Siege of Syracuse (214–212 BC)

Siege of Syracuse (214–212 BC)

The Siege of Syracuse by the Roman Republic took place in 214-212 BC, at the end of which the Magna Graecia Hellenistic city of Syracuse, located on the east coast of Sicily, fell. The Romans razed the city and took control of eastern Sicily. During the siege, the city was protected by weapons developed by Archimedes in response to a request from Hieron, king of Syracuse; Archimedes himself was slain at the conclusion of the siege by a Roman soldier, in contravention of the Roman general, Marcellus', instructions to spare the conquered citizen's lives.

Prelude

Events after Cannae showed the Romans the importance of sieges in ancient warfare. Hannibal found it difficult to capture any cities with extensive fortifications in place, including Rome (despite rumours that he was seen but five miles from the city at one point). His lack of siege equipment was his downfall; however, some cities sided with the Carthaginian general. Among these there was the city of Syracuse on the eastern coast of Sicily, which rebelled against Roman rule in 213 BC.

A Roman force led by the General Marcus Claudius Marcellus consequently laid siege to the port city by sea and land. Among the Syracuse defenders was the mathematician and scientist Archimedes. It is often claimed that his presence helped to prolong the Syracusan defence; he organised multiple catapult and ballista fire upon the Roman besiegers. He also designed hooks that lifted the boats out of the sea and, according to legend, engineered mirrors that reflected light to create a sort of ancient "death ray".

Siege

Though the Romans had their own devices and inventions, including the Sambucae, scaling ladders mounted upon the Roman ships and lowered through pulleys attached to their ship's mast onto the huge walls of Syracuse, Archimedes' defensive devices were used to smash the ladders as they touched the walls.

The siege dragged on for many months. The Romans could not keep their blockade tight enough to stop supplies reaching the city. The Carthaginians tried and failed to relieve the city from its Roman besiegers. In 212 BC however while the inhabitants were participating in a festival to their goddess Artemis, the Romans managed to get over the walls and into the outer city. After scaling the walls, the Romans began the onslaught. Marcus Claudius Marcellus had ordered that Archimedes, the well-known mathematician - and possibly equally well-known to Marcellus as the inventor of the mechanical devices that had so dominated the siege - should not be killed. Archimedes, who was now around 78 years of age, continued his studies after the breach by the Romans. While at home, his work was disturbed by a Roman soldier. The soldier, not knowing who he was, killed Archimedes.

The Romans now controlled the outer city, however the remainder of the population of Syracuse moved to the inner citadel of the city. The Romans besieged this smaller area now, and were more successful in cutting off supplies. After an eight-month siege a Syracusan traitor opened the gates to the Romans who then executed or enslaved most of the city's population; the city was looted and sacked.

Aftermath

The city of Syracuse was now under the influence of Rome again, thus uniting the whole of Sicily as a Roman province. The island would be an important step onto both Africa and Greece in coming Roman conflicts. Syracuse would be an important city for the Roman empire until well into the 5th century, playing both a military and economic part in the creation of the empire; the retaking of Syracuse also ensured that the Carthaginians could not get a foothold in Sicily, which could have led them onto Italy and Rome where they may have been better prepared with suitable siege equipment.

References

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