Lost Scrolls of Archimedes (Lost Artifacts)
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  • Writer's pictureTom Roberts

Ancient Dispatches: Research, Research. What is Research?

Rows of Card Catelog Cabinets
It's in here somewhere!

In this post, I’ll discuss the research I did before and during my writing of Lost Scrolls of Archimedes. I’ll list my main sources of historical data that provided background for the people and places that appeared in the book. I’ll include a few historical novels that, consciously or unconsciously, influenced my writing. A partial list of my resources appears at the end of this blog.

First, let me discuss a few practices I used for spellings and naming conventions in my writing. For historical figures, I deferred to modern conventions. Instead of the more historically accurate Marcus Antonius and Kleopatra, I’ve gone with Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Likewise, instead of Octavius or Octavianus, I’ve used Octavian.

A side note: after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Mark Antony and Octavian, along with Marcus Lepidus, had formed the Second Triumvirate—a trio of three equal magistrates—to put down the resulting civil unrest and to punish the assassins, the Liberatores, Brutus and Cassius.

After achieving victory at the Battle of Philippi, the Triumvirs split the territories of Rome. Octavian ruled Italy and the western provinces, while Antony ruled the provinces of Greece, Syria, Asia, and the other eastern lands, while poor Lepidus got North Africa, though not Egypt which was a sovereign nation and ally of Rome.

Lost Scrolls of Archimedes is a kaleidoscope of historical fiction, science mystery, and speculative storytelling, tinted with coming-of-age and romantic hues. Researching the story required multiple facets of investigation. The first facet was getting grounded in the history that had occurred just prior to the events of my story.

In my research, I looked at the historical period of the Roman Republic in the first century B.C and its important relationship with Egypt, Rome’s breadbasket. This relationship had become quite prominent due to Julius Caesar’s scandalous love affair with Cleopatra that started in 48 BC Caesar had come to Egypt on the heels of his chief rival for power, Pompey the Great. The two generals had met in eastern Greece at the great Battle of Pharsalus. Pompey had lost and fled to Egypt, seeking help from the teen-aged King Ptolemy III and sister Cleopatra VII.

Statue of Julius Caesar
I came, I saw, I conquered

Bust of Pompey, Rival to Julius Caesar
Ptolemy XIII: Pompey's head, anyone?

Statue of Julius Caesar and Bust of Pompey

Acting on a tip from Brutus, Caesar had pursued Pompey to Alexandria, where he found his rival beheaded by the Egyptians under Ptolemy XIII. They knew better than to be on the wrong side of Caesar.

However, Pompey was popular with Egypt’s people, and they didn’t take to Caesar, who soon found himself besieged in King Ptolemy’s palace. This is where Cleopatra makes her pitch—flirtatiously the kinder historians say, wantonly the others say—to turn Caesar away from her brother and toward her as single ruler of Egypt. Though it took him half a year to defeat the Egyptians under their young king, Caesar finally won, not only Egypt, but the heart of Cleopatra. In June of 47 BC, she would give birth to Caesar’s son, who became known as Caesarion. But Caesar had a Roman wife, and the child born of a foreign woman did not sit well with many in Rome. Cleopatra would never find legitimacy for herself or her son, and after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, she retreated to Alexandria to raise her son.

After the defeat of the Liberatores, Brutus and Cassius, at Philippi by the Second Triumvirate, Antony took control of Rome’s eastern territories. Cleopatra saw the handwriting on the wall—an independent Egypt was threatened. She was quick to curry Antony’s favor, meeting him in Tarsus (southern Turkey) in 41 BC, sailing into the harbor on an extravagant barge with a golden prow, purple sails, and silver-tipped oars. Cleopatra, dressed as the goddess Aphrodite, reclined under a golden canopy. Antony was impressed to say the least, especially when Egypt’s queen threw a feast that was estimated to have cost 10 million sesterces—enough to pay a legion’s soldiers for a full year. Antony and Cleopatra soon began a torrid love affair which resulted in Cleopatra giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl, in the autumn of 40 BC Meanwhile, back in Rome, Antony was consummating a political marriage with Octavian by renewing their triumvirate in the Pact of Brundisium, while also tying the matrimonial knot with Octavia, sister of Octavian.

As Antony and Cleopatra’s obsession for each other grew, so too did the animosity between Octavian and Antony, especially after Octavia had Antony’s second daughter (Antonia Minor) just months before Cleopatra had her own child by Antony (Ptolemy Philadelphus). In the lead up to the year 34 BC, the year my protagonist, Marcus, took his first look at Archimedes’ cryptic scrolls, civil war between Octavian on one side and Antony and Cleopatra on the other, was a rampant rumor. When the Pact of Brundisium expired in 33 BC, the drums of war would begin to sound. Young Marcus was to be caught up in its turmoil and set on an adventure that history never recorded but which could have happened.

