Herodotus Returns

Archimedes used cannons, not mirrors, to set Roman fleet aflame
June 29, 2010, 11:49 am
Filed under: Greece | Tags: , ,

Image: Ships

New research suggests that Greek engineer Archimedes (287-212 BC) used steam cannons, not mirrors, to set fire to an approaching Roman fleet. During the Seige of Siracusa, Sicily by the Romans in 214-212 BC, legend had it that Archimedes constructed an elaborate mirror device that concentrated heat on approaching Roman ships, setting them aflame. A new paper, however, re-examines the engineering required to produce such a mirror and suggests alternate translations to the texts which tell these stories, claiming that his makeshift anti-watercraft weapon was – equally remarkably – a steam-powered cannon. 

Both engineering calculations and historical evidence support use of steam cannons as “much more reasonable than the use of burning mirrors,” said Cesare Rossi, a mechanical engineer at the University of Naples “Federico II,” in Naples, Italy, who along with colleagues analyzed evidence of both potential weapons.

The steam cannons could have fired hollow balls made of clay and filled with something similar to an incendiary chemical mixture known as Greek fire in order to set Roman ships ablaze. A heated cannon barrel would have converted barely more than a tenth of a cup of water (30 grams) into enough steam to hurl the projectiles.

Channeling steam power 
Italian inventor Leonardo da Vinci sketched a steam cannon in the late 15th century, which he credited to Archimedes, and several other historical accounts mention the device in connection with Archimedes.

Indirect evidence for the steam cannon also comes from the Greek-Roman historian Plutarch, who tells of a pole-shaped device that forced besieging Roman soldiers to flee at one point from the walls of Syracuse.

The Greek-Roman physician and philosopher Galen similarly mentioned a burning device used against the Roman ships, but used words that Rossi said cannot translate into “burning mirror.”

More on Archimedes’s cannon.


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