BMCR 2008.08.25

Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity

, Technology and culture in Greek and Roman antiquity. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi, 212 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0521810736 $29.99 (pb).

The past two years have seen the publication of a number of books on ancient technology: John W. Humphrey’s Ancient Technology (Greenwood Press, 2006), Helmuth Schneider’s compact Geschichte der antiken Technik (Beck, 2007), Elio Lo Cascio’s (ed.) Innovazione tecnica e progresso economico nel mondo romano (Edipuglia, 2007), and, above all, John P. Oleson’s (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World (Oxford, 2007), to which Cuomo also contributed a chapter (“Ancient written sources for engineering and technology”), to name just a few. Long-established classics like Holmyard, Singer, and Hall, Forbes, Landels, or White are being superseded by new scholarship. Cuomo’s present work is at the leading edge of a paradigm shift in the discipline. In contrast to most traditional histories of technology, her focus is entirely on the human aspect of ancient technology, in particular on the discourse among technicians, technologies, and social perceptions of both. A more fitting book title, therefore, could have been “The Culture of Technology in Greek and Roman Antiquity.” Cuomo works under the premise that attitudes towards technology are an aspect that cannot be separated from technology itself. Greek techne and its Latin equivalent ars are pervasive (1).

Cuomo criticizes the blocage question (the idea “that something ‘blocked’ the ancient mind and prevented it from making…connections between technology and economy” [3]) and the “mainstream view” (the idea that ancient technology was marginalized and that technicians were generally despised). Both approaches are generally considered obsolete by historians of technology, but are apparently still accepted as current state of scholarship by non-specialists. In this particular volume, Cuomo is focusing almost entirely on disproving the “mainstream view.”

The book consists of five separate case studies ranging from classical Athens to late antiquity. In the study of these individual cases Cuomo is experimenting with the available evidence and writes ‘micro-histories’ that focus on the social and political aspects of very narrowly circumscribed technologies or time periods. The book is consequently divided into five chapters, framed by an introduction and a conclusion. An extensive bibliography and a short bibliographical essay round off this very original work.

Chapter 1 deals with the definition of techne in classical Athens. Cuomo investigates in detail the characteristics of techne through the example of ancient medicine. She points out the political implications of competing definitions of the word. Some ancient authors identified medicine as the domain of technicians ( demiourgoi) while others saw it as the domain of “base technicians” ( banausoi). Techne, therefore, did not have a unified definition, but its use in one or the other sense made a political statement about the perceived value that technicians represented. Cuomo concludes that techne could be learned regardless of social standing and produced tangible results that could be assessed more easily than those of arete. Techne was, therefore, potentially dangerous to the aristocratic social order because it was a symbol of unregulated mobility and change, difficult to control, yet necessary for the survival of civilization. Cuomo gives important nuances to the long-established idea of “banausic prejudice.” Her answer to the question “What is techne ?” is: “It depends on whom you ask” (40).

From a modern point of view it ought not to surprise that there are competing opinions about the value of techne, linked to competition for positions within the social and political order, i.e., power. A modern-day parallel could be perhaps the competing opinions about non-fossil energy sources, covering the entire spectrum from utter rejection to whole-hearted acceptance. Here, too, it “depends on whom you ask” and, ultimately, who stands to gain or lose from it. Why should it have been any different in classical Athens? Cuomo shows that there is more to the attitudes about technology than merely a two-dimensional “banausic prejudice.” It would be interesting to find out what results a similar exercise with the Latin ars would yield.

In chapter 2, Cuomo takes a closer look at the Hellenistic military revolution as an indicator for technological innovation that came with the introduction of the catapult. The chapter is divided into two parts, one dealing with the technological change in terms of invention and development of catapults, the other with the associated implications for the attitude to warfare. In the first part, Cuomo argues for the departure from genealogical models of technological development towards the study of technology in use. Apart from the difficulty of interpreting literary and material evidence, Cuomo proposes quite rightly that developmental stages of catapults coexisted side by side and were in use depending on the precise function of the devices—an idea that is already commonplace in the study of the so-called Pompeiian Styles of painting. Today, shotguns as well as automatic rifles are in use. They are developmentally quite disparate, but used for completely different purposes. It would have been nice if a few images had accompanied the first part of this chapter to illustrate reconstructions of the available evidence for catapults.

In the second part, Cuomo goes against the view that the introduction of catapults meant the end of traditional martial virtue and suggests, instead, that the Hellenistic military revolution was the origin of technician-warriors of the Roman period. In this respect I see no problem in allowing both points of view to stand side by side. Whether it was the end of manly virtue or merely its transformation will depend entirely on the definition of that quality. As Cuomo herself states, manly virtue is redefined to assimilate qualities of the technician (6).

