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date: 14 June 2021


Abstract and Keywords

The first section of this text covers the ancient written sources for Greek and Roman technology, the visual representations of technological activities, and the historiography of the subject. The primary, extractive technologies, those activities that wrest raw materials and foodstuffs or energy directly from the environment appear in the second section. The third and fourth section, respectively, deals with engineering and complex machines, and the secondary processing of the raw materials. The fifth section addresses the infrastructure for land and sea transport, and also riding, harnesses, vehicles, ships, and navigation. The next section presents warfare and fortification. Moreover, the seventh section reports the technologies that have been crucial to the sophisticated development of human societies. The last section hopes that it will help to stimulate a more theoretical approach to the study of technology in the classical world.

Keywords: Greek technology, Roman technology, land transport, sea transport, human societies, classical world, foodstuffs, engineering, machines

The Greek and Roman View of Technology

This handbook is designed to survey the role of technology in the Greek and Roman cultures and their respective technological accomplishments, from approximately the eighth century B.C. through the fifth century A.D. Such an approach, of course, leaves out the remarkable technological achievements of the Bronze Age and previous periods, but their inclusion would have required a second volume. In any case, the Greco-Roman accomplishments in technology reveal a greater unity than those of the earlier cultures of the Near East or the Mediterranean, reflecting the shared attitudes and experiences of the Greek and Roman cultures themselves. The Greeks and Romans appreciated and occasionally marveled at the structures and artifacts that had survived from the preclassical cultures, and they understood that human technologies had even older roots. Ancient anthropologists, like their modern counterparts, realized that human activities intentionally altering the environment to ensure survival or simply a more pleasurable lifestyle—what we call technological activities—were inextricably bound up with the roots of human biology. In the fifth century B.C., the philosopher Anaxagoras (Fr. 59.A.102, Diels-Kranz) stated that “the human race is the wisest of all living creatures because it possesses hands.” A century later, Aristotle (De an. 3.8.432a) was more explicit: “The hand is the tool that makes and uses tools.” Even the stolid Roman architect Vitruvius (De arch. 2.1.2) is almost poetic in his account of the capabilities enjoyed by humans because of their very form and nature: “They possessed by nature a gift beyond all other creatures: they walked not stooped downward, but erect, so they (p. 4) viewed the magnificence of the world and stars. Moreover they could easily handle whatever they wished with their hands and fingers.”

Lucretius (5.925–1025) attributes some of this human vigor to the survival of the fittest, while Pliny (like all the Roman authors, paraphrasing Greek philosophical commonplaces) makes a virtue of the helplessness of the infant, naked and without instinctive survival behaviors (HN 7, preface 1–4):

Humans alone of all animals Nature clothes in borrowed resources … only a human on the day of birth does she cast down naked onto the bare ground, immediately to cry and wail … All the rest of the animals know their own natural abilities, some use their agility, others swift flight, others swim; the human knows nothing unless taught: not to speak, nor to walk, nor to eat, and in short, he knows nothing by natural instinct other than to cry.

In addition to recognizing the age-old biological—perhaps even evolutionary—roots of human technologies, both Greek and Roman intellectuals appreciated that an enormous period of time must have passed as human communities formed, spread out across the known world, and mastered an increasing array of materials and technologies. Their theories of social evolution can easily be compared with nineteenth-century theories of “progress” from Paleolithic to Mesolithic to Neolithic manners of living, a neat sequence that has only recently come into question: Hesiod (Op. 107–78), Lucretius (5.925–1025), Vergil (G. 1.121–46), Vitruvius (De arch. 2.1.1–7), for example (cf. Cole 1967; many of the passages are collected and translated in Humphrey et al. 1998: 1–20). Chreia (necessity; [Aristotle], Mech. 10–25.847a; Diodorus 1.8.7–9) drove humans to create their technai (arts, technologies) and the mechanai (devices) to assist with them, while observation of nature provided models (Lucretius 5.1361–69; Seneca, Ep. 90). In metaphorical terms, the Greeks counted fire and the various technologies developed by humans as the “gifts” of the mythological figure Prometheus, whose name sounded something like “Forethought” to a Greek-speaker (Hesiod, Theog. 565–66, Op. 42–53; Aeschylus, PV 442–506). Plato (Prt. 320c–322d), however, attributes only fire and the arts in general to Prometheus, and the rest to human inventiveness, while Sophocles (Ant. 332–72) composed a splendid “hymn” to the independent accomplishments of humans as conscious entities (both passages are quoted in chapter 1).

Given the recent flowering of interest in an environmental basis for the great disparities in technological achievement among human communities in various parts of the world (Diamond 1997), it is striking to note that Greco-Roman culture had already hit upon an adumbration of these principles. A tribe of one-eyed giants, the Cyclopes, lived on a fertile island with a beneficent climate that provided wheat, barley, and grapes (the basis for the ancient Greek diet) spontaneously, without any need for plowing or sowing. As a result, Homer concludes (Od. 9.105–31), they had no need for assemblies or laws, shipwrights, or other technologies, each family living apart in caves and herding flocks of sheep in a modified hunting-gathering culture.

