Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.45

John Freely, The Flame of Miletus: The Birth Of Science In Ancient Greece (And How It Changed The World).   London:  I. B. Tauris, 2012.  Pp. ix, 238.  ISBN 9781780760513.  $29.95 (hb).  

Reviewed by Barry Baldwin, University of Calgary (


"A fascinating story, here for the first time told in its entirety." A false prefatory claim, refuted by (e.g.) J. B. Bernal's Science in History, also books by Koestler and Lindberg—cited in Freely's own bibliography!

Chapter I ("Ionian Enlightenment") surveys Milesian scientists. Freely makes the city sound like a Greek Silicon Valley. It had its raffish side, being associated with Aspasia's brothel-mongering and best-quality dildos. Preliminary remarks on Hesiod's Eastern influences ignore important books by Walcott and West. Thales' solar eclipse prediction is dismissed as "impossible"; cf. for belief Dirk Couprie, Early Science and Medicine 9 (2004), 321-337. Regarding Xenophanes' religious gibes, M. J. Edwards (GRBS 32, 1991, 219-228) on their possible spuriousness is ignored.

Chapter 2 ("Harmony and Logos") focuses on Pythagoras and Heraclitus. As with all the Pre-Socratics, James Warren's account (BMCR 2008.08.41) is richer. No acknowledgement of the shaky evidence and modern debates over who devised the famous Theorem. No mention of Marxist George Thomson's provocative suggestion (The First Philosophers) that Heraclitus was the founder of dialectical materialism. Throughout these early chapters, Freely leans heavily on Boyer, Guthrie, Heath, plus KIrk and Raven; no sign of Diels-Kranz, their fragments' translation in Kathleen Freeman's Ancilla (valuable for the Greekless), or D. W. Graham's recent emulation of Kirk and Raven (BMCR 2011.11.38). For another side of Oxford philosophy, Heraclitus' famous Panta rhei kai ouden menei is attested as a men's lavatory graffito.

Chapter 3 ("The One and the Atom") packs in Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Democritus, and Leucippus. A tall order for 12 pages. The vast specialist literature on all is ignored. Parmenides nowadays evokes Bill Clinton's notorious "It depends on the meaning of what is is." Thomson's correlation of his One with the innovation of coined money deserved a glance. So did Karl Marx' doctoral dissertation on the Atomists, lavishly praised by the emphatically non-Marxist Cyril Bailey. Some online notes by various Greek doctors elucidate how Empedocles kept a woman without breath or pulse alive for a month. Socrates on the éclat and price of Anaxagoras' book(s) was worth adducing.

Chapter 4 ("The School of Hellas") is largely Plato, with paragraphs on Aratus, Eudoxus, Geminus, and Heraclides Ponticus appended. Freely is unaware of G. R. Levy's Plato in Sicily, nor does he acknowledge that authorship of the epigram (Anth. Gr. 7.99—unreferenced here) on Plato's mad love for Dion is disputed. Also omitted is Bruce Eastwood's defence (Journal for the History of Astronomy 23, 1992, 223-266) of belief in Heraclides' notion of planetary solar orbits.

Chapter 5 ("The Grove of Apollo") is devoted to Aristotle, merely a farrago of summarised texts, with no discussion of his modern scientific standing, which ranges from continued admiration to contemptuous dismissal. As remarked in Bruce Clegg's review (Popular Science, Sept. 15, 2012), this is the point where Freely degenerates into "quick bits of historical context and then a rather plodding description of what's in their books."

Chapter 6 ("Aristotle's Successors") embraces Theophrastus and Strato, Zeno, and Epicurus (plus a dash of Lucretius, more prominent later), whose garden is made to sound rather like Dumbarton Oaks. A link might have been made between the Characters and Menander's stereotypes. The Epicurean section is sketchy, with (remarkably) nothing on his religious impact.

