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Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity
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Book description

We access Greek and Roman scientific ideas mainly through those texts which happen to survive. By concentrating only on the ideas conveyed, we may limit our understanding of the meaning of those ideas in their historical context. Through considering the diverse ways in which scientific ideas were communicated, in different types of texts, we can uncover otherwise hidden meanings and more fully comprehend the historical contexts in which those ideas were produced and shared, the aims of the authors and the expectations of ancient readers. Liba Taub explores the rich variety of formats used to discuss scientific, mathematical and technical subjects, from c.700 BCE to the sixth century CE. Each chapter concentrates on a particular genre - poetry, letter, encyclopaedia, commentary and biography - offering an introduction to Greek and Roman scientific ideas, while using a selection of ancient writings to focus on the ways in which we encounter them.

Reviews

'Taub explores diverse genres of surviving texts in Greek and Roman science writing from antiquity: poetry, letters, encyclopedias, and commentaries. By considering the actual texts, as well as the ideas being conveyed and taught, the author is able to delve into ancient scholarly communication through a route of discovery that owes its insights to a fresh perspective, using representative extant texts as case studies to discuss the writers’ motivations and ways of elucidating truth. … The narrative structure of this book reveals a fascinating unity of the ancients’ scientific thought ('philosophy') while noting incomplete or contradictory evidence, with a nod to diversity in mentioning what little is known about the role of women in the scholarly record. The selected texts are situated in their historical context, providing an accessible yet challenging intellectual history for any individual interested in the history of science.'

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Contents

This bibliographical essay is intended to offer an introduction to ancient Greek and Roman science and to provide suggestions for further reading on the topics already discussed. Some works that are specifically relevant to textual studies are listed, with the hope that readers will be inspired to delve further into questions about the forms through which scientific and mathematical ideas were conveyed. Readers are also pointed towards other perspectives, including those of more traditional accounts of Greek and Roman science. Perhaps unsurprisingly, histories of science have often been informed by trends in other areas of historical inquiry. And scholars specialising in ancient philosophy also study ancient natural philosophy and mathematics, usually from a philosophical standpoint.

What follows is not an exhaustive reading list, but rather one which is meant to indicate some of those trends and to provide several possible avenues for engaging with histories of ancient science. First, surveys of ancient Greek and Roman science are noted, followed by accounts of the work of specific individuals, treatments focusing on particular subjects (such as physics and mathematics), and finally studies concentrating on textual aspects (including the genres) of Greek and Roman scientific and technical writings. The numerous ‘handbooks’ and ‘companions’ to ancient history, philosophy and culture (including science) also have useful bibliographies; several of these are mentioned here, as a sample of what is available.

For many readers, the works of Lloyd will be the starting point for the study of Greek Science, including his Early Greek Science (1970); Methods and Problems in Greek Science (1991); Greek Science after Aristotle (1973); Magic, Reason and Experience: Studies in the Origins and Development of Greek Science (1979), as well as the multiplicity of other volumes he has published. Lloyd’s work is particularly informed by his close engagement with the history of philosophy, mathematics and medicine, as well as modern anthropological studies. Clagett’s Greek Science in Antiquity (1957) does not restrict itself, as the title suggests, to Greek science, and this is one of this classic’s many virtues: Clagett discusses Roman science and extends his account well into Late Antiquity, providing a detailed single-volume overview of Greek and Roman science. The work of Farrington, including Greek Science (1944/1961) and Science and Politics in the Ancient World (1939), has attracted generations of readers, even though some have distanced themselves from his Marxist and materialist interpretations. The Classical Association published Rihll’s Greek Science (1999), which presents an overview organised by subject (physics, mathematics, astronomy, geography, biology and medicine) and reading lists. Other sorts of overviews are provided by edited volumes, such as Rihll and Tuplin (eds), Science and Mathematics in Ancient Greek Culture (2002) and The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 1, Jones and Taub (eds) (forthcoming). Reference works such as The Oxford Classical Dictionary (4th edn, 2012; Hornblower, Spawforth, and Eidinow (eds)), A Companion to Ancient Philosophy, Gill and Pellegrin (eds) (2006) and The Oxford Handbook of Hellenic Studies (2009, Boys-Stones, Graziosi, and Vasunia (eds)) have many valuable articles under various relevant headings. Even in antiquity, there was interest in histories of scientific inquiry; see Zhmud (2006), The Origin of the History of Science in Classical Antiquity.

