BMCR 1997.01.05

1997.01.05, The Sciences in Greco-Roman Society. Aperion: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 27.4 (December 1994)

, The Sciences in Greco-Roman Society. Aperion: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 27.4 (December 1994). Edmonton: Publishing, 1994. Pp. 125. Price unspecified.

This slim volume represents the fully annotated versions of five colloquium papers presented in April, 1994 at the University of Toronto. They address three main areas of Classical scientific inquiry: biology, music and astronomy. While each paper was independently composed with only the colloquium title as a guide to theme and approach, the five contributions as a collection cohere rather well in illuminating the overarching question of how particular sciences functioned in Greco-Roman society. In his introduction, the editor draws three conclusions about their role: first, that the technical sciences “engaged able minds who propounded original ideas in periods that have often been perceived as intellectually stagnant” (3); secondly, that astronomy had a pervasive influence, especially with the acceptance of astrology from the Hellenistic Age onwards; and lastly, that scientific inquiry and exposition applied to a wide range of theoretical pursuits (such a music) can and should be used as an indicator of the intellectual environment of ancient societies.

The first contribution to the collection (7-24) is “The Disappearance of Aristotle’s Biology: A Hellenistic Mystery” by James G. Lennox. In it the author investigates the unexplained disappearance of Aristotle’s research program in zoology despite the flourishing of other specialized scientific fields. He also demonstrates the untenability of the two chief hypotheses often posited to account for its disappearance: first, that the works responsible for explicating the program vanished; secondly, that no qualified intellectual successors to Aristotle and Theophrastus existed. Lennox concludes that the philosophical underpinnings of the research program itself precluded its acceptance by later Greek philosophy.

Lennox divides his discussion into three main sections. The first defines the concept of a research program as it applies to Aristotle’s study of zoology and clearly positions the program as part of the larger scope of Aristotle’s philosophy. This program finds solid attestation in the appropriate zoological texts of Aristotle, especially Parts of Animals. Consequently, it is clear “that Aristotle provided his students with a richly articulated zoological research program, and one rooted in his metaphysics and epistemology” (11).

Lennox next treats the disappearance of the program itself. Neither the paltry and fragmentary remains of the writings of the Lyceum nor the ancient commentators exhibit any interest in biology. Even the numerous epitomes and handbooks of Aristotle’s works show little evidence for an understanding of his methodology and its philosophical underpinnings. In fact, most later references to the Historia Animalium actually derive from an epitome by Aristophanes of Byzantium. From that point onward any realization of the original philosophical intentions and programmatic functions of Aristotle’s treatment was lost.