Chapter 7 ("The Geometrization of Nature") kicks off with the founding of Alexandria's LIbrary and Museum (Timon memorably gibed that the resident scholars were "like fatted fowls in a coop"—sounds like All Souls College), but largely concerns Euclid and mathematics, heavily dependent upon Bulmer-Thomas and Heath, interspersed with such later figures as the Lobachevsky immortalised by Tom Lehrer. Not Freely's fault that I, a three-time math failure, found this chapter well beyond my competence.

Chapter 8 ("Measuring Heaven and Earth") looks briefly, via more maths, at (primarily) Aristarchus and Eratosthenes. About the latter, there is more more to be learned from the unmentioned Klaus Geus' Eratosthenes von Kyrene (BMCR 2003.05.14). Something might have been said about Crates's construction of a terrestrial globe, a topic now investigated in Jerry Brotton's A History of the World in Twelve Maps. Freely might have specified where Virgil copies from Eratosthenes—Georgic 1. 231-58. A bigger bonus would have been more about Censorinus, misleadingly dubbed "Roman grammarian"—a common mis-designation, the fascinations of whose De die natali did not prevent his exclusion from the Cambridge HIstory of Latin LIterature.

Chapter 9 ("Moving the World") dwells upon Archimedes. As often, he gets too much credit for discovering Specific Gravity, being anticipated by Aesop's fable of the Crow and the Pitcher. As for his famous burning mirrors, Freely oddly cites as evidence only an unreferenced (= Hippias 2) Lucian. I am equally convinced by modern experiments of their authenticity, but dissentients remain. Equally oddly, this is as close as Freely gets to military science and technology, thereby depriving his readers of many exotic, often modern-sounding, inventions and techniques, all assembled in Adrienne Mayor's delightful Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.

Chapter 10 ("Mathematics, Astronomy and Geography") concentrates on Apollonius' Conics and Hipparchus as the "Father of Trigonometry." Included herein are 16 b-a-w plates of variously illustrative diagrams. My mathematical deficiencies preclude any worthwhile comment, except noting apropos the Strabo adjunct that some archaeological discoveries suggest the Amazons may have been more than "fabled."

Chapter 11 ("Ingenious Devices"), based on Ctesibius, Hero, Philo, and Vitruvius, might be many readers' favourite. Freely could have added (e.g.) the mysterious labour-saving machine in Suetonius' Life of Vespasian and the large number of Byzantine 'one-offs' such as Theodosius II's self-refilling lamp and (most intriguing) the Sweeney Todd- like contrivance that propelled drinkers from tavern to slavery in an underground bakery. Overall, Freely is right to say that Hero and company "put the lie to the notion that Greek science neglected practice in favour of theory." But, he bilks the $64,000 question of why there was no ancient industrial revolution: as Marx (If not his epigones) understood, Slavery was not the chief stumbling block.

Chapter 12 ("The Art of Healing") gives pride of place to Galen, suffixed by Dioscorides. Roman doctors such as Celsus and Scribonius Largus do not get a look in. There is understandable reliance on the work of Nutton, Riddle, Sarton, and Wilson. Galen's mistaken theories of blood circulation are let off lightly, with Harvey's vital corrections correspondingly undervalued. Freely's discussion of Galen's death date ignores that of Athenaeus' Deipnosophists, in whose cast the doctor (albeit largely silent) features. One overlooked key item in Galen's Byzantine Nachleben is his appearance in the Hades of the 12th-century anonymous satire Timarion, quietly revising his books; cf. my annotated translation, pp. 117-118, for this and Galenic influence on (among many others) Rabelais.

Chapter 13 ("Spheres Within Spheres") is all Ptolemy. Many (acknowledged) debts to Lloyd and Toomer. My own astronomy does not go much beyond Dr Who and Star Trek, hence nothing to add, save that on the geographical side there might have been some Roman balance in the shape of Pomponius Mela and Solinus.

