Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece

Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece

by George Sarton

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"There are few scholars or scientists today who write as beautifully or as interestingly as [Sarton] . . . [his] book is magnificent." — Ashley Montagu, Saturday Review
Although science did not begin in ancient Greece (millennia of work in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other regions preceded Greek efforts) it is nevertheless true that methodic, rational

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"There are few scholars or scientists today who write as beautifully or as interestingly as [Sarton] . . . [his] book is magnificent." — Ashley Montagu, Saturday Review
Although science did not begin in ancient Greece (millennia of work in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other regions preceded Greek efforts) it is nevertheless true that methodic, rational investigation of the natural universe originated largely with early Hellenic thinkers. Thus, the major part of this book is of necessity devoted to Greece. Drawing wherever possible on original sources, Dr. Sarton, one of the world's foremost historians of science, paints a vivid and illuminating picture of mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology, medicine, and other sciences as they emerged from the mists of prehistory and ultimately flourished within the context of Greek society.
The book is divided into three parts. Part One begins with the earliest evidence of prehistoric mathematics, astronomy, and other science. Dr. Sarton then describes the achievements of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the dawn of Greek culture and the remarkable flowering of Ionian science in the sixth century B.C. Thales of Miletos, Anaximandrox, and Xenophanes are among the important figures discussed. An entire chapter focuses on the influential doctrines of Pythagoras.
Part Two opens with the glory of Athens in the fifth century B.C. and its magnificent achievements in poetry and the arts, philosophy, and science. Described in lucid detail are groundbreaking contributions of Heracleitos, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Zenon of Elea, Parmenides, Democritos, and many others. Also included in this section are perceptive discussions of geographers and historians of the fifth century (Herodotos, Thucydides, and others) and Greek medicine of the fifth century (chiefly Hippocratic).
Part Three focuses on the extraordinary Greek thinkers of the fourth century B.C.: Plato and the Academy, Aristotle, Xenophon and many others, including such important schools of thought as the cynics, stoics, skeptics, and epicureans. Major attention is given to mathematics, astronomy and physics, natural sciences and medicine, Aristotelian humanities, and historiography and other topics.
"Of great value to the general historian and an exciting, arresting story for the lay reader. — The Yale Review

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**** Reprint of the work originally published as A History of Science; v.1; Ancient Science ... by Harvard U. Press in 1952 and cited in BCL3. Dover reintroduces this great classic at a small price and printed on acid-free paper. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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By George Sarton

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1980 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14498-6



When did science begin? Where did it begin? It began whenever and wherever men tried to solve the innumerable problems of life. The first solutions were mere expedients, but that must do for a beginning. Gradually the expedients would be compared, generalized, rationalized, simplified, interrelated, integrated; the texture of science would be slowly woven. The first solutions were petty and awkward but what of it? A Sequoia gigantea two inches high may not be very conspicuous, but it is a Sequoia all the same. It might be claimed that one cannot speak of science at all as long as a certain degree of abstraction has not been reached, but who will measure that degree? When the first mathematician reognized that there was something in common between three palm trees and three donkeys, how abstract was his thought? Or when primitive theologians conceived the invisible presence of a supreme being and thus seemed to reach an incredible degree of abstraction, was their idea really abstract, or was it concrete? Did they postulate God or did they see Him? Were the earliest expedients nothing but expedients or did they include reasonings, religious or artistic cravings? Were they rational or irrational? Was early science wholly practical and mercenary? Was it pure science, such as it was, or a mixture of science with art, religion, or magic?

Such queries are futile, because they lack determination and the answers cannot be verified. It is better to leave out for the nonce the consideration of science as science, and to consider only definite problems and their solutions. The problems can be imagined, because we know the needs of man; he must be able to feed himself and his family, to find a shelter against the inclemencies of the weather, the attacks of wild beast or fellow men, and so on. Our imaginations are not arbitrary, for they are guided by a large number of observed facts. To begin with, archaeologic investigations reveal monuments which help us to realize the kind of objects and tools that our forefathers created and even to understand their methods of using them, and to guess their intentions. The study of languages brings to light ancient words which are like fossil witnesses of early objects or early ideas. Anthropologists have made us familiar with the manners and customs of primitive men who were living under their own eyes. Finally, psychologists have analyzed the reactions of children or of undeveloped minds in the face of the very problems that primitive men had to solve. The amount of information thus obtained from several directions is so large that a scholar's life is too short to encompass it. There is no place here for a review of it, however brief, but only for a few hints.

