She was an unusual combination of an armed luxury passenger ship and a cargo sailing vessel. The exact dimensions of the Syracusia remain unknown, although some sources state a length of 55 meters, a beam of 14 and a height of 13 meters. The construction could carry up to 1800 tons. Syracusia was designed by Archimedes, and built around 240 BC by Archius of Corinth on the orders of King Hieron II, ruler of the Sicilian city of Syracuse.
We owe most of our knowledge about this ship to the Greek writer Athenaeus. As the largest ship built in antiquity, as it is believed, it is rightfully classified as one of the most amazing achievements of ancient shipbuilders. It took a year to build and used as much lumber as would be needed for approximately sixty standard ships. It was propelled by twenty rows of oars and three masts, and apart from cranes for dropping boulders on enemy ships, it also had Archimedes’ giant catapult as a weapon.
A Floating Palace
The Syracusia was not merely a naval vessel but also a floating palace fit for a king. Its opulent interior featured lavishly decorated staterooms, dining halls, and leisure spaces. The ship accommodated Hiero II and his entourage, providing all the comforts and luxuries one would expect from a grand residence. The inclusion of a garden with living vegetation showcased the ship’s exceptional design and served as a symbol of opulence and prosperity.
The third or top deck carried about four hundred soldiers housed in eight large towers. The second deck was reserved for 142 cabins, intended for first-class passengers, while the lowest deck was used for cargo transportation. The water tank had a fascinating capacity of 800 tons, and right next to it was a seawater tank, so that there was always fresh fish on board. The ship also had stables for twenty horses, a huge galley equipped with ovens and flour mills, as well as plenty of storerooms for various necessities.
On the officer’s deck there was a bathroom with three bronze tubs, a fighting area for training and a promenade. On the same deck was the sanctuary of the goddess Aphrodite, with a floor of semi-precious stone and doors of cedar and ivory. The travelers also had a richly equipped library, the floors and walls of which were ennobled with carefully crafted mosaics and illustrations of stories from the Iliad.
However, because of its imposingness, Syracusia had an unsolvable problem – it was so big that of all the ports in the Mediterranean only one could take it. That is why she experienced only one journey; laden with grain, she left Sicily for Alexandria, where she was presented to King Ptolemy III, who effectively had this giant of a ship run aground.
The Syracusia’s construction and design had a lasting impact on ancient naval architecture. Its colossal size and luxurious amenities set a new standard for naval vessels, inspiring future generations of shipbuilders and naval engineers. The innovative techniques employed in its construction paved the way for the development of larger and more advanced ships in subsequent centuries.
Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world!Archimedes
King Hieron, who was absolutely astonished by the Archimedes statement, asked him to prove it. In the harbour was the Syracusia, a 55 meters long ship, that had proved impossible to launch even by the combined efforts of many men from Syracuse. Archimedes, who had been examining the properties of levers and pulleys, built a machine that allowed him to single-handedly move the ship, which included the complete crew, from a distance away.