Many histories of science and mathematics have centred on ‘great’ individuals deemed responsible for ‘great’ ideas – those regarded as having been most significant and influential over time. Amongst these figures of the ancient world, names such as those of Euclid (date uncertain, between 325 and 250 BCE), Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Archimedes (c. 287–212 BCE) and Galen of Pergamum (129–216 CE) loom large. Euclid is seen as responsible for setting the foundations of geometry, so important that the development of a different sort of geometry in the nineteenth century is referred to as ‘non-Euclidean’ geometry. Aristotle is generally regarded as one of the greatest scientists ever to have lived, and one of the only ancient philosophers to have focused so carefully on the study of animal life. The very high standard of mathematical originality and achievement set by Archimedes, amongst his other accomplishments, is still celebrated in the modern world; the Fields Medal (the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics), established in the twentieth century, bears a portrait of him. And the ideas of the physician and philosopher Galen held sway over Western medicine for well over a thousand years. In the case of some renowned figures, such as Claudius Ptolemy, we know very little of their lives. Our knowledge of the achievements comes to us through ancient writings attributed to them, and through the written testimonies of others.

Strikingly, even in antiquity it was not entirely certain whether Thales of Miletus, often credited with having been the first philosopher (that is, lover of wisdom), had written anything (Diogenes Laertius 1.23); we know about his ideas through the accounts of others. Today, historians of mathematics understand that the work known as the Elements, traditionally attributed to Euclid, was actually the product of a number of people, a compilation rather than a single-authored work (Fowler 1999). The Aristotelian Corpus, the collection of writings associated with Aristotle, is generally understood to include a number of spurious works, which were probably not written by Aristotle himself (for example, De mundo, on cosmology). Indeed, many of the works in the corpus are thought to be ‘lecture notes’ rather than polished pieces of writing intended for wider circulation (see Introduction to this volume; Taub 2008a); Aristotle’s ‘authorship’ of these works is not clear-cut. As we have seen in Chapter 1, the great mathematician Archimedes was credited not only with important mathematical works structured according to the Greek geometrical tradition, but also with the composition of an elegant epigrammatic poem, setting out an extraordinarily difficult mathematical problem; this foregrounds the ‘writerly’ activities and concerns of technical authors. In spite of the ancient attributions of the Cattle Problem to Archimedes, we cannot be certain of his role in its composition. Assertions of authorship were not always reliable: Galen complained that works not actually written by him were being circulated with his name attached (see his My Own Books 8–9; trans. Singer, 2002: 3).

It is those written texts that survive which serve as our principal source of information about science and mathematics in ancient Greece and Rome. Fortunately, in many cases we have good editions of these writings which are fairly easily accessible, for example, often (but not always) in the Loeb Classical Library series, now available online (www.hup.harvard.edu/features/loeb/digital.html); other valuable digital resources include the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/, containing digitised versions of most Greek literary texts from Homer to the fall of Byzantium in 1453, including many philosophical and technical texts) and the Perseus Digital Library (www.perseus.tufts.edu, available freely without subscription charge). Collections of shorter selections from primary sources in translation include: Cohen and Drabkin, A Source Book in Greek Science (1948), Irby-Massie and Keyser, Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era: A Sourcebook (2002), and Humphrey, Oleson and Sherwood, Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook (2002).

As is to be expected, the literature on the great figures of ancient science – not only those mentioned earlier – is voluminous. Compiling a comprehensive bibliography is not the goal here. Nevertheless, I recognise that some readers will wish to know, for example, what Euclid did for mathematics, Aristotle for the study of living things, Ptolemy for astronomy and geography and Galen for medicine, and so I take this opportunity to suggest some books which I have found to be particularly engaging. Readers may also wish to consult articles on individuals in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB), The Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD) and Keyser and Irby-Massie (eds), The Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists (2008).

Thales of Miletus (fl. 585 BCE) is traditionally regarded as the first philosopher in ancient Greece, the first to explain phenomena ‘naturally’ without recourse to the traditional gods; he was also credited in antiquity with the ability to predict eclipses successfully (Herodotus 1. 74. 2). For those interested in Thales and other Presocratic philosophers, Kirk, Raven and Schofield (KRS), The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd edn (1983) remains an excellent starting point, for the fragments as well as commentary; see also The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy, trans. and ed. Graham (2010). Pythagoras’ life and work (as we saw in Chapter 5) have been the subject of various accounts beginning in antiquity; see Kahn, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans (2001).