Galen’s close relationship with Aristotle’s zoology forms the last section of Lennox’s article. Indeed, Galen “apparently had access to the whole zoology … in roughly the form we have come to know it” (18). Thus, more than mere familiarity with founding texts is necessary for understanding and carrying on a research program; in the absence of researchers capable of that understanding, such a program founders. Lennox concludes that after 300 BC there existed a skepticism about the study of biology and a preference to view it “as an adjunct to various arts, such as medicine, for example” (22). In addition, there was a reluctance to accept the effectiveness of a demonstrative science relating to the wide variety of the plant and animal world. In either case, while Aristotle had made the case for his program ( PA 1.5) and had intended that his successors carry on his efforts to view “the living world as he did—as the ideal place to study being qua being” (22), his approach was abandoned, not to be revived until the Renaissance and afterwards. Alexander Jones’s contribution, “The Place of Astronomy in Roman Egypt” (25-51), examines astronomical data from published papyri and draws conclusions about the role of astronomical awareness in Roman Egypt. Jones points out that of the sixty published astronomical papyri between fifteen and twenty have contributed significantly to the understanding of astronomy of the Roman era. On the other hand, one of the chief problems facing the specialized researcher is the sheer magnitude of some of the collections and their lack of inventories. Similarly, as the knowledge gleaned from new texts grows, a reexamination of previously published documents becomes necessary. The papyri can be divided into three classes: number tables, horoscopes, and other astronomically-oriented texts. Of these, the first two make up the bulk of the material contained in the papyri; both are based primarily on computational rather than observational data. The astronomical prose texts are far less numerous, and most of them are instructions for setting out and for using the tables or for forecasts of celestial events. Several commentaries on older astronomical treatises are known as well. The remainder of Jones’s discussion analyzes the relationship between the evidence from astronomical documents and the role of astronomical practices. Extant papyri increase in numbers from the first century BC onward and reach a plateau from the latter part of the second century AD on through the third, finally declining in the fourth and fifth. Several graphs illustrate this. After discussing the problems associated with the interpretation of this information, Jones moves on to the calendrical relationships evidenced in the papyri. These evidence an older tradition based on Babylonian arithmetical methods and a more recent tradition deriving from the trigonometric functions seen in Ptolemy’s Handy Tables. Importantly, the astronomy recorded in the papyri of Egypt is overwhelmingly predictive in nature; the other ancient divisions of the science known elsewhere, regular observation and theoretical analysis of that observation, are almost completely absent. Even so, because of astronomy’s practical application for horoscopes and the like, the astronomical papyri are far more numerous and technically advanced than those of other sciences. In Jones’s view the astronomical documents themselves certainly belonged to professional astrologers, and other evidence closely associates the religious and astrological spheres. Within this general framework Jones attempts to determine the position of the astrologers within the Egyptian temple hierarchy, although he is careful to differentiate between the traditional Egyptian astronomical functions and that of the more recent predictive astronomy. The sacerdotal role of the astrologer is still largely open to question, however, since after the second century, temple astrology seems to have yielded to secular practitioners as traditional Egyptian religion declined. Jones concludes by drawing parallels between the predicative astronomy from Babylonian cuneiform sacerdotal texts and that of Egypt, suggesting that despite the influence of Greek concepts in the Ptolemaic period and later, Egypt may have served as a conduit for Babylonian elements in Greek science. Post-Classical Greek harmonics and music theory, their place in the intellectual and societal environment, and their adaptations to that environment are the subject of the third essay in the collection, Andrew Barker’s “Greek Musicologists in the Roman Empire” (53-74). The chief task of the science of harmonics, as Barker explains, is “to analyze the elements and structures out of which melodies are built, and to explore their permutations and interrelations” (55). Despite reaching a peak of sophistication in the fourth century BC, the science of harmonics seems to have lain intellectually dormant and substantially unchanged until a revival of interest in the first to third centuries AD. In practice there were two radically different approaches to harmonics. One approach, loosely termed “Pythagorean” or “Platonist,” sought to represent music as mathematical ratios and patterns. The other approach, best seen in the work of Aristoxenus, was concerned more directly with the nature of music and regarded the best descriptive terminology to be the language of musicians themselves. The former comprised an intellectually based explanation of music and claimed a learned and philosophically inclined following. The latter involved itself with musical structure and experience rather than with philosophical rigor, and later degenerated into pale scholastic exercises. Still, after centuries of relative obscurity, each “remained in water-tight intellectual compartments just as they had been in the fourth century” (57). The Enchiridion of Nicomachus, however, bridged this wide gap. While still treating harmonic science from the standpoint of the Pythagorean/Platonist perspective, its epistolary form reveals that it was intended for educated individuals whose interests had turned to personal and philosophic concerns in the wake of imperial consolidation. This audience, drawn intellectually to the Pythagorean approach as adults, were also familiar with Aristoxenian traditions, having learned of them in school. Nonetheless, Greek music had continued to develop as contacts with alien cultures increased; but the two traditions show no awareness of these new impulses, nor do they attempt in any way to analyze or explore them. Barker concludes that a reverence for the Greek cultural heritage among educated Romans led to production of written texts to fill the need with something appropriate, so “bowdlerized Aristoxenus was the answer” (62). The final section of Barker’s paper is devoted to Didymus the Musician, an Alexandrian theorist of the time of Nero who formulated his own paradigm of harmonic divisions based on a mathematical model entirely different from previous models. He combined key aspects of both earlier theoretical approaches to which he added the element of performance. According to Barker, Didymus’s real intention was to perform for his