Siege of Syracuse II

Siege of Syracuse II

Following his victory in the 216 BCE Battle of Cannae, Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca appeared to have the military advantage. The Romans avoided pitched battle with him unless on favorable terms, however, and Hannibal lacked the resources to take the Roman cities and to protect those cities that rallied to him. Not until 214 did he receive significant reinforcements, when a Punic fleet managed to land men, elephants, and supplies at Locri. Consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus defeated Hannibal’s repeated efforts to take Nola in the interim and then sailed with a Roman army to Sicily, where Propraetor Appius Claudius Pulcher was attempting to keep Syracuse from joining with Carthage.

Illustration of the Roman Siege of Syracuse during 213–212 BCE. The cranes protruding from the walls were used to drop grapples, known as “claws,” into the Roman ships. The ships could then be lifted up and suddenly released, destroying them. (

Sicily was effectively divided in two. Rome controlled the west and north, while the staunchly pro-Roman tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero, controlled the remainder. Hiero died in late 216 or early 215, however. His young grandson Hieronymus succeeded him and immediately opened negotiations with Carthage. After little more than a year Hieronymus was murdered in a coup, and Syracuse became a democratic republic where the Carthaginian faction dominated. Hippocrates and Epicydes, two brothers of Syracusan extraction but natives of Carthage, led the proCarthage group and hoped to make all Sicily a Carthaginian stronghold. The government therefore sent Hippocrates and 4,000 men, many of them deserters from the Roman Army, to garrison the city of Leontini. From there Hippocrates began to raid the Roman portion of the island.

On his arrival in Sicily, Marcellus immediately seized Leontini and ordered all Roman deserters taken prisoner there to be beaten with rods and then beheaded. Hippocrates and Epicydes, who had joined his brother at Leontini, escaped and subsequently spread the story that the Romans had massacred all inhabitants of the city, including women and children. They exploited this lie to bring Syracusan soldiers over to their side and seize power in Syracuse.

Marcellus commenced military operations against Syracuse, probably in the spring of 213, supported by Appius Claudius Pulcher. The latter led troops against the city from the land side, while Marcellus utilized 68 quinqueremes to blockade and attack Syracuse from the sea. The Roman land force may have numbered 16,000 men.

Both sides employed a number of novel devices. For instance, Marcellus had four pairs of galleys specially prepared. He ordered removal of the starboard oars from one side and the port oars from the other. The two ships were then lashed together. Solid scaling ladders were mounted in their bows. These could be raised by means of ropes attached to pulleys at the tops of masts in the center of the ships. The resulting craft was known as a sambuca because it somewhat resembled a harplike instrument of the same name. The sambuca enabled troops in the ships to reach the top of the city walls.

On the land side, the Romans employed tolleni. These assault machines consisted of a boom and counterweight mounted on a mast. A large wicker or wooden basket was attached to the far end of the boom. This basket, loaded with men, could be lifted by soldiers pulling down the other end of the boom by means of ropes wound around a capstan.

The Syracusans, on the other hand, had a formidable asset in the celebrated geometrician Archimedes. Then in his seventies, he developed a number of innovative military devices. To attack the Roman ships, Archimedes arranged catapults and ballistas situated in batteries according to required range. He also came up with a type of crane that extended over the walls and employed a grapple, known as a claw, to hook onto a ship. A counterbalance enabled the crane to lift the ship. Letting it go again would dash the vessel to pieces. Another technique was to drop heavy stones on the ships that would crash through their hulls and sink them. A number of these boulders, one of which was said to weigh 10 talents (670 pounds), were dropped on the sambucas, destroying them. Archimedes also used smaller shorter-range catapults, known as Scorpions, to hurl boulders and stones at the attackers. The most controversial story of the siege concerns Archimedes’ supposed invention of “burning mirrors” whereby the sun’s rays were reflected to set fire to the Roman ships.

All Roman attempts to overcome the city, by land and by sea, were failures, including a night attack from the sea against a section of the wall that seemed to offer maximum protection from the Syracusan war machines. With only heavy casualties to show for his efforts, Marcellus settled in for a siege and blockade. In the meantime, he sent some Roman troops to defeat the other rebel Sicilian cities, in one instance surprising a force under Hippocrates near Acila and inflicting 8,000 casualties. Reportedly, only Hippocrates and 500 cavalry escaped.

Both sides reinforced in Sicily. The Romans built their strength up to three or four legions in addition to the allied troops. The Carthaginians sent an expeditionary force of 25,000 men, 3,000 cavalry, and 12 war elephants under the command of Himilco. They also broke through the blockade with 55 galleys commanded by Bomilcar.

The siege continued through the winter, and early in 212 Marcellus decided on a surprise attack. Outside Syracuse near a tower known as Galeagra while negotiations over prisoner exchange were under way, one of the Romans carefully calculated the height of the tower based on its even blocks of stone. Shortly thereafter, taking advantage of the distraction of a major festival in Syracuse dedicated to the goddess Artemis, Marcellus sent at night 1,000 men with scaling ladders against the Galeagra tower. The ladders proved to be the correct height, and the assaulting troops took the defenders by surprise.

Before the night was over, the Romans had opened the Hexapylon Gate to other troops and captured much of the city. Other portions of the city continued to hold out but suffered greatly from the ravages of disease, which seems to have hit the Romans less hard. Carthaginian ships continued to penetrate the blockade, but Marcellus confronted and turned back a massive Carthaginian convoy of 700 merchantmen protected by 150 warships.

With all hope gone, Epicydes fled the city. (Hippocrates had earlier died of disease.) In the summer of 212 Roman forces took the remainder of Syracuse. The Romans then gave the city over to pillage and fire. Although Marcellus had ordered that Archimedes be taken alive, he died with his city. Reportedly he was working on a mathematical problem when the Romans burst in upon him. The soldiers were ignorant of the identity of the old man who demanded that they not disturb his “circles” in the dirt, whereupon a soldier dispatched him with a single sword thrust.


Craven, Brian. The Punic Wars. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Punic Wars. London: Cassell, 2000.

Melegari, Vezio. The Great Military Sieges. New York: Crowell, 1972.