From sources such as Athenaeus, Moschion of Phaselis and Plutarch, we know that a magnificent ship, known as the Syracusia, was built in the Greek city of Syracuse in the 3rd-century BCE. It was built during the reign of the tyrant Hiero II (or Hieron II, c. 270-215 BCE), and was one of the largest ships ever built in antiquity.
There are two main accounts of why and how the ship was built and launched. In one version of the story, King Hiero II had his shipwrights create the glorious vessel as a lofty gift to Ptolemaic Egypt, but when the ship was completed, it was too heavy to be launched to sea. The tyrant brought in the brilliant Archimedes (c. 287-212 BCE)—who claimed that he could move the earth, itself—and challenged the genius to prove his worth by moving the ship to water. Archimedes accepted the challenge and, by setting up an elaborate system of pulleys and cranks, managed to successfully push or pull the ship off land and onto the waves. In an alternative account of events, the Syracusia may have been Archimedes’ creation from the very beginning. In this version, Archimedes would have been the architect of the ship and overseen its construction, ensuring that the vessel was a pristine display of his mastery of engineering and architecture. Just like in the previous story, Archimedes may have used some of his mental acumen to launch his creation out to sea.
The feat of dragging the Syracusia from land to water becomes more impressive as you learn about the ship. The luxurious Syracusia was said to have been constructed out of enough materials to build a fleet of sixty trireme ships. The vessel had enough sturdiness and buoyancy to accommodate well over a thousand tons of cargo, as well as just under 2,000 passengers.
The Syracusia, however, was not the average freighting vessel or ferry—it was an extravagantly furnished cruise ship. It reportedly had its own library, gymnasium and temple for the passengers to use during voyages. As an added touch of aesthetics, the ship was covered in sculptures, paintings and gardens. For protection, it also housed a garrison of around 200-400 soldiers, and even was said to have had siege engines on board, which were possibly elevated on towers. If the ship began to take on water, the Syracusia was also equipped with an Archimedes screw, which could pump water out of the hull.
The Syracusia only made one known voyage, from Syracuse down toward North Africa, with its destination presumably in Egypt. The fate of the luxurious ship still remains a mystery.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (18th century illustration of the Syracusia, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).