BMCR 2017.08.07

Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Key themes in ancient history

, Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xv, 193. ISBN 9780521130639. $29.99 (pb).


This book makes an important point. Ancient science was transacted, and has been transmitted, in texts. Texts come in different types and formats, as chosen by their authors with a view to their intended readership. The genre of a scientific text—its formal features, cultural connotations, and the readerly expectations it raises—is not a mere container for its content but itself an important aspect of the scientific work it does. The history of science is thus not the story of a succession of ideas occurring in a vacuum, but closely tied to its textual forms and cultural contexts. The book makes a plea to consider the texts of ancient science, and ancient science as texts.

None of this will (one hopes) be news to either classicists or historians of science, but the point certainly bears repeating, especially at a time when the close reading of texts seems to be decidedly out of fashion not only in instructional settings but in society as a whole, and when quick and easy narratives tend to be preferred to the careful study of sources. Liba Taub endeavors to demonstrate the diversity of ancient science writing by concentrating on five genres—poetry, letter, encyclopedia, commentary, and biography—selecting one text or set of texts as a case study for each type, with some choices delightfully off the beaten track. Thus, the chapter on poetry discusses both Archimedes’ Cattle Problem and the mathematical epigrams in Book 14 of the Greek Anthology; the scientific letter is illustrated with Eratosthenes’ Letter to King Ptolemy (both the letter and the mathematical epigrams are reproduced in translation as appendices to the book); and Pliny’s Natural History is Taub’s example for the elusive genre of the encyclopedia, with discussion focused on Pliny’s treatment of meteorology. To demonstrate the workings of ancient commentators, Taub compares the commentaries on Aristotle’s Meteorology by Alexander of Aphrodisias, John Philoponus, and Olympiodorus; finally, the Lives of Pythagoras by Diogenes Laertius, Porphyry, and Iamblichus exemplify the genre of scientific biography.

Throughout, Taub shows herself aware of the looseness of her categories, both ancient and modern (many of her genres were ill defined or even unrecognized in antiquity; “science” is a modern category applicable to the ancient study of nature only with certain provisos), and well attuned to the specificity of the texts she discusses. The mathematical epigrams with their riddling quality were presumably the pastime of educated laymen, while Eratosthenes’ learned and ludic letter on the doubling of the cube addressed a community of cognoscenti. Pliny’s all-encompassing edifice of knowledge is a product and reflection of the Roman empire, in whose administration Pliny built a career, while the commentaries on Aristotle have their place in the late antique institutions of higher education. Finally, the biographies of Pythagoras are situated between the poles of sober intellectual history and fervent aretalogy, with Iamblichus at any rate wishing to inspire his readers to follow in the footsteps of the divine master and become Pythagoreans themselves.

To apply Taub’s methodology to her own work, one might wonder to what genre this short book is itself meant to belong. Contrary to what the title appears to promise, this is not an introduction to Greco-Roman science writing or an overview of its genres. Taub is upfront about being selective, and her kind of case-study approach might be engaging if each chapter took the shape of a well-crafted, self-contained micro-history able to demonstrate, in a nutshell, the workings of a particular genre in a particular time and place. Without the necessary thick description of context and content, however, Taub’s discussions remain largely on the surface, and often simply summarize earlier scholarship, whether that of others or the author’s own. Furthermore, at least some of her selections seem to have been made with a view to sexiness rather than out of a wish to provide a representative sample. Although, as Taub points out, the modern umbrella term “prose treatise” is ill defined and has no equivalent in antiquity, it is nevertheless the case that perhaps the largest number of ancient scientific texts are written in some form of continuous prose, a fact that Taub’s uninitiated reader might very well miss. In this context, it seems nearly perverse to devote a whole chapter to commentaries without ever discussing the genre of the texts (in Taub’s example, Aristotle’s Meteorology) those commentaries are commenting on. Similarly, the chapter on poetry makes but cursory mention of didactic, no doubt the genre to which most poetic science texts belong, before focusing on the fascinating but marginal mathematical epigrams. Finally, while the book’s generic, geographical, and temporal range is fairly wide (though Latin texts are—as often in scholarship on ancient science—woefully under-represented), the sample texts chosen by Taub all treat either mathematics or meteorology, two fields in which the author is especially well versed but which are hardly illustrative of the ancient study of nature as a whole.

So what is Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity meant to achieve? The book appears in a series Key Themes in Ancient History, which according to Cambridge University Press “aims to provide readable, informed and original studies of various basic topics, designed in the first instance for students and teachers of classics and ancient history, but also for those engaged in related disciplines.” In other words, we have here one of the many mini-genres developed by academic publishers in order to disseminate the same knowledge through ever new channels: witness the companion, the handbook, the encyclopedia, the (very short) introduction, etc. Just like Taub’s ancient genres, these modern types of text are difficult to define and not always well thought out. That Taub has—in the eyes of this reviewer —failed to provide a satisfyingly comprehensive introduction to the “basic topic” of ancient science writing is hardly surprising, given that she had but 134 pages of text at her disposal and also—successfully—attempted to follow the series description’s injunction to be “original.” If, as I surmise, the book will not be of the greatest use to “students and teachers of classics and ancient history,” let alone “those engaged in related disciplines,” this may have something to do with its format. In the writing of modern scholarship as in that of ancient science, genre matters.