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THE DEFENSE OF SYRACUSE BY ARCHIMEDES

(214-212 BC.)

When Epicydes and Hippocrates had occupied Syracuse, and had alienated the rest of the citizens with themselves from the friendship of Rome, the Romans who had already been informed of the murder of Hieronymus, tyrant of Syracuse, appointed Appius Claudius as Pro-prætor to command a land force, while Marcus Claudius Marcellus commanded the fleet. These officers took up a position not far from Syracuse, and determined to assault the town from the land at Hexapylus, and by sea at what was called Stoa Scytice in Achradina, where the wall has its foundation close down to the sea. Having prepared their wicker pent-houses, and darts, and other siege material, they felt confident that, with so many hands employed, they would in five days get their works in such an advanced state as to give them the advantage over the enemy. But in this they did not take into account the abilities of Archimedes; nor calculate on the truth that, in certain circumstances, the genius of one man is more effective that any numbers whatever. However they now learned it by experience. The city was strong from the fact of its encircling wall lying along a chain of hills with overhanging brows, the ascent of which was no easy task, even with no one to hinder it, except at certain definite points. Taking advantage of this, Archimedes had constructed such defenses both in the town, and at the places where an attack might be made by sea, that the garrison would have everything at hand which they might require at any moment, and be ready to meet without delay whatever the enemy might attempt against them.

The attack was begun by Appius bringing his pent-houses, and scaling ladders, and attempting to fix the latter against that part of the wall which abuts on Hexapylus toward the east. At the same time Marcus Claudius Marcellus with sixty quinqueremes was making a descent upon Achradina. Each of these vessels were full of men armed with bows and slings and javelins, with which to dislodge those who fought on the battlements. As well as these vessels he had eight quinqueremes in pairs. Each pair had had their oars removed, one on the larboard and the other on the starboard side, and then had been lasht together on the sides thus left bare. On these double vessels, rowed by the outer oars of each of the pair, they brought up under the walls some engines called "Sambucæ," the construction of which was as follows: A ladder was made four feet broad, and of a height to reach the top of the wall from the place where its foot had to rest; each side of the ladder was protected by a railing, and a covering or pent-house was added overhead. It was then placed so that its foot rested across the sides of the lasht-together vessels, which touched each other with its other extremity protruding a considerable way beyond the prows.

On the tops of the mast pulleys were fixt with ropes: and when the engines were about to be used, men standing on the sterns of the vessels drew the ropes tied to the head of the ladder, while others standing on the prows assisted the raising of the machine and kept it steady with long poles. Having then brought the ships close in shore by using the outer oars of both vessels they tried to let the machine down upon the wall. At the head of the ladder was fixt a wooden stage secured on three sides by wicker-shields, upon which stood four men who fought and struggled with those who tried to prevent the Sambuca from being made to rest on the battlements. But when they have fixt it and so got above the level of the top of the wall, the four men unfasten[186] the wicker-shields from either side of the stage and walk out upon the battlements or towers as the case may be; they are followed by their comrades coming up by the Sambuca, since the ladder's foot is safely secured with ropes and stands upon both the ships. This construction has got the name of "Sambuca," or "Harp," for the natural reason, that when it is raised the combination of the ship and ladder has very much the appearance of such an instrument.

With such contrivances and preparations were the Romans intending to assault the towers. But Archimedes had constructed catapults to suit every range; and as the ships sailing up were still at a considerable distance, he so wounded the enemy with stones and darts, from the tighter wound and longer engines as to harass and perplex them to the last degree; and when these began to carry over their heads, he used smaller engines graduated according to the range required from time to time, and by this means caused so much confusion among them as to altogether check their advance and attack; and finally Marcellus was reduced in despair to bringing up his ships under cover of night. But when they had come close to land, and so too near to be hit by the catapults, they found that Archimedes had prepared another contrivance against the soldiers who fought from the decks. He had pierced the wall as high as a man's stature with numerous loop-holes, which, on the outside, were about as big as the palm of the hand. Inside the wall he stationed archers and cross-bows, or scorpions, and by the volleys discharged through these he made the marines useless. By these means he not only baffled the enemy, whether at a distance or close at hand, but also killed the greater number of them. As often, too, as they tried to work their Sambucæ, he had engines ready all along the walls, not visible at other times, but which suddenly reared themselves above the wall from the inside, when the moment for their use had come, and stretched their beams far over the battlements, some of them carrying stones weighing as much as ten talents, and others great masses of lead. So whenever the Sambucæ were approaching, these beams swung round on their pivot the required distance, and by means of a rope running through a pulley dropt the stone, upon the Sambucæ, with the result that it not only smashed the machine itself to pieces, but put the ship also and all on board into the most serious danger.

Other machines which he invented were directed against storming parties, who, advancing under the protection of pent-houses, were secured by them from being hurt by missiles shot through the walls. Against these he either shot stones big enough to drive the marines from the prow; or let down an iron hand swung on a chain, by which the man who guided the crane, having fastened on some part of the prow where he could get a hold, prest down the lever of the machine inside the wall; and when he had thus lifted the prow and made the vessel rest upright on its stern, he fastened the lever of his machine so that it could not be moved; and then suddenly slackened the hand and chain by means of a rope and pulley. The result was that many of the vessels heeled over and fell on their sides; some completely capsized; while the greater number, by their prows coming down suddenly from a height, dipt low in the sea, shipped a great quantity of water, and became a scene of the utmost confusion. Tho reduced almost to despair by these baffling inventions of Archimedes, and tho he saw that all his attempts were repulsed by the garrison with mockery on their part and loss to himself, Marcellus could not yet refrain from making a joke at his own expense, saying that "Archimedes was using his ships to ladle out the sea-water, but that his 'harps' not having been invited to the party were buffeted and turned out with disgrace." Such was the end of the attempt at storming Syracuse by sea.

Nor was Appius Claudius more successful. He, too, was compelled by similar difficulties to desist from the attempt; for while his men were still at a considerable distance from the wall, they began falling by the stones and shots from the engines and catapults. The volleys of missiles, indeed, were extraordinarily rapid and sharp, for their construction had been provided for by all the liberality of a Hiero, and had been planned and engineered by the skill of an Archimedes. Moreover, when they did at length get near the walls, they were prevented from making an assault by the unceasing fire through the loop-holes, which I mentioned before; or if they tried to carry the place under cover of pent-houses, they were killed by the stones and beams let down upon their heads. The garrison also did them no little damage with those hands at the end of their engines; for they used to lift the men, armor, and all, into the air, and then throw them down. At last Appius retired into the camp, and summoning the Tribunes to a council of war, decided to try every possible means of taking Syracuse except a storm. And this decision they carried out; for during the eight months of siege which followed, tho there was no stratagem or measure of daring which they did not attempt, they never again ventured to attempt a storm. So true it is that one man and one intellect, properly qualified for the particular undertaking, is a host in itself and of extraordinary efficacy. In this instance, at any rate, we find the Romans confident that their forces by land and sea would enable them to become masters of the town, if only one old man could be got rid of; while as long as he remained there, they did not venture even to think of making the attempt, at least by any method which made it possible for Archimedes to oppose them. They believed, however, that their best chance of reducing the garrison was by a failure of provisions sufficient for so large a number as were within the town; they therefore relied upon this hope, and with their ships tried to cut off their supplies by sea, and with their army by land.

Polybius, From Book VIII of the "Histories." Translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh

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