The Siege of Syracuse

Roman ballista crew
Image ID: 1624247 [Roman ballista crew] (1907). NYPL Digital Gallery


The 214-212 B.C. Siege of Syracuse, the most important city in Sicily, followed by its sack during the second Punic War, increased the area over which Rome held power.

Sixty or about one quarter of Rome's total naval fleet of quinqueremes were under the command of Marcus Claudius Marcellus at Syracuse. Appius Claudius Pulcher commanded the Roman ground troops.

Syracuse had earlier been allied with Rome through a treaty with King Hiero II, the king who, according to legend, asked Archimedes to determine whether his crown was pure gold. This led to Archimedes' famous naked exclamation of 'Eureka!' After Hiero died and his successor, Hieronymous, was assassinated in Leontini, command of the Sicilian city passed to men with Carthaginian sympathies, Epicydes and Hippocrates [Polybius]. This put an end to the terms of the treaty with Rome.

The Romans attacked and massacred people in Leontini who had supported the Carthaginians, and then put Syracuse under siege. Since Archimedes supplied technology for weapons that could be used defensively, like his small scorpion catapults, the siege did not go well. This was the siege during which Archimedes is said to have used a mirror to set fire to Marcellus' ships (a very unlikely event). Marcellus tried to breach the sea walls twice, using four large, scaling ladders stationed for stability between eight quinqueremes bound together, but Archimedes' techniques caused them to fail, and, meanwhile, his iron claw hindered the 52 remaining ships. Dio Cassius says Archimedes' defense was so successful that Marcellus decided to try to starve the city instead of breaching its walls. Rome had a fortuitous opportunity to bring about victory during a Greek religious festival for Artemis, when the Syracusans were pre-occupied. Marcellus took the advantage, opened the city walls, allowed his soldiers to sack the city of Syracuse, and somewhat inadvertently probably caused the death of Archimedes. Syracuse was then under Roman control, as part of the Roman province of Sicilia 'Sicily'.

Online References: Siege of Syracuse and "A Formidable War Machine: Construction and Operation of Archimedes' Iron Hand," by Chris Rorres and Harry G. Harris