BMCR 2024.02.04

Technical automation in classical antiquity

, Technical automation in classical antiquity. London: Bloomsbury, 2023. Pp. 200. ISBN 9781350077591.



Maria Gerolemou’s Technical automation in classical antiquity brings together three distinct strands in the study of automata and the use of automation in antiquity from the Homeric creations of Hephaestus to discussions of mechanical automations in the Hellenistic period and beyond. The book is divided into three main chapters. In the first, Gerolemou considers the Iliadic works of Hephaestus and Pandora’s creation; in the second, she explores the use of automatism and the bodies of mad heroes in Greek drama; and in the third, she discusses Hellenistic views on mechanical automata and the use of automatism in descriptions. The book’s intention is, Gerolemou states in her introduction, to bring together natural and technical automatisms presented in antiquity, considering “the connection between automation as the product of a natural force and automation as the result of technological force” (p.1). Gerolemou further intends to present “organically connected” chapters (p.5) with a wide scope from archaic automata to Hellenistic and early Byzantine automation, with a focus in each on the understanding of technology of the time.

In her introduction, Gerolemou provides a useful discussion of the nature of automata and automatic movement, establishing her work within the existing scholarship on automata and artificially created bodies or objects. In addition, she gives the reader a clear understanding of her reading of automatism positioned between nature and techne. This position is of great significance in Gerolemou’s work, particularly, perhaps, in chapter 1, in which she uses the idea of natural automatisms to explore Hephaestus’ creations.

In her first chapter, Gerolemou analyses Hephaestus’ Iliadic automata and the Hesiodic construction of Pandora, discussing them in relation to natural processes and automation. Focusing first on Hephaestus’ automata, Gerolemou explores at length the origin of the movement of the golden handmaidens and tripods of Iliad 18. Dismissing a magical process, she defines their motion as connected to natural automation and draws a contrast between Hephaestus’ obvious effort in his workshop (as he sweats while working) and the effortless motion of his automata. The movement of Hephaestus’ automata, Gerolemou suggests, is not directly influenced or caused by the god, but rather responds to and requires his presence. This argument is supported with reference to Thales’ magnets, the apparently spontaneous emergence of flowers on Delos in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (135-9), Aristotle’s views on slavery (Pol. 1253b 21-3), and Apollonius’ Talos.[1] However, the reader may take issue with Gerolemou’s dismissal of a magical origin for the Iliadic handmaidens—while she notes that scholars have considered the potential of the handmaidens possessing minds of their own, this chapter does not fully respond to this possibility, and the subsequent comparison with Menelaus moving automatos towards his brother in Iliad 2 may lead to further questions as to the impact of possessing one’s own mind. Moreover, while she draws persuasive links throughout this chapter between archaic and Hellenistic (and later) ideas around technological automation, the impact of Hephaestus’ presence and what this entails (if not a magical or divine provocation) merits further discussion. For example, do the handmaidens operate only when in the god’s immediate presence, or can they operate at greater distance when understanding what it is they must do?

Next, the chapter turns to the Hesiodic Pandora, and Gerolemou usefully draws comparisons between the Hephaestaean handmaidens, whose purpose and automation is limited in scope, and Pandora, whose purpose and action, she argues, extend beyond the boundaries of her creation. Here, close focus on the language used to describe Pandora’s act of opening the jar allows Gerolemou to make convincing arguments about Pandora’s intentionality and agency despite her artificial creation; these arguments, moreover, complement the detailed discussion of Hephaestus’ handmaidens and provide further evidence for their ‘automatic’ behaviour, while still leaving a question over the role of Hephaestus’ presence. However, readers may question how far Pandora’s action—ultimately destructive to mankind—diverges from Zeus’ plan of creating the kalon kakon (Hes. Th.. 585) for mankind, since, as Gerolemou acknowledges, Pandora’s creation is an integral part of his campaign against humanity, and her opening of the jar (whether truly automatos or in line with Zeus’ plan) signals the end of the automatos bios.

In her second chapter, Gerolemou explores automation and automata in the Greek theatre, bringing together discussions of eidola and the illusion of  ‘liveness’, weapons as prostheses of the Greek hero, and the bodies of mad heroes in a novel and insightful way. Gerolemou here begins by turning to theoretical and philosophical definitions as she considers the Hippocratic definition of the patterns of natural bodily automatisms and their resultant ability to be replicated, an understanding which comes to the fore in considering the behaviour of mad heroes. Similarly, she usefully presents the idea of ‘technomimesis’ as the reproduction and enhancement of the human body and mind. Following this theoretical underpinning, Gerolemou moves onto the role of masks and technical apparatus in Greek theatre. These objects, Gerolemou argues, challenge human limitations and provide a way of compensating for these shortcomings. In this section, the link to automation is not necessarily as clear as elsewhere in the book; rather, what Gerolemou makes clear is the ability of such technical and artistic devices to augment human limits.

