In 213 BC, the Romans sent a large force to capture the strategically vital Greek city state of Syracuse in Sicily.
The siege was to go down in history because this mighty force was stopped in its tracks almost single-handedly
by one man - Archimedes.
The unfortunate Romans were by no means badly armed. Before he arrived in Syracuse, Marcellus made sure
that he was equipped with the best available military technology, including a catapult so enormous that it had to
be housed on the decks of eight ships lashed together. But the Greeks were able to unleash a number of Archimedes’ innovations on their unprepared invaders. Most terrifying of them all was The Claw.
Archaeologist Roger Wilson tells the story of the siege as the ancient sources described it. Polybius talks about
a battery of weapons directed against the Roman enemy. Catapults with different ranges were fired at them
from the walls, but once the Romans had got through this barrage, coming up close to the walls to set up their
siege engines, they thought they were out of range.They were wrong.Archimedes had designed great machines
that dropped huge stones on the ships and a ‘claw’ which "lifted the ship’s prow out of the water and stood it
up vertically on its stern".Then the crane operator "fastened the machine to make it immovable, and then by
some sort of release mechanism, cast off the grappling hook and chain.The ships then either capsized, listed
badly or became filled with confusion and much sea-water".
Engineer and expert rock climber Jo da Silva and Brian Austen, an expert in putting up big tops for the circus
take on the task of attempting to recreate Archimedes’ invention on the sea front in Syracuse.They are assisted
by mathematician and Archimedes expert Chris Rorres, who explains the two great laws of Archimedes - the
law of the lever and the law of buoyancy - are used in practice in this ancient war machine.They begin by
building a crane strong enough to lift a boat a third of the size of the original Roman warships but, as Jo struggles to get the huge 2 tonne lever balanced she starts to get into trouble.The local fishermen arrive at the eleventh hour to help her out of a potential disaster.
Finally, Jo’s Claw is put to the test on a local Syracuse fishing boat weighing 25 tonnes which tests the structure
to its limit.....
The Claw is part of the BBC series, Secrets of the Ancients, a series of history teaching resources from the BBC archive.