Take the 2-minute tour ×
MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. It's 100% free, no registration required.

This is really a question for our archaelogist friends, but I could not find an "archaelogy overflow" and some mathematicians might find it interesting.

In a few weeks I am giving a talk in which I would like to mention Archimedes' epitaph, which is reported to show a sphere and a cylinder. (Archimedes proved that the surface area of the sphere is equal to the lateral surface area of the cylinder with the same height and radius.) I realize that it is not possible to discover where Archimedes' epitaph was, or what exactly the representation was. (That is, whether it was inscribed, a sculpture, etc.) However, I would like to know whether there a location of Archimedes' grave which is consistent with the description given by the Roman politician Cicero and also the 1925 century excavation report of the Italian archaelogist Paolo Orsi. In particular, is the description most consistent with these descriptions, that his tomb would have been under present location of the shopping mall "I Papiri"? http://www.centrocommercialeipapiri.it/negozi.php

Here are the two sources: (I realize that taking the word of a Roman politician at face value is a bit dangerous:)

Cicero describes Archimedes as being buried in a tomb to the west of the city:

"But from Dionysius’s own city of Syracuse I will summon up from the dust—where his measuring rod once traced its lines—an obscure little man who lived many years later, Archimedes. When I was questor in Sicily [in 75 BC, 137 years after the death of Archimedes] I managed to track down his grave. The Syracusians knew nothing about it, and indeed denied that any such thing existed. But there it was, completely surrounded and hidden by bushes of brambles and thorns. I remembered having heard of some simple lines of verse which had been inscribed on his tomb, referring to a sphere and cylinder modelled in stone on top of the grave. And so I took a good look round all the numerous tombs that stand beside the Agrigentine Gate. Finally I noted a little column just visible above the scrub: it was surmounted by a sphere and a cylinder. I immediately said to the Syracusans, some of whose leading citizens were with me at the time, that I believed this was the very object I had been looking for. Men were sent in with sickles to clear the site, and when a path to the monument had been opened we walked right up to it. And the verses were still visible, though approximately the second half of each line had been worn away."

(from Cicero (106-43 BC), Tusculan Disputations, Book V, Sections 64-66, translation provided on http://www.math.nyu.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/Tomb/Cicero.html)

The Italian archaelogist Orsi describes the exacavation of a Hellenistic necropolis from the 7th-1st century BCE to the west of the city.

"La necropoli del Fusco si estende per circa 2km lungo la rotabile di Floridia, a partire dall'ex-osteria Rejna, attraverso le proprieta Corvaia de Gargallo (trappeto di S. Nicola e Tor di Conte) sino alla contra. Canalicchio prop. Carpinteri. All'inizio orientale di questa zona io ebbi la venture di scoprire un groppo di sepolcri, ancora in gran parte intatti, della fne del Sec. VIII e del VII, e po via via, procedendo ad occidente, quelli del VI e del V e piu la ancora gruppi del I-VI sec. av. Cr.

Rough Google-assisted translation: "The necropolis of Fusco stretches for about 2km along the Floridia carriageway (edit: not railway) including former tavern-Rejna through the property Corvaia de Gargallo (olive mill of St. Nicholas, and Tor di Conte) to the district Canalicchio prop. Carpinteri. At the east of this area I discovered a cluster of tombs, still largely intact, from the end of the eighth century and the seventh, and little by little, moving to the west, those of VI and V and still more the groups from I to VI century BCE."

(in NOTIZIE DEGLI SCAVI DI ANTICHITÀ - n. 4-5-6 (1925) available at http://periodici.librari.beniculturali.it/visualizzatore.aspx?anno=1925&id_immagine=9999505&id_periodico=9817&id_testata=31

The reason that I suggest that the location most consistent with descriptions is the shopping mall is that (1) Necropolis del Fusco is apparently the largest Hellenistic necropolis in Syracuse, and so the most likely location of Archimedes tomb (2) it was, as in Cicero's description, to the west of the city (3) the shopping mall I Papiri is at the end of the street "Necropolis del Fusco" in Syracuse, which runs through the area described by Orsi as the location of the Fusco necropolis, and the tombs from the later centuries are reported to be those at the western end.