Following on from this, focusing on the role of eidola and animated statues, she presents a useful argument on the challenges to liveness which these objects represent. Here, Gerolemou’s central thesis of the relationship between natural automatisms and those replicated by technical works comes to the fore, as she uses the examples of the breathing eidolon of Euripides’ Helen, and Iphigenia’s (Euripides, IT) use of the ‘living’ statue of Artemis to explore the anxiety produced in the Greek theatre when characters and/or the audience are confronted with an apparently living body or replica. In this section, Gerolemou also clearly draws out the requirement of speech in order for something to be presented as living, exploring the example of the silent Alcestis in Euripides’ play and the concerns raised as to her really being alive, as well as the nature of writing in tragedy (and philosophy) as something unspontaneous, yet a technology which augments human intelligence. Here, the argument might have benefited from a more thorough discussion of writing as techne and its relation to the natural automatisms at the centre of Gerolemou’s thesis, with regard to how far the spontaneity of speech reflects a natural form of automation undermined by written language, and how much the natural automatism (here, of speech) is altered by the use of this tool.

Next, this chapter turns its attention to the role of weapons as prostheses for the hero—both physical and in forming their identity. In her introduction, Gerolemou suggests that “instruments are conceived as animated extensions which threaten human agency and intentionality” (p.7); this is particularly borne out in her discussion of Heracles’ bow and its role in the murder of his family. In exploring the nature of archaic heroes first, Gerolemou raises important questions about the components and establishment of heroic identity. Of particular value here is the consideration of Heracles’ bow, and the blame placed on this object by Amphitryon (Euripides, HF. 1135) and Heracles (1380-1). There is a useful discussion of the agency of Heracles’ weapons, but this could merit further exploration, considering the contradicting statements made by Heracles, Amphitryon, and by the bow itself. Gerolemou’s argument of the Greek hero’s identity as a blending of man and weapons is convincing and presents a useful way of reading the complexities of heroic nature and identity. Here, a brief comparison is drawn between Ajax, who abandons his sword, and Heracles, who embraces his weapons as part of his heroic identity, lending strength to the point raised about Sophocles’ and Euripides’ contrasting views on the artificial. If developed, however, this argument could more fully draw links between the heroes’ bodies as automated beings. Gerolemou, lastly, establishes the role of the divine (in particular, Dionysus’ impact) in augmenting or rejuvenating the human body, paving the way for her insightful discussion of theatrical madness. In discussing Heracles’ silence when mad—when an automaton—Gerolemou explores the lack of consciousness inherent in the actions of mad heroes and in those affected by Dionysus: Pentheus and the Theban women, including Agave. Here, Gerolemou draws an effective and persuasive link with natural automation through the spontaneity of action in Bacchic frenzy.

Finally, in her third chapter, Gerolemou moves to Hellenistic and Byzantine automation. First, she suggests a shift in focus from the manufacturer or creator to the ‘automation process’ itself, and how this supplements the natural. Of great value in this chapter is that Gerolemou tracks differing interpretations and definitions of thauma (wonder), from ‘bedazzlement’ of the audience in Plato’s writing, through part of a response to something seemingly spontaneous and simple (which is, in reality, extremely complex), to appreciation by the audience and the demands placed upon them, and finally back to the bedazzlement of a viewer inherent in the early Byzantine ekphrases. Through this overview, Gerolemou successfully illustrates the possibility inherent in technology to involve its audience (whether spectators or readers), generating not only wonder and appreciation but also curiosity. This chapter also presents a comprehensive discussion of the theoretical makeup of automata, in particular regarding the materials which can be used. Here, the link to natural automation is present in Gerolemou’s mention of the ‘biomimesis’ of glass and the elastic principles of technological materials. Finally, this chapter ends with a discussion of the use of ekphrastic descriptions of church interiors, which discuss the moving patterns and features of these structures, suggesting a return to thauma as the bedazzlement of an audience. It is a strength of Gerolemou’s chronological structure that the reader here will notice the development from archaic automation (for instance, in considerations of Hephaestus’ machines as ekphrastic in nature) to these animated church interiors.

There are a number of minor and more weighty editorial errors in the book, such as missing words (p.82), which occasionally obscure meaning. Additionally, there is a lack of consistency in the presentation of Greek words and phrases, with some individual words presented in italics, as stated in the introduction (pp.8-9), and others given in Greek characters (e.g. on p.69); similarly, there is some lack of consistency in the translation or paraphrasing of Greek text, which may present difficulties to some readers, although key terms are generally glossed with clarity.

In general, Gerolemou’s book explores clearly the link between natural and technical automatism through the lens of spontaneous action or responses; this is brought to the fore particularly in her discussions of Greek philosophical attitudes towards the nature of, for instance, animals. However, this issue is primarily relevant in the first two chapters, one could argue.  In chapter 2, Gerolemou’s discussion of writing against the spontaneity of speech somewhat challenges this view of automation, and the question would benefit from further exploration. Overall, throughout the book, Gerolemou presents a considered reading which sits well within existing scholarship on automata and ancient depictions of the artificial and makes an important contribution to scholarship on automata; of particular value is her re-reading of tragic madness and the manipulations by Dionysus of the members of the Theban royal family, who become puppets of the god’s plan, just as Heracles and his weapons—which form an essential and self-proclaimed part of his identity, as Gerolemou shows—act as mindless automata in the murder of his family. By re-reading both Alcestis’ silence and Heracles’ madness through the lens of automata, Gerolemou convincingly shows the inherent anxieties for the audience of being faced with the uncanny presentation of something not quite living.



[1]    N.b., although, as Gerolemou notes, Apollonius refers to blood in Talos’ veins, he also describes ichor flowing out, marking his death (Arg. 4.1679-80).