Chapter 3 (“Death and the craftsman”) takes up the thread from chapter 1 and examines how the picture of ancient technology can change depending on “whose voice we choose to listen to” (77). In this chapter, the primary evidence for the voice of the lowly, non-elite technician comes from Roman art. Cuomo describes and analyzes around twenty monuments that include an image of the libella or level. She concludes that the libella represents the identification of the deceased craftsman with his profession and is an emblem of the technical knowledge (99). On funerary art or in association with images of skulls, the libella becomes a symbol of death as the great equalizer. It can be considered subversive if it appears on the funerary monument of a carpenter. Such representations show that craftsmen were well aware of their importance and were able to voice that awareness in non-literary ways. Hence, there can be no talk of marginalization of the voices of technicians. Such an interpretation goes against the ‘mainstream’ view in the scholarship concerning ancient technology, which results from “selective blindness on the part of observers regarding the invisibility of ancient technicians”. Craftsmen showed off the results of their work as an alternative to social roles “determined by birth, connections, or literary education” (102).

This is another strong chapter in which Cuomo demonstrates how sweeping, established opinions about the “invisibility” of ancient craftsmen need to be modified by re-examining the available evidence for individual cases.

Chapter 4 takes a closer look at the involvement of technicians in the administration of the Roman Empire. Cuomo examines in particular boundary disputes in the Roman Empire and to what extent land-surveyors were employed in their resolution. Cuomo looks at epigraphic evidence to find the relation between pre-Roman non-technological traditions and the use of surveying technology and finds that it was the adjudicator’s choice whether to rely on one or the other, depending on local equilibria. In this chapter Cuomo goes into great detail in the description of the cases under consideration and of the available epigraphic evidence. Non-expert readers as well as, presumably, undergraduates will quickly be left behind. Cuomo does a good job, though, tying it all up in the conclusion of this chapter, so that the results of her investigation become easily accessible.

Chapter 5, finally, looks into the role of architects in late antiquity. Cuomo’s starting point is the debate between Hadrian and Apollodorus recounted by Cassius Dio, in which the architect emerges as superior in knowledge. There is a striking contrast, however, between Hadrian and Justinian. Procopius represents the latter as superior in knowledge to his architects in the context of the construction of the church of Hagia Sophia. Justinian takes on the status of a superhuman, a divinely inspired technician. Architecture here becomes infused with spirituality, since with the rise of Christianity the construction of a church building is equated with the construction of the religious institution. The status of the architect changes accordingly to an extent where the emperor Justinian is represented as an architect who is better than the architects themselves.

This final chapter shows the difficulty of comparing the roles of technicians across the ten centuries covered by the book. The political and social conditions are so varied that it is impossible to emerge with a unified picture. The investigation of individual cases, as demonstrated by Cuomo, is definitely the approach that promises the most success.

In her conclusion, Cuomo makes suggestions for future research along the lines of her five case studies. Given the wealth of evidence investigated in this book alone, there seems to be material for decades of research. Three main conclusions emerge from the seemingly disparate case studies. First, technicians were not marginal to ancient society but were marginalized by ancient authors and consequently by modern scholars—a statement that, in fact, has now been widely accepted. Second, the association of techne with change and mobility was perceived as a threat to an established power system based on birth and connections, and in consequence ancient discourses about techne had political connotations. Third, the history of ancient technology is biased by the viewpoint of the observer and would benefit from a “modified standpoint epistemology approach” (167).

Recent scholarship on ancient technology has moved in two primary directions: interdisciplinary research that examines ancient technology with tools used in modern engineering, and research focussing on the “human factor” of ancient technology. The present book follows the latter path, emphasizing the cultural aspect of crafts and craftsmen and their social perception. At times the book is dense with literary and epigraphic evidence (e.g. Chapter 4), but overall the presentation is fluid and engaging and reflects Cuomo’s enthusiasm for the subject.

The individual case studies differ widely in subject matter, but Cuomo warns the reader about the experimental nature of the individual chapters and convincingly ties their results together into a coherent conclusion. Cuomo’s work might be too detailed and the topics too scattered for it to serve as a stand-alone textbook for an undergraduate course on ancient technology. It would, however, work very well as a supplementary text on modern methodologies within the discipline alongside, for example, Humphrey, Oleson, and Sherwood’s Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook. To speak with the author: “Let a thousand history-of-ancient-technology flowers bloom” (166).