The Sand-Reckoner

by Gillian Bradshaw

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The hero of The Sand-Reckoner is the young Archimedes, who has returned from the giddy intellectual pleasures of Alexandria just in time to apply his talents to Syracuse's war with Rome. Gilliam Bradshaw has again shown her skill in constructing a compact novel with short timelines, in which a political or military problem intersects with the courtship of a young man and woman. This time the hero's slow-blooming love interest is the sister of Hiero, Syracuse's current tyrant, a capable and humane ruler who hires the young mathematician to build him bigger catapults. Fans of The Arrows of Hercules will enjoy a slight feel of deja vu; almost 150 years after the architects in that novel devised the first effective catapults, we once again watch rivalries in the tyrants' workshop, exacerbated by a politically naïve young inventor whose genius goes hand-in-hand with impaired social skills.

The success of the young Archimedes is counterbalanced by the darker story of his slave Marcus, a Roman who begins to consider Syracuse home and faces a life-or-death test of his divided loyalties. His master comes to understand the human cost of war: in the impersonal death dealt out by his war machines, and in the casualties of well-intentioned acts. But despite the death of some sympathetic characters, the story counts as comedy in the traditional schema, because it ends with a happy marriage and a city saved. There are occasional scenes when the young mathematician becomes oblivious to his surroundings while absorbed in his calculations, reminders of how he died some fifty years later when an unwise leader took the Romans on again. But The Sand-Reckoner is, happily, a story of the young Archimedes, set in an age when Syracuse was ruled wisely and the end of its independence still many decades in the future. (2000, 351 pages)

More about The Sand-Reckoner at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

The Sand-Reckoner appears on the list of The 36 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Greek History

Other novels set in ancient Syracuse:

The Arrows of Hercules by L. Sprague de Camp (1965), about an engineer in the fourth century B.C. who invents an improved catapult and becomes involved in the war between Syracuse and Carthage. See review or more info at

Tyrant by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (2003), about Dionysius of Syracuse. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault (1966), about the fourth century B.C. philosopher Plato in Syracuse, as narrated by a Greek actor. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction by and about Archimedes:

The Works of Archimedes by Archimedes (third century B.C.). More info

Archimedes by E.J. Dijksterhuis (1938), a scholarly overview of Archimedes' work. More info

Archimedes: Mathematical Genius of the Ancient World by Mary Gow (2005), for ages 9 and up. More info


Archimedes at Wikipedia

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