BMCR 2004.02.18

Antike Fachschriftsteller: Literarischer Diskurs und sozialer Kontext. Palingenesia, 80

, , Antike Fachschriftsteller : literarischer Diskurs und sozialer Kontext. Palingenesia ; Bd. 80. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2003. 208 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515082433. EUR 44.00.

Ancient science and technology have for some time formed a significant field in classical studies. The most important works of the twentieth century include Diels’ Antike Technik (1924), Koyré’s Du monde de l'”à-peu-près” à l’univers de la précision (1948), and Edelstein’s The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity (1967). On the basis of these studies there arose a widespread belief in the “stagnation” or “blockage” of ancient science and technology which is thought to have prevented mechanical and technical development from truly taking off. Since then, there have been many other studies of the cultural background of science and technology in classical antiquity, albeit more from the perspective of history, philosophy, archeology and material culture than from that of philology or literary history. And yet a glimpse at any history of Greek and Roman literature will show how many ancient writers dedicated themselves to introducing types of knowledge that we now call technical or scientific into the world of writing, i.e. literature.

Indeed, recent years have seen the appearance of several volumes dedicated to technical literature,1 but much remains to be done. Through study of such texts, seemingly “marginal” to the literary system, we can sharpen our vision of certain aspects of the internal workings of that very system. In other words, the analysis of technical literary production permits us to achieve a different perspective on the ancient literary system as a whole. Especially useful in this context is the notion of spazio letterario ( espace littéraire) — a broader and more inclusive term than “literature” to the extent that it includes within its scope the entire mass of texts that was produced along with the related processes of fruition, selection, and transmission (cf. Cavallo, Fedeli, Giardina, Lo spazio letterario di Roma antica, 1989, vol. 1, p. 9).

Even though it is not explicitly cited, the notion of spazio letterario is clearly influential in this important volume edited by M. Horster and C. Reitz, which derives from a conference held in Rostock in November 2001 (“Antike Fachschriftsteller als Literaten, Literarischer Diskurs und sozialer Kontext”), which the writer of this review happened to attend. The editors open their brief introduction to the volume with a definition: “Fachschriftsteller nennt man Autoren von Werken ganz verschiedener Thematiken und Provenienzen, denen eines gemeinsam zu sein scheint: Sie erheben keinen literarischen Anspruch, sie vermitteln Fachwissen.” Yet such a definition seems problematic for ancient culture, especially since any type of writing tended toward a formal, rhetorical or stylistic elaboration which was inevitably based on some kind of “literary” quality; it is not insignificant, moreover, that there are no ancient words directly corresponding to the German Fachschriftsteller, Fachliteratur, or Fachwissen.

For the debate on Fachliteraturen from a literary perspective, H. and R. take as their starting point M. Fuhrmann’s well-known Das systematische Lehrbuch (1960). They observe that the present volume is concerned with the “Wechselbeziehungen von schöner und fachbezogener Literatur” and emphasize in particular the intentionality of Fachtexten as well as the social and literary contexts of various authors, so as to explore the mechanisms regulating the production and reception of the texts in question. In my opinion, however, the term Fachliteratur runs the risk of ambiguity and indeed creates certain interpretive difficulties from the outset. Strictly speaking, we could define as such any written text, whether in prose or verse, that does not fit in the epic, narrative, lyric, or dramatic categories of literary production. For example, historiography, philosophy, rhetorical or grammatical treatises, even manuals of law: all of these could be called Fachliteraturen, at least in the broader sense. But in a narrower sense, it would seem, the term covers treatises of such disciplines as agriculture, medicine, architecture, mechanics, the art of war, etc.

