Do not disturb my circles: Plutarch’s Archimedes


One of the long haul reading projects I currently have going is Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, aka Parallel Lives or simply Lives. One of my favorite pieces is on Marcus Claudius Marcellus, in which Archimedes, one of the great mathematicians and inventors appears. While there are plenty of military anecdotes throughout the work, this interlude with Archimedes reads like an ’80s action film.

A little historical detour through the context Plutarch gives us: 

“But Plato was incensed at this, and inveighed against them as corrupters and destroyers of the pure excellence of geometry, which thus turned her back upon the incorporeal things of abstract thought and descended to the things of sense, making use, moreover, of objects which required much mean and manual labour. For this reason mechanics was made entirely distinct from geometry, and being for a long time ignored by philosophers, came to be regarded as one of the military arts.”

Who knows how much of this is true, but it’s fun to read about the dichotomy of theory and praxis as related here to ancient philosophy. Plato and Socrates are frequently depicted, even comically as in The Clouds, as serious chasers of the abstract and Truth, though it’s difficult to know how much of this perspective is real. Plato, based on his own writings, is particularly difficult to pin down. No one may have known more about not heeding Plato’s warning than Oppenheimer, who described the destructive capabilities of the nuclear weapons he helped create by applying theoretical physics to warfare through another ancient document: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Recently, some folks were upset that Brie Larson said Captain Marvel could move planets. They said it was “stupid” based on Captain Marvel’s abilities in the comics. I get pretty confused about the logic of what is stupid and what isn’t for superheroes. Anyway, long before Captain Marvel, Archimedes suggested he could move planets. He doesn’t do that, but he does build some magnificent booby traps. This seems to be how he got the anti-Indiana Jones job:

“And yet even Archimedes, who was a kinsman and friend of King Hiero, wrote to him that with any given force it was possible to move any given weight; and emboldened, as we are told, by the strength of his demonstration, he declared that, if there were another world, and he could go to it, he could move this. Hiero was astonished, and begged him to put his proposition into execution, and show him some great weight moved by a slight force. Archimedes therefore fixed upon a three-masted merchantman of the royal fleet, which had been dragged ashore by the great labours of many men, and after putting on board many passengers and the customary freight, he seated himself at a distance from her, and without any great effort, but quietly setting in motion with his hand a system of compound pulleys, drew her towards him smoothly and evenly, as though she were gliding through the water. Amazed at this, then, and comprehending the power of his art, the king persuaded Archimedes to prepare for him offensive and defensive engines to be used in every kind of siege warfare. These he had never used himself, because he spent the greater part of his life in freedom from war and amid the festal rites of peace; but at the present time his apparatus stood the Syracusans in good stead, and, with the apparatus, its fabricator.”

So Archimedes makes a large boast, but ends up moving a large boat. Good enough. He defends the Syracusans against the Romans almost single-handedly through cantraptions like giant claws, beaks, stones, arrows, etc., and a scorpion, which sounds like a GI Joe vehicle. Maybe the following was also an influence on Home Alone.

“When, therefore, the Romans assaulted them by sea and land, the Syracusans were stricken dumb with terror; they thought that nothing could withstand so furious an onset by such forces. But Archimedes began to ply his engines, and shot against the land forces of the assailants all sorts of missiles and immense masses of stones, which came down with incredible din and speed; nothing whatever could ward off their weight, but they knocked down in heaps those who stood in their way, and threw their ranks into confusion. At the same time huge beams were suddenly projected over the ships from the walls, which sank some of them with great weights plunging down from on high; others were seized at the prow by iron claws, or beaks like the beaks of cranes, drawn straight up into the air, and then plunged stern foremost into the depths, or were turned round and round by means of enginery within the city, and dashed upon the steep cliffs that jutted out beneath the wall of the city, with great destruction of the fighting men on board, who perished in the wrecks. Frequently, too, a ship would be lifted out of the water into mid-air, whirled hither and thither as it hung there, a dreadful spectacle, until its crew had been thrown out and hurled in all directions, when it would fall empty upon the walls, or slip away from the clutch that had held it.”

