The Death of Archimedes

Michael Lahanas

Griechische Mathematik: Der Tod des Archimedes

Dont disturb my circles (Archimedes probably said: Noli turbare circulos meos!) Archimedes of Syracuse (287 – 212) BC last words before he was killed by a roman soldier. According to William Rankin ( “Introducing Newton” Totem Books) the only appearance of a Roman in the history of Mathematics. There is also a story of another Greek, the poet Kavafis (or Cavafy). It is recorded that his last motion before dying was to draw a circle on a sheet of blank paper, and then to place a period in the middle of it.

According to Dijksterhuis it is unlikely that Archimedes used to write outside on sand but more likely he was in his home using an abax, a device to write with pulvis "the sand" (a version supported by a mosaic in the Herculaneum).

Unfortunately, from about the same time as the end of the Second Punic War, Rome's subjugation of southern Italy, the conquest of Greece, and subsequent developments to similar effect, the great achievements of Greek and Hellenistic culture were either destroyed or bowdlerized through the long sweep, circa 212 B.C. to A.D. 1400, of the region of the Mediterranean and its vicinity by the morally and intellectually corrupting impact of the decadent, eclectic system of Rome. This corruption generated that which came to be known as the Latin legacy, or, by the modern technical term Romanticism. Carl Gauss's Fundamental Theorem of Algebra

Archimedes by Gerhard Thieme , Archimedes by Gerhard Thieme another view

But nothing afflicted Marcellus so much as the death of Archimedes, who was then, as fate would have it, intent upon working out some problem by a diagram, and having fixed his mind alike and his eyes upon the subject of his speculation, he never noticed the incursion of the Romans, nor that the city was taken. In this transport of study and contemplation, a soldier, unexpectedly coming up to him, commanded him to follow to Marcellus; which he declining to do before he had worked out his problem to a demonstration, the soldier, enraged, drew his sword and ran him through. Others write that a Roman soldier, running upon him with a drawn sword, offered to kill him; and that Archimedes, looking back, earnestly besought him to hold his hand a little while, that he might not leave what he was then at work upon inconclusive and imperfect; but the soldier, nothing moved by his entreaty, instantly killed him. Others again relate that, as Archimedes was carrying to Marcellus mathematical instruments, dials, spheres, and angles, by which the magnitude of the sun might be measured to the sight, some soldiers seeing him, and thinking that he carried gold in a vessel, slew him. Certain it is that his death was very afflicting to Marcellus; and that Marcellus ever after regarded him that killed him as a murderer; and that he sought for his kindred and honoured them with signal favours.
Plutarch (AD 45-120), Parallel Lives: Marcellus (Translation by John Dryden (1631-1700))

The death of Archimedes by the hands of a Roman soldier is symbolical of a world-change of the first magnitude: the Greeks, with their love of abstract science, were superseded in the leadership of the European world by the practical Romans. Lord Beaconsfield, in one of his novels, has defined a practical man as a man who practises the errors of his forefathers. The Romans were a great race, but they were cursed with the sterility which waits upon practicality. They did not improve upon the knowledge of their forefathers, and all their advances were confined to the minor technical details of engineering. They were not dreamers enough to arrive at new points of view, which could give a more fundamental control over the forces of nature. No Roman lost his life because he was absorbed in the contemplation of a mathematical diagram.
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), An Introduction to Mathematics, Williams & Norgate, London, 1911, (Oxford University Press, 1958, pages 25-26)

Marcellus apologized to Archimedes' relatives, and the sphere-and-cylinder symbol was placed on his grave, where the Roman politician Cicero sought and found it 137 years later. Dr. George F. Simmons of Colorado College, Colorado Springs, commented in "Calculus Gems" that "the Romans were so uninterested in mathematics that Cicero's act in cleaning up Archimedes' grave was perhaps the most memorable contribution of any Roman to the history of mathematics."

Sophie Germain was a French woman mathematician born in 1776. At the age of 13 years she was reading Archimedes story of his death. Sophie figured that any subject which could hold a person in so much concentrated fascination must be worth studying, and she decided to teach herself mathematics - in particular number theory. Her parents were worried so much about her interest in mathematics as she was a girl and at the time she lived it was unusual a women to be a mathematician, so they confiscated her candles and removed all heating from her room. She responded by building up a secret hoard of candles and then sitting at her table wrapped in blankets. Her parents wisely relented and funded her studies. Sophie, found a student who was leaving Paris, Antoine-August Le Blanc, and secretly took his place, using his name to send and receive material from the recently opened Ecole Polytechnic since only males were admitted. Joseph-Louis Lagrange was her supervisor and was astonished that this student could have improved so much - from a terrible student to one whose weekly assignments (sent of course by post) were the finest in the class. He asked to meet Mr Le Blanc and was astonished to find that the Mr was now a Miss! Sophie became one of the greatest number theorists of her time.

Many Illustrations of Archimedes death

Tomb of Archimedes

Death of other Scientists

Plutarch: Marcellus, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

Death of Archimedes after a painting of E. Vimont.

Versions , last words of Archimedes:

  • Cassus: Par kefalan kai mi para gramman, "The head and not the lines"
  • Georgios Pachymeris: Par kefalan plittein, mi tan gramman afanizein, "heat me (my head) do not destroy the lines (drawing)
  • Tzetzes: Apostithi o anthrope tou diagrammatos mou, "Stay away man from my diagram"
  • Unknown: Mi mou tous kyklous taratte: "Don't disturb my circles"

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