The volume’s first part, dedicated to problems inherent in the relationship between the langue and the parole of this type of textual production (even though the writers themselves do not use this terminology) opens with a general observation by Krenkel (“Sprache und Fachsprache”): the difficulty for philologists seeking to analyze Fachliteratur lies above all in the fact that in order to interpret these texts it is not enough to have a mastery of the language, one must also have detailed knowledge of the relevant “technical” subject. The difference between the philologist and the specialist in the field in question (e.g., medicine), K. continues, becomes apparent when the ancient author omits certain points because they are taken for granted. After these introductory remarks, K.’s discussion is divided into three parts. The first is dedicated to the interaction between language in general and specialist or technical language ( Fachsprache). K.’s second section, which includes a long excursus on catachresis, takes on the much debated question of the linguistic insufficiency of the Latin language especially in the areas of philosophy and science. K. considers specialist or technical languages ( Fachsprachen) along with the various types of language used in literary genres (epic poetry, satire, drama, epigram, etc.), which he calls Sondersprachen. The essay’s third section emphasizes the desire evident in certain disciplines (e.g., astronomy, music, medicine, architecture) to transform their own status from one of negotium to the socially more elevated status of ars, by way of incorporating them within a system of literary production, fruition, and reception, i.e. making them literaturfähig. Here K. observes that Vitruvius constitutes an exception, in that his work (1.1.18) does not aim at a literarily attractive type of language. Other Fachschriftsteller, he argues, employ a literary language precisely in order to increase the prestige of their discipline and to underscore its transformation from negotium to ars. Citing the case of astronomy/astrology, K. concludes that even the ancient Fachsprache had within itself the goal not only of docere but also of delectare.

The following contribution, by Fögen, is one of the richest in the volume, even though the reader might have hoped for a somewhat more synthesizing exposition. Here we find various interesting remarks on the extent to which ancient authors displayed some consciousness of the Fachsprachen, i.e. in Fögen’s terms, “metalinguistic reflections.” It is difficult to provide a concise summary of the various arguments and considerations presented in this piece, heterogeneous as they are. An introduction touching upon the problem of the translation (in the broadest sense of the term) into Latin of the specialist types of language developed by Greek culture is followed by a section on the perspectives offered by modern linguistics. Here F. rightly observes that the ancient Fachsprachen were not merely characterized by their lexicon, but also by their own morphological and syntactic elements and other pragmatic elements, all of which indicate that the Fachtext is more oriented toward content and the transmission of ideas than toward the aesthetic and literary aspects characterizing other genres. Among other things, F. attempts to add further nuance to the distinction often made on the theoretical level between Sondersprachen and Fachsprachen. Yet I am not convinced that such distinctions are entirely applicable to ancient technical literature: though the modern approach to the question assumes a divide between literary text and Fachtext, it is not clear that such an assumption can be detected in the ancient authors themselves, who for the most part intended to insert their texts into the “literary space” of their culture (cf. Formisano 2001). Fögen’s third section seems to take up the scholarly tradition of viewing proems and prefaces as practically a literary genre in their own right: they tend to make use of topoi and formulas which often do not, in fact, correspond to the treatment of the material within the body of the treatise itself. This essay’s fourth section is its most complex; in it F. identifies as the essential quality of Fachtexte their attempt to give a careful order and organization to the material: the preface to Marcellus Empiricus’ De medicamentis is cited as an example. In other words, F. points to sollertia (whether real or imagined) as a general trait, to which is closely linked diligentia, or scrupulousness in gathering information; here he cites Vitruvius. Linked to these is the search for brevitas, connected in turn with the notion of the aptum ( prepon) professed by rhetoric. F. points to the preface of Palladius’ agricultural treatise, observing that its prose avoids excessive stylization in order to reach the broadest readership possible. I would add that it is also useful to consider the observation found at the end of the passage from Palladius ( sed nos recidamus praefationis moram, ne quos reprehendimus imitemur), which suggests that the author sees the preface as the place par excellence in which one might indulge in stylistic display. F. identifies as a further convention of Fachliteratur the show of modesty with regard to one’s style, to be seen as a strategic captatio benevolentiae.2

