Siege of Syracuse – a Roman siege that resulted in the death of Greek mathematician Archimedes

The Siege of Syracuse was a military conflict that took place during the Second Punic War between the Roman Republic and the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily from 213 to 212 BC. The Roman forces, led by the famous general Marcus Claudius Marcellus, besieged the heavily fortified city, resulting in a prolonged and fierce battle that had significant historical implications.

What triggered the siege? What were the turning points in the conflict? And how did renowned ancient Greek mathematician get slain during the siege?

In the article below, answers to the above questions as well as other important facts about the Siege of Syracuse are presented:

Reasons behind the Siege of Syracuse

The Siege of Syracuse was primarily driven by the strategic importance of Syracuse as a major city-state in Sicily. Syracuse was an ally of Carthage, Rome’s main enemy in the war.

Capturing Syracuse was crucial for the Romans to gain control of Sicily and disrupt the Carthaginian alliance network in the region.

Moreover, Syracuse was renowned for its wealth and resources, making it an attractive target for conquest.

Rome’s army lay siege to Syracuse

For the Roman forces, the siege was a challenging and costly endeavor. Initially, the Romans faced strong resistance from the well-defended city, which included both the walls and the ingenious defense devices designed by Archimedes, the famed ancient Greek mathematician and engineer. These defenses inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman soldiers and hindered their progress.

However, over time, the Romans adapted their strategies and tactics to overcome the defenses. They eventually breached the walls, leading to intense fighting within the city. The prolonged siege exhausted the Roman troops and drained their resources.

On the Syracuse side, the city’s defenses and resistance initially gave them hope of repelling the Roman forces. The leadership of generals like Hippocrates and Epicydes bolstered the morale of the defenders. However, as the siege dragged on, supplies dwindled, and the Roman pressure intensified, weakening the resolve of the Syracuse forces.

In the end, the Roman forces were successful in capturing Syracuse, and the city fell in 212 BC. Marcellus’s victory brought the Siege of Syracuse to an end, and the city came under Roman control.

The key leaders and commanders on both sides during the siege

On the Carthaginian side there were the likes of Epicydes. Hailing from Magna Graecia in the coastal areas of Southern Italy, Epicydes was a distinguished Carthaginian general. It is said that Epicydes fought alongside his older brother Hippocrates in quite a number of Carthaginian general Hannibal’s campaigns in Italy and Spain. He would later serve as an envoy to Syracuse. As a matter of fact, Epicydes and his brother were the ones that convinced Syracuse politicians and leaders to severe ties with Rome.

During the Siege of Syracuse, Epicydes and his brother Hippocrates played a crucial role in the defense of the city against the Roman army led by Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Appius Claudius Pulcher.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus was a Roman general and consul who led the Roman forces in the Siege of Syracuse during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC). He was known for his military prowess and strategic abilities, and he played a crucial role in the Roman victory over the Carthaginians in the siege. Marcellus’ successful capture of Syracuse is considered one of his most significant military achievements.

Archimedes, a renowned mathematician, physicist, and engineer, was also a notable figure during the siege, assisting the defense of Syracuse with his ingenious war machines and inventions.

Military strategies employed

During the Siege of Syracuse, both the Roman and Carthaginian forces employed various military strategies to gain the upper hand in the conflict.

The Roman forces, under the command of Marcus Claudius Marcellus, established a blockade around Syracuse to cut off the city’s supplies and isolate it from outside support. This strategy aimed to weaken the defenders and force them to surrender.

To breach the city’s walls and fortifications, the Romans used floating siege towers and catapults. Siege towers were tall, mobile platforms that allowed soldiers to scale the walls and engage in close combat with the defenders. Catapults were used to launch projectiles at the city walls, weakening their defenses.

To counter the formidable defense mechanisms designed by Archimedes, the Romans resorted to tunneling and mining. They dug tunnels underneath the city walls to weaken their foundations and undermine the defenses.

Also, the Roman fleet played a crucial role in the siege by establishing a naval blockade of the city’s harbor. This prevented reinforcements and supplies from reaching the defenders and limited their ability to launch counterattacks.

