Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

What Did the Romans Know? an Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

What Did the Romans Know? an Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking

Article excerpt

What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking. By Daryn Lehoux. University of Chicago Press. 288pp, Pounds 29.00. ISBN 9780226471143. Published 23 March 2012

In the Upper Midwest, "What do you know?" generates the reply "Not much. You?" From the Romans, historians of science typically get a similar answer: "warmed-over Greek science". Daryn Lehoux offers a better answer and new questions. No mere catalogue of accomplishments, his multifaceted book brilliantly rethinks both the Roman and our own approaches to the cosmos.

Lehoux paints the Roman universe (1st century BC to 2nd century AD) as more coherent and intriguing than the potted version, both more akin to our own and more alien. We resonate with their emphasis on laws of nature, but not with a worldview that intertwines nature, ethics, divination and gods, or uses antipathy to explain that garlic neutralises magnets. He goes on to grapple with the epistemo-logical problems that surface when we juxtapose their world and ours: these puzzles become grist to his philosophical mill. Overall, his book beautifully models a sensitive approach to alien science and a philosophical stance that confronts our tensions with it.

Early on, Lehoux uses Cicero's discussion of divination to document his deep appreciation for the way cosmic order and beauty undergird ethical behaviour in politics and religion (proper action towards the gods). This legal and ethical framework shows why "law of nature" is a concept central to Roman, not Greek, understandings of the Universe. I was almost persuaded. Even without legal language, is not Aristotle's universe law- like? Its causes produce the same effects forever.

When discussing the 2nd century AD, Lehoux showcases Ptolemy and Galen. He is at pains to reckon as Roman science their fundamental (Greek) works on the mathematical sciences and medicine. Admittedly, Galen's trajectory from Pergamon ended in Rome, which also ruled Ptolemy's Alexandria. Yet this taxonomy surely gives the Roman legions too much cultural credit. Centuries before their arrival, Alexandria nourished groundbreaking Greek work in the mathematical and medical sciences.

That said, Lehoux's analyses of this material are highly illuminating. …

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