What Did The Romans Know?
What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking
University of Chicago Press 288pp £29
Did the ancient Romans make any scientific discoveries? Or did they just recycle and elaborate the discoveries of their Greek predecessors, Democritus, Aristotle, or Ptolemy? For centuries the standard view has been that the Romans only did applied science – technology and engineering: the Greeks invented biology, zoology, physics and astronomy, while the Romans built roads and aqueducts. But Lehoux argues that the Romans’ reputation as scientists needs rehabilitation.
After reading his ten ardent chapters I remain unconvinced. Lehoux supplies no examples capable of proving that the Romans significantly advanced either the theoretical understanding of the universe or the techniques for observing it. What he does achieve is an unprecedented and fascinating description of the mental experience of educated inhabitants of the Roman Empire looking at the natural world.
The book focuses on the three centuries between 100 BC and AD 200 and, until the last couple of chapters, is organised on a chronological basis. What really emerges is that the great contribution the Romans made was not to the content of knowledge, but the way in which knowledge was metaphorically conceived and the methods used to debate and organise it.
Most intellectual historians interested in this period have focused on the differences between the scientific views held by members of the major schools of thought: Stoic, Epicurean, Aristotelian, Sceptic, etc. I learned much from Lehoux’s demonstration of the extent of the beliefs that these schools had in common and which therefore constituted the dominant ‘scientific’ worldview of the era. He offers excellent studies of the rhetorical and quasi-legal use of arguments and counter-arguments in the pursuit of truth, the key concepts of ‘natural law’ and the ‘laws of nature’, and Cicero’s insistence that the human approach to the material universe is inseparable from politics or theology. Lehoux also deftly explores the dialogues between Roman naturalists, for example in Seneca’s under-explored response to Lucretius.
But his book should come with a warning that it is intellectually demanding. There is some untranslated Latin and Greek. The amount of knowledge assumed in the reader is high, especially in the second half when Lehoux’s goal seems to change. He writes increasingly esoteric prose and sounds more like a philosopher than a historian of science. He uses his ancient sources, combined with a stiff workout in theoretical positions since Thomas Kuhn’s epochal Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), to position himself as a specialist in Roman science relative to modern theories of knowledge: he is, he concludes, ‘an epistemological coherentist’. This may interest academic philosophers, but most historians will wish fervently that Lehoux had developed instead the exciting sections in which he talks about the ancient scientists as individual people. He brings wonderful vividness to the figure of Galen, for example, the ambitious and self-promoting Greek physician who became a medical superstar at Rome and whose theatrically staged cures fascinated the imperial chattering classes.
This is a virtuoso book but its contents do not reflect the way it is marketed. Lehoux does not even really ask whether the Romans succeeded in making what we might regard as any significant breakthroughs in understanding the workings of the natural world. A more accurate title would surely have been How did the Romans Express What they Knew? And Should Modern Philosophers of Science Take Them Seriously?
Edith Hall is Professor of Classics at King’s College, London.
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