Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.25

Paul T. Keyser, Georgia L. Irby-Massie, The Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists: The Greek Tradition and Its Many Heirs.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2008.  Pp. x, 1062.  ISBN 9780415340205.  $360.00.  



Reviewed by Katharina Volk, Columbia University (kv2018@columbia.edu)
Word count: 2175 words

The Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists (EANS), edited by Paul T. Keyser and Georgia L. Irby-Massie, is a remarkable achievement, covering in its 2,053 entries a wide variety of scientific authors who range in time from Homer to around AD 650 and in place from India to Britain. Given that "science" is nearly impossible to define, especially in the context of premodern societies, the editors have wisely decided on an inclusive approach, using as the sole criterion for selection whether the author's "endeavor was to understand or model some aspect of the natural world on the basis of investigation and reason" (1). The EANS thus covers specialists in the fields of agriculture, alchemy, architecture, astrology, astronomy, biology, cosmology, geography, harmonics, mathematics, mechanics, medicine, meteorology, metrology, optics, pharmacy, physiognomy, psychology, and veterinary medicine, as well as encyclopedists, doxographers, and paradoxographers. Most entries are on individuals, but some treat trends or schools (e.g., Babylonian astronomy), anonymous sources (including 44 papyri), or even objects (e.g., the Anticythera device and the Lion Horoscope of Commagene).

This comprehensiveness, coupled with the compilers' diligence in ferreting out obscure authors, makes the EANS a resource like no other. As the statistics-happy editors point out (5), less than 25% of their entries are found in such standard English-language reference works as the Oxford Classical Dictionary or the Dictionary of Scientific Biography; even Brill's New Pauly (the English version of the Neuer Pauly), once completed, will cover only about 40% of the material of the EANS. Furthermore, 276 names (over one-eighth of the entries) are effectively new to modern scholarship: 121 of these are medical writers mentioned previously only by Johann Albert Fabricius in volume 13 of his Bibliotheca Graeca of 1726; the remaining 155 do not appear in any reference work.

About half the entries, including all the major ones, were written by 119 international scholars, many of them outstanding specialists in their fields. The editors themselves penned the remaining articles, including most on the minor or next-to-unknown figures. I should note that in reading and assessing the entries, I have primarily concentrated on my own interests, which include astronomy and astrology, philosophy, and Latin authors, and my remarks in what follows will focus on these. I am working on the assumption that my observations apply to the EANS as a whole, though it would be interesting to know how specialists in, for example, medicine or some of the more technological fields judge the volume.

As is perhaps not surprising, the quality of the entries varies considerably. Many are excellent, a few are mediocre, and some are so idiosyncratic or otherwise problematic that readers would be well advised to consult instead a more level-headed source, such as the OCD. There are also great differences in style and structure. Apparently no firm guidelines were given, and it was left to the authors what to include or not. As a result (to take just one issue), some entries abound in biographical information, while others contain hardly any. We thus learn in detail about the military and political careers of Julius Caesar and Germanicus, while the article on Cicero tells us nothing about his life and does not even mention that he was also active in politics. Instead, we find a perceptive discussion of Cicero's intellectual importance both in his own time and in later periods, information of a kind lacking from many other entries.

The relative length of the articles leads to some skewing of perspectives. The entry on M. Tullius Cicero--to stay with this example--is followed by one on his brother Q. Tullius Cicero, included in the EANS by virtue of a poetic fragment attributed to him that treats the zodiac. The leisurely exposition on Quintus is about one-third the length of the highly compressed discussion of Marcus, giving a distorted impression of the relative significance of the two brothers. Obviously, the encyclopedia format--at least in the case of a one-volume, printed book--necessitates a word limit for entries, which means that major figures end up getting comparatively short shrift. Still, it is jarring when after only three and a-half pages on Aristotle (one of the longest entries in the EANS and an outstanding example of how to convey maximal information in minimal space), we find eight pages on individual pseudo-Aristotelian works.

The lack of a common format means that some contributors very carefully document each piece of information they provide, while others indiscriminately report often questionable doxographical and biographical material. The plain statement that "Thales said all was water" (779) is the kind of thing one would not like to read in a student's term paper. More problematic is the narrative of Vergil's life that reports without any qualification that "[a]fter moving to Naples," the poet "joined an Epicurean school led by Siron and became acquainted with Philodemos. During the veteran-resettlement program of 42-40 BCE his family's estate was confiscated, then apparently restored through the intervention of his patron, Asinius Pollio" (824).

A widespread problem is the failure of many authors to make a clear distinction between a writer's extant and lost works. The otherwise exemplary entry on Pliny, for example, could well raise readers' hopes that they might be able to get their hands on Pliny's manual on throwing javelins from horseback. Positively misleading is the statement, in the article on Lucan, that "[h]is best known works are the Siluae and the Bellum Ciuile" (83). Not surprisingly, nothing more is said about the Siluae, a title known to us only from the Lucan biography of the late-antique grammarian Vacca.

Despite the claim of the subtitle that the EANS covers a "tradition" with "many heirs," it is not easy to get a sense from the book how individual figures and achievements are connected. As already mentioned, reception (whether in antiquity or beyond) does not figure large in most articles, and while there is the usual cross-referencing (names printed in small capitals are ones that have their own entries), there are no "see also" sections or other mechanisms for opening up the discussion. Readers of the highly informative article on Epicurus, for instance, get no sense that there were Epicureans after the master, who they were, and what they were up to. In order to find out, they would need to look up "Epicurean" in the Glossary (on which see further below), where all related entries are listed. This system is cumbersome, and not all readers may realize that they have to take this extra step.

