BMCR 2019.08.58

The Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World

, , The Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xv, 1045. ISBN 9780199734146 $175.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The ancient history of STEMM can be a challenging subject to pursue at an undergraduate or postgraduate level, and even experienced classicists or ancient historians can struggle to engage with the more obscure and arcane corners of the myriad fields involved. For starters, many of the relevant ancient texts are not easily accessible; most have yet to be translated into English, let alone made readily available as a volume through the Loeb Classical Library or any other entry-level imprint such as Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics, although a translation and commentary may be available in another modern language. Looking beyond translations and commentaries, in-depth scholarly treatments of these texts are not abundant, at least in comparison with more canonical authors and their works, and a scholarly consensus regarding the question of how to treat them has not yet been satisfactorily reached.1 Thankfully, over the last decade there has been a concerted effort to attempt to render this sub-discipline of Classics more accessible, despite these ongoing significant impediments to the enterprise. As of 2014, the Oxford Bibliographies Online initiative now includes entries on Greek and Roman Science, and Greek and Roman Technology. Wiley Blackwell now offers A Companion to Science, Technology, and Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome in two volumes (published in 2016). Oxford University Press first brought out the Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World (published in 2008), and now seeks to complement it with the Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World (published in 2018).

The Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World showcases the work of forty-six scholars from around the world, and comprises an Introduction followed by forty-nine chapters, and concluded with a general index. Each individual chapter is followed by an often quite extensive bibliography featuring multilingual academic work published up to 2016. In the review that follows, due to the large number of chapters, I shall not attempt to cover each one individually but rather focus on particular points of interest.

The volume’s stated aim is to appraise science and scientific thinking across thirteen centuries, approximately 650 BCE to 650 CE, although individual chapters, particularly those in the first part of the volume, cover much broader time periods than that. It takes a rather different approach to the subject than its predecessors (and competitors) and in doing so carves out a substantial niche for itself in this newly crowded marketplace: despite the chronological and geographical parameters imposed by its title, it covers the theory and practice of science and medicine far beyond the borders of ancient Greece and Rome and makes a concerted effort throughout the volume to trace the spread of ideas between neighbouring civilisations and their development through time. A brief introductory chapter (Keyser) sets out the scope of the volume and offers a series of justifications for the approach taken, starting from the position that there is such a thing as science in classical antiquity and it is not anachronistic to approach it as such, and seeks to be inclusive regarding its coverage of anything that might reasonably be classed as a science or science-adjacent (e.g. geography, philosophy in respect of Epicureanism and Stoicism and ideas about nature).

The first part of the volume – Ancient Scientific Traditions beyond Greece and Rome – comprises four sections that focus on Mesopotamia (three chapters – Hoyrup; Rochberg; Scurlock), Egypt (three chapters – Imhausen; Quack; David), India (two chapters – Knudsen; Yamashita) and China (two chapters – Volkov; Fengxian). While the varied and problematic nature of the literary and documentary evidence that survives from these periods, and the consequential difficulty in attempting any sort of reconstruction is noted in each section and chapter, the continuity between the sciences of these civilisations and those of the classical ones is consistently highlighted. All of these chapters do a creditable job of synthesising their material and making it readily comprehensible for classicist or ancient historian readers venturing far outside their own disciplines, perhaps for the first time.

The second part – Early Greek Science – comprises four chapters (Gregory; Zhmud; Kaplan; Craik). The somewhat problematic tendency of both ancient and modern scholars working on ancient science to lump all early Greek scientific thinkers together, something particularly prevalent in contemporary narrative accounts of the development of ancient Greek science found in entry-level textbooks and sourcebooks, is flagged up immediately, and in an attempt to rectify this, the authors, their works, and the evidence for both that survives is presented systematically, with particularly significant and influential treatments of them (e.g. Littré’s foundational work on the Hippocratic Corpus; Kennedy’s recent theories regarding Plato’s works) highlighted.