The Euryalus Fort guarded one of the city’s main entrances, and its capture was crucial for the Roman forces. Marcellus devised a night assault on the fort, employing surprise and stealth to overwhelm the defenders and secure a strategic foothold.

While the siege raged, Roman forces used diplomacy and persuasion to encourage defections among the Syracuse defenders. This tactic aimed to sow discord and weaken the resolve of the defenders.

The Romans exploited internal divisions within Syracuse, particularly the political disagreements between factions supporting different courses of action. This further weakened the unity of the defenders.

As the siege entered its final stages, the Romans launched a full-scale assault on the city, taking advantage of weaknesses in the defenses caused by previous engagements and attrition.

The siege marked a pivotal event in the ongoing struggle for supremacy between Rome and Carthage in the Mediterranean.

The Sambuca

Sambuca was a type of siege engine used in ancient warfare. It was a large, movable tower or bridge-like structure with multiple levels, designed to approach and breach enemy fortifications during a siege.

Invented by the ancient Greek inventor Heracleides of Tarentum, the sambuca allowed soldiers to scale the walls of a besieged city or fortress and engage in close combat with the defenders.

This ship-borne siege engine was first employed by Marcus Claudius Marcellus during the Roman siege of Syracuse in 213 BC, though its initial use proved unsuccessful.

The sambuca, a ship-borne siege engine, was an invention attributed to Heracleides of Tarentum. It was first employed by Marcus Claudius Marcellus during the Roman siege of Syracuse in 213 BC, though its initial use proved unsuccessful.

The role of Archimedes during the siege

Ancient Greek figures

Throughout the siege, Archimedes’ ingenious inventions shielded the city from enemy attacks. Image: Archimedes Thoughtful
by Domenico Fetti (1620)

A native of Syracuse, the renowned Greek mathematician was well-known for his groundbreaking inventions and innovative defense mechanism. His contributions were crucial in bolstering Syracuse’s defenses and delaying the Roman conquest.

One of the most famous accounts of Archimedes’ involvement in the siege is his creation of powerful war machines to repel the Roman assault.

Archimedes also designed a very powerful claw – known as the Claw of Archimedes or “Iron Hand”. The claw was basically a massive grappling hook that was suspended from a crane on the city walls. It was used to lift enemy ships out of the water, causing them to capsize or become vulnerable to attack.

According to some historical sources, he developed a device that used mirrors to focus sunlight onto Roman ships, setting them on fire. While some scholars debate the authenticity of this account, the “Archimedes Death Ray” has become a popular legend.

Finally, the Greek mathematician is believed to have designed a massive crossbow that could shoot large arrows with tremendous force, inflicting significant damage to enemy troops and siege machinery.

The death of Archimedes

Despite Archimedes’ brilliance and contributions, he could not prevent the eventual fall of Syracuse. The city was eventually captured by the Roman forces, and according to historical accounts, Archimedes was tragically killed during the Roman takeover in 212 BC.

The circumstances of his death vary in different accounts, but the most widely known version suggests that he was killed by a Roman soldier while he was engrossed in mathematical calculations and unaware of the ongoing battle.

According to one popular version, when the Roman forces finally breached the walls of Syracuse and entered the city in 212 BC, they were given strict orders by their general, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, to spare Archimedes and bring him to him unharmed.

Ancient Greek inventions and contributions

Ancient Greek inventions and contributions to our modern world

However, it is said that a Roman soldier, not recognizing Archimedes, found him busy drawing geometric diagrams in the sand and killed him. This incident allegedly occurred despite Marcellus’ explicit orders to preserve the famous mathematician’s life.

Another account, recorded by the famed Roman historian Plutarch, suggests that Archimedes was killed while resisting Roman soldiers who entered his home. According to this version, he refused to interrupt his mathematical work or comply with their orders, and in response, a soldier killed him.

It’s also possible that the Roman soldier did indeed recognize Archimedes; however, he killed the mathematician out of spite and some sort of revenge. Bear in mind, Archimedes’ inventions, mostly defensive mechanisms, repelled many of the attacks from Roman forces. Perhaps the soldier wanted to take revenge for those deaths.