Sometimes, a strand in the larger intellectual tradition gets entirely lost. The article on Aratus makes no mention of the fact that the Phaenomena became one of the most popular poems of antiquity, served for centuries as a textbook of astronomy, and occasioned numerous commentaries. It states in general terms that the work was repeatedly translated into Latin, but no details are given, and since there is no entry for "Aratea" either, readers who did not know about Aratus' reception in Rome will not find out from the EANS and those who were hoping to learn more will be forced to look up separately all the individual translators. If they do so, they will encounter further obstacles. While there is an entry on Germanicus, the already stuffed article on Cicero does not mention his translation of Aratus, and the pitifully short discussion of Avienus contains only the briefest reference (ditto for Varro of Atax). By contrast, the disproportionately long entry on Ovid tells us what each of the two tiny fragments of his Phaenomena is about. Though the article on Vergil dutifully reports Aratean influence (the one on Manilius does not), and though there are numerous individual entries on commentators of his poem, the overall significance of Aratus (not exactly a major scientist, but still an important figure in the history of science) is not apparent from the EANS.

However, one of the great joys of encyclopedias in general and the EANS in particular is not so much looking up central figures (on whom information is easy to come by elsewhere, after all) as having the opportunity to encounter previously unknown characters and facts. With its stress on novelty, the EANS is perfect for browsing, and the dozens of short notices on obscure scientists, most of them written by the editors themselves, are colorful gems in this Wunderkammer. Who would not be delighted to find out about Agesias of Megara, "cited for crane ethology by the Paradoxographus Vaticanus" (45); Calliphanes, an "authority on Libyan hermaphrodites" (464); and the medical writer Apollodorus of Citium, who "recommended crushed radish in water as an antidote to mistletoe poisoning" (108)? The comprehensiveness of the EANS indeed borders on the marvelous. I had made a list of figures that I consider, well, marginal and was impressed to find each and every one of them in the work, including such not-exactly-household names as the first-century BC Latin didactic poet Egnatius and Fronto the astrologer, quoted for his antiscia theory by Firmicus Maternus.

It is in the copious appendices that the editors get carried away by their encyclopedic urge to a point that transcends the utilitarian. Some parts of these 200+ pages of what one might think of as bonus features are genuinely helpful. These include the already-mentioned Glossary, which explains common terms used in the entries: mostly philosophical schools, philosophical and medical terms, and the names of plants (some accompanied by illustrations from the Athos Dioscurides, as explained in a learned disquisition on the manuscripts of Dioscurides, which follows the Glossary--but is, unfortunately, not cross-referenced in the entry on Dioscurides). Also very useful is a list of all entries by topic; this is where you go if you want to find all agricultural authors or all encyclopedists. The various indices, by contrast, seem inspired by nothing so much as an unfettered delight in classification: scientists are categorized not only by ethnicity and the language in which they wrote, but also according to whether they were female, poets, monotheists, or rulers. I am sure I am not the only person to be reminded of the Chinese encyclopedia ("Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge") playfully reported by Jorge Luis Borges as classifying animals as "(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids" all the way up to "(n) those that resemble flies from a distance" (in Borges's "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins").

The benevolent knowledge of the editors is on evidence in the monumental Gazetteer, 55 pages that list "all 290 or more sites and all 35 or more regions from which around 1000 ancient scientists are attested or considered to have originated" (855). This catalogue, of which Pliny would have been proud, is an obvious labor of love: it gives brief historical sketches and secondary literature, as well as the modern place name and--"[b]ecause modern names are subject to change" (855)--the longitude and latitude of each town! Perhaps it attests to my lack of imagination that I fail to see the use of this particular appendix for the readers of the EANS, though I assume that if you look at the world with the ambition of an encyclopedist, more is always better than less, and if you can have an Encyclopedia of the Places of Origin of Ancient Natural Scientists, why not? I only briefly mention that there is also a frankly amazing index of all the plants that make an appearance in the EANS (beyond those included in the Glossary), which first lists them alphabetically according to their Greek, Latin, or English names and then provides a second list by binomial taxonomy.

To end on a more mundane note, the volume is generally attractive and well produced, with a nice cover picture of the Anticythera device. The typographic conventions (use of bold, underlining, small caps, etc.) take some getting used to, as does the consistent transliteration of Greek names, with the more common Latinate or Anglicized forms used only in special cases (the reader will notice that I have tacitly reverted to Latinate spelling for the purpose of this review). This is a matter of taste, though I note that while most classicists will have no problem with finding Heraclitus under Herakleitos, historians of science who specialize in more recent periods--and who might otherwise use the EANS with great profit--may end up confused. I myself was more perturbed by the spelling of Latin names: if u is used for both /u/ and /w/ in the lower case, then V should be its equivalent in the upper case, but the EANS uses V only at the beginning of names and only if it is a consonant, and U word-internally throughout. This enables the editors to keep names separate that begin with U- and V-, but in turn gives us such atrocities as VITRUUIUS.

Needless to say, all serious libraries need to own this book (which is also available in electronic form). Most individuals will balk at the price of $360, but if you can afford it, you will have bought yourself a book of wonders.

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