Literature & Scholarship

Roman Science?

The standard story about science in the Roman world condemns it to the realm of engineering and the application of Greek science to practical problems. To the extent that Romans acquired scientific knowledge, it was through popularizations and translations, often with commentary, of Greek works. Roman science conjures up images of Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Martianus Capella’s The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things or, perhaps most damningly, Pliny’s encyclopedic Natural History. As David Lindberg put it, “Such science or natural philosophy as Romans knew, then, tended to be a limited popularized version of the Greek achievement” (Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago, 136)).

Pierre Henri de Valenciennes’s Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1787) (screen shot from Pesic’s review).
Pierre Henri de Valenciennes’s Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1787) (screen shot from Pesic’s review).

According to Peter Pesic, a new book by Daryn Lehoux challenges this standard story: “What the Romans Really Knew” reviews Lehoux’s latest book, What Did the Romans Know? (full review and the pdf are behind a paywall). Apparently, Lehoux begins by “correcting a long-standing view that the concept of ‘laws of nature’ only originated in the 16th century” (Pesic, 273) by focusing not on the words Romans used to describe their ideas but the content of those ideas: “consider whether the Pluto Platter really changed its essence in 1957, when its manufacturer renamed it ‘Frisbee’” (Pesic, 273).

Such an argument is grounded in a particular historiographic assumption that identifies the essence of ideas and distinguishes them from the words thought to express those ideas. There is considerable philosophical and historiographical support for such an assumption and as much philosophical and historiographical opposition to it. I admit I am skeptical of being able to identify the essence of an idea distinct from the particular words used to articulate that idea.

But given that Lehoux’s earlier book, Astronomy, Weather, and Calendars in the Ancient World is very good, I look forward to reading his new one.