Archimedes died around the age of 75. It was said that he was killed by a Roman soldier. Image: copy of a Roman mosaic from the 2nd century.


The Siege of Syracuse had far-reaching consequences. It demonstrated Rome’s military strength and strategic capabilities, solidifying their position as a dominant power in the Mediterranean region. Additionally, it marked the end of Syracuse’s independence as a Greek city-state, and it became a part of the Roman Republic’s expanding territories.

Questions & Answers

A painting of the Claw of Archimedes by Giulio Parigi, taking the name “iron hand” literally, 1599-1600

What was the city of Syracuse?

Syracuse was an ancient Greek city located on the eastern coast of Sicily, Italy. It was one of the most important and powerful cities in the Mediterranean during ancient times and played a significant role in Greek and Roman history. The city was known for its strategic location, defense fortifications and walls, impressive architecture, and cultural contributions.

How long did the Siege of Syracuse last?

The Siege of Syracuse lasted for approximately two years, from 213 BC to 212 BC, during the Second Punic War.

What were the ultimate outcomes and consequences of the siege for the Roman Republic?

The Roman victory resulted in the capture of Syracuse and its territories, including Sicily, which became a Roman province. This expanded Roman control over the Mediterranean region.

Also, the successful siege and capture of Syracuse bolstered the reputation of the Roman military and its commander, Marcus Claudius Marcellus.

What were the ultimate outcomes and consequences of the siege for the Syracusans?

The siege caused immense destruction to the city of Syracuse and its infrastructure. Many of its citizens were killed or captured, and the city’s wealth and resources were looted by the Roman forces.

After the fall of Syracuse, the city lost its independence and autonomy as it became a Roman province. Its political and cultural identity were assimilated into the Roman Republic.

Why couldn’t the Carthaginians come to the aid of Syracuse during the siege?

During the Siege of Syracuse, the Carthaginians did initially come to the aid of the city. However, their efforts were hampered by the Roman blockade of the city’s harbor, which prevented Carthaginian reinforcements from reaching Syracuse.

The Roman fleet effectively cut off Syracuse from outside support, isolating the city and making it difficult for the Carthaginians to provide substantial assistance. As a result, despite their initial intentions, the Carthaginians were unable to break the Roman blockade and offer meaningful help to the besieged city.

Besides the Carthaginians had their hands full as their land forces were in a fierce battle with Rome in Hispania.

Why did Rome win?

In the early months of the siege, Carthaginian general Hippocrates, along with the Greek engineer and scientist Archimedes, successfully defended Syracuse against the initial Roman attacks.

Later, the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus arrived with a large fleet and additional troops to intensify the siege. His strategic skills and military prowess shifted the balance in favor of the Romans.

The Romans captured a Carthaginian ship called the Hexapuma, which provided them with valuable information about the fortifications of Syracuse and its defenses.

The death of the great mathematician and inventor Archimedes during the siege was a significant turning point. His genius had been instrumental in developing effective defense mechanisms for Syracuse, and his loss was a blow to the city’s resistance.

What happened at the Siege of Syracuse?

The fall of Syracuse marked a significant victory for the Romans in their struggle against Carthage during the Second Punic War. It allowed the Romans to gain control of Sicily, further expanding their influence in the Mediterranean region.

What is the meaning of “Noli turbare circulos meos!”?

“Noli turbare circulos meos!” is a Latin phrase attributed to Archimedes, the renowned Greek mathematician and inventor. It is often translated as “Do not disturb my circles!”

According to historical accounts, Archimedes spoke these words when a Roman soldier interrupted him while he was busy drawing geometric shapes in the sand, but the soldier did not understand the significance of Archimedes’ work and killed him.

The phrase “Do not disturb my circles!” (Latin: Noli turbare circulos meos!) is generally believed to be the last words of Archimedes before he was slain by a Roman soldier during the Siege of Syracuse. Image: “Death of Archimedes” – an 1815 oil on canvas painting

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