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Archimedes in a prayer book

By Evaggelos Vallianatos - posted Friday, 7 November 2008

Archimedes was the greatest Greek mathematician. He was born in Syracuse in 287BCE. He was also an astronomer, a physicist, an engineer and an inventor.

All Western science is a series of footnotes to Archimedes. He used mathematics to study and understand nature and the cosmos. He invented a variety of machines and fields of science like hydrostatics, combinatorics, and mathematical physics. His writings were essential for the rebirth and evolution of science. Since the Renaissance, scientists have been looking up to Archimedes.

Archimedes lived in the 3rd century BCE, probably the golden age of Greek science. This is a period that crowned the global conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. Alexander and his successors spread Hellenic civilisation throughout Asia and the Middle East while uniting Greece for the first time.


The Greek kings of Alexander’s empire, especially those who ruled Egypt, created the infrastructure for a rational commonwealth characterised by scientific exploration, state-funded research, the scholarly study of earlier Greek culture and the editing of the Greek classics.

They also founded and supported great scientific institutions like the Library of Alexandria, known in Greek as the Mouseion or the Home of the Muses, goddesses of learning. Lucio Russo, Italian mathematician and historian of science, concluded that from the late 4th to the late 2nd century BCE, the Greek-speaking countries brought into being “an explosion of objective knowledge about the external world”.

Archimedes contributed a lot to that explosion of knowledge. In fact, he was one of the founding fathers of the Greek scientific revolution. He probably did his advanced studies in Alexandria that was, next to Athens, the leading centre of science and Hellenic culture. He then became the science advisor to the King of Syracuse, Hieron II, employing his engineering and scientific skills for the construction of powerful weapons in order to defend Syracuse against Roman aggression.

Thanks to the ingenuity of Archimedes, Syracuse was invulnerable. The Romans, however, were waging a life and death war against the Carthaginians and Syracuse, they concluded, favoured their enemies. The Romans knew that Archimedes was the brain behind the defences of Syracuse. They wanted him, dead or alive. A traitor made that possible in 212BCE. The Romans captured Syracuse and, in the midst of looting and carnage, a Roman soldier killed Archimedes.

The works of Archimedes are models of brevity, conciseness and clarity. Scholars copied and spread them throughout the Greek world.

Rome and Christianity end the Greek scientific revolution

In 146BCE, the Romans obliterated Carthage and Corinth and occupied Greece. Some five and a half centuries later, an unprecedented event took place.


The Roman Emperor Constantine I, c.285-337, abandoned the traditional religion of the Greeks and Romans in favour of a Jewish heretical sect known as Christianity. Then he used his absolute power to abolish Greek and Roman polytheism in favour of Christianity, demanding the “conversion” of Greeks and Romans to the new Jesus religion, which he made state religion.

What followed in the 4th century and after had the force of a cataclysm, breaking apart the millennia-old Hellenic civilisation and turning the Greek world upside down. The Christian leaders of the Roman Empire outsourced the destruction of the Greek temples to northern European barbarians. Teams of black-robed monks guided Gothic troops to Eleusis and other Hellenic religious sites for the demolition of Greek temples. Emperor Theodosius abolished the Olympics in 393; in mid-6th century, Emperor Justinian shut down Hellenic schools in Greece and the empire, including the 900-year-old university of Athens founded by Plato; and imperial and Christian officials burned several public libraries, making Hellenic culture and its gods a sin.

Lucio Russo says that after the 4th century “obscurantism and stasis” smothered Europe, blocking “most avenues of intellectual development for a thousand years”.

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About the Author

Evaggelos Vallianatos is the author of several books, including Poison Spring (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

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