sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 12

Liba Taub: Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity

A new entry in Cambridge's "Key Themes in Ancient History" series, Liba Taub's Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity aims "to encourage more reading today of ancient scientific and technical texts, and more work to be done on texts as texts" (133). Taub's own far-ranging background in the history of science, which has included multiple curatorial posts leading up to her current role as director of the Whipple, lends her a unique perspective among historians of ancient science. Rather than revisiting the canonical texts of ancient science, Taub has largely shaped her book around lesser-known texts chosen to illustrate that science in antiquity, like modern science, was communicated in a wide variety of formats for different audiences (130-131). These texts include mathematical epigram, meteorological commentary, and scientific biography, so that even seasoned scholars of ancient science are sure to find something new here.

Taub's introduction addresses the familiar challenges of defining genres of scientific texts and the anachronism inherent in labeling ancient authors as "scientific" or practitioners as "scientists." Taub opts to follow the medievalist Irma Taavitsainen's definition of genres as "inherently dynamic cultural schemata used to organize knowledge and experience through language" (5), and defines "science" here as "an attempt to understand and explain physical phenomena," reflecting a range of Greek terms including philosophia, physis, and epistēmē. Armed with these flexible definitions, Taub narrows down the genres for her chapters' individual case studies as poetry, letter, encyclopedia, commentary, and biography. These categories overlap with several of the genres Taub singles out in her Aetna and the Moon (poetry, dialogue, lecture, treatise, problem text, letter, teaching text, encyclopedia, biography, and commentary). [1] The changes here signal not so much a radical reconceptualization of the genres of scientific discourse as a practical simplification recommended by this book's "one genre, one chapter" structure.

Readers are apt to be surprised by the contents of at least some of those chapters. While the chapter on poetry does allude to didactic poetry in a broad historical sketch of the importance of poetry to Greek culture from Homer to the Hellenistic era, the chapter's case study is in fact on mathematical epigrams. From the "Cattle Problem" attributed to Archimedes to the mathematical entries in the Greek Anthology, Taub explores the playfully riddling manipulations of numbered concrete objects like bowls, apples, and animals that transformed mathematics from an inaccessibly formal practice of experts to an intellectual game woven into the fabric of cultural life.

Readers familiar with Taub's past work on Eratosthenes' Letter to King Ptolemy [2] might expect to find that epigram treated here. Instead, it is postponed to the next chapter, where it becomes the centerpiece of her treatment of the "letter" format, following a brief discussion of the letters of Epicurus. Here Taub revisits her insightful work on the text of the Letter preserved in Eutocius, which includes the mythical history of the problem of doubling the cube, a novel mechanical solution to the problem, a formal proof of the solution, and an epigram (itself ostensibly referencing a monument) which Taub reads as a sphragis on the letter that serves as an "envelope" for those motley contents.

The chapters on "encyclopedia" and "commentary" bring us to more familiar authors, Pliny and Aristotle respectively; in both cases, however, Taub puts the spotlight on meteorology, so readers (apart from those already familiar with her Ancient Meteorology [3]) are still apt to find unfamiliar material here. Her focus on Pliny's meteorology serves her discussion (which hews more closely than most of the book to mainstream scholarship on ancient science) of how Pliny "synthesizes ideas and techniques from several traditions" (85), with an emphasis on practical applicability over expert theory. In her chapter on Aristotle's Meteorology and its commentary tradition, the subject matter suits Taub's breakdown of the range of "explanatory tactics" deployed by Aristotle and his commentators, and in particular the points of differentiation where the "individual voice of the commentator" becomes clearest. This chapter is also where the reader will find the book's treatment of the lettered diagram; rather than discussing these objects in their usual mathematical context, Taub analyzes Aristotle's diagram of a wind-rose and Philoponus's diagram of ants walking a path.

As far from the canon of ancient science as Philoponus's ants may have taken us, the final chapter on biography (specifically the bioi of Pythagoras) seems to take us further still. A selection of texts which, as Taub notes, are not really "biography" in the modern sense, about a figure as strange as Pythagoras, is perhaps a perplexing place to leave the reader. Fortunately, the thoughtful concluding chapter clarifies the intervention Taub hopes to make through her often surprising selection of texts and subject matter. The conclusion is followed by two appendices: the texts of the arithmetical epigrams from the Greek Anthology and of Eratosthenes' Letter.

The bibliographical essay which is such a helpful feature of books in this series is especially useful here, as Taub's introduction arguably gives short shrift to contemporary scholarship on the literary aspects of ancient scientific and technical texts, acknowledging only "a few scholars" unidentified except for the remark that they publish mainly in German (4). I think I cannot be the only historian of ancient science who in fact finds the subdiscipline to be quite vibrant at present, and the bibliographical essay does paint a somewhat less dismal picture than the introduction.

Who will profit from this book? Taub has deliberately structured the work so that it avoids the "usual suspects" of texts, authors, and disciplines: mathematics is present in an idiosyncratic form, astronomy only in the distant background of meteorology, medicine almost entirely absent. The book would thus probably be inappropriate as a textbook for a survey of ancient science. Historians of science of later periods may find it a broadening experience, as their acquaintance with ancient science is often limited precisely to a sketch of the canon Taub writes around. Historians of ancient science will find it an enjoyable read, and doubtless find new points of view on their material through the windows Taub has opened.


[1] Liba Chaia Taub: Aetna and the Moon: Explaining Nature in Ancient Greece and Rome. Corvallis, Or.: Oregon State University Press, 2008.

[2] Liba Chaia Taub: "Eratosthenes sends greetings to King Ptolemy." In: Mathematics Celestial and Terrestrial: Festschrift für Menso Folkerts zum 65. Geburtstag, edited by Joseph Warren Dauben, 285-302. Halle (Saale); Stuttgart: Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina; Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft, 2008.

[3] Liba Chaia Taub: Ancient Meteorology. London; New York: Routledge, 2003.

Rezension über:

Liba Taub: Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (= Key Themes in Ancient History), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017, XV + 193 S., ISBN 978-0-521-13063-9, GBP 18,99

Rezension von:
Courtney Ann Roby
Department of Classics, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
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