THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF SCIENCE AND MEDICINE IN THE CLASSICAL WORLD

Edited by Paul T. Keyser with John Scarborough

OUP (2018) h/b 1045pp £115 (ISBN 9780199734146)

This American publication is truly an international collaboration: forty-six scholars, a half from the USA (16) and the UK (7), and the rest from Germany, France, Canada, South Africa, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Taiwan, China, Australia, Spain, Holland, Japan, and Russia, contribute an introduction and forty-nine essays covering the sciences and medicine for a thousand years from 650 BC. The editors describe the Handbook not as form of ‘reception’ or ‘antiquarian’ studies but as taking ancient ideas as they are and studying them ‘as a system that changed and grew over time, leading in an unbroken series of small changes to our era’. It is, in other words, a historical account. ‘Science’ is rightly taken to include alchemy, astrology, paradoxography (collections of literary oddities and natural wonders and ways of coherently assembling them), pharmacy and physiognomy, as well as mathematics, music, agronomy (‘best practice’ emerging from trying out and perfecting techniques without resort to theory), pneumatics, mechanics and geography, and various philosophies (stoicism, epicureanism and so on) also feature large. Extensive reading lists are provided after each chapter and there is a full, if inevitably rather unspecific, index. 

The essays, all based on primary texts and summarising the latest state of knowledge, with some offering new syntheses, are grouped in five sections: (A) scientific traditions beyond Greece and Rome which may, or may not, have influenced classical science (Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China); (B) Early Greek science (Pythagoras, Plato, maths, astronomy, geography, Hippocrates); (C) Hellenistic Greek science (medicine plus most of the topics featured in the first paragraph); (D) Graeco-Roman medicine and science (philosophies, encyclopedists, alchemy, physiognomy, Ptolemy, Galen); (E) Late Antique and Early Byzantine science and medicine (Plotinus and neoplatonists, and developments in maths, astronomy, geography, alchemy and encyclopedists).

This most impressive and of necessity technical piece of work is weighty in more ways than one. Your reviewer exemplifies some sense of it from its first four sections. Section (A) makes the broad point that the scientific traditions of the four non-classical cultures under consideration worked mainly by reception and exegesis of authoritative scribal texts, while the Greeks tended to interrogate their own authoritative texts (e.g. Hippocrates) rather more intensively. Joann Scurlock makes the case for arguing that Greek medicine would have been greatly improved had it taken on board more of the Mesopotamian practices with which it was acquainted. 

In Section (B), Andrew Gregory shows that Pythagoras was not quite the brilliant mathematician and harmonist of legend, but did lay the groundwork for later mathematicians such as Philolaus and Archytas, while Leonid Zhmud suggests that Pythagoras was not making the point that ‘everything is number’ but rather that everything is countable. It was Archytas who said that mathematics gave us real understanding of the world and everything in it, and that the clue to research was knowing what one was looking for and how one was to go about it. There was an increasing sense of self-analysis among these early mathematicians. 

Philip Kaplan finds that both Babylonians and Egyptians can be credited with some basic cartographical conceptions (e.g. the ‘Babylonian World Map’ and the travels of Wenamum from Thebes to Phoenicia in search of wood supplies). The travels of Odysseus played with the contrast between ‘here and now’ and ‘there and then’, suggesting a nascent geographical understanding, which the pre-Socratics, Hecataeus and especially Herodotus (Kaplan mentions Aristagoras’ and other maps) and later historians built on piecemeal. Aristotle’s speculations, Alexander’s and Pytheas’ travels prepared the way for Eratosthenes’ later revolution and Strabo’s merging of geography and politics (Duane Roller). 

Section (C) occupies one third of the book. Elizabeth Craik thinks it may not be impossible for Greek medicine to have been influenced by Chinese (cutting and cautery to rid the body of diseases) and Indian (humoral) ideas, while Hippocratic treatises on medical ethics reflected common views on the 5th C sophists: that mere words were no substitute for hard experience. While Aristotle, rightly hailed by Jochen Altoff, as the inventor of science, disastrously rejected atomic theory, Epicurus embraced it mainly for moral reasons, but in the process came up with naturalistic (not geometric) and mechanistic (not teleological) explanations of the world (Teun Tieleman). Alan Bowen argues for the importance of the intellectual and social impact of Babylonian astrology (from the 2nd C BC) on the Platonic/Aristotelian tradition (a theme developed by Glen Cooper in relation to its political and medical influence and battles with Christianity). T.E. Rihll reflects on the enthusiasm with which unnatural, man-made machines—powered by muscle, water, air and steam—were embraced. Paul Keyser argues that alchemy ‘allowed workers to produce a wide variety of objects they desired, dyes and pigments, glass and metals, objects of use and beauty’ and thus deserves scholarly treatment equal to that of medicine and astronomy. 

In section (D), Philip Thibodeau points out that Roman scientists, out of excessive respect for the past and their Greek ‘superiors’, tended to be too modest about their own achievements. Even when they did come up with an interesting new idea, they tended to ascribe it to someone else to give it authority. Examples would include Numa’s development of the 12-month calendar year, fairly well aligned with natural cycles. But Numa was assumed to have been taught by Pythagoras, and even when it was pointed out that Pythagoras came 200 years later, the tradition survived. This habit was a form of ‘inverse plagiarism’: assigning your thoughts to some earlier established figure. Pamela Gordon shows how Epicureans, while revering their master, did in fact use his work to extrapolate quite new theories of e.g. creation (Lucretius). Meanwhile Scribonius Largus, while nodding to Hippocrates, insisted that pharmaceutical remedies, involving the most accurate weighing of complex, multi-ingredient recipes, could succeed where e.g. dietetics failed. An antidote to dog-bites contained no fewer than thirteen ingredients (‘four denarii by weight of curdled rennet taken from a rabbit’, etc.) (John Scarborough). 

Mary Beagon points out that Romans invented what we call the encyclopedia though the word is late Latin of 16th C origin (it is a combination of the Greek egkuklios paideia ‘rounded education’). Varro (on the Latin language and farming), Vitruvius (architecture), Celsus (medicine), Columella (farming) and—the master of them all—Pliny’s 37-book Historia Naturalis (‘Enquiry into Nature’) all survive. Mastery and marshalling of empire, she argues, was the impetus behind the mastery and marshalling of scientia; Greek artes may have taken captor Rome captive, but Roman encyclopedias were going to establish an important scientific principle—classifying, ordering and structuring knowledge in a comprehensive and comprehensible way and therefore making it useful.

This review has attempted to give a very brief taste of the scope of this most instructive compilation. What is especially impressive is the way in which the individual essays taken together carefully build up a coherent picture of change over so many areas of human endeavour over a thousand years, while at the same time closely engaging with the specifics of each era. Congratulations are in order. 

Peter Jones

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