Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.35

Georgia L. Irby-Massie, Paul T. Keyser, Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era: A Sourcebook.   London and New York:  Routledge, 2002.  Pp. xxviii, 392.  ISBN 0-415-23847-1.  $90.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-415-23848-X.  $28.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by David A. Traill, University of California, Davis (
Word count: 1087 words

Classicists have been very successful in packaging segments of Greek and Roman civilization and culture into courses that have proved extremely popular with large numbers of students. Courses on mythology, etymology, women, and ancient history are familiar examples. We have been much less successful, however, in similarly exploiting one of the most fascinating aspects of Greek society: their remarkable accomplishments in science. Many of us, of course, in our survey courses, draw students' attention to the importance of the Presocratics' attempts to explain the universe in rational terms, to the role of Socrates and Plato in developing modes of reasoned argument, and to Aristotle's astonishing achievement in introducing scientific method to a wide range of disciplines. Some might screw up enough courage to demonstrate how, with a simple experiment and some elementary geometry, Eratosthenes was able to arrive at a remarkably accurate estimate of the circumference of the earth. We might also retell the "Eureka!" story but few of us will venture beyond this to show why Archimedes is regarded as one of the three greatest mathematicians of all time. One reason for this is fairly obvious. Once you get beyond the generalizations and the anecdotes, ancient science and mathematics are not easy. Most classicists feel comfortable talking about myth but distinctly uncomfortable if called upon to discuss problems in hydrostatics. Another reason has been the lack of appropriate textbooks. Classicists interested in incorporating more ancient science into their courses, or perhaps even developing a complete course on the subject, will welcome this new sourcebook by Irby-Massie and Keyser (I & K).

I & K's book is an anthology of texts that illustrate the methods and findings of Greek scientists. It is designed to replace the old standby, Cohen and Drabkin (C & D), now out of print.1 While most of the excerpts have been reprinted from earlier works, I & K have contributed some three dozen new passages, often from sources not hitherto translated into English. I & K have restricted themselves to the Hellenistic period. Since this was the golden age of Greek science, the narrower scope generally means little more than that C & D include excerpts from Aristotle, whereas I & K do not. The absence of Aristotle is most keenly felt in the zoology section, where his contributions far surpassed those of his successors.

After a general introduction, the book is divided into eleven chapters: Mathematics, Astronomy, Astrology, Geography, Mechanics, Optics, Hydrostatics and Pneumatics, Alchemy, Biology (Botany and Zoology), Medicine and "Psychology." Each chapter has an introductory segment, in which the authors summarize the progress in that field up to the death of Aristotle. Within each chapter the illustrative excerpts are organized under individual scientists rather than by sub-field, as in C & D. Brief introductory notes on each scientist precede the excerpts illustrating his work. Naturally, those who worked in more than one field turn up in more than one chapter. I & K's arrangement has the advantage of allowing students to form a better idea of the achievements of specific individuals, and, since scientists are arranged chronologically, better appreciate the development of each discipline.

I & K is much better indexed than C & D, being equipped with separate indexes of: 1) terms (e.g. "circumference of the earth," "digestion"); 2) metals, stones, plants, and animals; 3) people (excluding extracted authors); 4) places; 5) passages cited (but not excerpted). These should prove useful to many beyond the directly targeted audience. The strange exclusion from indexes 3 and 5 of what is after all the meat of the book, is explained by the detailed table of contents, where this information can be readily (but less conveniently) found. To the very useful bibliography, sensibly restricted, for the most part, to works in English, should be added: Sherman Stein, Archimedes: What Did He Do Besides Cry Eureka? (Washington 1999).

A major departure from the format of C & D is the lack of explanatory footnotes. To some extent, the authors have compensated for this by adding brief notes in square brackets within the excerpted texts themselves. But footnotes would have allowed for the more detailed commentary that many of these texts require. The authors explain their decision as follows: "We have also preferred to include more text at the expense of some notes, believing that there is greater value in having more material available, and given that even book-length commentaries on some of these texts would not suffice." Clearly, choices had to be made. Personally, I would have preferred more notes. These texts are, as I & K's own remarks imply, often formidable. The more assistance that is provided, the more accessible they become to students and potential teachers alike. Certainly, guidance is often to be found in G.E.R. Lloyd's excellent Greek Science After Aristotle (New York 1973), which every teacher should have constantly within reach. Lloyd's book, however, deals only with a small percentage of the passages in I & K and, although it would have been an ideal choice for an accompanying text, is now, sadly, out of print.

Here are some minor criticisms that occurred to me. The decision to use the "purist" method of transliteration is unfortunate. It adds a layer of confusion to an already difficult subject. Even seasoned classicists are likely to be nonplussed if asked, "What do you think of the work of Eukleides?" and many students, familiar with Dionysius and Epicurus, will not necessarily connect them with Dionusios and Epikouros. The title of chapter nine, "Alchemy," though technically correct, is bound to mislead and puzzle many students. A more informative title would have been "Minerals, Metallurgy and Chemistry." Finally, since students will find it simply incredible that Herophilus practiced human vivisection (p. 427), it is both surprising and disappointing that the passage in Celsus' De Medicina documenting this has not been included.

These are, however, small points. The important thing is that this new book makes more than enough good material available in an attractive format. A comprehensive course on Greek science is once again a practicable possibility. Teachers will often have to seek illumination on specific texts from Lloyd or elsewhere, and a sympathetic colleague in a science department will be a godsend. Those who think their knowledge of science or mathematics may not be up to the challenge can turn to the prefatory remarks in "To the Scientifically Faint-Hearted Reader" in T. E. Rihll's recent book for encouragement.2 I & K deserve the thanks of the profession for providing us with an extremely useful textbook.


1.   M.R. Cohen and I.E. Drabkin, A Source Book in Greek Science. Cambridge, MA: 1958.
2.   T.E. Rihll, Greek Science. Oxford: 1999.

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