Chapter 14 ("Classical Twilight") is a 10-page canter from the 155 BC Athenian delegation of philosophers to Rome down to 5th-century Byzantium, taking in a galaxy of big names and small, Greek and Latin. Space compels me to zoom likewise. On Lucretius and his influence, Freely was trumped by Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How The World Became Modern. Also, why not recommend Alicia Stallings' 2011 prize-winning translation instead of the antique Loeb?—I'd also have recalled Tennyson's remarkable poem. On the Latin side in general, a better bet is now Daryn Lehoux' What Did The Romans Know? An Enquiry Into Science and Worldmaking. Determinist Christians would not have joined in the mediaeval welcoming (p. 146) of the atomic theory. Augustine did not ignore science, as amply proved by his many investigations (e.g. on physical monstrosities) in City of God. Christian Byzantium was called 'Queen City' as often as 'Constantinople' by its writers - Step Forward, The 4 Lads! On Diophantus' algebra I agree with the grumble of John Chortasmenos: "Thy soul, Diophantus, be with Satan because of the difficulty of your theorems!"

Chapter 15 ("From Byzantium and Islam to Western Europe") canters across these centuries of time and place. There is a good deal of floundering. Latin had not quite fallen in desuetude by the 5th and 6th centuries. Emperor Justinian was a native speaker and writer of it, and Corippus must have presumed an audience for his Latin verse epics. The old story of Justinian's closure of Plato's Academy in 529 is repeated in seeming ignorance of Alan Cameron's classic demolition of it. Phocas' bad reputation was at least partly contrived for political propaganda (cf. Shakespeare's Richard III); he has some modern defenders, chiefly David Olster. We know far more about Michael Psellus (referred to by Coleridge in a side note to Rime of the Ancient Mariner as an authority on "the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels") than through his Chronographia, thanks to his several hundred personal letters. Furthermore, given his book's subject, Freely might have mentioned Psellus' more exotic evidences for ancient science, notably (Scripta Minora I. 446. 28) his tale of Roman general Julianus in AD 177 devising a clay robot which discharged "unendurable thunderbolts" at the enemy—very Isaac Asimov.

Chapter 16 ("Eureka! Greek Science Rediscovered") is mainly about the physical and scholarly history of the Archimedes Palimpsest, prefixed by brief remarks about discovery of the so-called Antikythera Computer. Nothing new here for the cognoscenti, but Freely's survey usefully makes tyros aware of these excitements and reminds them that we may wake up any morning to fresh finds—that is how I would have ended this chapter and the book, rather than Freely's own flatulence about "our heritage."

Iamblichus is mis-dated (p. 16; p. 148 is better), as is Lucian (p. 96) and the Greek Anthology (p. 96). Athens was not "utterly destroyed" by the Heruli (p. 162). Empedocles' poems are confusedly reported (p. 30), with no awareness that some think he wrote only one, and no mention of the Strasbourg Papyrus. Liutprand is not the only evidence for Byzantine palace automata (p. 202), and no credit given to Leo the Mathematician for his updating of Hero's inventions.

Some old-fashioned touches. The Suda remains 'Suidas' (p. 206). Is Eric Ambler still a touchstone for mystery novels (p. 204)? Perhaps his Mask of Dimitrios accounts for this spelling of Demetrius (p. 70)? 'Trismegestus' (p. 152) may be another oddity or simple misprint (there are trivial ones on pp. 15 ("according the Philolaus") and 169 ("discernable"). Freely's style, though commendably free of academic Newspeak, is humourless, stodgy, and repetitive, with sentences repeated on consecutive pages (124-125), and we don't need to be told five times (pp. 42, 70, 78, 96, 114) that Athenaeus came from Naucratis.

The unnumbered (!) end-notes consist of snippety quotations with abbreviated references. Many items in the 10- page bibliography are never cited and, considering how much specialist literature is overlooked, there is much stuffage of marginal matter. The index, onomastic only—such a book demands a subject index!—with its innumerable omissions of names in the text is a farce.

Overall, Freely gallops along at a breathless pace perhaps influenced by his many travel guides. He is a Suda-like scissors-and-paste assembler, more "just the facts" Dragnet-style than an ideas man. Much of his information is sound enough, but already widely available in this crowded field. A useful primer, but as Yogi Berra almost said, déjà lu all over again.

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