The Romans decide a smaller attack at night. It doesn’t go well either.

“When, therefore, the Romans came up under the walls, thinking themselves unnoticed, once more they encountered a great storm of missiles; huge stones came tumbling down upon them almost perpendicularly, and the wall shot out arrows at them from every point; they therefore retired. And here again, when they were some distance off, missiles darted forth and fell upon them as they were going away, and there was great slaughter among them; many of their ships, too, were dashed together, and they could not retaliate in any way upon their foes. For Archimedes had built most of his engines close behind the wall, and the Romans seemed to be fighting against the gods, now that countless mischiefs were poured out upon them from an invisible source.”

Archimedes becomes a literal God-in-the-machines. Below Marcellus displays his military skills and rhetorical flourishes.

“However, Marcellus made his escape, and jesting with his own artificers and engineers, ‘Let us stop,’ said he, ‘fighting against this geometrical Briareus, who uses our ships like cups to ladle water from the sea, and has whipped and driven off in disgrace our sambuca, and with the many missiles which he shoots against us all at once, outdoes the hundred-handed monsters of mythology.’ For in reality all the rest of the Syracusans were but a body for the designs of Archimedes, and his the one soul moving and managing everything; for all other weapons lay idle, and his alone were then employed by the city both in offence and defence. At last the Romans became so fearful that, whenever they saw a bit of rope or a stick of timber projecting a little over the wall, ‘There it is,’ they cried, ‘Archimedes is training some engine upon us,’ and turned their backs and fled. Seeing this, Marcellus desisted from all fighting and assault, and thenceforth depended on a long siege.” […]

“Some time afterwards he made a prisoner of a certain Damippus, a Spartan who tried to sail away from Syracuse. The Syracusans sought to ransom this man back, and during the frequent meetings and conferences which he held with them about the matter, Marcellus noticed a certain tower that was carelessly guarded, into which men could be secretly introduced, since the wall near it was easy to surmount. When, therefore, in his frequent approaches to it for holding these conferences, the height of the tower had been carefully estimated, and ladders had been prepared, he seized his opportunity when the Syracusans were celebrating a festival in honour of Artemis and were given over to wine and sport, and before they knew of his attempt not only got possession of the tower, but also filled the wall round about with armed men, before the break of day, and cut his way through the Hexapyla. When the Syracusans perceived this and began to run about confusedly, he ordered the trumpets to sound on all sides at once and thus put them to flight in great terror, believing as they did that no part of the city remained uncaptured.”

Thus Marcellus becomes victorious. Archimedes then suffers three deaths. Maybe. However Archimedes was “dispatched,” the invader and victor, Marcellus, was bummed.

“But what most of all afflicted Marcellus was the death of Archimedes. For it chanced that he was by himself, working out some problem with the aid of a diagram, and having fixed his thoughts and his eyes as well upon the matter of his study, he was not aware of the incursion of the Romans or of the capture of the city. Suddenly a soldier came upon him and ordered him to go with him to Marcellus. This Archimedes refused to do until he had worked out his problem and established his demonstration, whereupon the soldier flew into a passion, drew his sword, and dispatched him. Others, however, say that the Roman came upon him with drawn sword threatening to kill him at once, and that Archimedes, when he saw him, earnestly besought him to wait a little while, that he might not leave the result that he was seeking incomplete and without demonstration; but the soldier paid no heed to him and made an end of him. There is also a third story, that as Archimedes was carrying to Marcellus some of his mathematical instruments, such as sun-dials and spheres and quadrants, by means of which he made the magnitude of the sun appreciable to the eye, some soldiers fell in with him, and thinking that he was carrying gold in the box, slew him. However, it is generally agreed that Marcellus was afflicted at his death, and turned away from his slayer as from a polluted person, and sought out the kindred of Archimedes and paid them honour.”

All quotes from the 1917 Loeb edition.

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