The third part – Hellenistic Greek Science – comprises sixteen chapters (Althoff; Tieleman; Acerbi; Bowen; Rihll; Cooper; Keyser; Geus and King; Hagel; Thibodeau; Webster) with four devoted to aspects of medicine (Stok; Scarborough; Grant; Bliquez). It is the most extensive section of the volume, and contains contributions that one would not necessarily expect to find included under such a section heading (e.g. agronomy, pharmacology, surgical instruments). The approaches taken by the chapters vary. For example, in one particularly successful chapter, astrology is comprehensively covered in a way that manages to include not just a general overview of the subject itself, but also the main surviving sources, a potted history which incorporates key episodes in which astrology was highly influential, ancient negative opinions of astrology and its veracity, and a detailed case study in the form of the emperor Hadrian’s horoscope (Cooper). In the chapter focused on alchemy, the materials involved are the centre of attention, while in the chapter focused on agriculture, the practical application of the theory is foregrounded, and in the chapter focused on surgical instruments, the literary and archaeological evidence are presented in tandem.

The fourth part – Greco-Roman Science – comprises eleven chapters (Thibodeau; Gordon; Tieleman; Fraser; Leunissen; Evans; Keyser) with four devoted to aspects of medicine (Caldwell; Beagon; Scarborough; Johnston). As with the second part, the fourth part opens by advising caution in approaching ancient and modern scholarly accounts of scientific thinking in this period and their presentation of Roman science as unoriginal, and highlighting the Roman tendency toward ‘inverse plagiarism’, which enabled Roman scientists to undertake innovative work while claiming an intellectual precedent for it. Attempts are made to undermine persistent stereotypes and provide more nuanced portrayals of ancient Roman thinkers (e.g. Epicureans, physicians).

The fifth and final part – Late Antique and Early Byzantine Science – comprises eight chapters (Siorvanes; Bernard; Griffin; Kuelzer; Viano; Slaveva-Griffin; Paniagua; Cilliers). This section focuses predominantly on the scholarship of the late antique period and the way that late antique scholars engaged with the works of their predecessors, such as through the reception of ancient theories and the production of commentaries on ancient texts. The chapter on Byzantine geography is particularly illuminating in its coverage of the expansion of geographical writing beyond the standard geographical treatises, such as exploration literature written by merchants, pilgrims, and missionaries, travel guides in the form of itineraries, periploi, and maps (Kuelzer), while the chapter on medical encyclopaedias opens with the note that to date medical encyclopaedias have not received much (or any) attention from scholars working in Byzantine studies, whereas they have received a considerable amount of attention from scholars working in the history of medicine, and then proceeds through a survey of the authors and their works, before concluding with a proposal of future directions for their study (Slaveva-Griffin).

While the volume seeks to be broadly consistent in its coverage, inevitably some types of science are better attested than others (e.g. mathematics, astronomy and astrology, medicine), both in particular historical periods and geographical locations, and across the period in its entirety. Perhaps unsurprisingly, different chapters take rather different approaches to their subjects —in some, certain significant individuals receive extensive coverage (e.g. Pythagoras, Plato, Hippocrates, Epicurus, Scribonius Largus, Galen); in others certain collections of texts are surveyed. Some chapters concentrate on particular individuals (e.g. Aristotle, Ptolemy). Some chapters are significantly more technical than others (e.g. several of those dealing with mathematics, astronomy, music, and optics go into considerable detail and incorporate explanatory case studies supplemented by a range of diagrams). There is also considerable variation in the breadth and depth of bibliographies that accompany each of the chapters; for example, Craik’s chapter on Hippocrates and early Greek medicine is prefaced by a useful bibliographic survey of work that has been undertaken on the Hippocratic Corpus, while Webster’s chapter on optics and vision is helpfully divided into sections. By noting this variety, I do not mean to criticise; the nature of the surviving evidence makes uniformity across all sections and chapters impossible, and the editors have done an excellent job producing as cohesive a volume as this which can be read in its entirety or dipped into as required.

It is clear that certain points of commonality can be observed running through the entire period of thirteen centuries, and these themes have been highlighted accordingly – for example, the interplay between theory and practice, or the importance of personal observation, or the role of methods of transmission. The importance of approaching and appreciating ancient science on its own terms, rather than attempting to judge it by contemporary standards with the inevitable result of finding it wanting (this is particularly pertinent in respect of types of ancient science, such as astrology or alchemy, that have fallen out of favour over the course of the centuries, and as a result been unfairly maligned), is reiterated throughout, rightly and helpfully so, bearing in mind the potential undergraduate and postgraduate student users of this handbook. I shall certainly be adding this to the essential reading sections of the bibliographies of the courses on ancient science, technology, and medicine that I teach at the University of Glasgow, and I enthusiastically recommend that others in similar positions do the same.

