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“This book is a jewel.”
What did the Romans know about their world? Quite a lot, as Daryn Lehoux makes clear in this fascinating and much-needed contribution to the history and philosophy of ancient science. Lehoux contends that even though many of the Romans’ views about the natural world have no place in modern science—the umbrella-footed monsters and dog-headed people that roamed the earth and the stars that foretold human destinies—their claims turn out not to be ...
What did the Romans know about their world? Quite a lot, as Daryn Lehoux makes clear in this fascinating and much-needed contribution to the history and philosophy of ancient science. Lehoux contends that even though many of the Romans’ views about the natural world have no place in modern science—the umbrella-footed monsters and dog-headed people that roamed the earth and the stars that foretold human destinies—their claims turn out not to be so radically different from our own.
Lehoux draws upon a wide range of sources from what is unquestionably the most prolific period of ancient science, from the first century BC to the second century AD. He begins with Cicero’s theologico-philosophical trilogy On the Nature of the Gods, On Divination, and On Fate, illustrating how Cicero’s engagement with nature is closely related to his concerns in politics, religion, and law. Lehoux then guides readers through highly technical works by Galen and Ptolemy, as well as the more philosophically oriented physics and cosmologies of Lucretius, Plutarch, and Seneca, all the while exploring the complex interrelationships between the objects of scientific inquiry and the norms, processes, and structures of that inquiry. This includes not only the tools and methods the Romans used to investigate nature, but also the Romans’ cultural, intellectual, political, and religious perspectives. Lehoux concludes by sketching a methodology that uses the historical material he has carefully explained to directly engage the philosophical questions of incommensurability, realism, and relativism.
By situating Roman arguments about the natural world in their larger philosophical, political, and rhetorical contexts, What Did the Romans Know? demonstrates that the Romans had sophisticated and novel approaches to nature, approaches that were empirically rigorous, philosophically rich, and epistemologically complex.
— Michael H. Shank
— Caroline Bishop, Washington University in St. Louis
— Edith Hall
To paraphrase an old saw: What's in a world?
Atoms, aprons, artichokes, and aardvarks: everything. But in another sense, no isolated things: atoms are divided and combined into smaller and bigger entities at one and the same time. Artichokes evolve in ecosystems. Everything is particulate, everything part of bigger wholes, and change is everywhere all the time. Somewhere in that tangle we find ourselves observing and putting it all together, making sense.
We could have done it differently. Indeed, on one way of looking at it, the history of the sciences is virtually a catalogue of different ways of doing it—not all of them successful in the end (but then we should ask what "successful" means and how the qualification "in the end" matters). In this book, I propose an argument that science (a term which I acknowledge to be a loaded one when speaking about antiquity) is best understood to be happening, as the Romans would say, in medias res: in the middle of things. Facts make sense—indeed, may only crystallize as facts—within a very large web of ... of what, exactly? Of preexisting knowledge about the world, to be sure; but facts also situate themselves within a far-reaching social and cultural milieu, not to mention the many interrelationships facts have with our firsthand experiences of the world (which also implicates our basic apparatus for having those experiences: our perceptual and cognitive systems), and we should not forget the important grounding that facts have in the overarching philosophical, mathematical, and/or logical background against which standards of accuracy, truth, and acceptability are framed. Here the magnitude of the problem threatens to overwhelm. Like Jonathan Swift's fleas, the contexts of science have contexts that have contexts that have contexts.
So how can we situate facts in any finite way? Clearly we cannot map out every last detail of every last connection, of every idea, of every last bit of observational evidence, of every logical or ontological framework, that allow a body of facts to make sense. We can, though, have a close look at the most significant of those interconnections to see how they work and what they imply about how we understand the world around us.
In this book I propose to use the historical study of a very remote period, that of Rome from the first century BC to the second century AD, as a focal field to pick up on three prominent threads in recent debates: these are what we might most loosely call the historical, intellectual, and experiential contexts of fact-making. Under these very broad headings, we will look at (among other things) the ethical, political, cultural, and educational contexts of the sciences at Rome and most particularly their interrelationships with intellectual factors (cognitive, comparative, taxonomic), in order to show how these shape and are shaped by experiences of the world. I ask an old-fashioned question about how we understand observation. But instead of drawing the old-fashioned hard-and-fast line between something called "observation" and something called "theory," I argue that we need to look at the domains in which observation is being situated, understood, and processed, because that is where the world we perceive gets put together as a coherent whole.
