Common Errors (23): Sicilian Expedition

30 June 2009
Syracusan coin, showing a chariot with maritime symbols, commemorating Syracuse's victory over Athens

Syracusan coin, showing a chariot with maritime symbols, commemorating Syracuse's victory over Athens

The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta consists of two parts: the Archidamian War (431-421) and the Decelean or Ionian War (413-404). When the first part had ended in an Athenian victory, the Athenians believed they could now try to expand their empire. A large expedition to Sicily was believed to be the best idea, and in 415 a large armada left Greece and went to the west. Over there, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The Sicilian Expedition ended in failure; of the many who had left, only a few a returned.

Benefitting from the absence of a great part of the Athenian forces, the Spartans decided to renew the Peloponnesian War (413). This time, they were more successful: in 404, Athens surrendered. Nearly always, the Spartan victory is explained from the demise of Athenian power after the expedition to Sicily, but this cannot be correct. In fact, Athens recovered quickly, and in 410, the Spartans regretted their declaration of war. They offered peace negotiations, but Athens declined: after all, Sparta had twice broken a treaty (in 431 and in 413), and Athens demanded some kind of guarantee that the Spartans would leave the Athenians in peace. When Sparta was unwilling to offer this, fighting was resumed.

In the meantime, however, the Persian king Darius II Nothus had decided to support the Spartans. Now, Sparta had the money to create a navy, and although it still suffered several defeats in naval battles, in the end, it was victorious at Aigospotamoi (405). Athens no longer controlled the sea, and was starved into surrender.

What caused the fall of Athens? Not the Sicilian disaster: Athens recovered sufficiently to make the Spartans decide to negotiate again. It was Sparta’s Persian alliance that shifted the balance of power, so the ultimate question must be why the great king decided to abandon his policy of non-interference.

The answer to this question, and the deepest cause of the fall of Athens, is that the Athenians had supported one Amorges, a rebel in Asia Minor, fighting against the Persians. This was unacceptable to king Darius, who now decided to support Sparta. The orator Andocides explains (On the Peace 31-32):

The king’s runaway slave, Amorges, induced us to discard the powerful support of his master as worthless. We chose instead what we imagined to be a more advantageous understanding with Amorges himself. The king in his anger replied by allying himself with Sparta, and furnished her with 5,000 talents with which to prosecute the war; nor was he satisfied until he had overthrown our empire.

Her support of Amorges, and nothing else, lost Athens the war.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (1): Archimedes’ Heat Ray

20 April 2009

It is one of the most impressive movie scenes I have ever seen: how Archimedes set Roman warships afire with a burning mirror, in the famous Italian movie Cabiria (1914; scene starts at 20’24). The incident, which took place during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BCE, can be found in many history books and continues to amaze. Unfortunately, it can not be true.

Scene from Cabiria: Archimedes hexagonal mirror (top) sets a Roman ship (front) afire.

Scene from Cabiria: Archimedes' hexagonal mirror (top) sets a Roman ship (front) afire.

There are two arguments. In the first place, the laws of physics. On at least three occasions, people have tried to repeat the trick; they established that, if you use dozens of mirrors, you can indeed set fire to an object at a short distance (50-60 meter). The sources, however, refer to only one mirror or a couple of mirrors. Worse, the object must remain on the same place for some time, which is not very likely: the Roman galleys were subject to waves, winds, and swell. To really work, the mirror must have a diameter of at least eleven meters, which is larger than the largest telescope mirror ever made.

As a practical instrument, the weapon can, therefore, not exist, unless Archimedes could suspend the laws of nature. The story is pseudoscientific in its most elementary sense.

The second argument is that the famous incident is not recorded in our sources. Historians like Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch offer detailed descriptions of the siege of Syracuse and mention new weapons, but the heat ray is not among them. This is sufficient to send the story to the country of fairy tales.

But what are the origins of the story? Now, things become more complex.

The first to refer to Archimedes as firemaker appears to have been the satirical writer Lucian, who praises an engineer for having surpassed several legendary engineers, including Archimedes, who invented an instrument to set ships afire (Hippias 2). We know more about this from Lucian’s younger contemporary Galen, who offers an account of spontaneous combustion of houses, and adds that “this, they say, was how Archimedes set fire to the enemy ships by means of pyreia” (On Temperaments 3.2). Pyreia is usually translated as “firesticks”. Note that Lucian and Galen do not identify the enemy.

As far as I know, the first to refer to Archimedes using mirrors, is the Byzantine author Anthemius of Tralles (sixth century) in a book called On miraculous engines. On page 153 and 156 (ed.Westerman), he informs us that Archimedes’ secret weapon consisted of many small, flat mirrors. The Byzantine author Tzetzes (twelfth century) even offers a detailed description:

Archimedes constructed a kind of hexagonal mirror, and at an interval proportionate to the size of the mirror, he set similar small mirrors with four edges, moving by links and by a kind of hinge, and made the glass the centre of the sun’s beams … So after that, when the beams were reflected into this, a terrible kindling of flame arose upon the ships, and he reduced them to ashes a bow-shot off (Chiliades, 2.109-123).

