The Syracusia Ship

Michael Lahanas

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.
Archimedes, (287-212) BC. King Hieron, who was absolutely astonished by the statement, asked him to prove it. In the harbour was the Syracusia, a 55 meters long ship, that had proved impossible to launch even by the combined efforts of many men from Syracuse. Archimedes, who had been examining the properties of levers and pulleys, built a machine that allowed him to single-handedly move the ship, that included the complete crew, from a distance away.

[Archimedes] had stated [in a letter to King Hieron] that given the force, any given weight might be moved, and even boasted, we are told, relying on the strength of demonstration, that if there were another earth, by going into it he could remove this. Hiero being struck with amazement at this, and entreating him to make good this problem by actual experiment, and show some great weight moved by a small engine, he fixed accordingly upon a ship of burden out of the king's arsenal, which could not be drawn out of the dock without great labour and many men; and, loading her with many passengers and a full freight, sitting himself the while far off, with no great endeavour, but only holding the head of the pulley in his hand and drawing the cords by degrees, he drew the ship in a straight line, as smoothly and evenly as if she had been in the sea. Plutarch

Archimedes chose for his demonstration a three-masted merchantman of the royal fleet, which had been hauledashore with immense labour by a large gang of men, and he proceeded to have the ship loaded with her usual freight and embarked a large number of passengers. He then seated himself at some distance away and without using any noticeable force, but merely exerting traction with his hand through a complex system of pulleys, he drew the vessel towards him with as smooth and even a motion as if she were gliding through the water. Plutarch

The Syracusia was probably the largest transport ship of antiquity build after an order of Hieron II, king of Syracuse, by Archias of Corinth around 240 BC, later it was given as a gift to Ptolemy III Euergetes of Alexandria and it was renamed to Alexandria (or Alexandris). Designed by Archimedes. Used a variant of his screw to pull the unfinished ship into the sea where the work was completed.

One od the earliest mosaics mentioned in literature are those made for the ship of Hiero II. with scenes from the Iliad, which took 300 skilled workmen a whole year to execute (Athenaeus, 206 d).


55m x 14 m x 13 m.


Wood; Pine and fir from Mount Etna forests, cordage from Spain. Hemp and pitch for caulking from France (Rhone Valley). Hull fastened with cooper spikes, and also lead sheets used to cover the planks. The material used for the Syracusia was enough to build 60 conventional trireme ships.

The earliest Greek ships were decked over at the stem and at the stern, as described above; but towards B.C. 500 the ships appear without poop. Occasionally about this time the forecastle is represented as supporting the forepart of a hurricane-deck and enclosing a cabin below. The stern now held a tier of seats for the steerer and for officers. There was also usually a deck-house at the stern for the commander, oftenest lightly constructed of wicker-work, and sometimes merely of canvas. Later ships have deck-houses all along the upper deck, and these were sometimes fitted up very luxuriously, like the cabines de luxe on a modern transatlantic liner, having paintings, statuary, marble-baths, and even aries in the saloons. Alongside ran covered promenades, lined with rows of vines, and even trees planted in tubs (Athen. v. 41; Calig. 37). But these vessels partook probably more of the nature of barges than of actual ships. Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)

Archimedes screw was used as a bilge pump for the Syracusia, operated by only one man:

The bilge-water, even when it became very deep, could easily be pumped out by one man with the aid of the screw, an invention of Archimedes. Athenaeus of Naucratis (c. AD 200), Deipnosophistae, Book V


400 soldiers on the first upper deck. 142 First Class passengers cabins on the second deck with a library and reading room, a gymnasium, a chapel dedicated to Aphrodite (maybe Aphrodite Pontia), a dining room and a bath. According to the archaeologist Marsia Sfakianou there were 15 rooms on each side each with 4 beds. Lower deck for cargo, example for the first trip from Syracuse to Alexandria: 60000 measures of grain, 10000 jars of pickled Sicilian fish, 20000 talents of wool, 20000 talents other cargo that adds up to 1900 tons of our time. Also separate stalls to transport 20 horses. Usually ships in the Hellenistic times transported less than 1/10 of this weight. A container with 78 tons water was used to provide water for the passengers and for the bathroom with a water container heated with steam.

Arms for defense:

Eight deck towers including a 18-foot arrow or 180 pound stone catapult build by Archimedes. (Athen. 5.206d-209b. )

Although I have no information I can imagine that Archimedes used the Syracusia for his travel to Alexandria to the Library of Alexandria and his friend Eratosthenes.

Some Syracusia Images (probably more artistic than realistic from a Greek website.. 1, 2.)

Larger ships were constructed later in Alexandria, one with a length almost 2 times larger than the Syracusia (the only giant ships that survived were the 2 ships of Caligula that were destroyed by a fire in 1944: See: Giant warships with more than 7000 crew members!
From the Pentekonter to the Trireme ship (A change of war tactic)

Volos and the Argo (A website in Greek with more details about the Syracusia)

Ship Wrecks

Tektas Shipwreck
The Kyrenia Ship
Modern and ancient wrecks in Greece for more information Underwater archaeology societies & workgroups

Plutarch: Marcellus, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

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