Ancient Technocrats

The Muses at Work

edited by Carl Roebuck
MIT, 294 pp., $12.50

Technology in the Ancient World

by Henry Hodges
Knopf, 287 pp., $10.00

Moving the Obelisks

by Bern Dibner
MIT, 61 pp., $2.95 (paper)

The Ancient Engineers

by L. Sprague de Camp
MIT, 408 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Agricultural Implements of the Roman World

by K. D. White
Cambridge, 232 pp., $15.00

Roman Farming

by K. D. White
Cornell, 536 pp., $12.50

The Muses began their long career as vague minor spirits whom old Greek poets such as Hesiod invoked for inspiration. But when mythology fell into the hands of the learned, the Muses became fixed in number (nine) and they acquired individuality, with personal names and specialized spheres of activity. The Hellenistic and late Roman pedants did not altogether agree on the details but they were in full accord over which activities were appropriate to inspiration—poetry, music, the dance, historiography, and, for Urania, astronomy (really mathematics).

Nothing could therefore be more misconceived than to call a book about the “arts, crafts and professions of ancient Greece and Rome” The Muses at Work. The two final sections are devoted to music and dancing, but what they are doing in this collection I can’t imagine, preceded as they are by eight chapters, each by a different author, on public buildings, bronze working, stone sculpture, pottery, farming, trading, and sailing. None of these ever had a Muse, and, what is much more to the point, a Greek would have been appalled at the suggestion. The ancient scheme of values was summed up epigrammatically in a brilliant book by Edgar Zilsel, Die Entstehung des Geniebegriffes (The Origin of the Idea of Genius), published in 1926 and largely neglected ever since: “Only the tongue was inspired by the gods, never the hand.”

Whether or not the neglect of Zilsel’s work may be attributed to the fact that he was only a professor in a Volkshochschule in Vienna I shouldn’t care to say. Nor do I know who is responsible for the title The Muses at Work. What matters is that, to judge from their text, the individual authors are unlikely to be disturbed. Of course, being professional students of classical antiquity in various American universities and museums, they know that their beloved Greeks and Romans didn’t rate the artist as high as cultivated moderns do. So they ignore the point, or try to put it in the best light, returning as quickly as possible to the important business at hand of describing techniques in a rudimentary way, being chatty and gossipy and picturesque as is deemed to befit public lectures, and pointing to ultimate values: “The pottery of ancient Greece, now scattered throughout the world, stands as a witness to an era of perfection in the union of technique and beauty.”

There is another, equally useless approach, and that is to take an angry line. Henry Hodges is a prehistorian, not a classicist, a specialist in early technology at the University of London, and a man who knows exactly where his subject falls in the scheme of values. Larger and better shipping, he tells us in his Technology in the Ancient World, enabled the Greeks to defeat the Persians and

…brought the Greeks into far closer contact with the people of the Near East than they had ever been before. From them they learned little that did them any good …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

A Paradox Resolved October 7, 1971