Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.12.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.12.08

Markus Asper (ed.), Writing Science. Medical and Mathematical Authorship in Ancient Greece. Science, Technology, and Medicine in Ancient Cultures, 1.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2013.  Pp. viii, 502.  ISBN 9783110295054.  $168.00.  

Reviewed by Konstantinos Kapparis, University of Florida (

Table of Contents

One of the most challenging tasks for a historian of ancient science is to convince students of Classics, History and Archaeology that the study of Galen is as important as the study of Homer for their instruction, and to argue with the college curriculum committee that teaching Hippocrates is as valuable for one’s instruction as teaching Lysias. To do so one typically needs to explain why Greek and Roman scientific writings are much more than obsolete science, and how their study intersects with core areas of ancient literature and culture such as rhetoric, literary criticism, social studies, aesthetics and the visual arts. The current collection of papers from a symposium on ancient science writing held in New York University (2009) explores some of these connections and is intended to place scientific writing in its literary context. The basic premise of the book, as explained in the introductory section by the editor Marcus Asper (p. 3), is that ancient scientists, as well as modern, needed to persuade their audiences, and that to do so they used a broad array of techniques. This study is intended to explore the range of these techniques and cultivate an appreciation of scientific writing as a form of literature. The approach to scientific writing is rather interdisciplinary as the volume contains studies on the writing of medicine, mathematics, mechanics, zoology, and celestial science.

In the introductory article Paul T. Keyser explores the question of what Greek science actually is in its cultural context, and endorses the model according to which dialogue and openness foster an environment conducive to science while authoritarianism stifles it. Karine Chemla discusses the authorship of the oldest Chinese mathematical work, The Nine Chapters of Mathematical Procedure, and concludes that it is probably not the work of a single author in the traditional sense but rather the product of successive editions intended to restore a canonical text to its perceived original state. Thorsten Fögen discusses the strategies of self-presentation which Pliny the Elder employs in the Natural History in order to acknowledge his debt to his predecessors, distance himself from them, and pass judgment on a broad range of issues. Fögen’s nuanced approach to intertextuality in Pliny successfully illustrates that Pliny was a complex author with his own persona as a scholar. Heinrich von Staden systematically discusses zoology in Aristotle, Pliny and Galen, with emphasis on primates, and concludes that their works offer instructive examples of diverse ancient styles of knowing and writing the animal. Philip van der Eijk analyzes Galen’s employment of the scientific treatise (πραγματεία) as a forum for the study of medicine, using the work Mixtures as a paradigm. He concludes that Galen’s use of the πραγματεία is significantly different from that of his predecessors and allows his full persona as an author, teacher, investigator and debater to come forth. Ralph Rosen’s paper approaches Galen’s scientific writing from a very different angle: he investigates Galen’s “complicated, often inconsistent” usage of poetry and concludes that the famous physician was never a very insightful reader of poetry but had internalized its cultural authority and employed its rhetorical power. Ineke Sluiter explores the power dynamics between commentator and source text, concluding that the balance tends to tip towards the commentator. In the case of Galen she explores the prospect that Galen sometimes sets out to “destroy” his source text and its author. Several terms implying literary violence (e.g. βίαιος or μάχεσθαι) are separately discussed in brief appendices. Reviel Netz explores the perceived “silence” of the author’s voice in ancient Mathematics as an intentional choice intended to create a genre free of all speech and concludes that ancient mathematicians did not renounce an authorial role but simply redefined it as one of intentionally standing apart from the text. Serafina Cuomo explores accounts in inscriptions as evidence of numeracy, and discusses possible links of numeracy with democracy and empire, correctly concluding that the employment of numbers was very significant in Athenian political discourse, as it is in ours. Steffen Bogen discusses the use of diagrams as an essential part of science writing in the works of Hero of Alexandria, Archimedes and Pseudo-Aristotle. He concludes that the figures extant in the manuscripts are not illustrations of the text but rather actual representations of the technical parts and their intended movements, and as such part of the scientific reasoning itself. Alan C. Bowen compares three texts (by Diodoros of Sicily, Vitruvius and Geminus) intended to be used as an introduction to astronomy. Bowen discusses the ways in which each author presented himself and his goals, the perception of astronomy by each author, and the rhetoric underlying each author’s understanding of astronomy and its goals.

The opening article of the final section by Liba Taub explores the genres and formats used by ancient mathematicians and rightly concludes that these choices reflect the intentions of the authors as well as their target readership. Apostolos Doxiadis and Michalis Sialaros offer an intriguing investigation of the pathways through which aspects of narrativity, and literary or rhetorical techniques such as ring composition, chiasmus, and forensic reasoning have intruded into ancient mathematical thinking. Marcus Asper explores narratives of progress in mathematical authors and two Hippocratic studies, and argues that as science writers try to convince their readers that what they present is newer and better, they become at the same time story-tellers. In the final article of this collection Brooke Holmes discusses the concept of the “structurally disembodied” physician, analyzing some perspectives of detachment between the physician and the body.

Rhetoric is crucial for the understanding of ancient scientific writing and the fact that none of the authors of this collection has substantial credentials in the history of Graeco-Roman rhetoric accounts for the most significant weakness of this collection. To give one striking example, throughout the collection there is a distinct lack of awareness of the differences between the primitive rhetoric underlying the Hippocratic writings, most of which were composed at the dawn of the era of reason before the significant developments introduced by the masters of Attic oratory, and the highly developed, all-important and all-pervasive rhetoric underlying the scientific writings of the era of Quintilian. On the whole, however, this collection makes a very substantial contribution to our understanding of scientific writing in the ancient world and beyond. The rich collection of topics, the diversity of backgrounds and approaches to scientific writing and its narratology, the inclusion of several different disciplines of ancient science, and the impressive learning which pervades the collection make this volume a welcome addition to the bibliography of ancient science and its Nachleben.

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