Science in Antiquity: A book review

In the last few weeks everybody else has been nominating books of the year or recommending books for Christmas so I thought I would follow the trend and at the same time try to improve my somewhat negative image by actually writing a positive book review. In fact this is not a review of one book but of a whole series of seven books, The Routledge Sciences of Antiquity series. These books are not new but have been available for some years now although one of them saw the release of its second expanded edition on the 1st of November this year. The books are, in no particular order, Ancient Natural History by Roger French (who was before his death also the original general editor of the series), Time in Antiquity by Roland Hannah, Ancient Astrology by Tamsyn Barton, Cosmology in Antiquity by M. R. Wright, Ancient Mathematics by S. Cuomo, Ancient Meteorology by Liba Taub (who is the current general editor) and finally Ancient Medicine by Vivian Nutton. I now own five of the series only missing the volumes by Taub and Hannah, which are high up on my book purchase list, so if anybody wishes to buy The Renaissance Mathematicus a Christmas present…

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow account of all the five volumes that I do own but I’ll start with some general comments about Nutton’s Ancient Medicine, which was the one whose second edition appeared this year. Nutton is one of the leading English historians of medicine and a great expert on medicine in antiquity and especially Galen. This book, which became a standard work on the subject when it first appeared and an instant classic, is now even better in its improved second edition. If you are a student of the history of medicine and this book is not on your bookshelf then something is seriously wrong with your book buying policy.

This brings us to the intended or potential readership for this series. In his general introduction to the series Roger French writes the following:

The purpose of this series of volumes is to provide the reader who is not necessarily a classical scholar with a broad view of some areas of ancient interest to which the term ‘science’ has customarily been attached.

I personally would see the potential readership in undergraduate and postgraduate students of general history, philosophy and both the history and philosophy of science. Of course any reasonably well read scholar with a general interest in antiquity could and would benefit from reading one or more of the volumes in this series. I personally find them very useful as a slightly more advanced historian of science whose area of expertise lies somewhere else (the Early Modern Period) but who vainly attempts to maintain a broad and general picture of the whole of the history of science. A hopeless endeavour but one that I think all historians of science should follow to some extent.

All of the books that I possess in this series are excellently written by top experts in their field (an appellation that also applies to both Hannah and Taub whose volumes I don’t possess) in a style that makes them accessible to the reasonably educated general reader. All of them also posses a full academic apparatus of endnotes (I still prefer footnotes), extensive bibliography and index making it possible for the reader to deepen their knowledge of any points that catch their interest.

One particular aspect of the series that for me increases their value is that they are not standard re-iterations of the supposed facts and myths of the subjects with which they deal but are up to date reassessments of what is known presented in context. French writes:

The ancient material used by philosophers and other in later periods is here described in its ancient context. But the needs of the modern reader, who may want information on one particular area of the sciences, has been kept in mind.

These two purposes, to give ancient ‘science’ in its context and to direct the reader’s attention to fields of study that he recognises, coincides with a fresh look at ancient ‘science’.

This fresh look is wonderfully illustrated for me by Cuomo’s volume, Ancient Mathematics a subject in which I had read extensively before I came to her book. Books on mathematics tend to be strongly internalist dealing with which theorems were first discovered by whom and also often dangerously speculative stretching the often very small set of real facts available, mostly without informing the reader that this is the case. Cuomo’s book is wonderfully contextual giving all of the sources where mathematical knowledge was not only produced but also used and discussed in antiquity whilst continuously reminding the reader just how thin the blanket of available facts really is. A wonderful corrective to all those books that go on for pages about the achievements of one or other of the Greek mathematicians from whom we have absolutely no extant works and whose appearance in the oft many centuries later works of others are at best scant. I heartily recommend this book to anybody who thinks they already ‘know’ about mathematics in antiquity. It’s is startling to discover how much of our standard ‘knowledge’ repeated in numerous reference works is at the best dubious and often plain myths.

If you are looking for a last minute gift for the historian or philosopher of science in your life then one or other of the volumes in this series would I’m sure be gratefully received. One small word of warning whilst the paperbacks are, whilst not cheap, reasonably priced for academic books of this quality the hardbacks are exorbitantly expensive.



1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, History of science

One response to “Science in Antiquity: A book review

  1. Mike from Ottawa

    On your recommendation, I’ve ordered as a stocking stuffer for myself the Ancient Mathematics volume in paperback, used and only $1.00. Good for me, kind of sad overall.

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