share|improve this question
The consensus in math history books appears to be that there are no traces of the tomb at present. What may cause some confussion is the advertising of one tomb in Syracuse that is claimed to be that of Archimedes, and visited by tourists and local people as such. But I haven't heard of any serious evidence about its authenticity. –  godelian Oct 20 '12 at 14:12
Agreed. But Orsi says he excavated a number of 2nd Century BC tombs to the west of the city, which could have been Archimedes' as far as I understand. Where were these tombs? –  Chris Woodward Oct 20 '12 at 14:17
I am not sure "rotabile" translate to "railway". In fact, there is no railway leading to Floridia (they go either north or south, if you follow them on Google maps, not west to Floridia), but there is a road in the area leading in the right direction (Strada Statale 124). About railways, it says somewhere that Orsi's work were prompted by the construction of a railway. So this would certainly be consistent with putting the necropolis south and east of the "via Necropolis del Fusco" (note that it goes on after crossing the railway), leaving a chance the tomb would be in an open field. –  Paul-Olivier Dehaye Oct 20 '12 at 14:43
Thanks, good point. Do you remember seeing where Orsi's work was prompted by the rail construction? –  Chris Woodward Oct 20 '12 at 14:53
books.google.ch/… Footnote 39. It was the line from Syracuse to Noto. This is fun on a lazy Saturday. –  Paul-Olivier Dehaye Oct 20 '12 at 15:01
show 3 more comments

2 Answers

In 1802 Johann Gottfried Seume visited Syracuse (from Germany per pedes). In his diary he mentions the place where Cicero had found Archimedes' grave: A chapel near the Greek theatre and the water pipe.

Etwas rechts weiter hinauf hat Landolina das römische Amphitheater besser aufgeräumt und hier und da Korridore zu Tage gefördert, die jetzt zu Mauleseleien dienen. Die Römer trugen ihre blutigen Schauspiele überall hin. Die Area gibt jetzt einen schönen Garten mit der üppigsten Vegetation. Weiter rechts hinauf ist das alte große griechische Theater, fast rundherum in Felsen gehauen. Rechts, wo der natürliche Felsen nicht weit genug hinausreichte, war etwas angebaut ... Die Wasserleitung geht nahe am Theater weg; vermutlich brachte sie ehemals auch das Wasser hinein. ... Gegenüber steht eine Kapelle an dem Orte, wo Cicero das Grab des Archimedes gefunden haben will. Wir fanden freilich nichts mehr; aber es ist doch schon ein eigenes Gefühl, daß wir es finden würden, wenn es noch da wäre, und daß vermutlich in dieser kleinen Peripherie der große Mann begraben liegt.

Johann Gottfried Seume: Spaziergang nach Syrakus im Jahre 1802 - Kapitel 35


1) According to Seume's report this ruin is not the grave of Archimedes.

2) This painting by Benjamin West, showing Cicero and the magistrates discovering the tomb of Archimedes, is very popular but not very reliable.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I think the book http://books.google.ch/books?id=6TBY0R4ZPVYC&lpg=PP1&hl=fr&pg=PA598#v=onepage&q&f=false corroborates much of what you say about the connection Necropolis del Fusco-Archimedes. This book was written in 1904. If you search for "Orsi" in the book, you see that a professor Paolo Orsi was an "antiquarian" who contributed extensively to the book. Interesting terms to search for: "Archimedes", "Fusco", "Agragian". With all this you can patch together a topographic description of the area.

So in short, this professor (indirectly) confirms the link Fusco-Archimedes. It is possible the shopping center is sitting right on top of the grave, but the area of the "west of the necropolis" is still pretty big, so it might be a bit much to deduce that.

share|improve this answer
Agree, and thanks for the link. I wouldn't want to say that the shopping center is the probable location, but it seems to me based on what I know so far that the area around it has the maximum probability density. –  Chris Woodward Oct 20 '12 at 17:38
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.