BMCR 2024.04.15

Body and machine in classical antiquity

, , Body and machine in classical antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 348. ISBN 9781316514665.


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


With much recent attention paid to the advent of commercial artificial intelligence tools and the potential future fusion of man and machine, it is surprising that comparatively little attention has been paid to the ancient historical roots of imaginative and practical approaches to human use and assimilation of machines. This volume attempts to fill a scholarly gap by bringing novel studies of “body-machine intersections” (1) in classical thought to the fore. Seeking to answer questions about what purpose body-machine analogies serve, and to explore the use, absorption, and fusion of machines by and with the body in ancient works, the authors cover territory from the medical to the mechanical and everywhere in between.

The volume proceeds in three sections: the first set of contributions covers “Blended Bodies,” considering issues of automatons and the fusion of machines with the body in classical imagination, from the statues of Daedalus and the devices of Hephaestus in poetry and myth to the production (or proposed production) of automatons made for dramatic and ceremonial purposes. The second grouping consists of works on “the technological body,” while the third is themed “towards the mechanization of the human body.”

The distinction between these final two groupings is somewhat subtle but, as the editors explain in their conclusion (319), the grouping and ordering represents a kind of unfolding story or argument. In the first section there is an imaginative component, with classical thinkers conceiving of a body augmented by and fused with tools in poetry, depicted in art, and finally brought to life in mechanical augmentation or constructed automatons of various styles and complexities. In the second, there is a study of the application of new mechanical tools in the service of the health of the human body and the practice of medicine. In the third and final section, the lengthiest of the three, there is a successive movement towards understanding the human body itself and its component parts as machines, aided by progress in the study of mechanics and then efforts to understand the body in light of these principles (lungs as bellows, hearts as pumps, and so on).

Deborah Steiner’s opening article frames the volume well, introducing not just examples of automatons in both the Iliad and Pindar, but paying heed to the contrast between their portrayals. There is a kind of awe in Homer at Hephaestus’s devices having a principle of movement that is their own. This speaks to the strangeness of their “composite or hybrid character, their capacity to combine disparate and contrasting spheres and so to breach seemingly inviolable boundaries, uniting in one the sentient and inert, the divine and human, the organic and fractured, the original and its counterfeit” (19). The presence of “vivified objects” (20) throughout classical poetry implies boundaries are only “seemingly” inviolable, and it is in Pindar that Steiner sees a possible condemnation of the apparent violation. While the golden serving girls aid Hephaestus in his efforts, and the lifelike depictions upon Achilles’ shield are praised, the Charmers of Pindar’s invention are ultimately deprived by the gods of voice, which is, with motion, “among the prime demarcators of a living being…the Charmers are returned to the sphere of silent and immobile artefacts from which they have, misguidedly, been permitted to emerge” (45).

This poetic repudiation of automatons may find echoes in ancient practice. As Isabel A. Ruffell explores in depth in her Not Yet the Android, the third chapter of this volume, among the actual mechanical creations of the ancients, human automata are relatively scarce compared to depictions of the gods or animals (20). Ruffell suggests that this might represent a kind of “inhibition against representing an articulated human form,” (20) though she suggests more strongly that “attempts by ancient mechanical practitioners to render the human form mechanically were strictly circumscribed” primarily by practical constraints and dramatic convention, more than by a moral hesitation (20).

In the second chapter of the volume, Jane Draycott draws on her previous work on assistive and prosthetic technologies in the ancient world. Again, as with the previous scholars, Draycott draws from both imaginative, literary sources and from practical and historical ones. The depiction of Hephaestus as disabled, making use of assistance devices, is used to shed some light on how those in the ancient world imagined the use of these technologies by those who were disabled, and how that imaginative portrayal might cross over into reality, as with the comparisons between literary automatons and theatrical automatons in Ruffell’s chapter.

Draycott’s fairly short chapter ends on a somewhat tantalizing note: just prior to her conclusion, Draycott briefly touches on “The Close Association of Impairment and Technology” (61). There was, Draycott argues, a “commonly stated… belief that those who undertook trades would become impaired, as a combination of the sedentary nature of the occupation and the repetitive physical activity it required would deform the body” (61). This leads to an interesting situation, where those who are impaired, either before beginning their trade or as a result of their trade, are perhaps best positioned to use the skills of their trade to invent and improve augments and aids. As this volume is at least partially interested in comparing or contrasting modern period body-machine analogies to those of the ancients, this is perhaps ripe ground for further comparison. Was the feared risk of the trades purely physical, that these workers would be physically harmed by their narrow work? Or was there here a precursor to modern forms of a similar fear, voiced by Adam Smith and others, that narrow and repetitive work could be harmful to the psyche as well as the body, “mentally mutilating” as well as physically harmful? And if so, what sort of augments might be required, or developed by the practitioners of these arts?

