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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.”1

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, for their newly acquired wealth added impetus to a social change that had already begun to take place. Soon we read of slaves being used to row Greek shipping. From then on the social structure of Greece became more and more similar to that of the Orient. Very soon all industrial enterprise was based upon slavery, a state of affairs that Greek philosophers bent over backward attempting to justify.

As history this is as inaccurate as it is philistine. Its interest lies solely in its automatic assumption that contemporary values are universal.

That is a danger that lures everyone who presumes to study the past, and especially the more distant past. I have the firm impression, however, that the trap is entered more unthinkingly than usual whenever technology is the subject. Technology is a very touchy subject for middle- and upper-class intellectuals these days. Jeremiads flow from the pen and the typewriter, but astonishingly little in the way of serious, reliable investigation in depth into the change that has overtaken us within no more than a century and at an ever accelerating pace.

The surface manifestations are pretty well documented, and so is the failure to change the surface surface by operating only at surface level. Beneath there is a remarkable paradox. On the one hand, the early twentieth century was the first time in history when a majority of the population in the advanced Western countries was not directly and personally engaged in techniques and technical processes, but in management, paper work, distribution, and publicity. As C. Wright Mills phrased it, “Fewer individuals manipulate things, and more handle people and symbols.”

On the other hand, the separation from technique has been accompanied by a marked upward valuation of technology precisely on the part of the people who no longer participate in it directly or even understand it. Plato had more knowledge, appreciation, and understanding of the tools and processes of the craftsman, whom he admired so long as the latter recognized his lowly place in the scale of values, than present-day apostles of unrelenting economic growth and productivity. (We may, I must admit, be entering a new phase in which the white-collar worker will have to become a technologist again, a computer technologist, but it is too early to assess the implications.)

At a colloquium in which I participated last summer, a distinguished historian of science protested that historians in general, including those who specialize in the history of ideas, restrict their scientific reading, even within the periods they are studying, to the prefaces of scientific treatises. The criticism can be amply documented, yet one has sympathy. The increasing complexity of scientific ideas has gone hand in hand with increasing specialization among the learned and hence with an increasing divorce from, and ignorance of, science on the part of the non-scientist. Perhaps that is why the history of technology remains the preserve of the amateur, who collects data like butterflies and asks no questions beyond the external and the superficial ones. How was clay thrown on a potter’s wheel? How was bronze cast by the Greeks? How did an ancient Greek transport heavy marble blocks from the quarry to the building site, or Italian engineers move an Egyptian obelisk 275 yards to the Vatican in 1586?

These are essential questions, but they are in themselves trivial unless one goes on to the significant ones—the uses of technique and resistance to it, the social implications, its place in a value system, and so on. And that is one point at which the amateur reveals himself; he fails to see the distinction between different orders of statement, as in the following pairs, each taken from a single page, the first by Ann Knudsen Khalil, author of the chapter on music in the Muses volume, the second by L. Sprague de Camp in The Ancient Engineers.

I A. “A number of vases show men in satyr costumes, sometimes all playing accompaniments to their own singing.”

B. “In the following year, 404 B.C., Athens had fallen to conservative Sparta; both music and criticism suffered.”

II A. Pericles “spent the Delian treasury on a huge program of building.”

B. Pericles “was a ruthless imperialist, though that was not then considered wrong.”

Statements of type A are simple statements of fact, which, if the evidence is available, can usually be shown to be true or false. (That II A is false is irrelevant to my present argument.) Statements of type B, in contrast, are exceedingly complex, involving difficult questions of definition, of relationships, of historical causation, rarely if ever “provable.” They require a different tone of voice, a different method of argument, a different marshaling of the evidence, and they don’t get them in the amateur works under consideration.

I trust it is clear that I am not speaking of an “amateur” in an occupational sense, though that is apparently the case with both Dibner and de Camp, the latter a prolific writer of historical novels, science fiction, and “fantasies” (twenty-six titles under these headings are listed in the present volume). Most of the authors hold posts in universities or museums and are fully professional in their own specialties, such as prehistoric technology or Greek architecture. It is as historians that they are amateurs because then they flout the accepted canons that control the procedures, as in every craft or discipline, without which historiography can neither proceed nor develop.