In order to simplify our task a little, let us assume that the primitive men we are dealing with have already solved some of the most urgent problems, for otherwise their very existence would have remained precarious, not to speak of their progress, material or spiritual. Let us assume that they have discovered how to make a fire and have learned the rudiments of husbandry. They are already — that is, some of them are — learned people and technicians, and they may already be speaking of the good old days when life was more dangerous but simpler and a man did not have to remember so many things. I say "speaking," for by this time they have certainly developed a language, though they are still unable to write it; indeed, they are still unconscious of the possibility of doing so. At this stage, and for a long time to come, writing is neither essential nor necessary. Our own culture is so closely dependent on writing that it requires some effort to imagine one independent of it. Man can go very far without writing, but not without language. Language is the bedrock upon which any culture is built. In the course of time it becomes the richest treasure house of that culture.

One of the greatest mysteries of life is that the languages of even the most primitive peoples, languages that have never been reduced to writing (except by anthropologists), are extremely complex. How did those languages develop as they did? The development was very largely unconscious and casual.

Our reference to investigations made today by field anthropologists is sufficient warning that when we speak of the dawn of science or of any prehistoric period we are not thinking in terms of a chronologic scale of universal application. There is no such scale. The dawn of science occurred ten thousand years ago or more in certain parts of the world; it can still be witnessed in other parts today; and irrespective of place we can observe it to some extent in the mind of any child.


Let us consider rapidly the multitude of technical problems that early men had to solve if they wished to survive, and, later, to improve their condition and to lighten the burden of life. They had to invent the making of fire and experiment with it in various ways. Not only the husbandman but also the nomad needed many tools, for cutting and carving, flaying, abrading, smoothing, crushing, for the making of holes, for grasping and joining. Each tool was a separate invention, or rather the opening up of a new series of inventions, for each was susceptible of improvements which would be introduced one by one. In early times there was already room for key inventions, which might be applied to an endless group of separate problems and which ushered in unlimited possibilities. For example, there was the general problem of how to devise a handle and how to attach it firmly to a given tool. Many different solutions were found for that problem, one of the most ingenious being that of the Eskimos and Northern Indians, namely, the use of babiche (strings or thongs of rawhide) by means of which the tool and handle are bound together; as the hide dries it shrinks almost to half its length and the two objects are inseparable. A tighter fit could hardly be obtained otherwise.

The husbandman had to discover the useful plants one by one — plants to use as food, or as drugs, or for other domestic purposes — and this implied innumerable experiments. It was not enough for him to discover a plant; he had to select among infinite variations the best modalities of its use. He had to capture animals and to domesticate the very few that were domesticable, to build houses and granaries, to make receptacles of various kinds. There must have been somewhere a first potter, but the potter's art involved the conscious or unconscious cooperation of thousands of people. Heavy loads had to be lifted and transported, sometimes to great distances. How could that be done? Well, it had to be done and it was done. Ingenious people invented the lever, the simple pulley, the use of rollers, and later, much later, that of wheels. A potter of genius applied the wheel to his own art. How could a man cover his body to protect it from the cold or the rain or the burning sun? The use of hides was one solution, the use of leaves or bark another, but nothing equaled the materials obtained by the weaving of certain fibres. When this idea occurred to a great inventor, the textile industry was born. The earliest tools were made of stone or bones; when the practical value of metals was finally realized it became worth while to dig for their ores and to smelt them, to combine them in various ways; this was the beginning of mining and metallurgy. Each of the sentences of this paragraph could easily be expanded into a treatise.

In order to illustrate the almost uncanny ingenuity of "primitive" people, it may suffice to display the three following examples, taken in three parts of the world very distant from each other. The Australian boomerang is so well known that it hardly requires discussion; it is a missile weapon the curved shape of which is so cunningly devised that the weapon when thrown describes extraordinary curves and may even return to the sender. The South American tipiti is an elastic plaited cylinder of jacitara-palm bark which is used to express the juice of the cassava (or manioc); as the cylinder is lengthened, by the weight of a stone or otherwise, the internal pressure increases and the juice flows out. This invention is admirable in its simplicity and effectiveness, but what is more astonishing is that the Indians were able to discover the great nutritive value of cassava. The juice contains a deadly substance (hydrocyanic acid) which must be removed by cooking; otherwise, the consumer would be killed instead of nourished. How did the Indians find the treasure which could be enjoyed only after the poison spoiling it had been removed? My third example is the li [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a tripod used in China in prehistoric times. It is a three-legged cooking pot, the legs of which are shaped like cows' udders; various foods may be cooked in each leg with a single fire burning in the middle.

These examples might easily be multiplied. Selected as they have been in three corners of the world as remote from one another as could be, they illustrate the wide distribution of genius. We well know that whatever amount of civilization we enjoy today is the gift of many nations; we do not know so well that the same was already true thousands of years ago. Prehistorians have proved beyond doubt the existence of sophisticated cultures at very early times in many places. This does not disprove the monogenesis of mankind. It is highly probable that the new species Homo sapiens originated in a single place, but so long ago that by the time at which the earliest observable cultures flourished man had already invaded a good part of the world.


