Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.27

M.R. Wright, Cosmology in Antiquity. New York: Routledge, 1995. Pp. x + 201. $17.95. ISBN 0-414-12183-3 (pb).

Reviewed by Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College (

Wright begins with a programmatic introduction (pp. 1-10) in which she justifies her topic, defines some key terms, and previews what follows. Central to her approach and to the aim of the Routledge series Sciences of Antiquity is the proposition that many contemporary scientific problems "are more sophisticated versions of issues which engaged the interest of ancient cosmologists" (p. 1).1 This, together with a survey of cosmological texts from 3rd millennium Sumer through the 2nd century A.D. (pp. 11-36) and a chapter entitled "Models, Myths and Metaphors" (pp. 37-55), which shows how the ancients employed models that differ significantly from their modern counterparts mainly in degree to "assist in the simplification and interpretation of the complexities of the observed data" (p. 37), set the tone for the remainder of the book's six thematic chapters: "Macrocosm and Microcosm," "Chaos and Cosmogony," "Elements and Matter," "Air, Aither and Astra," "Time and Eternity," "The Mathematical Bases of Greek Cosmology," and "The Cosmos and God" -- all largely variations on a theme.

The first of these chapters, which presents the notion of a vital cosmos as the ancient cosmologist's most important and pervasive model, may itself be taken as a sort of model for Wright's subsequent chapters. A quick survey ticks off the most important texts, from the so-called Memphite theology of Egypt (mistakenly or misleadingly referred to by Wright [p. 57] as "from Heliopolis"2) and the Akkadian version of Babylonian creation myth preserved in the Enuma elish through Hesiod's Theogony, the Presocratics, the Hippocratic corpus, Plato, Aristotle, and, after an interesting, brief digression on Ovid and Vergil, concludes with the Cynics and Stoics. Here Wright does a particularly good job of noting how the macrocosm/microcosm model led to the adoption of certain otherwise illogical notions about characteristics thought to be shared by man, the state, the individual components of the world of nature, and the cosmos in general, e.g., birth and death, soul, and law and justice. Passing observations suggest how much this model has led current cosmologists to adopt positions much like those of their ancient predecessors. So, Wright observes, "The Renaissance image of the Great Chain of Being and contemporary mapping of DNA molecules are descendants of an ancient way of regarding all forms of existence from the smallest to the greatest as on the one spectrum of universal life" (p. 57), and, "Today one might paraphrase this passage [Aeneid 6.724-731] in terms of cosmic energy and mass whereby the energy-charge in the mass produces differentiation, first, of galactic form, then of this particular galaxy with its sun, moon and earth, and finally the population of living things within it in one continuous and dynamic process" (p. 69).

This largely descriptive approach, interspersed with modest linguistic, historical, and analytic commentary, has the virtue -- or vice (more on which below) -- of importing to the fairly small body texts that bear on ancient cosmology clarity, cohesion, and relevance. In Cosmology in Antiquity, it has also led to repetition. Indeed, several chapters read as though they had been composed for separate presentation, for the same points are made in the same language (cf. pp, 54 and 102, for the analogy between the cosmic dodecahedron and a "football made of twelve five-sided pieces of leather.") However, Wright's comparisons of ancient to modern cosmology, regardless of their persuasiveness, serve to break what might otherwise become a monotonous read: non-Hesiodic notions of chaos are said to approach "the contemporary understanding of chaos as a disordered state of affairs that was yet susceptible to certain principles of order arising from it or being imposed on it" (p. 78); "... [in ancient atomic theory] the potential to swerve was thought to be built into the very structure of the atom, in somewhat the same way as inherent erratic behavior is now recognized in subnuclear particles" (p. 86); and, "The assumption that all things ... are temporary compounds of elemental parts of earth, air, fire and water in different proportions is not so very different from the contemporary views that the main ingredients are the elements of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen or that the types of life are reducible to arrangements of the four letters of the DNA alphabet" (p. 100).

Unfortunately and, insofar as they betray carelessness and haste at the least, frequent certain or probable errors of fact mar this book. Wright labels Linear A a transcription of a Greek dialect (p.16) and Plato's Academy, too anachronistically, "the first European university" (p. 24). Plutarch she terms widely traveled -- an exaggeration, unless warranted by trips to Egypt and Italy (p. 35). Mt. Olympus she locates in Thrace rather than between Macedon and Thessaly (p. 38). Perhaps most unfortunate of all are repeated references (pp. 10, 36, 158, 161, and 195) to Ptolemy's Amalgest for Almagest, even in the bibliographic entry for G. J. Toomer's Ptolemy's Almagest. Other slips are trivial -- e.g. Ohio State University Press for Ohio University Press in the bibliographic notice of D. E. Hahm's The Origins of Stoic Cosmology -- but errors nonetheless.