Though the first section of the volume is of greatest interest to me, and thus this review is weighted accordingly, this should not be taken to imply a lack of quality in the remaining sections. George Kazantzidis’s entry on The Beauty That Lies Within, for example, draws subtle distinctions between a teleological appreciation for the human body and the type of wonder elicited by the machine-body analogy, which he argues “reinstates a more elusive kind of wonder in which informed admiration and a simultaneous sense of bewilderment blend inextricably with each other” (218). To take another example, Maria Gerolemou’s chapter on Technical Physicians and Medical Machines excavates a typology of medical machines in the works of the Hippocratic authors. The machines used to heal are classified “according to accessibility, transportability, complexity, the type of force they release, and their dependence on the physician’s physical skills” (122). When these devices reach the level of a “complicated machine,” additional ethical issues are introduced, namely the possibility that the machine’s power might operate outside of the control of the physician, causing unintended harms, as well as the “possibility that this may converge into something that solely serves the unethical interests of its user” (122). Gerolemou has uncovered, then, ancient sources that typologize technology and its ethical risks in ways that one imagines could provide a helpful exemplar to contemporary conversations attempting to develop similar typologies of new technologies.

The issue of possible contemporary relevance raises the primary substantive issue I wish to mention with the volume, which is merely one of omission. At the risk of critiquing something for what it does not attempt to be, many potential applications of the material to political philosophical concerns are passed over (the scant attention paid to Plato is a facet of this). Analogies between body and machine are unsurprising to many readers, common as they are in the writings of the modern period. Hobbes’ Leviathan famously opens with an elaborate comparison of man to clockwork, analogizing human beings as artificial, and further suggesting the possibility of the creation of a vast artificial man in the form of his Leviathan. That body-machine comparisons have political implications seems intuitive, and it is interesting that much of the volume does not draw this out. The exceptions to this are more narrowly focused, with authors speaking specifically to disability studies, for example. It would be excellent, then, to see future scholars build on the work done here in other domains.

The presentation of the text is generally quite readable, and the footnotes effective in presentation and elaboration. There is some inconsistency, intentional or not, in the presentation of the Greek against the translations, with some authors choosing to include only translations in the body of the piece, with the Greek relegated to the smaller font footnotes, and others including Greek and the English translations parallel within the body of the text. In both cases, however, the source of the translation and the presence of changes are noted. In short, the expansive topical range and quality of scholarship ensures that this volume will be of interest to scholars of many kinds, both those interested in narrow excavation and close reading of classical sources and those interested in broader conceptual questions about technology, humanity, and the future of both.


Authors and Titles

An Introduction to Body-Machine-Intersections, Maria Gerolemou and George Kazantzidis

Part I. Blended Bodies:

1. More than a thing: figuring hybridity in archaic poetry and art, Deborah Steiner
2. Automata, cyborgs, and hybrids: bodies and machines in Antiquity, Jane Draycott
3. Not yet the android: the limits of wonder in ancient automata, Isabel A. Ruffell

Part II. The Technological Body:

4. Technical physicians and medical machines in the Hippocratic Corpus, Maria Gerolemou
5. The empirical, art, and science in Hippocrates’ On Joints, Jean De Groot
6. Hippocrates’ Diseases 4 and the technological body, Colin Webster

Part III. Towards the Mechanization of the Human Body:

7. Aristotle on the lung and the bellows-lungs analogy, Giuli Korobili
8. The ill effect of south winds on the joints in the human body: Theophrastus, De ventis 56 and pseudo-Aristotle, Problemata 1.24, Robert Mayhew
9. The Beauty that lies within: Anatomy, mechanics and thauma in Hellenistic Medicine, George Kazantzidis
10. The mechanics of the heart in Antiquity, Matteo Valleriani
11. The mechanics of Galen’s Theory of Nutrition, Orly Lewis
12. Iatromechanism and Antiquarianism in Morgagni’s Studies on Celsus, 1720–1761, Marquis Berrey.