The Death Rays of the Greeks (Another Cool Olympic Thing)

Did Archimedes get the idea for his ship-destroying death ray while watching the Olympics? Did he hang around the Temple of Hestia? And what’s the Gilligan’s Island connection?

#ParisIsComing. The Paris Olympics will take place July 26-August 11– mark those sixteen days of glory on your 2024 calendar. I’m gearing up, so to get you in the mood, I’ll be sharing some preliminary posts over the next few months.

Today is all about the torch lighting. I might call it the torturous trail to the torch or the traditional tale or the tantalizing tutelage, but let’s just call it a blog post for now.

Did He or Didn’t He Burn Down the Roman Fleet?

Archimedes was a pretty smart guy, a scientist and philosopher who lived in Syracuse during a time after the Golden Age of Greece, just as the Romans were starting to expand their territory. Archimedes was considered a Greek, even though Syracuse is on the island of Sicily, located right off the coast of Rome. You can probably guess, therefore, who was involved in the Siege of Syracuse that took place from 214 to 212 BCE. Good ol’ Archimedes helped fend off the Romans for months on end.

Giulio Parigi’s 1599 painting of the “claw of Archimedes,” Wikimedia.

Our Greek (Sicilian) scientist invented several successful anti-siege weapons, including one called the “claw,” which was a combination crane and grappling hook. Because Archimedes was super good at geometry and its uses in levers, pulleys, and architecture, he devised other weapons that launched stones and projectiles as well as fortification walls that were hard to scale.

One particular legend of the Siege of Syracuse involves his use of a parabolic mirror–this is where the Olympics connection comes in. The story goes that he had the Syracusians build this giant curved mirror. The scientists of the day knew a lot about optics, and, in fact, a predecessor mathematician called Diocles had written about the properties of light and curved objects in a text called On Burning Mirrors. Kind of gives it away, doesn’t it?

Movie Poster from DVDLady.

The story passed down is that Archimedes used this giant parabolic mirror to generate giant beams of sunlight which set ships on fire. Sounds like ancient lasers to me! In one of those Roman movies that they churned out in the 1960s, Rossano Brazzi uses this contraption to great effect. Meanwhile, sultry Tina Louise — yes! Ginger from Gilligan’s Island — dances around in a diaphanous gown. This must be how Ginger became a famous movie star.

Historians have had a lively debate over whether this actually happened. Archimedes never wrote about it, while he was known for writing about many other things. Still, even after his success against one fleet, the siege went on and he died in the ensuing battles. Perhaps he had other things on his mind than bragging about his success with parabolic mirrors.

A Roman writer Lucian later mentioned Archimedes setting ships on fire with a giant mirror, but Lucian had happened to be known for telling tall tales. Lucian was the guy who claimed that a Greek died after running to Athens from Marathon to report the battle’s outcome, and supposedly that was an exaggeration, not a fact fact. (A guy ran, he just didn’t die.) Modern scientists from MIT and Mythbusters have tried to recreate the Archimedean giant death ray of Syracuse, and they did succeed in charring a few ship timbers. But they argue that flaming arrows would have been far easier and more successful. Still, the Greeks were well acquainted with the potential fiery properties of parabolic mirrors.

Courtesy of WestGarthSocial.

How Parabolic Mirrors Work

I do enjoy a little science, but I must confess that as soon as someone starts talking about angles and optical axes and vectors that my eyes roll back in my head. The key question that I will translate from science-speak for you is: Why do parabolic mirrors start fires? That seems pretty simple, and I don’t know why I need to understand collimation or convergence to get there. Let me dumb it down for you because I had to dumb it down for me.

You can make round mirrors. You can make them on a flat surface to reflect light and your lovely face. You can also cut a sphere–a ball–and paint a silvered mirror surface on that curved surface. It will reflect light perfectly well, but won’t really concentrate the light on a strong focal point. You can get a blurring effect called spherical aberration. Mirrors which are used in things like telescopes and car headlights tend not to use spherical mirrors because of this blurring.

