Archimedes’ Sand-Reckoner presents a system for naming extraordinarily large numbers, larger than the number of grains of sand that would fill the cosmos. Curiously, Archimedes addresses the treatise not to another specialist but to King Gelon II of Syracuse. While the treatise has thus been seen as evidence for the dynamics of patronage, difficulties in both Archimedes’ treatment of Gelon and his discussion of astronomical models make it fit incongruously within contemporary court and scientific contexts. This article offers a new reading of the Sand-Reckoner based on a reconsideration of the relationship between author and addressee: deferring assumptions about the historicity of that relationship, it analyzes Gelon’s role in the treatise with respect to both the stylistic features of Archimedes’ prose and a broader tradition of narratives about a variety of cultural actors who engage with kings, speaking not so much truth as wit to power. Such a reading resolves the social and scientific difficulties of the treatise, and develops the literary-experimental qualities of Hellenistic science. In turn, the article proposes a revised approach, sensitive to broader patterns of authorship, to understanding ancient scientific authors’ relationship to royal authority. It concludes, finally, that the royal patronage seemingly exemplified by the Sand-Reckoner had greater significance as a cultural trope than as a social institution.

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