Some of the greatest ancient philosophers were distinguished by their contributions to natural philosophy and their views on mathematics. The literature on Plato is vast. One might begin by reading his Timaeus, and Vlastos, Plato’s Universe (1975); Johansen, Plato’s Natural Philosophy (2004); Broadie, Nature and Divinity in Plato’s Timaeus (2012). Similarly, an enormous amount of work has been done on Aristotle. Readers will find the following (and the bibliographies contained therein) to be good starting points: Barnes, Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction (2000); Falcon, Aristotle and the Science of Nature (2005); Lloyd, Aristotelian Explorations (1998); Lennox, Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology (2001); Solmsen, Aristotle’s System of the Physical World (1960); Judson, Aristotle’s Physics (1991). Aristotle’s student, colleague and successor as head of the Lyceum, Theophrastus, has been at the center of a series of studies produced by the Project Theophrastus of Rutgers University; a starting point is Theophrastus of Eresus: On His Life and Work, ed. Fortenbaugh, Huby and Long (1985). On Epicurus, see Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method (1984); on Lucretius, Sedley, Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (1998); see also Clay, Lucretius and Epicurus (1983).

Turning to great names in the history of mathematics, see the introduction, translation and commentary by Heath, The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements (1956); see also Fowler (1999) on Euclid’s Elements. On Aristarchus, see Heath, Aristarchus of Samos (1981). On Archimedes: Netz and Noel, The Archimedes Codex (2007), is an heroic account with the flavour of a detective story, offering an appreciation of Archimedes’ accomplishments; see also Jaeger, Archimedes and the Roman Imagination (2008). On Ptolemy: Graßhoff, The History of Ptolemy’s Star Catalogue (1990); Taub, Ptolemy’s Universe (1993); Berggren and Jones, Ptolemy’s Geography (2000). On the ‘greatest’ physicians of antiquity, see Jouanna, Hippocrates, trans. DeBevoise (1999); Mattern, The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire (2013); and Gill, Whitmarsh and Wilkins (eds), Galen and the World of Knowledge (2009) for a collection of excellent essays discussing various aspects of Galen’s work.

On one of the few known and renowned women of ancient mathematics and philosophy, see Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (1995), regarded as a heroic figure for several reasons, including her death as a pagan martyr at the hands of Christians in 415. Another special hero – although not a natural philosopher or mathematician himself – is nevertheless sometimes portrayed as having died whilst investigating a natural phenomenon (the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE); Pliny the Elder was an important figure historically, whose Natural History discussed a range of scientific topics. See Beagon, Roman Nature (1992); French, Ancient Natural History (1994); French and Greenaway (eds), Science in the Early Roman Empire (1986).

A word of caution: some of these areas of inquiry do not map exactly onto modern categories, even when the names (like ‘physics’ [physika]) seem the same.

  • Physics: Sambursky, The Physical World of the Greeks (1956); The Physics of the Stoics (1959); The Physical World of Late Antiquity (1962); Pedersen and Pihl, Early Physics and Astronomy (1974); Kahn, Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology (1960); Waterlow, Nature, Change and Agency in Aristotle’s Physics (1982); Freudenthal, Aristotle’s Theory of Material Substance (1995); Lang, The Order of Nature in Aristotle’s Physics (1998); Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists (1967), The Greek Cosmologists (1987); R. Sorabji, Matter, Space and Motion (1988).

  • Mechanics: Berryman, The Mechanical Hypothesis in Ancient Greek Natural Philosophy (2009); de Groot, Aristotle’s Empiricism (2014).

  • Meteorology: Taub, Ancient Meteorology (2003); Wilson, Structure and Method in Aristotle’s Meteorologica (2013).

  • Mathematics: Neugebauer Exact Sciences in Antiquity (1957, 2nd ed.); Cuomo, Ancient Mathematics (2001); Robson and Stedall (eds), The Oxford Handbook to the History of Mathematics (2009); see, particularly, chapters by Lloyd, Asper, Romano, Saito; Heath, A History of Greek Mathematics (1921); Knorr, The Evolution of the Euclidean Elements (1975); Netz, The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics (1999); Netz, Ludic Proof (2009); O’Meara, Pythagoras Revived; Dilke, Mathematics and Measurement (1987).

