Let’s take a trip to Sicily, where the cannoli flow like water and every family is actually a ‘family.’ Before the island decided to settle for a life of organized crime it was home to the ancient Greek city of Syracuse, a port on the southeastern corner of the island. During the city’s siege in 214 BC, mathematician and engineer Archimedes devised a wily plan to fend off Roman ships; tossing them around with a giant claw.
A brief history lesson: Although Syracuse was a province of the Roman Republic, newly crowned King Hieronymus fell in with a bad crowd. His anti-Roman rhetoric upset the guys in charge and they consequently decided to reclaim the city for their own.
The city was well prepared for this attack. Knowing that their greatest weakness was the ramparts along the coast and hearing whispers newly invented Roman siege ships, Archimedes came up with a plan. He invented an anti-siege device to lay waste to any ship that attempted to get within proximity of the city walls. Despite the Roman’s constant attempts to scale the walls with ship-mounted ladders and grappling hooks, the Claw of Archimedes prevailed.
The exact workings of the claw is unknown, but historians and scholars have maintained that it’s a crane-like device strong enough to lift ships out of the water. Mounted on the top of the battlements, the claw consists of a long rod with a grappling hook on one end and a counterweight on the other. When a ship comes within reach, the arm swings into place and attaches itself to the hull. What happens next is up for debate, but most believe the claw either flipped the enemy ship while it was still in the water, or was actually powerful enough to lift the entire ship out of the water and drop down to its doom.
- A student project from the University of Reggio Calabria
A crushing success, Archimedes’ Claw kept the Roman invaders at bay for a full two years. When it looked like a stalemate was in order, the Romans caught a break. During a festival, a few sneaksy soldiers were able to scale the walls on the land side of the city and open the gates from within. Although there were express instructions not to harm the inventor of the device, a Roman guard unwittingly killed Archimedes, not knowing who he was.
While there has never been any conclusive proof of the device’s existence, schools and television programs around the world have made recreations of the device in recent years. All of the neo-claws have worked, reinforcing the possibility of its existence and use.
- The claw in (tiny) action
As always, if YOU have an idea for a Historical Thursday, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org