BMCR 2008.09.61

Archimedes and the Roman Imagination

, Archimedes and the Roman imagination. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. 1 online resource (ix, 230 pages). ISBN 9780472025329 $65.00.

Archimedes of Syracuse is perhaps the most famous scientist of antiquity. In recent years, he has enjoyed renewed popularity, thanks to the discovery in 1998 of a long-lost palimpsest containing some of his most important works. The palimpsest is being examined with state-of-the-art techniques, that have allowed further insights into Archimedes’ mathematical genius, while the story of how the document came to be written, erased and written over, found, lost, then found again, reads like a compelling detective story.1 Indeed, the life of Archimedes, designer of powerful weapons who ended up killed by a Roman soldier as the city of Syracuse was taken in 212 BC, is itself compelling material, and it constituted a rich resource for ancient writers, from Cicero to Livy to Vitruvius.

Mary Jaeger’s book is the first detailed exploration of what Archimedes signified for these authors — she thoroughly and convincingly demonstrates that he was “good to think with” (9), and therefore that understanding the nuances of the Archimedes ‘myth’, as we could call it, leads to a better understanding of cultural life in the Roman era, and of “how the Romans presented themselves as thinkers” (7). More specifically, Jaeger concentrates on what the fragments of Archimedes’ life found in the works of Polybius, Cicero, Plutarch, and others, can tell us about the writing of biography, and what the transmitted memory of him can tell us about the construction and representation of monuments, literary and material, in Roman culture.

No complete life of Archimedes is extant from antiquity. The authors in Jaeger’s book all talk about him in the course of talking about something else or someone else, so his biography is a string of episodes, around which the various chapters revolve. The first deals with the story of the crown, or ‘Eureka’ story. Archimedes was asked by the king of Syracuse to find out whether a crown he had commissioned from a craftsman was made entirely of gold, as expected, or in fact fraudulently composed of gold and silver. In uncovering the deception while immersed in a bath, Archimedes also discovered one of the principles of hydrodynamics. Jaeger has interesting things to say about the figure of the wet, naked Archimedes running down the streets while shouting ‘I have found! I have found!’. He emerges from the various versions of the story as an “intellectual athlete” (22), but at the same time as a parody of the traditional athlete. Two of the recurrent features of the book are well exemplified here: Jaeger is adamant that the Archimedes she analyzes is a construction, and not necessarily the ‘real thing’ (6, 7, 10, 12). Consequently, she does not spend too much time assessing the sources’ reliability, or the plausibility of the Eureka story. Secondly, she is clear from the beginning that her focus is not on Archimedes’ scientific contributions, such as are to be found in his extant treatises, but on what his scientific aura meant to others. Consequently, in chapter one she does not embark on a reconstruction of Archimedes’ crown experiment — something that was attempted by, among others, Galileo Galilei. Instead of the contents of his mind, refreshingly, attention is drawn to Archimedes’ body and its depictions in Vitruvius and Plutarch.

Chapter two discusses Cicero’s account of his discovery of Archimedes’ tomb while he was a quaestor in Sicily.2 Jaeger dissects the story in great detail, and situates it persuasively within the wider contexts of the “Tusculanae Disputationes” (where it is contained) and of Cicero’s late work. She shows how Cicero identifies with Archimedes, and how the story allows him to reflect on the role of memory, on happiness, and on death, as well as on the relationship between Romans and Greeks, and Sicilian Greeks in particular. Chapter three is about the two astronomical spheres allegedly built by Archimedes and brought to Rome as war booty by Marcellus, the general responsible for taking Syracuse. Cicero mentions them in his “De re publica”, and again Jaeger offers a nuanced analysis of what purpose the two scientific objects serve in the dialogue, and more generally in Cicero’s view of knowledge and politics. She writes: “[t]he image of the two spheres is emblematic of Cicero’s way of casting the Roman appropriation of Greek cultural capital as both inheritance and rediscovery” (68). After a short coda on what Archimedes’ sphere is doing in the fourth-century astrology treatise by Julius Firmicus Maternus (answer: it “performs the same role in producing cultural capital as did Cicero’s description of two spheres”, 72) chapter four tackles the crucial question, “Who killed Archimedes?” (77). It was a Roman soldier, despite Marcellus’ order that the scientist’s life be saved. This much we know — but Jaeger also manages to show that Archimedes’ death meant different things to different people. The various versions of the story are reflections on the theme of Roman v. Greek identity, especially in the fraught context of conquest, and on moral responsibility in war. The death of Archimedes in fact was manipulated, to the point of ‘Romanizing’ him, for purposes that may have included justifying Marcellus’ behaviour. Manipulation is again patent in the case of Plutarch, who, along with Polybius, is the focus of chapter five. By examining the story of the siege of Syracuse, Jaeger reaches the conclusion that “both Polybius and Plutarch use the story to represent the “‘true’ and ancient Roman character” at a crucial point in its development, by showing its limits.” (122) A coda on Claudian (who wrote a short poem on, again, Archimedes’ sphere) is followed by chapter six, on Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), whose Archimedes derived from the classical authors previously discussed by Jaeger, and was used for the Italian humanist’s own reflections on memory, mortality and the value of knowledge.

