We are just too inspired. Your editor and her small family are exploring the island of Sicily… and our surroundings have forced us to pen/type a few thoughts on our recent locale.
In fact, we have a pretty spectacular object in our sights… though it’s not exactly ancient… but straight out our window is one of the world’s largest megayachts… really.
Sporting two helicopters, a whirlpool, a glass bottomed pool and a ten person submarine, the 126 meter Octopus, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is an impressive sight to behold. It also boasts a cinema, a juice bar and a music recording studio… and is protected by Navy Seals.
It’s seriously money.
Now, this ultra modern ship may seem out of place in an ancient seaside town, indeed in these pages as well. But actually, it’s quite fitting… because this isn’t the first impressive vessel to wade these waters.
In fact, this Sicilian port was once home to classical antiquity’s largest boat, one that was only 16 meters shorter than the Octopus.
Built around 240 BC, the Syracusia could hold almost 2,000 passengers and reputedly bore more than 200 soldiers. Features included a garden, an indoor bath room with hot water, a library, a gymnasium, as well as a small temple dedicated to Aphrodite.
There were eight towers on the top deck which was supported by beautifully crafted wooden Atlases. All public spaces were decorated with ivory and marble and floored with mosaics depicting the entire story of the Iliad.
Oh, and there was a catapult.
Makes our modern equivalents look pretty puny, eh?
But amazingly enough, the man behind the Syracusia was even more impressive.
The designer of Syracuse’s magnificent ship was the city’s most famous native. A polymath and a verifiable genius, he is generally considered the leading scientist and greatest mathematician of antiquity, indeed one of the greatest of all time.
We are talking about Archimedes.
Ah… the “Eureka!” man, you may be thinking… and you would be right.
The most famous anecdote of the mathematician comes from his days in service of King Hiero II. According to Vitruvius, a votive crown for a temple had been made for the king of Syracuse, who had supplied the gold for such a purpose. However, the royal was a bit suspicious that the crown was wholly gold, thinking that the greedy goldsmith had kept some for himself and used silver to make up the weight.
Archimedes was set on the task of finding out…without damaging the crown. It was a tricky problem, as the answer lie in finding out the density, not just the weight of the piece in question.
But then Archimedes took a bath (or so the story goes), and as he sunk into the tub he noticed the water rising… ah displacement!
It was at this moment that our hero figured out that by dividing the mass of the crown by the volume of water displaced, the density of the crown could be obtained… cheaper materials (aka not gold) would have a lesser density.
Incredibly pleased with this realization, Archimedes jumped out the bath, still naked, crying, “Eureka!” (I’ve found it!)
Of course, this could be a slightly fanciful version, as the story does not actually appear in any of the known works by Archimedes.
Moreover, on a scale of wow to super Archimedes cool, the crown yarn hardly ranks on the list.
His warfare inventions, however, are truly something to talk about. In fact, our own Van Bryan has done an excellent job covering some of his stranger/more villainous inventions. (If you haven’t had a chance to read it, we highly suggest giving it a lookover here: https://classicalwisdom.com/archimedes-super-villain/.)
Other notable (less violent) contributions from the Sicilian are the odometer, the compound pulley and the Archimedes pump screw, a still popular tool for bringing water upwards (out of the bottom of the hull of a giant ship, for example).
But it was in Mathematics where Archimedes truly shone… where his insights have had the greatest impact. He anticipated modern calculus and analysis by applying concepts of infinitesimals and the method of exhaustion to derive and rigorously prove a range of geometrical theorems, including the area of a circle, the surface area and volume of a sphere, and the fun area under a parabola.
Archimedes’ other mathematical achievements include deriving an accurate approximation of pi (he was really very close), defining and investigating the spiral bearing his name, and creating a system using exponentiation for expressing very large numbers. He basically made his own numbers, not being fully satisfied with those already in existence.
He was also one of the first to apply mathematics to physical phenomena, founding hydrostatics and statics, as well as an explanation of the principle of the lever.
You can’t help but be impressed by Archimedes.
In fact, even his enemies were… when Archimedes was killed at the end of the siege of Syracuse, the Roman General Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the man heading the attack, was very upset. He had requested that the great mind be spared… and when he hadn’t, the General ensured that Archimedes was properly buried. His tomb illustrated the mathematician’s favorite proof, consisting of a sphere and a cylinder of the same height and diameter.
137 years after Archimedes’ death, the famous Roman Orator, Cicero, found himself dispatched to Sicily. He wanted to find the mathematicians’ tomb, but the locals were not able to tell him the location. Eventually Cicero discovered it, unkept and overgrown, near the Agrigentine gate in Syracuse. After cleaning it up, Cicero saw the carving and read some of the verses that had been added as an inscription.
Sadly, the tomb’s location has once again been lost… neglected or hidden somewhere on this island.
While Archimedes’ other contributions have not been forgotten, not all have maintained their once esteemed statuses. His beautiful ship, the Syracusia, only sailed once to Alexandria before she was outdone.
Ptolemy’s son won the prize of having the largest vessel when he ordered the construction of a huge warship, the Tessarakonteres. It was 128 meters long, and bore more than 4,000 oarsmen and 2,850 soldiers… though according to Plutarch, it was almost immobile.
Our modern counterpart, the Octopus, still moored outside our window, suffered the same fate. While it held the honor of largest megayacht in the world after its completion in 2003, it now stands in the 11th position. The Azzam, a full 54 meters longer, is now the winner…but we suspect it can move.