The rules are not arbitrary, unlike the rules of a game, but are logically imposed by the objectives of the activity. Current efforts to find a new tie-breaking formula in tennis are determined by the spectator’s enjoyment; no question of right or wrong, truth or falsity, no question of explanation enters. The historian, however, seeks to connect things, and to explain the connection—war and culture, imperialism and public building, to repeat the examples in the propositions I quoted above—and for that activity the rules do not hinge on the pleasures given to either historians or their readers.

A second test can be applied when distant ages are being studied, and that is the ability to assess statements made by ancient writers. Hodges congratulates the Romans because, though they shared the Greek contempt for artisanship, they at least “did not hold technology in such disdain that they refrained from writing about it.” He cites as evidence the geographer Strabo, who actually wrote in Greek, and Pliny’s Natural History. He might have looked more closely at the latter’s dedication to the emperor Vespasian; Pliny begins by saying that this is a “new kind of work” for a Roman, and goes on to promise that he will cover everything “which the Greeks call a general education,” retaining the last two words in the Greek original (from which we derive “encyclopaedia”).

When, as is the case with the Greeks and Romans, so much of the literary evidence is belletristic, its employment is further complicated by the need to appreciate precisely the traditions behind each writer, as with the elder Pliny, and the aesthetic, social, and political conventions pressing in upon him. The earlier writers he himself read may have been technical as well as literary, and most are now lost (as Dorothy Kent Hill forgets in a strange lapse in The Muses at Work: “The ancient mind did not consider details of craftsmanship a fitting subject for books”).

Assessment is not easy. De Camp writes: “Periclean Athens harbored plenty of philosophers, but most of these were not scientifically inclined. Even the great Socrates was anti-scientific” on the evidence of a remark by Cicero nearly 400 years later. But Cicero was basing himself on Xenophon’s Memorabilia, written in the generation after the death of Socrates, when there was sharp polemical discussion in intellectual circles about the rights and wrongs of the trial of Socrates, to which Xenophon contributed by arguing tendentiously that Socrates had been confused with the scientist-philosophers although he himself had no interest in astronomy and could not therefore have been blasphemous as alleged about the nature of the sun.

So far as we can tell, the young Socrates had been interested in the science of his day; only later did he become the leader in turning philosophy away from cosmology to ethics. To label him “anti-scientific” injects a false note. At issue was the hierarchy of values, a decision about ranking (not pro or anti), subtly linked (explicitly so in Plato) with hierarchical social values. The relevance to an account of ancient engineers from the Egyptians to Leonardo is not evident until there is a further examination, not offered, of the impact of philosophers on the technicians themselves, on the choices determining the flow of creative energies into the different activities carried on within the society.

Perhaps it is only a personal predilection, but I am prepared to argue that it is more, when I assert that the social psychology of early technology is the most interesting and the most significant aspect of its study. I do not deny the fascination of pinning butterflies in glass boxes, or the indispensability of getting the raw data right. Before completing his detailed study of Roman agriculture—a thoroughly professional work—K. D. White published his scrupulous illustrated catalogue of agricultural implements, having combed both the written evidence and the archaeological finds from all parts of the Roman empire. Both books are technical and they fill a notorious gap in the literature on ancient Rome. But I have little doubt that the non-specialist will center his attention on the final short chapter of Roman Farming, “Progress and Limitations in Technique,” and he will be right.

Nowhere, I believe, does our world differ more from the Graeco-Roman than in the judgments involved in that chapter title, with consequences that far transcend the narrow sense of “psychological.” Virgil offers a paradigm, the Virgil of the Georgics rather than of the Aeneid. In a tradition that goes back to the poet’s own day, Grundy Steiner begins his chapter on farming in the Muses book with Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Virgil’s Georgics, and he closes with Xenophon:

Finally, the handbooks from antiquity testify to the importance of technical knowledge. The authors clearly know their subject well; all are obviously men of means; all seem to write with the flush of success as they prescribe how to farm profitably. If this is a true estimate, these authors are appropriate successors to Xenophon’s tree planters and sowers who were ready to share their skills. And of course they are part of the continuing tradition of agricultural education exemplified by experimental stations, schools, the Peace Corps and all other training missions still active in every part of the modern world.

