BMCR 2008.03.46

Geschichte der antiken Technik. C.H. Beck Wissen

, Geschichte der antiken Technik. Beck'sche Reihe ; 2432. Wissen. München: Beck, 2007. 128 pages : illustrations ; 18 cm.. ISBN 9783406536328 €7.90 (pb).

[Translated table of contents at end.]

This short book provides an excellent overview of ancient technology in its social and intellectual context.

Chapters are organized to make the best use of a restricted allowance of space. Basic information on the inheritance from Egypt and the Near East, energy sources, agriculture, mining, manufacturing processes, and transportation comes first, so that the initial chapters provide context for more specialized topics (writing, mechanics, military technology, etc.). This reviewer was particularly impressed by the comprehensiveness of the chapters, in which useful explanations, descriptive examples, and abstract arguments are balanced to produce a narrative that is at once efficient and attractive.

Thus, the short chapter on energy sources (26-30) begins with discussions of human and animal (oxen, donkey, ass, and camel) energy. S.’s examples provide vivid glimpses of ancient life: for instance, he observes that the 60,000 tonnes of grain brought annually to Rome for the public distribution program (the annona) were equivalent to 1,200,000 sack loads of grain, all of which were carried by human beings out of ships (27). Human beings were also used to power potter’s wheels, cranes, and irrigation wheels, although animals could sometimes be used for the latter task: the invention of the water wheel, which used water power to turn mill wheels and other machinery (28) released (some) human beings from functioning as living power sources. Inanimate sources of power were of course also important. The chapter concludes with an explanation of thermal energy. Especially effective is S.’s description of the production of charcoal and the effect of this process on the natural environment (29-30).

Again, in the chapter on mining S. discusses the social status of gold, silver, copper, and iron for ancient societies before allowing himself any technical descriptions of mining processes. Metal was used to make both money and weapons. Access to deposits of silver or iron was therefore very desirable, and deposits were objects both of power struggles (44) and also of huge investments of labor and ingenuity (47). S. then describes the Athenian silver mines at Laureion, and the Roman silver and gold mines in Spain. The Athenians were lucky: if they had had to pump water out of the mines at Laureion, they would have found it considerably more difficult to get access to the metal. The Romans used large Archimedean screws to pump water out of their mines in Spain (45) or brought down entire mountainsides, washing the soft stone from the gold with huge amounts of water brought to the spot with specially built aqueducts (47). The size of these projects and the intelligent planning required for their achievement is contrasted to the wretched working conditions in such mines, and the role of slaves. E.g. “Diodorus ruthlessly describes the conditions in Nubian gold mines in Hellenistic times, where women and children were also condemned to forced labor, and Strabo reports about a mine in Asia Minor in which poisonous gases lead to swift death for slaves who had been bought cheaply on the slave market on account of being criminals.” (47) The chapter concludes with a description of typical methods of smelting (48-49). As both chapters show, S. develops a fine balance between social and technical information, with the result that these short chapters do not read like encyclopedia articles, despite their unavoidable density.

To make matters even more impressive, not only the social but also the intellectual context of ancient technology is represented here. The first chapter briefly takes up reflections on technology found in authors such as Homer, the Attic tragedians and philosophers, or Cicero, not forgetting to include those, like the Cynics, for example (18) who voiced doubts about the usefulness of technological innovation. The description does not aim at anything close to a comprehensive explanation, but distills a number of representative quotes in order to give the reader a basic insight into a range of ancient attitudes toward technology and technological practices. In general S. finds at both Greece and Rome a positive attitude not only toward using nature for human ends, but also toward technological accomplishments: “Technical accomplishments met with great admiration in the ancient world. Already in Epic, Odysseus is amazed at the harbor, ships, and city of the Phaeacians; and the catalogue of the seven wonders of the world includes above all technically difficult constructions…the ancient Greeks frequently asked who had first invented something, and in Rome, later on, proper catalogues of inventions were formulated, for example, by Pliny the Elder.” (18) An obvious consequence of this positive assessment of technology is a positive assessment of the technologists themselves. The chapter concludes with a discussion of “Farmers, Craftsmen, and Technologists”: how did the varying degrees of technological acumen displayed by these thee groups affect their function and status in society? S. argues that those with the most technological understanding were made responsible for large and essential projects, and formed a technological elite (20-21).

The intervening chapters often depict this elite in action, and the end of the book returns to a focus on the intellectual context of technological development in the ancient world. The second last chapter (116-120) stresses the importance of the possibility of communicating technical knowledge. (For communication in general, see the chapter on the technologies of writing, 97-100.) S. usefully reviews the copious technological literature of Hellenistic and Roman times, describing both the content and the character of technological writing from Aristotle onward. E.g. “It was characteristic for the technological literature of the age between Aristotle and Hero [i.e. between the 4th C. BCE and the 1st C. CE] to construe the effect of mechanical instruments mathematically and to derive [this effect] from general laws. The lever is explained according to the characteristics of a balance and the regularities of circular motion. Similarly, the texts on pneumatics first explain that air is a substance and possesses certain characteristics” (119-120).

The final chapter offers a review of the most important periods of technological change in antiquity, and as such constitutes a quick review and summary of the book as a whole. Overall the book represents a very responsible survey of ancient technology. My only quibble would be the title, which might better be something like “Greek and Roman Technologies in Social and Intellectual Context.”

This slim volume contains few errors of any kind; unfortunately, it also uses few illustrations, and these are humble. The bibliography is short and includes largely German scholarship. I would recommend this book to anyone preparing Greek and Roman Civilization courses: it is an efficient introduction to ancient technology and its ever changing situation in ancient societies.

Chapter headings may be translated as follows:

Technology and Technologists in the Ancient World

The Origins of Ancient Technology: Egypt and the Old Orient

Muscle Power, Water Power, and Combustible Materials: The Energy Sources of the Ancient World


The Earth’s Great Treasure: Metal

Salt: A Necessary Element

Ancient Manufacturing

From Architrave to Arch — Methods of Construction

Transportation; Infrastructure

Communications: Writing and books

Mechanics and the Measurement of Time

Military Technology

Ancient Technological Knowledge and Technological Literature

Epochs in the History of Ancient Technology.