Books used for historical background:

  • Augustus by Anthony Everitt, 2006

  • Warfare in the Age of Gaius Julius Caesar, Volume 2 by Theodore A. Dodge, 2013

  • Caesar Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy, 2006

  • Cleopatra by Michael Grant, 1972

  • Cleopatra A Life by Stacy Schiff, 2010

  • Cleopatra and Antony by Diana Preston, 2009

  • Slavery and Society at Rome by Keith Bradley, 1994

  • Life in Ancient Rome by F.R. Cowell, 1961

  • The Romans: From Village to Empire by Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, and Richard J. A. Talbert, 2004

  • The New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History by Colin McEvedy, 2002

Some novels that influenced my writing:

  • Roman Blood (series) by Steven Saylor

  • Under the Eagle (series) by Simon Scarrow

  • Alexandria by Lindsey Davis

  • Conspirata by Robert Harris

  • Emperor: The Gates of Rome (series) by Conn Iggulden

  • Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Illustration of a hodometer
A Hodometer

What about ancient technology? This was a critical area of research, given my central idea that the technology I posited would be a feasible invention of Archimedes and his collaborators in the third century BC. The picture shows a Roman hodometer used to measure distance.

The theory of steam was known to the Greeks by the fourth or perhaps early third centuries BC, but it was not until Hero of Alexandria invented the aeolipile in the early first century AD that we have any documented evidence of a mechanical device using the power of steam. I wondered when exactly did theory turn into practice?

Picture of an Aeolipile

Artist concept of an Aeolipile

The aeolipile device was more fancy than useful. It consists of a sphere mounted on a boiler by an axial shaft with two slanted nozzles that produce a rotary motion as steam escapes. The rotary motion could have been harnessed to do some mechanical work, but the level would be low. The device had little practical use.

Hero based his work partially on the pioneering work of Ctesibius (285–222 BC). Besides Archimedes, I speculate in my novel that Ctesibius is one of the Greek scientists/engineers responsible for the weapon detailed in the lost scrolls that my protagonist comes to possess. Ctesibius, coined the “Father of Hydraulics,” is known to have invented a compressed air cannon. Could a steam cannon be far from his mind? There’s no written or archaeological evident for that, but one can speculate (and I did).

Some of the texts I relied for technology research:

  • Engineering in the Ancient World by J.G. Landels, 2000

  • Technology in the Ancient World, by Henry Hodges, 1970

  • The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria, Translated by Bennet Woodcroft, 1851

  • The Great Archimedes, by Mario Geymonat, translated and edited by R. Alden Smith, 2010

Photo of the modern Library of Alexandria
Photo of the modern Library of Alexandria

Since high school history class, I have always had a fascination with the great Library of Alexandria. I lament it’s partial (and likely inadvertent) burning by Julius Caesar in 47 BC and its ultimate destruction in 391 AD by a mob whipped into a frenzy by the Christian bishop of Alexandria, who had just read a decree from the emperor Theodosius ordering the Library and pagan temples of Alexandria be destroyed.

In my research on the library, I came across the intriguing term, “In the Cage of the Muses.” For Marcus, that was an apt description. My protagonist saw the Library of Alexandria as his sanctuary, the place where he spent hours and days searching for the lost knowledge of the ancient Greeks that would lead to a better world. It’s also where he meets Electra, his love interest in the novel.

Sadly, details about the famous library are sketchy. We don’t even know what it actually looked like in its heyday before Caesar came to Alexandria, nor is there general agreement about how much of the library was consumed in Caesar’s fire.

The following are resources I referenced for the Library of Alexandria:

  • The Library of Alexandria by I. B. Tauris, edited by Roy MacLeod, 2004

  • The Vanished Library by Luciano Canfora, translated by Martin Ryle, 1990

  • The Rise and Fall of Alexandria by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, 2006

  • Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson, 2001

Since Lost Scrolls of Archimedes is an adventure story, there had to be a lot of moving around. Besides Marcus’ sea voyages in commerce and in war, I had quite a few scenes where Marcus is on the trail of those who kidnapped Electra. Since he traveled by sea in many of these scenes, I had to know how ships were handled, how fast they could sail, how many men they carried, etc. For this, I relied on several sources as listed here:

  • Travel in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson, 1994

  • Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson, 1971

  • Early Ships and Seafaring by Sean McGrail, 2014

  • The Navies of Rome by Michael Pitassi, 2009

To close out this post on my research, I turn to the setting for Lost Scrolls of Archimedes. Naturally, with Cleopatra and Antony involved and with the Library of Alexandria playing a key part, the setting had to be Alexandria, Egypt in the final years of Cleopatra’s rule. The library, the Pharos Lighthouse, the Royal Palace, the Great Harbor, the Serapeum, and the Necropolis all hosted scenes in the novel. Most of my information about Alexandria came from the Pollard and Reid book mentioned above, with the odd fact coming from Internet searches.


That pretty much sums up my sources. Many were technical in nature, all were informative and entertaining—for this history buff anyway—and some were inspirational. Most of the important research was done in the period 2015-2017, but much of the background reading was done in a leisurely fashion over the previous decade. It was a hobby I turned into a story.

Marcus, Electra, and Talus will continue the adventure in my planned sequel to Lost Scrolls of Archimedes. Stay tuned to this blog for updates on my progress.

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