Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.08.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.08.11

Marquis Berrey, Hellenistic Science at Court. Science, technology and medicine in ancient cultures, 5.   Berlin:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. 274.  ISBN 9783110539776.  €99.95.  

Reviewed by Max Leventhal, Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge (

Scholarly advances in rescuing Hellenistic culture from narratives of decline have often focused on Hellenistic literature and art, explaining form and content in terms of social and political contexts. Marquis Berrey offers in this monograph instead a reconsideration of modern ways of thinking about Hellenistic science. His central questions are: "What was the relationship between science and monarchy in the third century BCE in the Hellenistic world? And why does it matter?" (p. 1). This book thus looks not to poets such as Callimachus, Apollonius and Theocritus, but the works – both material and textual – of scientists such as Archimedes, Eratosthenes and Andreas of Carystus.

In the Introduction, Berrey presents the methodological frameworks he will adopt in the book. The first and most important is the concept of the court. Drawing on research into the political structure(s) of the Early-modern court and its influence on state formation and cultural production, Berrey proposes that one way to unlock the dynamics of scientific output in the Hellenistic period is to pay close attention to the operations of the Hellenistic courts. Berrey’s second methodological consideration is to reflect on the type of history of science he is writing. He raises the issue of ‘presentism’ in writing the history of science: the extent to which this writing is influenced by modern conceptions of what science entails. Broadly speaking, he responds to these concerns by proposing to read Hellenistic scientific developments as historically contingent, as events which did not necessarily have to be the case. He also proposes, instead of focusing on how social conditions allow for the epistemic closure of scientific debate to think in terms of emergence. By epistemic closure, he means the idea that because scientific observations describe ‘the facts’ there is no case for disagreement. By emergence, he means "a historical conceptual holism which for historical actors marks the temporal moment a new belief about already-existing objects came into being" (p. 22). The way to respond fully to these concerns, Berrey concludes, is to provide a ‘thick description’ of the court society at which the science was developed, and in so doing to allow for a clear view of the authors’ and works’ historical contingency and the emergent ideas and objects which historical actors assembled into new scientific machines and operations.

The first and second chapters, then, provide that thick description of Hellenistic court society. In Chapter One, Berrey counts 141 courtiers from the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246 B.C.E) to the end of the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (205/4 B.C.E.), and 17 doubtful and excluded cases. He divides the figures into nine groups: ‘the king and his family’, ‘the philoi or friends of the king’, ‘bureaucrats, military officials, judiciary, minor functionaries’, ‘priests’, ‘flatterers, entertainers, lovers’, ‘poets’, ‘prose authors: antiquarians, geographers, historians’, ‘prose authors: philosophers, grammarians’, and ‘scientists’. He provides for each figure, or group of figures, a short biography and explains their position within the court, and often comments on the limits of what can be known about them. This prosopography of the Ptolemaic court during the defined period is a useful resource which I expect will be consulted often.

In the second chapter, Berrey outlines his interpretation of the court’s function within elite society, how its interactions are governed by a form of gift-exchange, and the possible spaces in which these interactions occurred. He first proposes that both courtiers and the king presented a persona to the court; the former had to represent themselves as a friend of the king ready to give honest advice and to be cultured and loyal, while the king ought to be fair, magnanimous, and beneficent. The two parties are held together by a discourse of friendship, in which both sides had to negotiate the fine line between honest criticism and conspicuous flattery. Ideally, "both king and courtier were great-souled and friends-of- honour whose mutual intimacy fostered honour and glory" (p. 109). The site at which this social negotiation takes place is the symposium; it is here that courtiers (seriously or jocularly) vie for the king’s attention and favour. It is also here where cultural products are offered to the king in the guise of gifts of friendship, such as poems or treatises. The Hellenistic scientific works and scientific objects which will be the subject of the subsequent chapters should be contextualised as items of gift-exchange, offered by scientists as courtiers, who expected favours in return.

In the third chapter, Berrey turns to the scientific writings themselves. He identifies themes that make sense within the court context, and within the entertainment context presupposed by the symposium. He brings a wide range of Hellenistic scientific texts together and shows how they revel in the ideas of belatedness and praise, the dynamic between text and image or diagram, and the construction of the scientists’ expertise and persona as courtiers.

Chapter Four extends this argument on a more detailed level, by looking at Eratosthenes’ letter on the doubling of the cube and the instrument it describes, and at Andreas of Carystus’ machine for resetting dislocated joints. In both cases, he aims to show "that these technological products of cross-disciplinary scientific investigation gained social currency first through their entertainment value as court science." (p.163) That is, his aim is to show that the works were produced to entertain the court elite and that such objects were performance pieces intended to elicit wonder and to chime with the aesthetics of the courtly milieu.