Greek poets and playwrights such as Hesiod, Homer, Sophocles, and Aeschylus marveled at the capacity of humans for technological advance and the techniques (p. 5) they had developed for managing the earth and its resources. Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Posidonius debated the role of technology in society, generally reflecting an intellectual posture that thought and dialectic were preferable to applied research and the arts and crafts (e.g., Plato, Resp. 7.530e–531a; Plutarch, Mor. 8.2.718e). Plato (e.g., Resp. 2.368e–374e, Leg. 8.846d–847a) proposed—more as a metaphor than as a practical suggestion—that society should segregate its thinkers, soldiers, and producers, and that the simple rhythms of an agricultural community were preferable to the “diseased” complexity of urban living. In his Politics, Aristotle considered in somewhat more practical fashion the role of slave labor, craftsmen, architecture, money, and trade in human society, but he reflects the same intellectual posturing as Plato (Aristotle, Pol. 8.2.1, 1337b):

It is clear, therefore, that the young must be taught those of the useful arts that are absolutely necessary, but not all of them. It is obvious that the liberal arts should be kept separate from those that are not liberal, and that they must participate in such of the useful arts as will not make the participant vulgar [banausos]. A task or an art or a science must be considered banausic if it makes the body or soul or mind of free men useless for the practice and application of virtue. For this reason we term “banausic” those crafts that make the condition of the body worse, and the workshops where wages are earned, for they leave the mind preoccupied and debased.

The adjective banausos, which could also mean “vulgar” or “in bad taste,” derived from baunos, the workman's forge or furnace. The term comes up frequently in theoretical or philosophical discussion, for example Xenophon's Oeconomicus (On Household Management, 4.2–3):

To be sure, the so-called banausic arts are spoken against and quite rightly held in contempt in our states, for they ruin the bodies of those practicing them and those who supervise, forcing them to sit still and pass their time indoors—some even to spend the day at a fire. As their bodies are softened, so too their minds become much more sickly. In addition, the so-called banausic arts leave no leisure time for paying attention to one's friends or state, so that the persons who practice them have the reputation of treating their friends badly and being poor defenders of their homeland. In some states, particularly those with a warlike reputation, it is forbidden for any citizen to practice the banausic arts.

Roman intellectuals occasionally assumed the same attitude; for example, Cicero (Off. 1.42): “All craftsmen spend their time in vulgar occupations, for no workshop can have anything liberal about it.” (Many of the relevant literary passages are collected in Humphrey et al. 1998: 579–97.) Although sentiments such as these have found expression to some degree in most human societies—even in those, such as nineteenth-century England, that are noted for rapid technological advance—many twentieth-century scholars hit upon this banausic prejudice as an “explanation” for a perceived blockage of technological innovation in the Greco-Roman world. The presence of slave labor was felt to be a related, concomitant factor. The historian Moses Finley was the most prominent exponent of this now (p. 6) discredited interpretation, and there is an extensive literature on both sides of the argument (see esp. Greene 2000, and chapters 2, 3, and 23 in this volume).

As the material in this book will make clear, the classical world was marked by remarkable technological advances in many areas, often fostered by the elite. A technological literature composed of both sophisticated compendia and workshop manuals did exist, although much of it has been lost, and both inscriptions and visual representations show that craftsmen and craftswomen were proud of their work and their products (see chapters 1 and 2). Over half of the male names on tomb inscriptions at Korykos in Rough Cilicia are accompanied by an occupation, and the number of occupations totals 110. At least 85 occupations are named in various inscriptions and graffiti at Pompeii, over 200 on tombstones in Rome, and Artemidorus, in his Onirocritica, refers to 264 (Hopkins 1978: 72). These numbers imply self-identification and a certain amount of pride among craftsmen and the service professions. One goal I had in editing this book was to help put an end to the myth of a “technological blockage” in the classical cultures.

Organization of the Material

This book is not intended to be a compendium of all the technological procedures, devices, and machines in use in the classical world. I have been fortunate to be able to enlist 31 expert scholars from 9 countries as contributors, and I asked each of them to look at the accomplishments of the classical cultures in their particular technology or family of technologies, or at an issue in the history of ancient technology, from primarily an analytical rather than a descriptive point of view. The objective was the creation of a critical summation of our present knowledge of the Greek and Roman accomplishments in technology and engineering, and the evolution of the technical capabilities of these cultures over the chronological period. Each chapter was designed to review the issues surrounding that topic and the recent scholarly contributions, and then to define the capacities and accomplishments of the technology in the context of the society that used it, the available “technological shelf,” and the resources consumed. Since these studies are not simply descriptive in character, but introduce and synthesize the results of excavation or specialized research, the volume is not as heavily illustrated as might otherwise have been the case. Readers who want more information can easily follow up by using the full bibliographies appended to each chapter.