This book accordingly focuses on the twin strands of how facts come to be, and where they stand in relation to the larger world in which they find themselves. Because of its sometimes rather extreme foreignness, ancient science in general promises to be a fruitful ground in which to examine these foundational questions in the history and philosophy of the sciences. This is not as paradoxical a claim as it may look to be at first, as the very different ways we find of framing discourses about the natural world in antiquity can shed a revealing light on otherwise invisible assumptions and problems in the modern debates, and, at the same time, the modern debates shed some much-needed light on our categorization and understanding of the ancient sciences. History informs philosophy and philosophy history.
In the case of Roman sciences in particular, though, the question finds itself in doubly sharp relief, as the very category of "Roman science" may need to be established in the first place. To many, just the invocation of the phrase Roman science will look like an oxymoron: the Greeks did science and the Romans did technology, or administration, or empire: Aristotle versus aqueducts. What science the Romans did have was really Greek science. The Romans were, at best, "popularizers and encyclopedists," to borrow a subheading from a standard textbook. Even if we try to claim for the Romans more innovation than this picture allows, even if we think some of them did some pretty good science, we are still faced with the fact that the science they were doing was largely indebted to Greek science, and there is a perfectly good word for it: Hellenistic. But is this all we can say about the science we find at Rome—that it is just a warmed-over Greek science? The answer I give in this book is: emphatically not. Not only is there more to the science that the Romans did have, but there are important aspects of what is usually thought of as Hellenistic science that are unique and distinctively Roman contributions.
To get stuck on the Greek roots of the Roman sciences is to put too much emphasis on beginnings: to ask where the Romans got their sciences from and then to run back to that source as though chasing a hare through the brush in order to find out where it lives. It lives, in fact, right where we saw it: out in the fields and forests. It may have been born in a hole underground, it may run back there when flushed, but that is not where it "lives" except perhaps in the superficial and idiomatic sense of "where it sleeps." Similarly, Greek science did not stay Greek for long. It ventured out into the great wide world and it changed.
By the first century BC, when the story of this book begins, and for hundreds of years after that, Greece was in a complex and difficult set of cultural and political relationships with a dominant culture very unlike itself, that of Rome. Over the previous century and a half or so, the Romans had gained increasing authority and eventually dominion over the entirety of the Greek-speaking world. But even as we say this, the words of Horace ring inevitably in our ears: captured Greece took its great conqueror captive as well, bringing in its train a host of already highly developed sciences, philosophies, and aesthetics.
In that light, what would it mean for a Roman science to be Roman? Sometimes the answer is relatively easy, but potentially thin. What, for example, do we make of Lucretius' great De rerum natura, written in Latin but for the express purpose of explaining a Greek philosopher to a Roman audience and, as has recently been stressed, of addressing contemporary Roman social and political ills—mostly Greek in philosophical content, perhaps, but Roman in form and context? I argue in this book that form and context matter considerably, particularly when the larger frames (ethics, politics, religion) begin to indelibly shape the content as well. To take another example, consider Cicero's massively influential Dream of Scipio. Again in Latin, again for a Roman audience, but this time only very loosely modeled on a Greek original (the "myth of Er" at the end of Plato's Republic). For his part, Cicero, like Pliny the Elder and many other Latin authors, did not see themselves as merely commenting on, clarifying, or popularizing Greek originals. They saw themselves as building on them, and building something considerable at that. To quote Cicero,
non quia philosophia Graecis et litteris et doctoribus percipi non posset, sed meum semper iudicium fuit omnia nostros aut invenisse per se sapientius quam Graecos aut accepta ab illis fecisse meliora.
[I]t is not that one could not learn philosophy from Greek writings and teachers, but it has always been my opinion that we Romans found out everything for ourselves more wisely than the Greeks did, or else improved the things we got from the Greeks.
