Orrery and Claw

Greg Woolf

  • Archimedes and the Roman Imagination by Mary Jaeger
    Michigan, 230 pp, £64.50, June 2010, ISBN 978 0 472 11630 0

Archimedes, the most famous mathematician of classical antiquity, was killed in 212 BC, as a small piece of collateral damage in the Roman sack of the Greek city of Syracuse. Syracuse itself was a rather larger piece of collateral damage, having picked the wrong side in Rome’s second war with Carthage. It was not a good year for the ancient Greek cities of the western Mediterranean. Hannibal, still prowling around southern Italy picking off Roman allies, attacked the city of Tarentum. The operation was botched. The Roman garrison held onto the citadel and then itself sacked the lower city. As the Second Punic War drew to a close, Rome was poised to leap across the Adriatic. By the middle of the second century Carthage and Corinth would both be smouldering ruins. Archimedes’ contemporaries must have felt the net already closing around them.

Archimedes’ death is the one fixed point in his biography: the 12th-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes gives a birth date of 287 BC. That may be correct, and it may also be correct that his father was an astronomer. But everything else is uncertain. We can, however, say something about the world he lived in. Syracuse and Tarentum were among the greatest of the dozens of Greek cities founded in the eighth century bc and after on the southern Italian coast, in Sicily and as far afield as southern France. By the fifth century, these cities were famous for their wealth, their wars against various barbarians – Etruscans and Lucanians, Gauls and Bruttians as well as Carthaginians and Romans – and each other. Treasuries were built at Delphi to house offerings from western cities. Pindar’s victory odes celebrate many western victors at the Olympics and other sacred games where the Greeks gathered. Thucydides’ account of the fall of Athens culminates in the folly of the democracy in insisting on war with Syracuse while Sparta remained undefeated.

The Greek cities of the west were also renowned as the home of tyrants, rich kings whose cruelty often took bizarre forms. Phalaris had a bronze bull in which his enemies were roasted alive, and it was a Sicilian tyrant who allegedly hung a sword on a slender thread above the head of the courtier Damocles, to show what it was like to be a ruler living in constant peril. And from the same cities came a series of astonishing intellectuals. Pythagoras was born in Samos, but moved to the Italian city of Croton in the late sixth century, where his followers formed some kind of religious sect. Parmenides and his student Zeno, of the paradoxes, came from Elea. One of the greatest early mathematicians was the Pythagoraean Archytas of Tarentum, who served his city as a general and whose work was an important influence on Plato. And then there was Archimedes.

Archimedes was not among the first generation of Greek mathematicians, but became the most celebrated in antiquity. Tradition had him as a relative of the royal house of Syracuse, but all the stories about his life cast him in the more conventional role of learned courtier. The Greek world he was born into was now full of kings, most of them descended from Alexander the Great’s generals, who had divided up his empire. One of the ways these semi-barbarous Macedonian warlords made themselves seem more regal was to patronise scholars, just as Alexander had patronised his teacher, Aristotle. Alexandria, the new capital of Egypt, had the greatest concentration of scholars, including the mathematicians Euclid, Eratosthenes, Conon, Apollonius and Diocles, with several of whom Archimedes corresponded. It’s quite possible that he himself studied in Alexandria – ancient intellectuals moved around a lot – but there is no proof either way. Instead, what we have is a series of stories all set in Syracuse, many revolving around services he performed for the king. Later traditions represent him in terms of the (already) stock figure of the distracted philosopher. The story that he ran naked down the street shouting ‘Eureka! Eureka!’ is a case in point. Some ancient writers even claim that Archimedes regarded his most famous feats of engineering as mere trifles. If so, he was in a minority of one.

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