“Archimedes and the Roman Imagination” is teeming with ideas, subtle observations and stimulating remarks that prompt further thought. It would be fair to say that Jaeger’s book does not have an overarching ‘big thesis’ (14), but that is no bad thing. Take the pervasive theme of the significance of Archimedes for the question of Roman v. Greek cultural identity. The issue suffers somewhat from over-exposure at present — Jaeger, sensibly, eschews a monolithic discussion of it, preferring to remark on it here and then, whenever appropriate.

Sometimes, as I mentioned, one wishes some issues had been developed further. Like many ancient scientists and technologists, Archimedes is a socially ambiguous figure. He is described as close to the kings of Syracuse, and yet humble, even obscure. Jaeger is aware of this ambiguity, and speculates (unconvincingly, in my view) that he was represented or perceived as being of low status, or portrayed as a comic slave (27-28). But wider questions are at stake here, and more evidence, from a wider range of sources, needs to be brought into the picture. As Jaeger must be aware, the highly literate tradition she concentrates on, and even the image of Archimedes as the epitome of Greek abstract thinking, are not the only tradition or image of him available. Arguably, writers from a more technical background (Hero of Alexandria for instance) portray him rather differently, and emphasize those aspects of his work that lead to the solution of practical problems. It would be interesting to see what light is gained by juxtaposing and contrasting all the different Archimedes-es that have come down to us from antiquity.

The most intriguing aspect for me, however, is when Jaeger grounds the main moment of coagulation of the ‘Archimedes myth’ in the very process that led to the formation of Latin literature and the emerging of a Roman cultural identity (9), around the second half of the third century BC. This theme resurfaces in her discussion of Cicero in chapters two and three, and in the conclusion, where she writes: “Cicero. . . incorporates Archimedes’ technology into his own program of creating an aristocracy of Romans linked not by noble ancestors but by intellectual achievement” (151). This is a fascinating thread. The contrast between Roman traditional aristocratic values and intellectual achievement is crucial to our understanding of late Republican Roman society, but, as per my point above, it is also crucial that we realize the multiplicity of voices involved. Cicero was not the only author to argue for the primacy of intellectual achievement over more traditionally aristocratic measures of worth. Greater perusal of the French and Italian literature on Vitruvius, which Jaeger largely omits, would have shown that Vitruvius, too, is dealing with this question. Obviously, Cicero and Vitruvius entertained different notions of intellectual achievement, and embodied intellectual achievement in their own careers with widely different outcomes. And yet, they both used Archimedes to ‘think with’. In sum, the reader is left to ruminate whether a big (or bigger) thesis on the role of intellectual achievement — specifically scientific and technological achievement — in the late Republic and early Empire was not in there somewhere, for Jaeger to draw out and fully articulate.

Overall, this is an important and stimulating book. Historians of science who may be only familiar with Archimedes’ scientific contributions will learn a lot from it, and those ancient historians and classicists who still break out in a rash at the mention of ‘science’ or ‘mathematics’ will see that there is nothing to fear, and (again) a lot to learn. Jaeger writes interestingly and accessibly for both constituencies. My expectation is that her book will push Archimedes into the mainstream of ancient cultural history, where he belongs, while adding the Syracusan genius to the repertoire of iconic figures that we know to have been central to the Roman imagination.


1. See R. Netz and W. Noel, The Archimedes Codex. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007.

2. An earlier version of this chapter was published as “Cicero and Archimedes’ Tomb.” Journal of Roman Studies 92 (2002): 49-61.