A Roman World
Cicero's opinion notwithstanding, the reputation of Roman philosophy has certainly had its ups and downs over the centuries. The importance of Cicero and Seneca for early modern philosophy, for example, is difficult to overstate. But then their influence peaked, only to hit a low ebb beginning with the Hellenophilia of the Romantics and continuing through most of the twentieth century. Roman philosophers were thereafter often seen either as simply derivative or degenerate, or as little more than sources for the mining of the ideas of the Hellenistic greats, raw ore from which to refine the lost Chrysippus, Posidonius, or Epicurus. In the last twenty years or so, though, the reputation of Roman philosophy has been on a well-deserved upswing. We now have essay collections and monographs dedicated to the question as a whole, or to individual Roman thinkers, and philosophy at Rome is looking considerably less derivative and considerably more interesting in both content and social setting than it has looked for many decades.
Many of the texts we will look at in this book are written in Latin by ethnic natives of the Italian mainland. Some Latin authors are from farther afield in the empire, and others fall somewhere in between. Still others have fallen prey to the centuries, so that we know nothing of their places of origin. But even Roman writers do not always stick to Latin. Rome's very first historian, Quintus Fabius Pictor, writes in Greek, and does so as far back as the late third century BC, which shows how very early Greek cultural influences were bearing on upper-class Romans. Many Roman philosophers also write in Greek, at least partly out of a feeling that Latin was inadequate for the task of philosophy. In the primary period covered by this book, Cicero, Lucretius, and Seneca all somewhat stubbornly make a point of writing in Latin, and each of them shows acute awareness of the difficulties of writing philosophy in their native tongue (indeed, the astrologer Firmicus Maternus was still openly worried about Latin's adequacy as late as the fourth century AD). Cicero, for example, frequently sees the need to coin new words and sometimes has to stretch Latin syntax to make a point that may have been easier, or at least more familiar to his readers, in Greek. (The range and longevity of many of the new words coined by Cicero are frequently commented on by modern scholars, and even a partial list—of just the English words whose roots he gave us when he Latinized Greek philosophy—is indeed remarkable: moral, quality, evidence, convenience, indifference, essence, humanity.)
Other authors treated in this book are not, however, ethnically Latin, nor do they even write in Latin. They are Greeks, writing in Greek—so why call their science Roman? One reason for doing so is in order to draw attention to the historical, social, and cultural loci in which science is happening. This approach readily acknowledges the fact that often the bearers of the science that the Romans had access to were not themselves Romans. We need to remember, though, that the Greeks who brought their sciences to the Romans were not dead Greeks, but living individuals who came physically to Rome, who corresponded with Romans, who were the beneficiaries of Roman patronage at home or abroad. Science as the Romans knew it came on the lips of and in the books brought by these foreigners. It crystallized for Romans in conversation and debate with them and with each other. And the cultural, political, rhetorical, and social contexts in which that exchange was happening were those of the dominant power, of Rome. What we might loosely call funding structures, negotiations of prestige, career advancement, networks, publication, performance—all of these happened in the Roman cultural arena. Almost none of the main Greek authors treated in this book "stayed home." The career of the great physician Galen is a perfect example. Born to an aristocratic Greek family around AD 130 in Roman-ruled Pergamum (Asia Minor), Galen studied medicine, philosophy, and rhetoric there before continuing his studies at Smyrna, Corinth, and Alexandria, in a kind of second-century educational "grand tour." He then took up a thoroughly Roman position back at Pergamum: he became a physician to the gladiators. But it is only with his big career move in AD 161 that Galen really jumps into the heart of things and begins his monumental climb out of provincial obscurity: Galen goes to Rome.