The fifth chapter looks at two further Hellenistic scientific developments: Herophilus’ measurement of the pulse, and Archimedes’ Method and its use of mechanical argumentation in computing the volume of a given solid. Berrey’s intention with these two further case studies is to consider how Hellenistic science is produced beyond the parameters of the Ptolemaic kings Euergetes and Philopator. Herophilus was active earlier during the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter and II Philadelphus while Archimedes was active in Syracuse from the second half of the third century. In the case of Herophilus, Berrey shows how he both drew from the musical theory of Aristoxenus in calculating the rhythm of the pulse and used a water clock which combined Greek and Egyptian aspects of time measurement. In the case of Archimedes, he offers a close reading of the text and reveals how he appropriates a mechanical discourse in imagining how solids can be weighed by being sliced into smaller units and balanced on a scale-beam.

In the Epilogue, Berrey looks to the wider import of his research and proposes that it takes the first steps towards a history of scientific interdisciplinarity, since the Hellenistic court "was the original interdisciplinary space" (p. 227). He makes a strong case for disciplines still being in a process of formation in the Hellenistic period and for there being wholesale borrowings across the sciences. Although he is relatively quiet about the fact, this is shown most clearly in Chapter Five, which exposes brilliantly how music theory and medicine, and mechanics and mathematics interact. Berrey concludes the book by looking forward to the future history of scientific interdisciplinarity and argues that we will need to look beyond traditional institutions and evidence, to the likes of Callimachus’ aetiological poetry, in order to understand how scientific disciplines interact with each other, and with other epistemic frameworks such as magic or religion.

In addition to the court prosopography of Chapter One, the central value of this book is its close reading and contextualisation of scientific works and texts. Berrey succeeds in using the historical and political contexts as a lever with which to pry open the texts or devices and expose their workings. Particularly innovative, to my mind, are his readings of the performative nature of Andreas of Carystus’ machine for resetting joints and the combination of Greek and Egyptian material culture which produce Herophilus’ water clock for measuring pulses.

Two points should be borne in mind, which arise from my sincere appreciation of Berrey’s innovative work. First is the issue of periodisation with respect to both the material and to the development of Berrey’s thesis. Berrey defines his period of interest as the reigns of Ptolemy III Euergetes and IV Philopator, yet at a number of points he strays outside this remit. In discussing court dynamics in Chapter Two the key texts are Isocrates’ To Nicocles, the pseudepigraphic Letter to Aristeas, and Diodorus Siculus. The kind of light which these texts can throw onto the politics of the Ptolemaic court is different in each case. A bit more openness about the date and historical context, not to mention genre, of their production would have been useful; a Classical period speech and a late-second century pseudepigraphic Jewish text do not disclose historical events or normative expectations regarding kings for the same purposes. Some of the texts that Berrey discusses, moreover, do not come from the time period he defined, e.g. Biton’s Constructions of War-Machines and Artillery (likely the 130s BCE) and Apollonius of Citium’s Treatise on Hippocrates’ On Joints (active in the 70s BCE). In the case of Chapter Five, he makes a virtue of exploring beyond the reigns of Euergetes and Philopator, yet it is not clear what was unique about that period other than it being a pragmatic way to limit one’s research project. Since Berrey did not give a prosopography for the courts of Ptolemy I Soter and II Philadelphus for Herophilus, and of Gelon II of Syracuse for Archimedes, it is difficult to know whether the claim that the dynamics of court science exist outside of Euergetes’ and Philopator’s reigns should surprise us or not. Berrey builds up such a compelling picture of Hellenistic court science both within and outside his chronological parameters, I was left wondering why the distinction was made so firm in the first place: this book addresses court science throughout the Hellenistic period.

Second is the issue of the social space of Hellenistic court life. Berrey is by no means the only scholar to conceptualise court life as intimately related to royal symposia, but this thinking seems to stem from a naïve approach to the evidence and raises more questions than it answers. The large proportion of passages are drawn from the Deipnosophists and the Letter to Aristeas. With the former, there is the issue of Athenaeus’ bias in selecting his sources which are often anecdotal and with the latter, that of historical veracity: would 72 Jewish elders really have been allowed to advance their own theory of kingship for Ptolemy unimpeded? A more sceptical approach would have helped Berrey nuance his highly plausible reconstruction. By using such evidence, moreover, Berrey argues that ‘textual works written or performed for court society followed the practices of the symposium’ (p.115). This may be the case for the anecdotes of titbit recitations described by Athenaeus, but a military manual by Biton or a treatise by Archimedes show no sign of a sympotic context or a suitability for it. As a social space, the symposium has perhaps naturally been used to conceptualise the workings of gift-exchange at court, but it should not be thought the only or central space where it actually occurred. Indeed, Berrey shows that these texts enact gift-exchange without a concern for sympotic politics.

These two minor quibbles aside, Berrey has produced a work which will be essential reading for those interested in the political and intellectual currents in Hellenistic literature. Indeed, something which is highly revealing, but which Berrey downplays, is the position of poetry at court. He draws on research into Hellenistic poetry in explaining the aesthetics of scientific texts, i.e. their sense of belatedness or their cross-disciplinary nature. Yet his research shows that such aesthetics are in no way unique to poetry; his conclusions ultimately mean we will have to reconfigure our ideas about what drives the various cultural, political and intellectual trends of the Hellenistic court.

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