The volume’s second part, addressed to more strictly literary problems regarding genre and models of fruition, begins with Reitz’s “Dichtung und Wissenschaft,” which discusses questions of methodology with respect to two types of problem in particular. The relationships between literature and science, R. suggests, ought to be investigated from the perspective of historical continuity, with ancient literary criticism as the basis; what is needed, she adds, is a method for investigating the relationship between literature (especially poetry) and technical knowledge. For the first problem R. starts from Stanford’s Enemies of Poetry (1980), whose provocative thesis is that the goal of ancient poets was rarely ethical or didactic in nature, but most often aesthetic ( delectare) — a criterion already laid down in Aristotelian poetics. Reitz emphasizes that even if one acknowledges the accuracy or inaccuracy of various facts within the poetic text, the interpreter/reader ought to form a judgment only if it takes into account the motivations informing the author’s choices. The second question — the interaction between literature and technical knowledge — is itself broken down further, for example: the linguistic context, in particular an investigation into the origins of specialist terminology (e.g., medical language); or subject matter and genre, where the focus is above all on didactic poetry. Using a distinction proposed by Effe in his classic Dichtung und Lehre (1977), R. asks whether the emphasis is more on the content ( sachbezogen) or on the formal element. R. discusses the communis opinio according to which the Hellenistic and Roman periods saw a change in the didactic genre: on this view, the poetic components lost their ethical, political and philosophical charge and stressed instead the “formal” aspect, related to poetic experimentation. R. rightly observes, however, that it is not possible to establish clean-cut distinctions, especially if one thinks of poets like Lucretius, Virgil or Manilius, whose works represent nothing less than Weltdeutungen. Citing Columella and Palladius (one could add Marcellus Empiricus), R. asks if the insertion of verse passages into a prose text is to be seen more as a means of facilitating memorization of the contents or as a conscious act of formally going beyond the boundaries of the genre.3 Finally, R. points to a further avenue of inquiry, oriented toward the analysis of the literary and rhetorical ambitions of the scientific authors and their readers; this would of course require interdisciplinary collaboration.

Föllinger’s essay on ancient biology attempts to trace the broad outlines of that genre’s historical development. The first stage (Aristotle and Theophrastus above all) was marked by a concrete scientific need; this period of scientific originality, F. argues, was followed by one of an increasing “rhetoricization.” In other words, the shift from orality or semi-orality (F. applies the latter term to Aristotle’s work) to written codification will have emphasized the literary character of the discipline, as is especially evident in didactic poetry on biological topics. Seen this way, the result in late antiquity is ambiguous: on the one hand, Neoplatonism and Christianity would not seem to provide cultural support for the study of material life and its transformations; on the other hand, it is precisely Christian authors who incorporate within their works (e.g. the hexameron) matter taken from biology by way of exalting the grandeur of creation and of the divine project.

Podossinov’s essay on geographical writers begins with the observation that extant works in this field are almost exclusively popularizing in nature; the more strictly “technical” type of writing has been largely lost. P. argues that it makes little sense to discuss the fragments of this second type in this context, not only because of the paucity of the extant material but also because one may conjecture that such works had no literary ambitions. Moreover, P. adds, in order to reconstruct the scientific and social fabric of ancient geography it would be incorrect not to make use of the “popularizing” type of work ( wissenschaftlich-populär), since in doing so we would be introducing a “crass modernization” into the ancient literary system and would be, moreover, obliged to ignore Roman geography: citing Kühnert’s Allgemeinbildung und Fachbildung in der Antike (1961), P. claims that the Romans did not conduct original scientific research in this field, but instead limited themselves to the transmission of content, the only goal being to attain practical utility. Here one might point to a certain inconsistency in P.’s argumentation. On the one hand he claims that the lost “technical” works had no literary ambitions, but on the other he acknowledges that literariness played a fundamental role in ancient scientific discourse. P. continues by arguing for a tripartition of ancient geographical writings: (1) purely scientific writings without any literary elaboration; (2) popularizing works endowed with certain literary qualities; (3) works of didactic poetry with a high level of formal elaboration.4 The arguments in favor of these distinctions, which P. describes as “conventional” but to which he in any case adheres, invite further discussion on the level of textual production and fruition, not least because it seems that a certain prejudice is at work here, and one which sees the Romans as a people without an original scientific and philosophical spirit solely dedicated to the practical application of the Greek scientific inheritance.5

The volume’s second section ends with its least convincing contribution, Binder’s “Das Selbstverständnis des Aulus Gellius zwischen Allgemeinbildung und Fachwissen.” After a series of general arguments which often end up being tautological and which in any case attempt a definition of terms like Fachwissen and Bildung exclusively from a modern perspective too closely linked to the semantic value of specific German words, B. seeks to discuss a problem of a historiographical nature: How can one correctly categorize Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticae in the context of a history of Latin literature? The “specialist” knowledge which Gellius wanted to set forth, claims B., is characteristic of the upper classes and serves as a way of differentiating them from the rest of society. In conclusion, B. argues, Gellius represents a type of knowledge in which the book appears not only as a means of preservation but also as an object of authorial interest in itself, and thus may be classified as a Fachschriftsteller from the point of view of content, but if one considers the structure of the Noctes Atticae he should rather be classified as an Unterhaltungsschriftsteller.

