Archimedes. Never bring a knife to a mathematician fight.


Archimedes, a man of Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily, Greece and Italy. Over the weeks I have been here, it is truly amazing as to how much History is embedded into the rock and architecture of the city and its surrounding outskirts. No matter how deep you dig and delve there is still more to find. This is where we discover a true genius, Archimedes.


Each narrow street and passageway on the island of Ortigia can still hold something new that you’ve not seen or noticed before. Huge double doorways bar entry in courtyards that seem to open at various times of the day. Allowing entry into courtyards with clean and crisp sandstone walls with laid volcanic rock floors.


The courtyards host music, residents, tourists, bars and cafes. Each with their similar stone, yet an entirely different style of design. Baroque, Greek, medieval, modern, and Arabic.

Churches are scattered throughout the city, some now empty, some with art, such as Caravaggio, who for a time lived in the island and paid his way by selling his services and art to the church.


There are other hidden wonders to be found which includes the two museums dedicated to Archimedes. The nearest to the Caravaggio church starts with you being given a set of headphones, which react and tell a different story depending on the and the object you are nearest, and there is a story told for each room. However, the first room you enter in this museum is huge and feels like a barn for its size. It takes you on a journey of Archimedes and the city by projecting images on all four walls. In a beautiful attempt to place you inside Ancient Greek Ortigia. I’ve honestly never been in anything quite like it. Exceptional, especially as I’ve been to the major theme parks and museums in the U.K., some in Europe, and the US as well as Disney land. From there you go into rooms demonstrating his inventions and mathematics. They try to demonstrate his mathematical principals with toys and games and you think you’ve mastered some of his work and concepts. However, in the end, you’re bubble of intelligence is burst and you’re told only a handful of people in the world can truly understand his work. Incredible considering the man existed 2000 years ago.

Archimedes museum

I guess that shows to some extent why his war machines kicked Roman butt. They say never take a knife to a gun fight. I’m more concerned if they have a genius mathematician. His weapons were apparently devastating, weapons including the claw of Archimedes and the Archimedes death ray. That last one is not a joke but maybe just a myth.

The stories, which were written over a hundred years later, describe various weapons that the genius built for the defence of Siracusa. Archimedes rebuilt catapults and bolt throwers which could fire beyond normal distance for the time.

Claw of Archimedes

If the Roman ships got past his catapults and bolt thrower Archimedes had created a device to destroy the ships known as the claw of Archimedes. It was a lever. A claw or hook was used to attach itself to the Roman ship, and most likely using a counterweight, lift the ship onto its side and sink it.

7 Amazing Inventions from Archimedes

Archimedes Death Ray

We also have accounts of the Archimede’s death ray. However, the account was written about 150 years later but it was reported to be able to set ships on fire. Some tv shows and scientist in recent years have attempted to rebuild this with some varying success. The idea was to use the sun and to capture its heat and then focus this on the wooden Roman ships.

Wall painting from the Stanzino delle Matematiche in the Galleria degli Uffizi (Florence, Italy). Painted by Giulio Parigi (1571-1635) in the years 1599-1600.

A quote from the lost book: The Siege of Syracuse.

When Marcellus [The Roman General] had placed the ships a bow shot off, the old man [Archimedes] constructed a sort of hexagonal mirror. He placed at proper distances from the mirror other smaller mirrors of the same kind, which were moved by means of their hinges and certain plates of metal. He placed it amid the rays of the sun at noon, both in summer and winter. The rays being reflected by this, a frightful fiery kindling was excited on the ships, and it reduced them to ashes, from the distance of a bow shot. Thus the old man baffled Marcellus, by means of his inventions.

Still, the city did fall to the Romans. when a citizen of Siracusa opened the gates for them one night. Archimedes was killed that night, stories do vary on how he died. The most famous being that he was sat at his desk and refused to move when Roman guards entered his property. His reason being that he was working on his calculations and did not want to be disturbed or moved just because the city was being ransacked. So the Roman centurion struck him down.


Archimedes Mathematics

Some other things have been attributed to this mathematical genius. I will not delve into his mathematics too profoundly. From what I’ve understood, Archimedes came up with the Archimedes principle. He calculated the size and depth of a cylinder and sphere, as well as realising they are one and the same in size.

Archimedes Principle

He also created the Archimedes Principle. He managed to calculate the weight of an object by placing it in water. A king had given him a complex puzzle. To see how much gold had been placed in the King’s crown. One night, while getting into a bath, as the water went up, the solution jumped into his head. He could weigh the crown and an equal amount of gold into a bath, the density of a different metal, would release a different amount of water. However, he was so excited that he jumped out, and ran down the street, shouting ‘Eureka’ meaning ‘I found it.’ An intelligent moment, arguably lacking wisdom as he was naked.

Later, Archimedes created two crowns of equal size to the original, one made of gold and one made of silver. He placed both in the bath and noted how much water was displaced. The silver rose more than the gold. He then placed the King’s crown and discovered it rose higher than the crown made of gold; meaning it was made of a combination of both gold and silver! He had proved the crown was not of pure gold and created the Archimedes Principle!

Antikythera mechanism

Finally, and there are some proof and reason to believe this was possibly constructed by Archimedes. There is the Antikythera mechanism. It was found on the island of Antikythera in the Mediterranean and was on an ancient Greek ship. This is an ancient calculator and the first known computer. This mechanism could predict the cycle of planets, the sun, the moon and the earth, and was discovered off the coast in 1902. Its creation can be attributed to some extent to Archimedes by the Roman General who took the city pf Ortigia and brought two similarly described devices back to Rome. The device is so advanced that a British Physicist once said it would be ‘like finding a jet fighter in King Tuts tomb.’ This is arguably one of the first computers in existence, yet was built roughly 2000 years ago.

If you fancy another dive into a museum, there is the Da Vinci and Archimedes museum, less than a few hundred meters away. More Da Vinci then Archimedes. Again containing all sorts of contraptions, most of which you can tug and pull, from Da Vinci’s pulleys and leavers to his hang glider. Another genius of Italy but to my knowledge no association to Ortigia other than enjoying and learning from the work of Archimedes. If you’re into his work, I’d still recommend it. It’s definitely a museum, an island and two geniuses that can inspire you.

There are other things to visit as well, the Archaeological Park, which has life-size versions of their weapons. The park also contains a Roman amphitheatre, a Greek theatre and a sacrificial monument. All of which I will save for another week as I’m hoping to see my first outdoor play there this week.

Teatro Greco

On a final note, based on our theme of knowledge this week, the first Sunday of every month, all the museums on the island are free. Considering there is all of this and a national museum next to the archaeological park there is plenty of culture and history that you can get stuck into on a Sunday.

Thanks for reading and bye for this week.

Click here to access the Museum’s website.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Love the title of this piece- and the scientific history of the area. Who knew it was such a cradle of genius?

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