One other device attributed to Archimedes in conjunction with the siege
of Syracuse is a burning mirror
that set the Roman ships on fire once they were within bowshot. Recently
referred to as Archimedes Death
Ray , it is believed that such a device was made by Archimedes although
it was not used as a defensive weapon. (Such a device was used to defend
Constantinople in 514 A.D.). 1112
In his death, history relates, Archimedes was absorbed in mathematical
contemplation. After a two year siege of Syracuse , the Romans temporarily
withdrew their forces creating an air of overconfidence amongst the Syracuse
population. During a religious festival, Pro-Roman sympathizers led the
Roman forces to the weak points in the defenses, enabling them to overrun
the city. Marcellus gave specific orders to spare the life of Archimedes,
but in the confusion of the sack of the city, he was slain by a common
soldier. 11 It is here that many different accounts of
death are given.
provides a number of versions. In his first, he states that Archimedes
was so involved working a solution to a problem with a diagram that he
did not noticed the invasion of the Romans. When a soldier took him by
surprise and requested that he follow to Marcellus, Archimedes told the
soldier to wait until he arrived at his solution. This so enraged the soldier
that he killed Archimedes on the spot.
The other versions of the story are similar with the most colorful quoting
Archimedes as saying, “Stand away, fellow, from my diagram," causing rage
in the soldier. In his grief for the death of such a noble person, Marcellus
erected an elaborate monument in Archimedes' honor and directed that he
be honored with a burial. As requested by Archimedes, his friends and relatives
placed on his tomb a representation of a cylinder circumscribing a sphere
within it and an inscription stating the relationship between the two bodies
(the volume of a sphere is equal to two thirds that of the circumscribing
cylinder). From this, it can be inferred that Archimedes considered this
his greatest achievement.
Centuries later, Archimedes's tomb was found in a neglected state
and identified because of the inscription by the Roman orator Cicero. Cicero
restored the tomb stating in disgust “And thus one of the noblest cities
of Greece, once indeed a very great seat of learning, would have been ignorant
of the monument of its most brilliant citizen, except that it was revealed
by a man of Arpinum.” 12
Archimedes: A Biography excerpted by permission from "The History
of Mathematics" by John C. Blewett © 1992
1. T.L. Heath, The Works of Archimedes, with a supplement The
Methods of Archimedes as discovered by Heiberg, (New York: Dover Publications,
1912), p. xv
2. Justus Schifferes, "The Alexandrian School,"
The Book of
Popular Science, September 1956, p.355
3. Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor in Chief, Great Books of the Western
World, II. Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius of Perga, Nicomachus, (Chicago:
Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), p. 399
4. Heath, p. xvi
5. Marshall Clagett, “Archimedes," Collier s Encyclopedia, Volume 2,
6. "Archimedes," Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Volume 2, 1972
7. Clagett, p.479
8. Heath, pp. xix, xx
9. David M. Burton, The History of Mathematics, An Introduction,
Second Edition, (Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1991), p. 206
10. Heath, p.xvii
11. Burton, p. 206
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