HELLENISTIC SCIENCE AT COURT

M. Berrey

De Gruyter (2017) 258pp £90.99 (ISBN 9783110539776)

B.’s book aims to further our insight into the social parameters and functions of Hellenistic science. It is in the Hellenistic period that scientists, often polymaths engaged in several fields of knowledge across media and genres at the same time, become attached to royal houses. B. well engages with the asymmetries in the relationships between scientist and patron. The patron is often socially superior, the pinnacle of legislative power, and the recipient of a thorough education, yet the scientist, inferior in social status and striving to become a philos of the ruler, possesses superior knowledge in at least one area of expertise. How do those unequal relationships play out in practice? How did famous figures like Archimedes and Eratosthenes of Cyrene, or less well-known authors such as Andreas of Carystus, frame their work?

While the scientists’ interest in their rulers is obvious, B. appositely asks why the ruler might be interested in complex proofs and advanced mechanics and what strategies the authors used to guarantee the recipient’s understanding. Naturally, B.’s body of evidence consists largely of scientific texts in the form of prose treatises (e.g. Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner), poetry (Callimachus’ Lock of Berenice in the Aetia) or a mixture (Eratosthenes’ Letter to Ptolemy), with the occasional inscription—rulers’ responses to such treatises, whether they are the explicit dedicatee or not, do not survive. The fact that half the conversation is lost to us does not stop B. from making some interesting observations about the interactions between scientists and patrons, and the social conventions that govern them.

The book opens with an introduction (1-28) that outlines B.’s project vis-à-vis modern discourses of (the history of) science. He then moves on to an extensive prosopography (29-88) involving the principal actors in his narrative (or, as he prefers to call it, a ‘thick description of the social practice of court science’ in which Hellenistic science flourished). The ensuing catalogue of kings, queens, bureaucrats, technocrats, poets, priests, antiquarians, grammarians, scholars, philoi, and other hangers-on shows in impressive detail the many guises that scientific writing could take in this age and the variety of its readership(s). 

The following two chapters (89-125 and 127-161) establish what status scientific writing occupied at court, how this situation came about, and what its conventions were. The explanation is sought in the continuation and adaptation of the classical symposium by Hellenistic (or rather, given the relative dearth of evidence for other royal houses, Ptolemaic) rulers. Scientific literature functioned as court entertainment, in a process of reciprocal gift-giving between scientist and ruler. 

The book then abandons its helicopter view of Ptolemaic scientific communities for two pairs of case studies (163-190 and 191-225). B. zooms in on the very different strategies used by the aforementioned Andreas and Eratosthenes on the one hand and Archimedes and Herophilus (‘discoverer’ of the pulse) on the other. The latter chapter is perhaps the most challenging of the book and offers in-depth engagement with the innovative approaches to mathematics and medicine respectively. An Epilogue (227-239), full bibliography, and indices locorum et rerum round off the book.

B.’s book surveys an impressive cast of characters in an appealing way: here is a book that holds its own against the recent crop of excellent investigations of science in antiquity (e.g. Reviel Netz’s Ludic Proof: Greek Mathematics and the Alexandrian Aesthetic [CUP, 2009]—possibly the closest analogue). But it is so much more than a lucid exposition of ancient technological and theoretical advances. B.’s sensitivity to the ‘genres’ and discourses of scientific writing makes these (sometimes rebarbative) texts, often ignored or undervalued by classicists, historians, and archaeologists, come to life. It is precisely at the interface of cultural, social, historical, and technological factors that Berrey is at his best. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in bringing the technical and the literary together and wants to see these texts in an exciting new light. 

Gary Vos

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