This is the instrument shown in Cabiria, but the experiments have shown that it is too simple to do the job; Tzetzes cannot have used an authentic source.

There’s perhaps one author before Anthemius who may have referred to burning mirrors: the third-century historian Cassius Dio, but his account of the siege is lost. However, Tzetzes’ older contemporary Zonaras summarizes Dio’s History of the Roman Empire, and refers to the burning mirror. The problem is that Zonaras often introduces stories to his excerpt, and this may be one of these additions; worse, he also writes that this weapon was used in 514 by one Proclus, when he defended Constantinople against the ships of the Gothic adventurer Vitalianus (Annals 14.55).

Summa summarum: I think that Proclus’ experimental weapon, which must have been known to Anthemius, is the origin of the story. Alternatively, the story of Archimedes’ mirrors appears to have been invented in the age of Lucian, Galen, and Cassius Dio, about half a millennium after the siege of Syracuse.

This is not unique: think only of Pythagoras, who is never credited with the theorem that is now named after him, until the fourth century CE.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Motya and other Mediterranean towns

15 December 2008

A Greek-Phoenician female mask; Museum Villa Whittaker.

A Greek-Phoenician female mask; Museum Villa Whittaker.

Motya is a Phoenician city, situated on a small island in a lagoon in the west of Sicily. The city was destroyed in 396 BCE by Dionysius of Syracuse, but was not really abandoned: archaeologists have found villas from the fourth century. Still, the island had become more or less empty, and remained so until archaeologists started to dig. They found city walls, a port, sanctuaries, and tombs. The finds are now in museums on the island itself, in Marsala, and in Palermo. You can find the first of three pages devoted to Motya here; a satellite photo is here.

I was also occupied with Assos, in the west of Assos. We visited the site in 2004, and later, we saw many finds in the Paris Louvre and the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. Everything is brought together on this page.

Slonta in Libya is one of the weirdest ancient sanctuaries, as you will see on this page; for a more regular ancient city, go to Roman Cordoba; and for the delighs of rural life, go to Suq al-Awty, which was part of the Limes Tripolitanus.

The regular reader of this blog will have noted that I am still moving pages. I still have 154 pages to go.

Diodorus Books 21‑22

2 December 2008

Νὴ Δία, what donkey-work. Books 21 and 22 now up: fragments, some of them interesting.

Book 21 has the story of Alaric’s treasure buried in the river (5c AD), or wait, no, is it Decebalus’ treasure buried in the river Sargentius (2c AD); no, hang on, it’s Audoleon’s treasure buried in the river Sargentius (3c BC) — hmm, probably only one of these stories is true, if any of them. Read: urban legend. River remains unidentified, and of course, none of these three purported treasures has ever been found.

Book 22 mentions toothpicks. An obvious idea, but there’s not much in our literary sources about ancient dental hygiene (other than the nastinesses of tooth powder etc., for which see Smith’s Dictionary, s.vDentifricium).

Going back a bit, Book 20 is interesting primarily for confirmation from an unlikely source — the writer of an ancient history himself! — that everybody knows that we don’t read those long-winded rhetorical speeches put by many ancient authors in their characters’ mouths (20.1.1‑5).

Diodorus Siculus

11 November 2008

Welcome back, Jona; I hope the end of your trip went as well as the rest of it seems to have gone.

I’ve just completed putting the first 17 Books of Diodorus’ Library of History online at Lacus; English translation only, no Greek, about 2000 pages of print. Non-Jonas out there should know that he did a fair chunk of the work himself: the quasi-endless proofreading of I don’t know how many Books  (for which my warm thanks, and maybe yours as well, gentle reader, because otherwise we may never have got this monster online) — so that this is an appropriate welcome-back item, I guess.

The remaining Books, 18-40, will find their way onsite in the fullness of time. It’s in fact not as bad as it sounds, since these Books are for the most part fragmentary or even very fragmentary, and thus what’s still missing onsite accounts for only 30% of what we have of him.

F. Marion Crawford, The Rulers of the South

21 April 2008

The Rulers of the South by F. Marion Crawford, which is now online at LacusCurtius, was published for the first time in 1901. It covers the history of Sicily from prehistory to the nineteenth century. The author viewed his book as “romantic history” and wrote in a pleasant, light discursive style, but it is essentially a military history, and faithfully follows its ancient sources. The title of the book, though, is well chosen: the rulers of the South are the subject matter rather than economic and social history, or art and literature. Yet even in a military and political history it’s impossible to ignore these other aspects altogether: there’s a good deal of information in this book – all the more inevitably in that, the author lived “half a life” in southern Italy, which we would easily divine even had he not told us so. He obviously loves Sicily in particular, especially Palermo, and his book gives us a very good feel for that city and some of the other towns and landmarks of the island.