The five-page bibliography is eclectic and reflects the same faults noted above. A statement of the rationale might have helped explain the mixture of a few specialized journal articles and monographs, some general treatments of subjects ancient and modern, Cherniss' eleventh volume of the Loeb Plutarch, and fundamental works -- Doxographi Graeci, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, and Stoicorum veterum fragmenta. All but two modern entries are in English, the exceptions being in French.

The glossary of terms is no less peculiar: inter alia, anthropomorphism, geocentrism, heliocentrism, and genesis are glossed, but doxography, four-color map theory, Great Chain of Being, and second law of thermodynamics left unexplained. The Index of Classical Sources will pose problems even to some classicists. For example, in the entry Anonymus Londonensis (Meno) 18.8:117, (Meno) 18.8 refers to the Berlin Supplementum Aristotelem, the 117 to Wright's p. 117, where there appears the parenthetical citation Menon 44A27, clear enough to those familiar with Diels and Kranz, but to others an odds-on mystery. There are no notes to the text, and the parenthetical references to ancient authors are unsystematic. Wright generally uses fr. to signify fragments from Diels and Kranz, but pp. 172-173 provide neither references to Diels-Kranz fragment numbers nor provenance for Protagoras fr. 4 or Critias fr.25. For these one must turn to the Index of Classical Sources. On p. 116, fr. designates fr. 13 of Sophocles -- the edition (Dindorf's?) unspecified -- and, on p. 129, "fr. 18 trans. Ross" refers to the fragmentary On Philosophy of Aristotle in the translation of, and according to the enumeration of, Vol. XII of Sir David Ross's The Selected Works of Aristotle. On p. 62, Stobaeus 1.18.1, the provenance of Ross's fr. 11 of Aristotle's On the Pythagoreans, appears instead of a fragment number. Wright nearly always cites Stoic material according to the numeration of von Arnim's Stoicorum veterum fragmenta, though on p.142 one finds Stobaeus 1.106, the provenance of Chrysippus fr. 509, SVF II, p. 164, from that philosopher's De tempore. Aetius she cites according to the numeration of Doxographi Graeci, though no explanation is given and, without one, most readers will be at a loss. No citation appears on p. 122 for IG I2 945, the epigram for the Athenian dead at Potidaea. A book targeted at readers thought to require assistance with terms such as "kosmos" and "heliocentric" needs to be user-friendly to succeed, and, in this respect, once one goes beyond a superficial reading of the text itself, Cosmology in Antiquity does not quite measure up.

But there is another, more serious problem with Cosmology in Antiquity, one perhaps inherent in its method. Though it offers to the intelligent layman a sound survey of mainstream ancient cosmology peppered with provocative commentary -- an admittedly worthy achievement --, its basic approach differs hardly at all from that of the ancient doxographers, and, as a result, it risks a similar anachronistic distortion of the thought of the individuals with whom it deals. Is there not something essentially misleading in statements such as "Cosmology is unique among ancient sciences in being based on a wide variety of texts" (p. 11), when the very word "cosmology" is a New Latin coinage? One looks in vain for KOSMOLOGI/A in LSJ, Lampe, von Arnim, Doxographi Graeci, and E. A. Sophocles' Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods from B.C. 146 to A.D. 1100, though the Wortindex to Diels-Kranz does list *KOSMOLOGIKO/S, given by the scholiast to Aristophanes Pax 835 as an alternative title of the *TRIAGMO/S of Ion of Chios.3

Yet, in spite of the problems described above, interested readers from outside the field of classics and classicists only tangentially concerned with ancient philosophy and science will profit from Cosmology in Antiquity. It is a serviceable book, but, even at that level, could have been a much better one.


  • [1] Sciences of Antiquity intends "to show what it was in the aims, expectations, problems and circumstances of the ancient writers that formed the nature of what they wrote. A consequent purpose is to provide historians with an understanding of the materials out of which later writers, rather than passively receiving and transmitting ancient 'ideas', constructed their own world view" (p. ii).
  • [2] Wright's concern is with Atum, a god of Heliopolis, who, she says, "had within himself the primary sexual urge which compelled him to draw out his own body's fluid with his hand" to produce Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). The so-called Shabaka Stone, an inscription from ca. 700 B.C. but preserving much earlier material, gives this explanation of the genesis of Shu and Tefnut, though there is no suggestion of Atum's actions being the result of any "primary sexual urge." The earliest evidence, a hieroglyphic inscription from the 24th c. B.C., has Atum spit and sputter out Shu and Tefnut. A fourth-century Bremner-Rhind Papyrus (British Museum 10188) preserves both versions. For translations and commentary, see Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. by J. B. Pritchard (2nd ed.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), pp. 3-7.
  • [3] For the passage, see Diels and Kranz, 36A2, I, p. 378. The place given cosmologia generalis in the taxonomy of sciences proposed by Christian Wolff, Discursus praeliminaris de philosophia in genera (Frankfurt and Leipzig: Regner, 1728) seems to mark something of a watershed in the process of the development of a perception of cosmology as an intellectual activity in its own right.