Archimedes : biography

circa 287 BC – circa 212 BC


Archimedes was born c. 287 BC in the seaport city of Syracuse, Sicily, at that time a self-governing colony in Magna Graecia. The date of birth is based on a statement by the Byzantine Greek historian John Tzetzes that Archimedes lived for 75 years.Heath, T. L., Works of Archimedes, 1897 In The Sand Reckoner, Archimedes gives his father’s name as Phidias, an astronomer about whom nothing is known. Plutarch wrote in his Parallel Lives that Archimedes was related to King Hiero II, the ruler of Syracuse. A biography of Archimedes was written by his friend Heracleides but this work has been lost, leaving the details of his life obscure. It is unknown, for instance, whether he ever married or had children. During his youth, Archimedes may have studied in Alexandria, Egypt, where Conon of Samos and Eratosthenes of Cyrene were contemporaries. He referred to Conon of Samos as his friend, while two of his works (The Method of Mechanical Theorems and the Cattle Problem) have introductions addressed to Eratosthenes.

Archimedes died c. 212 BC during the Second Punic War, when Roman forces under General Marcus Claudius Marcellus captured the city of Syracuse after a two-year-long siege. According to the popular account given by Plutarch, Archimedes was contemplating a mathematical diagram when the city was captured. A Roman soldier commanded him to come and meet General Marcellus but he declined, saying that he had to finish working on the problem. The soldier was enraged by this, and killed Archimedes with his sword. Plutarch also gives a account of the death of Archimedes which suggests that he may have been killed while attempting to surrender to a Roman soldier. According to this story, Archimedes was carrying mathematical instruments, and was killed because the soldier thought that they were valuable items. General Marcellus was reportedly angered by the death of Archimedes, as he considered him a valuable scientific asset and had ordered that he not be harmed.

The last words attributed to Archimedes are "Do not disturb my circles" (), a reference to the circles in the mathematical drawing that he was supposedly studying when disturbed by the Roman soldier. This quote is often given in Latin as "Noli turbare circulos meos," but there is no reliable evidence that Archimedes uttered these words and they do not appear in the account given by Plutarch.

The tomb of Archimedes carried a sculpture illustrating his favorite mathematical proof, consisting of a sphere and a cylinder of the same height and diameter. Archimedes had proven that the volume and surface area of the sphere are two thirds that of the cylinder including its bases. In 75 BC, 137 years after his death, the Roman orator Cicero was serving as quaestor in Sicily. He had heard stories about the tomb of Archimedes, but none of the locals was able to give him the location. Eventually he found the tomb near the Agrigentine gate in Syracuse, in a neglected condition and overgrown with bushes. Cicero had the tomb cleaned up, and was able to see the carving and read some of the verses that had been added as an inscription. A tomb discovered in a hotel courtyard in Syracuse in the early 1960s was claimed to be that of Archimedes, but its location today is unknown.

The standard versions of the life of Archimedes were written long after his death by the historians of Ancient Rome. The account of the siege of Syracuse given by Polybius in his Universal History was written around seventy years after Archimedes’ death, and was used subsequently as a source by Plutarch and Livy. It sheds little light on Archimedes as a person, and focuses on the war machines that he is said to have built in order to defend the city.


  • There is a crater on the Moon named Archimedes (29.7° N, 4.0° W) in his honor, as well as a lunar mountain range, the Montes Archimedes (25.3° N, 4.6° W).
  • The asteroid 3600 Archimedes is named after him.
  • The Fields Medal for outstanding achievement in mathematics carries a portrait of Archimedes, along with a carving illustrating his proof on the sphere and the cylinder. The inscription around the head of Archimedes is a quote attributed to him which reads in Latin: "Transire suum pectus mundoque potiri" (Rise above oneself and grasp the world).
  • Archimedes has appeared on postage stamps issued by East Germany (1973), Greece (1983), Italy (1983), Nicaragua (1971), San Marino (1982), and Spain (1963).
  • The exclamation of Eureka! attributed to Archimedes is the state motto of California. In this instance the word refers to the discovery of gold near Sutter’s Mill in 1848 which sparked the California Gold Rush.
  • A movement for civic engagement targeting universal access to health care in the US state of Oregon has been named the "Archimedes Movement," headed by former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber.