Apocryphal Tales

Sample Story: The Death of Archimedes

As it happens, the story of Archimedes is not exactly as the history books have portrayed it. While it is true that he was killed when the Romans conquered Syracuse, it is not correct that a Roman soldier broke into his house to plunder it, and that Archimedes, absorbed in drawing some sort of geometrical figure, growled at him crossly: "Don't spoil my circles!" For one thing, Archimedes was not some absent-minded professor who didn't know what was going on around him; on the contrary, he was by temperament a true soldier who had invented war machinery for the Syracusans to defend their city. For another thing, the Roman soldier was not some drunken looter, but the educated and ambitious Staff Captain Lucius, who knew to whom he had the honor of speaking, and who had not come to plunder, but rather gave a military salute at the doorstep and said: "Greetings, Archimedes."

Archimedes raised his eyes from the wax tablet on which he was in fact drawing something and said: "What is it?"

"Archimedes," said Lucius, "we know that without your war machinery Syracuse wouldn't have held out for a month; as it is, we've had a rough two years because of them. Don't think we soldiers don't appreciate that. They're superb machines. My congratulations."

Archimedes waved his hand. "Please, they're nothing really. Ordinary hurling mechanisms — mere toys, that's all. Scientifically, they have little value."

"But militarily they do," said Lucius. "Listen, Archimedes, I've come to ask you to work with us."

"With whom?"

"With us, the Romans. Surely you know that Carthage is in decline. Why go on helping them? We'll teach them a lesson instead! You'd do better to be on our side, all of you."

"Why?" grumbled Archimedes. "As fate would have it, we Syracusans are Greeks. Why should we side with you?"

"Because you live in Sicily, and we need Sicily."

"And why do you need it?"

"Because we intend to control the Mediterranean Sea."

"Aha," Archimedes said, and he contemplated his tablet. "And why do you want to do that?"

"Whoever is master of the Mediterranean," said Lucius, "is master of the world. That's clear enough."

"And must you be masters of the world?"

"Yes. The mission of Rome is to be master of the world. And I'm telling you that it will be."

"Possibly," Archimedes said, and he rubbed out a line on his tablet. "But I wouldn't advise it, Lucius. Listen, to be master of the world — someday defending your position's going to be one big headache. It wouldn't be worth the effort, given all you'd have to do."

"No matter; we shall be a great empire."

"A great empire," muttered Archimedes. "Whether I draw a small circle or a large circle, it's still only a circle. There are still frontiers — you will never be without frontiers, Lucius. Do you think a large circle is more perfect than a small circle? Do you think you're a greater geometrician if you draw a larger circle?"

"You Greeks are forever playing with arguments," Captain Lucius objected. "We have another way of proving that we're right."


"Action. For instance, we have conquered your Syracuse. Ergo, Syracuse belongs to us. Is that a clear proof?"

"It is," Archimedes said, and he scratched his head with his stylus. "Yes, you have conquered Syracuse, except that it is not and never will be the same Syracuse it was before. It was a great and celebrated city, my good fellow; now it will never be great again. Poor Syracuse!"

"But Rome will be great. Rome must be the strongest of all the lands in the world."


"To maintain her position. The stronger we are, the more enemies we have. That's why we must be the strongest force."

"As to force," muttered Archimedes, "I'm a physicist of sorts, Lucius, and I'll tell you something. Force limits itself."

"What does that mean?"

"It's a sort of law, Lucius. When force is exerted, it limits itself by that action. The greater your force, the more of your strength you use up; and the time will come— "

"What are you trying to say?"

"Nothing, really. I'm not a prophet, Lucius, only a physicist. Force limits itself. More than that I do not know."

"Listen, Archimedes, you can't imagine the tremendous opportunities that working with us would open up for you in Rome. You could build the mightiest war engines in the world."

"You'll have to forgive me, Lucius; I'm an old man, and I still have one or two ideas I'd like to work on. — As you can see, I'm trying to design something right now."

"Archimedes, aren't you enticed by the idea of conquering the world with us and ruling it? — Why are you silent?"

"Sorry," Archimedes muttered, bent over his tablet. "What did you say?"

"That a man like you could conquer the world."

"Hm, the world," Archimedes said, engrossed in his drawing. "Please don't take offense, but I'm doing something more important here. Something more lasting, you see. Something that will truly endure."

"What is it?"

"Careful, don't smear my circles! It's a method for calculating the area of a sector of a circle."

Later it was reported that the learned Archimedes had met his death through an accident.

April 17, 1938