Parabolic mirrors are better because the focal point of the light is more concentrated. A parabola has a much more pronounced curve than a piece of a sphere. Its “bowl” is deeper, which means light rays coming in will concentrate toward a focal point, and that this concentration occurs even though all the light rays come in as a jumble of parallel lines. It’s like the mirror’s shape pulls the rays together. If you then put something flammable near that focal point, it will ignite. And this is how the Olympic flame is lit.

Hearth Fires and Torch Races

Is this how they lit the ancient Olympic torch for the Greek relay? Wellll, not exactly. The Games were first held in honor of Zeus, and a sports complex emerged over centuries, built near the Temple of Zeus complex at Olympia. Since it was a temple complex, they had temples with fire, most particularly the Temple of Hestia, who was the Greek goddess of hearth and fire. Hestia was the one who kept the home fires burning–quite literally.

Image from Pinterest.

The Olympic fires that they light today, the argument goes, hearken back to the fires of Hestia and mumble mumble Prometheus fire ipso factor Greek + fire = Olympic fire. There’s a bit of fudging and merging of cultures there, but one interesting side note. Prometheus, the Greek fire-bringer, was honored in the Panathenaic festivals. The Panathenaic festival was another sports and arts festival that the Greeks celebrated on a four-year interval. It was more specific to Athens itself rather than spanning the Greek empire, as the Olympics and other sports festivals did.

However, even though it wasn’t as big as the Olympiad (or the Pythian, Nemean, or Isthian Games), the Panathenaic festival did include–wait for it–a Torch Race! They ran from the altar of Prometheus outside the city to the altar of Athena on the Acropolis. And it was a relay race, called a lampadedromia, according to a Greek historian.

Still from the 2024 Olympic torch lighting ceremony, wikimedia.

The Olympic Torch: Ancient History Soup

The Olympic torch relay of today rests on tradition, therefore, but not on an ancient tradition. It was also created in that year when the Olympic hosts were trying to clothe themselves in ancient ideals to justify their exploits, which is to say, the Nazis in 1936. The Nazis liked the visual, so the organizers in Berlin instituted the idea of a torch relay. They were the ones that started the relay at ancient Olympia and had it travel to the host city via multiple runners. Thus, it was an invented tradition that started in 1936.

The Germans don’t appear to have started with parabolic mirrors, much as Hitler would have loved that idea. As late as 1960, according to the New York Times, the torch was lit in some other way, e.g. “Jupiter gave his authorization in the form of fire and thick smoke arising from the earth.” (Why this reporter in 1960 referred to Jupiter, who was Roman, rather than Zeus, is a good question, but journalists back then didn’t have Internet bloggers like me to do the um actually thing and point out their errors.)

More importantly, that description does not sound like a parabolic mirror in action, but like someone pushed a button on a hidden gas burner. However, in 1972, the Times reported said the torch lighting happened out of public view, but was done with a “concave mirror” that focused the rays of the sun. Ah-ha! There’s our parabolic mirror.

So, in summary, Archimedes and his Syracusian friends helped promoted this parabolic mirror technology down through the ages, whether or not they used it as a death ray to zap Roman ships. The torch relays in honor of Prometheus were also documented evidence that running with fire was a part of Greek history. These threads were pulled together by the Germans in 1936, and the ceremony has continued to evolve over time. At some point, they added lighting the flame with the parabolic mirror and now, it’s done with lots of cameras around. It’s invented; it’s part of the history soup of “ancient tradition.” It’s still cool.

No sun, no parabolic mirror, no problem. The priestesses keep the home fires burning anyway. Photo from

This year, the Greek priestesses had one teeny-tiny problem. The parabolic mirror requires sunlight. Greece is a pretty sunny place, but not always. Just in case, the priestesses always light a flame using the parabolic mirror, i.e. the sun’s death rays, a few days ahead of the televised ceremony.

This was needed because that incorrigible Olympian sun of 2024 was a bit bashful. So the enterprising head priestess brought out the sacred fire, aka the backup flames, in a little bowl.

Was that a spherical bowl or a parabolic bowl? Can someone help me with the math on that?

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