Monday, 13 February 2012

Marcellus and the Death of Archimedes

The Death of Archimedes

Avoiding a direct clash with Hannibal in Italy, Rome moved a force to Sicily. The results were mixed. Although the campaign was successful, there was a particularly two sad event - the murder of Archimedes.

The Roman general responsible was Marcus Claudius Marcellus (ca. 268–208 BC), five times elected as consul of the Roman Republic, and an important Roman military leader during the Gallic War of 225 BC and the Second Punic War.

Marcellus gained the most prestigious award a Roman general could earn, the spolia opima, for killing the Gallic military leader and king Viridomarus in hand-to-hand combat in 222 BC at the battle of Clastidium.

In 214 BC, the same year that he was sent to Sicily, Marcellus attacked the city of Leontini, where the two Syracusean rulers were residing. After successfully storming the city, Marcellus had 2000 Romans who were hiding in the city beheaded - he claimed they were deserters.

He then moved to lay siege to Syracuse itself.  During the final attack (after a protracted siege), when soldiers under his command pillaged Syracuse, destroying and plundering treasures that had accumulated there for centuries. A soldier in Syracuse came upon the philosopher Archimedes and ran a sword through him - despite Marcellus giving orders that he should be protected.

As Plutarch relates it in his Life of Marcellus:

"But what most of all afflicted Marcellus was the death of Archimedes. For it chanced that he was by himself, working out some problem with the aid of a diagram, and having fixed his thoughts and his eyes as well upon the matter of his study, he was not aware of the incursion of the Romans or of the capture of the city. Suddenly a soldier came upon him and ordered him to go with him to Marcellus. This Archimedes refused to do until he had worked out his problem and established his demonstration, whereupon the soldier flew into a passion, drew his sword, and dispatched him.

Others, however, say that the Roman came upon him with drawn sword threatening to kill him at once, and that Archimedes, when he saw him, earnestly besought him to wait a little while, that he might not leave the result that he was seeking incomplete and without demonstration; but the soldier paid no heed to him and made an end of him. 

There is also a third story, that as Archimedes was carrying to Marcellus some of his mathematical instruments, such as sun-dials and spheres and quadrants, by means of which he made the magnitude of the sun appreciable to the eye, some soldiers fell in with him, and thinking that he was carrying gold in the box, slew him. However, it is generally agreed that Marcellus was afflicted at his death, and turned away from his slayer as from a polluted person, and sought out the kindred of Archimedes and paid them honour."

Marcus Claudius Marcellus died in a skirmish with Hannibal's Numidian cavalry at Venusia in 208 BC. In the year 23 BC, Emperor Augustus recounted that Hannibal had allowed Marcellus a proper funeral and even sent the ashes back to Marcellus’ son.

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