The Siege of Syracuse – The Romans acquire control of Sicily

At the time (215-214 B.C.) that Epicydes and Hippocrates seized on Syracuse, alienating themselves and the rest of the citizens from the friendship of Rome, the Romans, who had already heard of the fate of Hieronymus, tyrant of Syracuse, appointed Appius Claudius as propraetor, entrusting him with the command of the land forces, while they put their fleet under that of Marcus Claudius Marcellus.

Archimedes Directing the Defenses of Syracuse by Thomas Ralph Spence (1895)

These commanders took up a position not far from the city, and decided to attack it with their land forces in the neighbourhood of the Hexapyli, and with their fleet at the Stoa Scytice in Achradina, where the wall reaches down to the very edge of the sea. Having got ready their blindages, missiles, and other siege material, they were in high hopes owing to their large numbers that in five days their works would be much more advanced than those of the enemy, but in this they did not reckon with the ability of Archimedes, or foresee that in some cases the genius of one man accomplishes much more than any number of hands. However, now they learnt the truth of this saying by experience. The strength of Syracuse lies in the fact that the wall extends in a circle along a chain of hills with overhanging brows, which are, except in a limited number of places, by no means easy of approach even with no one to hinder it. Archimedes now made such extensive preparations, both within the city and also to guard against an attack from the sea, that there would be no chance of the defenders being employed in meeting emergencies, but that every move of the enemy could be replied to instantly by a counter move. Appius, however, with his blindages, and ladders attempted to use these for attacking the portion of the wall which abuts on the Hexapylus to the east.

Meanwhile Marcellus was attacking Achradina from the sea with sixty quinqueremes, each of which was full of men armed with bows, slings, and javelins, meant to repulse those fighting from the battlements. He had also eight quinqueremes from which the oars had been removed, the starboard oars from some and the larboard ones from others. These were lashed together two and two, on their dismantled sides, and pulling with the oars on their outer sides they brought up to the wall the so-called “sambucae”. These engines are constructed as follows. A ladder was made four feet broad and of a height equal to that of the wall when planted at the proper distance. Each side was furnished with a breastwork, and it was covered in by a screen at a considerable height. It was then laid flat upon those sides of the ships which were in contact and protruding a considerable distance beyond the prow. At the top of the masts there are pulleys with ropes, and when they are about to use it, they attach the ropes to the top of the ladder, and men standing at the stern pull them by means of the pulleys, while others stand on the prow, and supporting the engine with props, assure its being safely raised. After this the rowers on both the outer sides of the ships bring them close to shore, and they now endeavour to set the engine I have described up against the wall. At the summit of the ladder there is a platform protected on three sides by wicker screens, on which four men mount and face the enemy resisting the efforts of those who from the battlements try to prevent the sambuca from being set up against the wall. As soon as they have set it up and are on a higher level than the wall, these men pull down the wicker screens on each side of the platform and mount the battlements or towers, while the rest follow them through the sambuca which is held firm by the ropes attached to both ships. The construction was appropriately called a sambuca, for when it is raised the shape of the ship and ladder together is just like the musical instrument.

Such were the contrivances with which the Romans intended to attack the towers. But Archimedes, who had prepared engines constructed to cany to any distance, so damaged the assailants at long range, as they sailed up, with his more powerful mangonels and heavier missiles as to throw them into much difficulty and distress; and as soon as these engines shot too high he continued using smaller and smaller ones as the range became shorter, and, finally, so thoroughly shook their courage that he put a complete stop to their advance, until Marcellus was so hard put to it that he was compelled to bring up his ships secretly while it was still night. But when they were close in shore and too near to be struck by the mangonels Archimedes had hit upon another contrivance for attacking the men who were fighting from the decks. He had pierced in the wall at short distances a series of loopholes of the height of a man and of about a palm’s breadth on the outer side. Stationing archers and “small scorpions” opposite these inside the wall and shooting through them, he disabled the soldiers. So that he not only made the efforts of the enemy ineffective whether they were at a distance or close at hand, but destroyed the greater number of them. And when they tried to raise the sambucae he had engines ready all along the wall, which while invisible at other times, reared themselves when required from inside above the wall, their beams projecting far beyond the battlements, some of them carrying stones weighing as much as ten talents and others large lumps of lead. Whenever the sambucae approached these beams were swung round on their axis, and by means of a rope running through a pulley dropped the stones on the sambuca, the consequence being that not only was the engine smashed, but the ship and those on board were in the utmost peril. There were some machines again which were directed against parties advancing under the cover of blinds and thus protected from injury by missiles shot through the wall. These machines, on the one hand, discharged stones large enough to chase the assailants from the prow, and at the same time let down an iron hand attached to a chain with which the man who piloted the beam would clutch at the ship, and when he had got hold of her by the prow, would press down the opposite end of the machine which was inside the wall. Then when he had thus by lifting up the ship’s prow made her stand upright on her stern, he made fast the opposite end of the machine, and by means of a rope and pulley let the chain and hand suddenly drop from it. The result was that some of the vessels fell on their sides, some entirely capsized, while the greater number, when their prows were thus dropped from a height, went under water and filled, throwing all into confusion. Marcellus was hard put to it by the resourcefulness of Archimedes, and seeing that the garrison thus baffled his attacks not only with much loss to himself but with derision he was deeply vexed, but still made fun of his own performances, saying, ‘Archimedes uses my ships to ladle seawater into his wine cups, but my sambuca band is flogged out of the banquet in disgrace.”

Such was the result of the siege from the sea.

Archimedes before his death with a Roman soldier – copy of a Roman mosaic from the 2nd century

And Appius, too, found himself in similar difficulties and abandoned his attempt. For his men while at a distance were mowed down by the shots from the mangonels and catapults, the supply of artillery and ammunition being admirable both as regards quantity and force, as indeed was to be expected where Hiero had furnished the means and Archimedes had designed and constructed the various contrivances. And when they did get near the wall they were so severely punished by the continuous volleys of arrows from the loopholes of which I spoke above that their advance was checked or, if they attacked under the cover of mantelets, they were destroyed by the stones and beams dropt upon their heads. The besieged also inflicted no little damage by the above-mentioned hands hanging from cranes, for they lifted up men, armour, and all, and then let them drop. At last Appius retired to his camp and called a council of his military tribunes, at which it was unanimously decided to resort to any means rather than attempt to take Syracuse by storm. And to this resolution they adhered; for during their eight months’ investment of the city, while leaving no stratagem or daring design untried, they never once ventured again upon an assault. Such a great and marvellous thing does the genius of one man show itself to be when properly applied to certain matters. The Romans at least, strong as they were both by sea and land, had every hope of capturing the town at once if one old man of Syracuse were removed; but as long as he was present, they did not venture even to attempt to attack in that fashion in which the ability of Archimedes could be used in the defence. On the contrary, thinking that owing to the large population of the town the best way to reduce it was by famine, they placed their hope in this, cutting off supplies from the sea by their fleet and those from the land by their army. Wishing not to spend in idleness the time during which they besieged Syracuse, but to attain some useful results outside, the commanders divided themselves and their forces, so that Appius with two-thirds of the army invested the town while Marcus took the other third and made raids on the parts of Sicily which favoured the Carthaginians.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.IIΙ, Book VIII, Loeb Classical Library)

NovoScriptorium: You may be interested to read two older posts about Archimedes (1, 2)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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