Travel was much slower and more difficult in the past than it is now, and one might be tempted to conclude that primitive man moved very little and did not rove far away from his hiding place. That conclusion would be wrong. To begin with, we may observe that the speed of communication did not increase materially until the steam age, a century ago. Primitive people could move as fast as Napoleon's soldiers; sometimes they moved much faster. It is now generally agreed that there was considerable travel, individual and tribal (migrations), in the earliest days that scientific research can reach. For example, the Americas were discovered and colonized thousands of years ago by people coming over from Siberia and crossing the Bering Strait region; every American Indian is ultimately of Asiatic origin. The migrations were probably more frequent and more abundant in the oldest prehistoric periods before the invention of the agricultural arts, for as soon as people mastered those arts they became naturally more sedentary and more timid.

The passage from nomadic to settled life was perhaps the most pregnant step up in the whole history of mankind. That passage was far more important than the ones from stone to bronze or from bronze to iron; it might be called the passage from food gathering to food producing. Man could not settle down for life in any one place until he was secure from enemies, and this implied association with other men and some kind of government, nor until he was secure from want, and this implied the possibility of obtaining in the neighborhood enough food for himself, his family, and his beasts; it implied the arts and the folklore of agriculture. It has been remarked above that the development of mankind does not synchronize everywhere. Some people are more advanced than others, nor do they all pass through the same stages. The passage from nomadic to settled life occurred many millennia ago in some places, yet it has not been completed today by the Arab Bedouins. Man always was the child of circumstances, and since his environment varied enormously from place to place, he was bound to develop differently in different regions.

Men who had learned to cultivate the land were gradually blessed (and cursed) with the ownership of more and more things and bound to the soil by more and more ties. As to their nomadic brethren, roving in search of better hunting or fishing, they might come back periodically to the same grounds, but there was nothing save habit and incipient domestication to oblige them to do so. The real nomads kept moving on without retracing their steps and were likely to cover immense distances.

The distinction between settled people, seminomads, and nomads is generally made with regard to people moving on land, but it applies equally well to those moving on water. No savages have ever been found near water who were not able to navigate it, but some of them were more settled than others, and some were regular sea rovers. The canoe is probably one of the oldest inventions of man, older than the bow; in favored places, where canoes were especially needed and materials for making them were handy, they were invented perhaps as early as thirty thousand years ago. Seaworthy ships came later, yet so early that deep-sea navigation reached a climax many millennia ago. According to the Norwegian archaeologist Anton Wilhelm Brøgger, there was a golden age of oceanic navigation during the period roughly defined as 3000 to 1500 B.C., that is, before the days of Phoenician navigation. This is an archaeological interpolation, but its plausibility is confirmed from many sides. Sailing appealed to early men as it does to the young and strong of every time, and there are few fields wherein their inventiveness appeared more brilliantly. In this field, as in every other, it was not a matter of one invention but of a thousand, and the complete story would be endless. Among the masterpieces of primitive technology we may mention the wooden outrigger canoe of the South Seas, the Irish curragh (or coracle), the Eskimo dory-shaped umiak and their watertight kayak.

The early inhabitants of the northwestern European shores were not afraid of exploring the foggy and tempestuous Atlantic, and the South Sea islanders navigated the Pacific in every direction. For example, Polynesians did not hesitate to sail their canoes from Tahiti to Hawaii, a distance of 2400 nautical miles.

As to primitive commerce, there are many witnesses to it, one of the clearest being the relics of the amber trade. The best-known kind of amber (succinite) is a natural product of the Baltic shores, but pieces of it have been found in prehistoric tombs scattered in so many places that it has been possible to draw maps of the prehistoric amber routes. As amber was very valuable and easy to transport, Scandinavians were able to obtain in exchange for it many goods of the southern regions, which had been favored by nature and were more advanced. Trade, then as now, was one of the main occasions of intercourse, one of the vehicles of civilization.

In the Stone Age the special value of flints for tools was soon realized, and good flints, breaking with sharp edges, were not found everywhere. The existence of flint quarries and of an international flint trade has been proved repeatedly. Alluvial gold must have been observed and collected very early and used for ornaments. The first ores to be exploited were probably sulfides of copper and antimony, both of which are very easily reducible, and thus copper and antimony were discovered. When grains of cassiterite were reduced, tin was obtained, and one of the first metallurgic geniuses had the idea of alloying a little tin with copper and thus obtaining a new metal, bronze, much harder and more serviceable than copper. Wherever that discovery was made or introduced, the Stone Age was followed by a Bronze Age. Later, other inventors found means of reducing the most fusible of the iron ores and the Iron Age began.


Excerpted from ANCIENT SCIENCE THROUGH THE GOLDEN AGE OF GREECE by George Sarton. Copyright © 1980 May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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