In Rome, Galen entered the fray of competition with his fellow physicians in earnest. One can read his delightfully self-promoting little book, the Prognosis, as a story of his being recommended from one important patron to another, moving higher and higher in the Roman social order with a series of very successful (and if we are to believe him, much talked-about) cures. His frequent and popular anatomical performances at Rome were an important part of his claims to knowledge, authority, and prestige, and they are part of a much larger cultural trend in the second-century empire that prized virtuoso rhetorical performances—part of the cultural wave now called the "second sophistic." But the anatomies were not his only public displays of virtuosity. We see him practicing his medicine in an environment very different from the relative privacy of the modern doctor's office. We often find Galen consulting with patients in the midst of (sometimes fierce) competitors, as well as among the family and friends of the sick person. He visits the deathly ill philosopher Eudemus frequently, and he is almost always, it seems, in company. The medical advice Galen gives Eudemus is not only talked about among his competitors, but is actually given in their presence.15 When Galen heals Eudemus successfully, the effect is both public and spectacular, for Eudemus then praises Galen to all of his visitors (and visiting as a social institution is worth remarking on as an important part of the formalized Roman social networks known as patronage and amicitia). Eudemus recommends Galen to powerful acquaintances and Galen begins doing the rounds of upper-class Roman households, curing one patient after another (again, in the public eye).
Galen relates the story of his cure of Diomedes the rhetorician, who even "the most renowned" of the court physicians could not help. He gives us his great feats of deduction: The case of the insomniac woman (who turned out to be secretly infatuated with a dancer); The case of the rich man's slave (who was ill from fear of the auditor); The case of the ex-consul's son (who was sneaking untimely food). How did Galen do it? [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], he says to his dedicatee, which one could almost translate as "Elementary, my dear Epigenes"—it would at least capture Galen's powerful rhetorical development of mystery and danger culminating in dramatic revelation and successful resolution.
Similarly, Galen offers a highly dramatized version of his cure of the ex-consul Flavius Boethus' wife, who had a complicated "female flux" that baffled all the most prestigious doctors. The upshot of this famous case, Galen tells us, is that he was recommended by Boethus even to the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, himself. Galen had, we might almost literally say, arrived at the very heart of the empire. From this point on, Galen's narrative in the Prognosis never once loses sight of the imperial court, as though the rest of his future were determined by the very important persons whose names he so casually begins dropping. Eventually serving at the courts of three successive emperors, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Septimius Severus, Galen was clearly very successful in the cutthroat social and philosophical competition of the imperial capital. His public displays, his speeches, his debates, his published books, none of these can be fully understood without keeping one eye on them as deliberate moves in the power game as it was played at Rome in the second century AD. Galen was born a Greek, to be sure, but his success in the imperial capital shows his career to have been thoroughly shaped by the city of Rome, its intellectual culture, its politics, its rhetoric, its patronage.
Excerpted from WHAT DID THE ROMANS KNOW? AN INQUIRY INTO SCIENCE AND WORLDMAKING by DARYN LEHOUX Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1. The Web of Knowledge
A Roman World
A Roman World
Knowing Nature in the Roman Context
2. Nature, Gods, and Governance
Divinity and Divination
Nature and the Legitimation of the Republic
A Ciceronian Contradiction?
Knowledge of Nature and Virtuous Action
Fabulae versus Learned Observation
3. Law in Nature, Nature in Law
Laws of Nature
Human and Divine Governance
Is a “Law of Nature” Even Possible in Antiquity?
4. Epistemology and Judicial Rhetoric
Theory-Ladenness and Observation
Observations as Models
Examination of Witnesses
The Natural Authority of Morals
Declamation and Certainty
5. The Embeddedness of Seeing
Doubts about Vision
Mechanisms of Seeing in Antiquity
The Eyes as Organs
Not Every Black Box Is a Camera Obscura
Epistemologies of Seeing
The Centrality of Experience
6. The Trouble with Taxa
Knowledge Claims and Context-Dependence
Problems with Experience
The Lab Section of the Chapter
The Question of Worlds
7. The Long Reach of Ontology
Four Kinds of Justification for Prediction
Predictability and Determinism
Physical Solutions to Determinism
The Cascading Effect
8. Dreams of a Final Theory
Explaining the Cosmos
Orbs, Souls, Laws
Numbers in Nature
Harmony and Empiricism
9. Of Miracles and Mistaken Theories
History as a Problem for Realism
Quantum Magnum PI?
Can We Avoid the Problems History Poses?
First Strategy: We Have Something They Didn’t
Second Strategy: The Curate’s Egg
Other Ways Out
10. Worlds Given, Worlds Made
What’s in a World?
What Good Is Relativism?
Truth and Meaning
Realism, Coherence, and History
Appendix: Lemma to the Mirror Problem