The volume’s final section, dedicated to the historical and social contexts of Fachschriftsteller, begins with a detailed contribution by Christmann entitled “Bermerkungen zu Autoren und ihrem Publikum in der römischen Landwirtschaftslehre,” dedicated to the complex systems of production and fruition associated with Roman writing on agriculture. Of particular importance to C. are the works of Cato, Varro, Columella and Palladius, but other, lesser known sources are also taken into account: the so-called Ephemeris rustica (an extract of the Byzantine Geoponika) and the Menologia, a type of work calendar inscribed on stone, of which two copies survive. C.’s essay discusses above all the relationship between these various works and their readerships. In general, C.’s starting point is that the principal motivation for the written codification and subsequent “literarization” of agricultural knowledge depended above all on the fact that landowners were no longer in a position to be personally involved in the maintenance of their properties since they were increasingly attracted to politics and thus city life. To a certain extent, then, writing stepped in to make up for this deficit, that is, for the absence of the dominus from his properties. Fundamental to this process was the Senate’s decision after the First Punic War to entrust to a group under the leadership of a certain Silanus the translation into Latin of the massive work of the Carthaginian writer Mago, which resulted in a text that became the Bible of agriculture. According to C., it is in a dialectical relationship with this central text that all subsequent literature in this area developed: from Varro onwards these writers are engaged in the task of creating a work that is briefer and less diffuse than the Punic model. Thereby they created a new ideal of Fachbuch, one that was easier to manage and to consult thanks to indices — although, citing the late antique author Palladius, C. observes that this ideal was never fully realized. In his essay “Mündliche Vermittlung und schriftliche Unterweisung in der antiken Berufsausbildung” Meissner takes on a topic partially handled in his 1999 monograph Die technologische Fachliteratur der Antike (cf. my review in Quaderni di Storia 57, 2003, 309-317): the relationship between orality and writing in professional training in antiquity, and in particular the role played by technical and scientific texts in that process. M. attributes a causal role to the growing involvement of the state in professional training and in the process of publication and thus literary codification of technical and scientific fields of knowledge — a process which, M. argues, was never brought to completion in antiquity. He proceeds chronologically, starting with the Homeric world, where various professions are handed down within the nuclear family from generation to generation, and then moving to the period of Greek colonization in the 8th-6th centuries B.C., when the polis came to assume a central role in, among many other things, systems of commerce, and thus the transmission of knowledge from father to son was interrupted and a crisis provoked. For the first time in classical antiquity, the Athenian democracy creates a system of legal norms in order to protect the various professions and types of professional training. By the classical period, then, the family model is outdated, and M. sees the process of literary codification of the technical disciplines as an effect of this change. In the Hippocratic oath, for example, the apprentice is an equivalent to the doctor’s son, while Vitruvius establishes the role of writing, i.e. of literature, in the profession of the architect. M. sees a close relationship between the insistence on the part of many ancient authors on the role of writing in the transmission of savoir-faire or know-how and the fact that educated men, those who cultivated the artes liberales, were generally granted financial privileges. A further factor favoring professional training to which M. points is Christianity, whose attitudes to the manual crafts were hardly uniform. But the role of writing in the processes of transmission was not important in all of the manual crafts. Indeed, besides the culturally established artes liberales, only in medicine, architecture and the mechanical sciences was this the case. Knowledge regarding manual labor in the strict sense continued to be handed down orally in the work-place, where writing never played an especially important role. M. sees this as a further effect of the lack of interest on the part of the ancient state in regulating the processes of professional training in various fields.