contemporaries the music of Greek antiquity, thereby validating the importance of the role of society played in the revival of interest in musicology. David Pingree’s “The Teaching of the Almagest in Late Antiquity” (75-98) traces the rich tradition of the study of Ptolemy’s work between the second and eighth centuries AD and investigates the obscure origins of one of the commentaries on the work. In it Pingree presents an in-depth picture of the intellectual activity generated by the work. His careful discussion of the intricacies of textual scholarship and the technical evidence in texts of this nature, moreover, is a sobering reminder of how landmark scientific texts and their intellectual contributions were excerpted, modified, adapted and even misunderstood in meeting the changing needs of later eras. The earliest of the commentators on the Almagest was Artemidorus of the early third century. In the next century Pappus rearranged material in the Almagest into sections to facilitate teaching computational skills, and Theon edited (with his daughter Hypatia) several of the books of the Almagest. Yet while the role of astronomy in the fourth century was “the culmination of the quadrivium, a course of study whose pursuit would produce an educated man” (78), the Neoplatonists of the fifth century approached it quite differently. For example, Proclus’s Hypotyposis Ton Astronomikon Hyptheseon, an exposition of the Almagest, casts doubts on the hypotheses of its author. Several students of Proclus made contributions to the study of the work as well. The final section of the article (80-95) is a masterful investigation of the origins and authorship of a major commentary on the Almagest, the evidence for which is the collection of scholia accompanying the the oldest copy of the Almagest itself. Theon and Pappus are represented in the scholia as are Proclus and Marinus, whose inclusion indicates that the work appeared no earlier than the sixth century. Pingree suggests two ways in which the scholia may have originated. The first assumes a single, philosophically consistent interpreter of the text; the other, an individual teacher compiling a commentary on the Almagest from several others. Pingree then surveys the scholars whose credentials as students of Ptolemaic astronomy make them “potential candidates for the authorship either of the commentary itself that lies behind our scholia or of commentaries that contributed to it” (83), and many illustrious individuals are disqualified. By tracing the scholastic pedigree of Stephanus the Astronomer of the eight century and by closely examining the writings of Simplicius of Cilicia some two centuries earlier, however, Pingree succeeds in identifying connections to the cultural and intellectual milieu from which the Almagest commentary ultimately derives: Syria. While this investigative trail is an involved one and touches on a wide array of textual and scientific matters, in the end it is religious tensions between Nestorian and Monophysite sects evident in the scholia that lead Pingree to identify Severus Sebokht, a teacher at Nisbis on the Euphrates, as the author of the commentary. A fascinating story indeed. The final piece in the collection is Roger Beck’s “Cosmic Models: Some Uses of Hellenistic Science in Roman Religion” (99-117). In it Beck investigates how religion “was affected by, and in some measure consciously drew on, contemporary science” (99) and in doing so considers three physical structures: a first century BC augurial templum from Bantia, the Horologium of Augustus in the Campus Martius, and an example of the archetypal mithraeum. Beck contends that the unifying factor in these diverse structures is that each in its own way and for its own purposes reconstructs a model of the cosmos. A description of the structures is accompanied by illustrative diagrams. In the Bantia templum the central three stones (in a west-east order) were inscribed to Jupiter, the Sun, and Flusa, the Oscan equivalent of Flora. Beck regards this site as a forerunner of more sophisticated structures since at its basis is augury “rather than any system which we would recognize as scientific or even protoscientific” (100). The Horologium, on the other hand, was far from simple, and its elaborate grid system attests the application of a scientific model in its construction. The last example, that of an archetypical mithraeum, is the most illustrative and yet the most complicated since its proper interpretation involves carefully analyzing both the textual evidence from Porphyry’s De antro nympharum and from archaeological evidence. While Beck’s explication is clearly-stated, it is lengthy; suffice it to say that in the case of a typical mithraeum, the main aisle represents a north-south axis, dividing the whole into two hemispheres. Beck next demonstrates how the three examples exhibit similarities. In the case of mithraea and the Horologium there clearly exists an internal and self-contained image of the cosmos. The Bantia structure, too, “moves beyond the simple strict necessities of an augural templum” (110) since by its central row of cippi it introduces the elements of air (Jupiter), earth ( Flusa) and, as a central divinity, the Sun. Functionality also unites the three: the Horologium is an ideological and practical application in the Augustan political and social program; the Bantia templum, a predictive device; and the mithraeum, a cosmic model for salvation. In concluding, Beck also discusses the paradoxical nature inherent in the structure of each. For example, in the functioning of the templum there is an arbitrariness to the reading of the omens in that humans choose to observe them from the west whether or not the gods send them from the north; and in the case of the sundial, the shadow actually moves in the opposite direction of the sun. For mithraea, Beck explains that although many have a specific terrestrial orientation, in the symbolic, internal universe the internal coherence of the building has nothing to do with its actual orientation. The collection makes for engaging but challenging reading. Each contribution is a model of well documented and carefully organized exposition on subjects only infrequently encountered by a general readership. As might be expected from such a varied collection, each contribution has a personality all its own; but there are general similarities: the work of Lennox, Barker and Pingree have all the intriguing atmosphere of detective stories with a cast of named and sometime famous characters, while Jones and Beck provide mysterious glimpses into the personal lives and conceptual world of unnamed and forgotten individuals. Of the three conclusions that Barnes draws in his introduction, moreover, all are relatively accurate, although Beck’s piece seems less specific in terms of time and place; and the influence of science upon society in general is less apparent in Lennox’s account of Aristotle’s research program and in Pingree’s of the Almagest commentary. By and large there are few mechanical oversights; a noticeable one, however, appears on page 81 where xi is printed for theta in a particularly important title (ξέωνος for θέωνος).