BMCR 2020.11.31

Greek and Roman technology: a sourcebook annotated translations of Greek and Latin texts and documents, 2nd edition

, , , , Greek and Roman technology : a sourcebook of translated Greek and Roman texts (2nd edition). Routledge sourcebooks for the ancient world. New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. xviii, 753. ISBN 9781138927896. $62.95.

I have thought since the first edition of this book that the authors deserve high praise for compiling such a useful compendium.[1] Few appreciate the work put into truly well-crafted books of this sort—deans do not give research credit for writing them, peers gloss over them, and we have enough hastily thrown together compendia to water down the whole genre.  This is just not the case here. The second edition of the book deserves as much gratitude; it has more illustrations, more texts, and an updated bibliography. This book is thoughtful, useful, and compiled with skill.

After the introductions, the authors divide the book into thirteen chapters.  They keep the chapter themes general (like “sculpture” “metallurgy” and “agriculture”), splitting each chapter into more precise sections (such as “city planning” and “attempts to protect the integrity of information and to foil foragers”), and then subsections.  Those subjections run the gamut from useful (“on fly-fishing”) through idiosyncratic (“poor leather shoes that stretch”) to humorous (“pimple treatment”). Given how general the chapter themes are, the table of contents could have used a list of the chapter sections. Sometimes the introductions to the chapters discuss some of the subsections, but most often they do not. Ultimately, I think the general divisions serve the authors’ purposes quite well. One could easily see, say, a historian of agriculture flipping through that chapter for information and inspiration.

Each chapter begins with a brief introduction. Like the themes, these introductions run very general, neither breaking new analytical ground nor pointing to debates in the history of technology.  This is the weakest point of the book.  In some ways it might actually work to bolster an unfair—yet surprisingly common—stereotype: that the real dynamism in ancient history is in thinking about topics like gender, sexuality, multiculturalism, or economy, while the history of technology remains mired in old-school internalist debates.  This just simply is not the case, and I think the authors missed an opportunity to introduce the reader to the dynamism of the subfield.

Chapters like “metallurgy” demonstrate the usefulness of the book for me. I know very little about metallurgy as a subject, and am unschooled in the technical terminology (and am often intimidated by it), so I go into this chapter as an outsider or student might any chapter in the book. The introduction sets up both how the sources can be useful and where they have problems (e.g., “the Greeks and Romans understood little about metals except in terms of their basic external properties. As a result, description of procedures and treatments in our sources is often confused …”).  The chapter then starts with a passage from Lucretius on the discovery of metals and their malleability when exposed to fire, followed by passages from multiple authors on the primacy of gold in the hierarchy of metals. Next come sources on the extraction and refinement of various metals. As the brief introduction to each passage lets on, these are difficult sources, often full of mistakes and obscure technical terminology.  The book uses figures to illustrate some of the more involved descriptions. Yet in addition to the expected passages (on, say, alloys or casting or assaying or production) are those on the brutality of the work in the Egyptian mines, a layman’s understanding of how to refine gold, environmental destruction from metal refining, and the mythology of smithing.

One will find surprises even in chapters with well-known subject matter. Chapter Three on agriculture, for example, contains the passages one might expect: Appian and Pliny on Roman Latifundia, Cato and Varro on agricultural practice, and Herodotus on the productivity of Mesopotamian agriculture.  But the chapter then becomes much more adventurous and interesting, with subsections on, for example, manure and compost, on pesticides, on agricultural calendars, on different kinds of animal husbandry (including hunting, fishing, sponge diving), and then ends with what the authors call a “sobering epilogue” – passages from Lucretius and Pliny on ecological disasters.

As a final example, there is Chapter 11, Transport and Trade. There are, again, the passages and themes one expects to see here: Greek sources on the Persian “pony express,” various sources on bridge building, a section from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, and sections on shipbuilding. But the unexpected sections kept my attention: royal inscriptions on road repair, a royal inscription from Pisidia regulating the local requisition of transport, the pomp and circumstance of processions, mapping, the economics of ship cargo, shipwrecks, and grain speculation.  Finding these unexpected and enlightening gems in each chapter was a genuine pleasure.

The reader leaves chapters like these with a rich, rounded, but most of all cultural-technical view of the primary sources on Greek and Roman technology. Each chapter has enough to satisfy those looking for the nuts-and-bolts aspects as well as those who want to delve deeper into the socio-cultural aspects of technology. If, say, a Sinologist is researching the history of Chinese sculpture, turning to the appropriate section of this book will instantly help to bring points of comparison. Given the breadth of this book, the potential users will run far.  I am teaching a class on ancient technology in Fall 2020, and many copies of book will have weak bindings by the end.

Normally in reviewing compendia like this the whataboutism comes easy.  This is not the case here, as the coverage is more than impressive. Still, since the authors express their desire to hear them, a few issues do suggest themselves. The first are technologies of play and leisure—including things like sex toys, birth control, children’s playthings, theater apparatuses, and sport. Second, I would be interested to see a collection of technologies of magic and metaphysical manipulation (wands, talismans, figurines and the like).  Third, I would argue that the “record keeping” chapter needs to be rethought.  My own interests had me hoping for a separate section on accounting technologies.  More generally, given the prominence of communication technologies today and the questions they engender, it seems a missed opportunity that the chapter buries the relevant sources. My thinking here is that theorists and commentators often turn back to the Greeks and Romans to search for origins (for better or worse), so it might serve the purpose of this book to front issues that are particularly topical today.  Here one might add smoke signals, self-referential papyri and inscriptions, and coins as technologies of communication and propaganda.

Finally, I found it unfortunate that the authors do not address the debate that Classics is having as it struggles to figure out exactly what it is and whom it represents.  They seem comfortable with a “Western Civilization” model (mainly Greek and Roman, but with a smattering of information from the Hebrew bible and other civilizations that “had a marked effect on Graeco-Roman technology, or on the imaginations of Greek and Roman writers concerned with technology”).  The issues there are obvious. I do not believe that every scholar has to stake out a place in a contentious culture-war issue, but Classics occupies (or is at least trying to occupy) a place very different from where it was when this book first appeared in 1997. Not engaging that debate at some level—especially with the rich material in this book—risks courting irrelevancy.

But none of this should undercut what is an extremely useful and thoughtfully put together book, in many ways a model of how a book of this sort should be conceptualized and executed. In the introduction the authors state that “if the present volume is well received, we might consider preparation of a companion volume devoted to the visual documentation of ancient technology.” Yes, please.


[1] John W. Humphrey; John P. Oleson, Andrew N Sherwood, Greek and Roman technology : a sourcebook. Annotated translations of Greek and Latin texts and documents (Routledge, 1998).