The volume’s final essay, by M. Horster (“Literarische Elite? Der soziale Kontext römischer Fachschriftsteller”), discusses technical and scientific literature with reference to scholarly debate on elites in the Roman world — a debate which does not normally take these texts into account. H. addresses the question of the social groups to which the authors of these texts belonged, starting from the assumption that Fachliteratur constitutes an area in which various societal transformations can be manifested. Prose, including Fachliteratur, was traditionally considered the spazio letterario (H. uses the term Domäne) preferred by the senatorial elite, whether as authors or as readers. H. points out that every genre of technical literature followed its own rules, on the level both of the authors’ personal history and of the tradition in general. One of the most frequently cited examples is medicine, a profession which required a long training period; doctors almost never belonged to the senatorial order and generally lived off the practice of their profession. With regard to social prestige, H. rightly observes that in the Greek East the figure of the doctor was generally on a par with that of the philosopher and the intellectual. Yet when H. claims that in this field there were very few treatises written by non-specialists, it is worth recalling that in the late antique period, such texts were in fact relatively common: one thinks of the Medicina Plinii or the Herbarius of ps.-Apuleius or, as some argue, Marcellus Empiricus. H. further observes an important distinction between the kinds of information contained in epigraphical and literary sources. In the former it is generally assumed that a person’s profession is recorded only when there was nothing else to record (e.g. public offices held); literary texts, on the other hand, are more generous in this regard, providing, especially in anecdotes, elements useful for a reconstruction of the social context of various authors. In short: there are few points in common between the various professional groups; some authors belonged to the senatorial elite, others did not. Technical writers did not constitute a homogeneous social group, nor should they be described as such in hindsight.

It may be useful to conclude with a general consideration applicable to many of the essays in this volume. The frequent appearance of the term utilitas, to be found in nearly all of these technical texts, along with such others as sollertia or diligentia, takes on the formulaic quality of a topos, thereby demonstrating the high level of literariness characterizing these texts (see Formisano 2001: 29ff. for further discussion). As the prefaces to many of these texts show, the technical-scientific discourse, by deciding to make use of writing as a means of communication and transmission of knowledge, appropriates structures of the formal system peculiar to literature. Indeed, it can be argued that nearly all writing in the ancient world can be described as “literature” and that anyone producing a written text was aiming to insert it into the context of “literary space.” The question is of course large and deserves more detailed discussion, but a simple comparison may illustrate the point. Just as the epic poet felt the formulaic obligation to invoke the Muses, so the Fachschriftsteller invoked the utility that derived from his writings. Consequently we must not let ourselves be deceived if he emphasizes utilitas at the expense of style: precisely in making this formulaic gesture, he reveals the dissimulating — and therefore literary — character of his work.

Although its bibliography is mostly limited to titles in German and English and shows some gaps in the citation of French and Italian works, this volume is rich in thought-provoking suggestions, not least because of the wide variety of its essays and of the disciplines treated. One notes with interest the editors’ intention of continuing the cycle of seminars with a further conference at Rostock on February 19-21, 2004 (see the Fachschriftsteller website) to be dedicated to didactic poetry.


Formisano, M. Tecnica e scrittura. Le letterature tecnico-scientifiche nello spazio letterario tardolatino. Rome 2001.

Long, L. Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Baltimore 2001.

Meissner, B. Die technologische Fachliteratur der Antike. Struktur, Überlieferung und Wirkung technischen Wissens in der Antike (ca. 400 v.Chr. – ca. 500 n. Chr.). Berlin 1999.

Pigeaud, A. and J., eds. Les textes médicaux latins comme littérature. Actes du VIe colloque international sur les textes médicaux latins du 1er au 3 septembre 1998 à Nantes. Nantes 2000. Santini, C., ed. Letteratura scientifica e tecnica di Grecia e Roma. Rome 2002.


1. Apart from the volume of the Entretiens de la Fondation Hardt edited by C. Nicolet in 1996, see, for example, Meissner 1999, Pigeaud 2000, Formisano 2001, Long 2001 (which extends to the Renaissance), and Santini 2002.

2. In all of this, the arguments of Formisano 2001 (pp. 28 ff.) could perhaps have been taken into consideration: there certain Leitmotive of technical literature from Late Antiquity and other periods are discussed, including precisely sollertia, diligentia, and the formulaic declaration of modesty reinforcing the principle of utilitas.

3. See further Formisano 2001: 107 n. 42.

4. The considerations that follow upon this distinction seem again to be self-contradictory. In his desire to demonstrate the encyclopedic complexity of the education of professional geographers (i.e. authors of treatises of the first type listed above, for the most part not extant), P. sees in Eratosthenes the father of “scientific geography,” and adds that he was not only an astronomer and geographer but also a philosopher, poet and philologist. In that case one must ask how reasonable it is to posit that such texts were entirely without literary qualities, since literary talent is unquestioningly ascribed to the man who wrote them.

5. This view, prevalent in the nineteenth century, also characterizes W. Stahl’s well-known Roman Science (1962) and, more recently, L. Russo’s La rivoluzione dimenticata (1997); see French and Greenaway’s Science in the Early Roman Empire (1986) for another view.