BMCR 2004.03.34

Ancient Meteorology. Sciences in Antiquity Series

, Ancient meteorology. Sciences of antiquity. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. 1 online resource (xiv, 271 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 0203634284 $28.95.

The recent contribution to the studies on ancient meteorology produced by Liba Taub appears in the same series that brought e.g. Serafina Cuomo’s account of ancient mathematics and Tamsyn Barton’s book on astrology. This, to some degree, defines its primary scope: it is intended as an introduction, an outline of basic tenets and theories of ancient meteorology, with some forays into the multiple ways in which the lore could be employed in the ancient literature. Indeed, there is little doubt that the ancient displayed considerable interest in the observation of weather-related phenomena: writing in second century AD, Ptolemy claims that regular patterns of weather changes are common knowledge, employing the dependence between the position of the Sun and the terrestrial phenomena as the major premises of his argument in support of astrological doctrines.1 Given this extreme popularity that meteorological observation and related studies enjoyed in antiquity, it seems surprising that Taub’s book remains one of the very rare publications on the subject (thus, e.g. D’Arcy W. Thompson’s article published in 1918 remains one of the traditional reference points for anyone writing on the Greek wind-lore2). This neglect may be due to the difficulties presented by the very definition of meteorology, a problem duly highlighted by Taub, who notes the considerable difference between the ancient and modern understanding of the term and signalizes the complications arising from the close associations the subject has with physics, astronomy, or agriculture. It may also stem from the often non-scientific character of Greek meteorology, linked as it was with philosophy and cosmological doctrines: it would seem that the shadow of the Sartonian definition of what qualifies as scientific still looms large over classical scholarship.3

The book’s five chapters discuss various aspects of ancient meteorological knowledge. First, the author attempts to define the interest of the discussed lore, and its possible origins. Second, she deals with issues raised by meteorological prediction, its justification, techniques, and employment: the discussion of the stone parapegmata naturally belongs to this part of the book. Subsequently, her attention turns to the explanatory aspect of meteorology: as a consequence this chapter portrays the lore at its most scientific, stressing its focus on the discovery of causes and regularities.4 This is logically followed by the analysis of possibly more advanced employment of the science: while the poets are known for their deployment of various phenomena to either illustrative or metaphorical ends, the philosophers repeatedly employ meteorology to corroborate their cosmological views. The last chapter discusses the notion of various meteorological events as it emerges in the account of one of the more encyclopedic, if not particularly creative, intellects of antiquity: Pliny the Elder, who paid for his excessive interest in natural catastrophes with his own life, dying of asphyxiation during Vesuvius’ eruption.

Clearly, the very scope of ancient meteorology proves an obstacle to comprehensive discussion: after all, the science deals with phenomena as different as earthquakes and weather changes. This variety may explain why discussions of meteorological theory of antiquity remain relatively rare in modern scholarship, while we find several illuminative studies of some isolated issues like the problem of wind or the parapegmata (these stone calendars remain of particular interest to those interested in time-calculation, early astronomy, and even navigation). Also, when attempting a comprehensive outline of what the ancients considered as meteorology, one is immediately faced with immense and varied literary and non-literary material. Necessarily, such research must account for both the early epic sources (one immediately thinks of the Hesiodic calendar contained in the Works and Days) and for the scientifically advanced theories of Epicurus (both in his letters and in Lucretius’ rendition) or Theophrastus.

Furthermore, the science of meteorology employs a variable set of methods much dependent on the standpoint taken by the respective author. As a result, the explanation given to the occasional hail storms differs depending on the character of fundamental premises that were assumed by the ancient authority. Indeed, this methodological difficulty is duly noticed by Taub, who devotes several paragraphs to the position of meteorology in the Aristotelian pattern of science as portrayed in the Analytica posteriora.

Finally, there are the connotations of meteorological phenomena: the surviving brontologia leave us no doubt about the divinatory value of certain events. On the other hand, weather changes, earthquakes, storms, and blizzards could themselves become an object of prognostication: the works of Ptolemy or the later treatise of Hephaestion of Thebes provide several examples of prognoses intended to furnish a weather forecast. Yet this is hardly the end of it: the regularity of certain phenomena, manifest even to inexperienced eyes, could in certain circumstances mislead humans to think of some hidden, but nevertheless effective causal link between these and the outer spheres of the universe — unfortunately, this particular danger, discussed by otherwise frequently quoted Geminus of Rhodes, is only briefly noted by Taub.5

To summarize: the work provides an interesting overview of both the issues ancient meteorology investigated and the theories it yielded. The introductory character of the book remains a necessity given the range of subjects involved. Moreover, it coheres with the overall nature of the whole Sciences in Antiquity series: in providing a glimpse of ancient meteorological interest and emphasizing the importance of the science in ancient culture, it potentially provokes an interest in more detailed issues, thus encouraging further research on the subject.


1. Ptolemy Apotelesmatica I, 2.

2. D’Arcy W. Thompson, “The Greek winds”, CQ 32 (1918): 49-56.

3. For a clear overview of G. Sarton’s position in the modern studies in the history of science cf. J. T. Vallance “Marshall Clagett’s Greek Science in Antiquity: Thirty-Five Years Later”, Isis 81(1990): 713-720.

4. One may wish to compare this chapter with the recent volume La météorologie dans l’antiquité entre science et croyances: actes du colloque international interdisciplinaire de Toulouse 2-3-4 mai 2002, ed. par Christophe Cusset, Publications de l’Université de Saint’Étienne 2003.

5. Geminus Rhodius Elementa cap. XVII, pp. 180-201 M.