using Hellenistic values of science and thought (as opposed to brute Roman force) helped his city to keep the Romans at bay for two years.
  • He figured out a way to use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto the Roman ships until they burnt–the Hellenistic form of Star Wars. He designed cranes that, using the principle of leverage, lifted the Roman ships out of the water and let them crash down.
  • Eventually, the Romans got into the city and had their Roman way with it. But the swash-buckling Roman commander, Marcellus, gave orders to save the great man, Archimedes–a gesture that was itself a sign of the Hellenistic Zeitgeist. Alas, the young legionaries did not recognize Archimedes and killed him.
  • And so Sicily stayed Roman and did not become a base to resupply Hannibal in Italy. Hannibal would later kill Marcellus in Italy, and things would take their course…

So there you have it: the three civilizations–Greek, Roman and Carthaginian–meeting in one spot at one time. But there is another reason to choose Archimedes.

Archimedes perfectly epitomized his Hellenistic time and his Greek culture. He was curious, full of wonderment, inquiring into everything. As he was taking a bath one day, he noticed how his leg, moving in and out, displaced the water, which gave him the idea for measuring the volume and density of any object. He was so excited that he ran out into the streets, stark naked and dripping, screaming what might be the the best and ultimate slogan for Hellenism itself:


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Archimedes beats the Google guys …

… by about 2,200 years. Alright, not quite. But they did fish a thing they call “the first analog computer” out of a ship wreck off Crete, and it now turns out that the prodigious brain of Archimedes was involved in its creation. From the article:

Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 B.C., invented a planetarium calculating motions of the Moon and the known planets and wrote a lost manuscript on astronomical mechanisms.

Not from the article, but obviously of interest to us here, is how Archimedes died: It was–but of course!– during and because of Hannibal’s war against Rome. The Romans were trying to win Sicily, the large island between Italy and Carthage, and stormed the ancient Greek city of Syracuse. Archimedes, it appears, was so absorbed in the mathematical equations he was just then scribbling into the dust that he did not bother even to look up as the Roman legionaries ran toward him. Not knowing who the genius at his feet was, one young Roman brute plunged his sword into the old man. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

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