  • Astronomy: Neugebauer, A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy (1975, 3 vols); Evans, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy (1998); Pederson, A Survey of the Almagest (1974); Barton, Ancient Astrology (1994).

  • Harmonics: Barker, The Science of Harmonics in Classical Greece (2007); Creese, The Monochord in Ancient Greek Harmonic Science (2010).

  • Life Sciences: Pellegrin, Aristotle’s Classification of Animals, trans. A. Preus (1986); Gotthelf and J. Lennox (eds), Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology (1987); Leroi, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (2014); Sedley, Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity (2007); Nutton, Ancient Medicine (2nd ed.); Totelin and Hardy, Ancient Botany (2015).

  • Geography: Dueck and Brodersen, Geography in Classical Antiquity (2012, in this series); Talbert and Brodersen (eds), Space in the Roman World (2004); Dilke, Greek and Roman Maps (1985).

  • Technology: Cuomo, Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity (2007, in this series; see her Bibliographical Essay); Hannah, Time in Antiquity (2009).

The work of Kullmann and his school (including Kullmann, Althoff, and Asper [eds], Gattungen wissenschaftlicher Literatur in der Antike, 1998; Asper, Griechische Wissenschaftstexte, 2007; Föllinger, ‘Fachliteratur 1. Gattungsbegriff und Gattungsgeschichte’, 2011; Lengen, Form und Funktion der aristotelischen Pragmatie, 2002) has been particularly important, as are the contributions of a number of other scholars, including, for example, Fuhrmann, Das systematische Lehrbuch (1960); Fögen, Wissen, Kommunikation und Selbstdarstellung (2009). Conte, Genres and Readers, trans. Most (1994), van der Eijk, ‘Towards a Rhetoric of Ancient Scientific Discourse’ (1997) and Schenkeveld, ‘Philosophical Prose’ (1997) are useful starting points in English. The Introduction to Structures and Strategies in Ancient Greek and Roman Technical Writing (Doody, Föllinger and Taub, eds [2012]) discusses trends in the scholarship, particularly over the past twenty years. The following edited collections provide examples of recent scholarship: Horster and Reitz, Antike Fachschriftsteller (2003); Fögen, Antike Fachtexte: Ancient Technical Texts (2005); Taub and Doody, Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing (2009); Doody, Föllinger and Taub (2012, mentioned earlier); Asper (ed.), Writing Science: Medical and Mathematical Authorship in Ancient Greece (2013). Depew and Obbink (eds), Matrices of Genre (2000) is a valuable collection of essays by classicists interested in issues related to genre, not only in scientific and technical texts; see, for example, the chapter by Sluiter, ‘The Dialectics of Genre’ (2000). A number of scholars working in later periods are also particularly concerned with issues related to genre in medicine and philosophy, as well as scientific inquiries: see, for example, Pomata (2011) on ‘epistemic’ genres and selected chapters in Lavery and Groarke (eds) (2010), Literary Form, Philosophical Content.

See Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (1992, in this series) and her Bibliographical Essay; Harris, Ancient Literacy (1989); Yunis (ed.) Written Texts and the Rise of Literate Culture in Ancient Greece (2003), including chapters by Kahn and Dean-Jones (listed in the references). On cultures of reading and writing: Knox, ‘Books and readers in the Greek world: from the beginnings to Alexandria’ (1989); Easterling, ‘Books and readers in the Greek world: the Hellenistic and Imperial Periods’ (1989); Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 4th edn (2013); Taub (2000).

  • Poetry: Toohey (1996); Volk (2002).

  • Dialogue: Nightingale (1995); Kahn (1996); Taub (2008), chap. 3.

  • Letters: Ceccarelli (2013); Morello and Morrison (eds) (2007); Rosenmeyer (2001); Trapp (2003).

  • Encyclopedia: Murphy (2004); Doody (2009).

  • Commentary: Tuominen (2009); Sorabji (ed.) (1990); Most (ed.) (1999).

  • Biography: Momigliano (1993); Hadas and Smith (1965); Meyer (1978); Warren (2007).

  • ‘Problem texts’: Mayhew (ed.) (2015); De Leemans and Goyens (2006).

  • Recipes: Totelin (2009).

  • Doxography: While doxography may not be a genre, the following are worth consulting: Mansfeld and Runia (1997); van der Eijk (ed.) (1999).

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