Authors and titles

‘Introduction’ – Paul T. Keyser
Part One: Ancient Scientific Traditions beyond Greece and Rome
A1. Mesopotamia
‘Mesopotamian Mathematics’ – Jens Høyrup
‘Astral Sciences of Ancient Mesopotamia’ – Francesca Rochberg
‘Mesopotamian Beginnings for Greek Science?’ – JoAnn Scurlock
A2. Egypt
‘Mathematics in Egypt’ – Annette Imhausen
‘Astronomy in Ancient Egypt’ – Joachim Friedrich Quack
‘Egyptian Medicine’ – Rosalie David
A3. India
‘Mathematics in India until 650 CE’ – Toke Lindegaard Knudsen
‘Sanskrit Medical Literature’ – Tsutomu Yamashita
A4. China
‘Ancient Chinese Mathematics’ – Alexei Volkov
‘Astral Sciences in Ancient China’ – Xu Fengxian
Part Two: Early Greek Science
‘Pythagoras and Plato’ – Andrew Gregory
‘Early Mathematics and Astronomy’ – Leonid Zhmud
‘Early Greek Geography’ – Philip G. Kaplan
‘Hippocrates and Early Greek Medicine’ – Elizabeth Craik
Part Three: Hellenistic Greek Science
‘Aristotle, the Inventor of Natural Science’ – Jochen Althoff
‘Epicurus and His Circle: Philosophy, Medicine, and the Sciences’ – Teun Tieleman
‘Hellenistic Mathematics’ – Fabio Acerbi
‘Hellenistic Astronomy’ – Alan C. Bowen
‘Hellenistic Geography from Ephorus Through Strabo’ – Duane W. Roller
‘Mechanics and Pneumatics in the Classical World’ – T. E. Rihll
‘Medical Sects: Herophilus, Erasistratus, Empiricists’ – Fabio Stok
‘Astrology: The Science of Signs in the Heavens’ – Glen M. Cooper
‘The Longue Durée of Alchemy’ – Paul T. Keyser
‘Paradoxography’ – Klaus Geus and Colin Guthrie King
‘Music and Harmonic Theory’ – Stefan Hagel
‘Ancient Agronomy as a Literature of Best Practices’ – Philip Thibodeau
‘Optics and Vision’ – Colin Webster
‘Pharmacology in the Early Roman Empire: Dioscorides and His Multicultural Gleanings’ – John Scarborough
‘Dietetics: Regimen for Life and Health’ – Mark Grant
‘Greco-Roman Surgical Instruments: The Tools of the Trade’ – Lawrence J. Bliquez
Part Four: Greco-Roman Science
‘Traditionalism and Originality in Roman Science’ – Philip Thibodeau
‘Science for Happiness: Epicureanism in Rome, the Bay of Naples, and Beyond’ – Pamela Gordon
‘Roman Medical Sects: The Asclepiadeans, the Methodists, and the Pneumatists’ – Lauren Caldwell
‘Science and Medicine in the Roman Encyclopedists: Patronage for Praxis’ – Mary Beagon
‘Stoicism and the Natural World: Philosophy and Science’ – Teun Tieleman
‘Scribonius Largus and Friends’ – John Scarborough
‘Distilling Nature’s Secrets: The Sacred Art of Alchemy’ – Kyle Fraser
‘Physiognomy’ – Mariska Leunissen
‘Galen and His System of Medicine’ – Ian Johnston
‘Ptolemy’ – James Evans
‘Science in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries CE: An Aporetic Age’ – Paul T. Keyser
Part Five: Late Antique and Early Byzantine Science
‘Plotinus and Neoplatonism: The Creation of a New Synthesis’ – Lucas Siorvanes
‘Greek Mathematics and Astronomy in Late Antiquity’ – Alain Bernard
‘The Greek Neoplatonist Commentators on Aristotle’ – Michael Griffin
‘Byzantine Geography’ – Andreas Kuelzer
‘Byzantine Alchemy, or the Era of Systematization’ – Cristina Viano
‘Byzantine Medical Encyclopedias and Education’ – Svetla Slaveva-Griffin
‘Late Encyclopedic Approaches to Knowledge in Latin Literature’ – David Paniagua
‘Medical Writing in the Late Roman West’ – Louise Cilliers


1. On the issue of how best to engage with ancient scientific writing, see most recently Liba Taub (2017) Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1-17.