Just what the Peace Corps has to do with the slave gangs who provided the flush of success for the prosperous writer-landowners I leave to Steiner to explain. He has read Heitland’s Agricola, published as long ago as 1921, but he has ignored the elegant demonstration that the imperial policy behind Virgil’s Georgics, “inspired” by Maecenas, imposed on the poet a deliberate silence about slave labor. Ah, says Steiner, but Virgil “wrote with such genuineness and persuasiveness that his successors often quoted him.” To which the reply can also be found in Heitland:

As writers of prose dealing with facts often of an uninspiring kind, it would seem to raise the artistic tone of heavy paragraphs if the first name in Latin literature could be introduced with an apposite quotation in agreement with their own context.

Virgil’s facts, furthermore, came from books, not from personal experience, and they aren’t always facts. Seneca, one of the few (partial) exceptions to what Heitland called “Virgilworship,” caught him out easily and then defended him on the ground that the poet sought “rather to delight the reader than to give instruction to the farmer.” K. D. White draws the necessary conclusion: “the Georgics is a work of genius; but for accurate information the reader must go to the technical writers.”

Today it is unthinkable that a work of poetic genius should give even the illusion of a technical manual. That brings us back to my original paradox, and that is the subject I do not think we are prepared to examine deeply enough through history.2

Letters

A Paradox Resolved October 7, 1971

  1. 1

    The uniformity of style and tone is notable, since only four of the ten contributions were apparently included in the original lecture series (the Preface by the editor, Carl Roebuck, is not quite clear about this). The editor is right to call it a “small book”; it is stretched to 294 pages, including notes and index, by heavy leading and one-and-one-half-inch left margins, and $12.50 is a hefty price, especially with illustrations of such poor quality. (My criticisms of the volume do not extend to the editor’s own piece on early Greek trade or to Lionel Casson’s on sailing.)

  2. 2

    The volumes by Dibner and de Camp are reissues, in a series called MIT Press Publications in the History of Science & Technology, and they raise some questions about publishing practice, especially under such auspices. Moving the Obelisks first appeared in 1950 as Publication No. 6 of the Burndy Library, Norwalk, Connecticut, of which Dibner is the director. Although it is scarce, republication is justified chiefly for the few old engravings. Dibner’s knowledge of ancient Egypt and its obelisks is derived largely from Commander Barber’s Mechanical Triumphs of the Ancient Egyptians (1900), and one wonders whether the MIT Press would reissue a book on physics with so weak an underpinning.

    Another recent addition to the series is a remarkable book, China at Work, by Rudolf P. Hommel, again a scarce work, sponsored by the Henry Chapman Mercer Foundation and Museum of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and published in a limited edition by John Day in 1937. Hommel spent eight years in China recording in the most meticulous way the peasant and village crafts of Central China, and producing an invaluable source-book just in time, before industrialization began to displace traditional tools and techniques.

    But the book is pre-Needham and the author was neither Sinologist nor historian; it isn’t good enough to reissue it without a proper introduction and annotation, and with a blurb on the cover calling it “more than a historical study” and quoting briefly from a review in Books. A more expert reviewer, writing in the Journal of the American Oriental Society for 1938, warned that “where Mr. Hommel gives an historical sketch, he is naturally in the hands of his friends, and should not be relied on too implicitly.” (Amateurs of publishing economics may entertain themselves by trying to work out why Dibner’s sixty-page pamphlet is priced at $2.95, Hommel’s 366 pages and 535 figures at $3.95.)

    One of Hommel’s difficulties was this: “The taking of measurements with a footrule was almost as offensive to the Chinese as the taking of photographs. To get around the objection I had secret marks of feet and inches on my cane and holding it casually against the article or laying it upon it I obtained the dimensions wanted.” And he has passed them on in his book, unlike the other authors under review, who, with the exception of White, do not bother to indicate scale in their illustrations. Technology without measurement is an oddity.

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