In working up the outline of the book, I had to make difficult decisions about the selection and organization of the topics, the relative length of the chapters and sections, and the allocation of a restricted number of illustrations. For a variety of reasons I gave particular prominence to mining and metallurgy, Roman engineering and architecture, hydraulic engineering, land and sea transport, and information technologies. The organization of the chapters into eight sections represents a first sorting of an enormously varied and complex array of data and interpretation, (p. 7) and I hope it will be of particular use to those first approaching the subject. The first section deals with the ancient written sources for Greek and Roman technology, the visual representations of technological activities, and the historiography of the subject. These three chapters set the stage for consideration of the individual technologies in separate chapters that assemble the evidence from archaeological remains as well as the literary evidence and visual representations. The archaeological evidence, of course, consists of raw materials, tools and equipment, workshops, by-products, and the primary products. There is a natural hierarchy of technologies, not always directly linked to the hierarchy of human needs, but generally tracking human needs closely. The primary, extractive technologies, those activities that wrest raw materials and foodstuffs or energy directly from the environment—mining, metallurgy, quarrying and stoneworking, agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting, and fishing—appear first, in the second section. Not surprisingly, many of these technologies had already reached a significant stage of development by the Middle or Late Bronze Age.

The third section includes chapters dealing with engineering and complex machines, representing dramatic human intervention to shape the physical world to human needs: Greek and Roman engineering and architecture, hydraulic engineering and water-supply systems, the engineering of tunnels and canals, and heavy machinery. The fourth section concerns secondary processing of the raw materials accounted for in the second: food processing, metalworking, woodworking, the production of textiles, leather, ceramics, and glass, and the application of the chemical substances that assisted many of these secondary technologies.

The remainder of the book deals with technologies that have a more complex relationship with their socioeconomic context and generally involve a variety of motivations and technologies beyond the extraction or processing of raw materials. The fifth section includes chapters dealing with the infrastructure for land and sea transport, and with riding, harnesses, vehicles, ships, and navigation. These technologies represent complex responses to a variety of human needs; ships, for example, were the largest machines known to the classical world. The movement of persons and goods made possible by these technologies forms the basis for the striking success of Greco-Roman urbanism and the Roman imperial system. The sixth section, which I have titled “Technologies of Death,” presents warfare and fortification, the most innovative and pervasive human technology from at least the Early Bronze Age through the present day, for reasons that are all too obvious (cf. Plato, Resp. 2.373d-e). Ironically, until the invention of nuclear weapons this was the ultimate “labor-saving” technology: groups that excelled at making war reaped the labor and took the property of those they defeated. Despite the importance of the subject and the richness of the literary and archaeological evidence, these two chapters are relatively short, because there is already so much published literature available concerning Greek and Roman methods of warfare and fortification.

“Technologies of the Mind,” the seventh section, incorporates chapters presenting technologies that have been crucial to the sophisticated development of human societies, but which deal with abstract ideas rather than making a direct impression on the physical world: recording and reading information in written form, measuring the passage of time, measuring the weight, size, or number of (p. 8) objects or substances, and accounting for the value and numerical relationships among these objects or substances. Another chapter presents the gadgets and scientific instruments of the Greco-Roman world, devices that represent a telling interface between the world of theoretical thought and mechanical application. A related chapter evaluates the attitude in the classical cultures toward inventors, invention, innovation, and technology.

The last chapter in the book stands on its own, but I hope it will help to stimulate a more theoretical approach to the study of technology in the classical world. For most of the twentieth century, classical archaeologists and the historians of Greek and Roman culture approached their subject matter very differently than did “prehistoric archaeologists,” “historical archaeologists,” “New World archaeologists,” or “procession archaeologists,” to use only a few of the terms applied to those outside the classical field. The reasons for this divide are numerous and complex, and mostly irrelevant to the available archaeological data; in any case the argument has now moved on to “post-procession” approaches to archaeology and history (Trigger 2006). Beginning in the 1990s, many archaeologists of the classical cultures began to make use of the theoretical tools developed by archaeologists and historians outside their own area. This shift of focus, which has naturally also affected the study of engineering and technology in the classical cultures, has lead to many important new insights. The concomitant widespread abandonment of training in the Greek and Latin languages is very unfortunate, but may reverse itself in the future.

The vocabulary and procedures of the “expanded ethnoarchaeology” presented by Michael Schiffer in chapter 33 may seem foreign to some classical archaeologists and historians of ancient technology, but in fact he simply makes explicit the methods of research that many of us have already used to one degree or another: “If ethnoarchaeology is the study of general relationships between activities and artifacts when strong evidence is available on both, then in an expanded ethnoarchaeology researchers can make use of evidence from the historical record as well.” The relevance of this approach to the rich array of evidence for the technologies of the classical cultures is obvious. Schiffer's discussion of differential adoption, invention cascades, and the use of a performance matrix to evaluate the life history of complex technological systems may help to stimulate productive reevaluation of such Greco-Roman technologies as textile manufacture, glass-working, ship design, and even construction.

The Future of Past Technologies

In addition to progress in the development of explicit theory, what does the future hold for the study of ancient technology, in particular that of the classical cultures? Archaeological excavation has become increasingly expensive and difficult, and the (p. 9) archaeological heritage has been badly diminished by development and illicit excavation. Nevertheless, remarkable discoveries continue to appear, in part because of better techniques of excavation and analysis. Ancient representations of technological activities or machinery continue to turn up, sometimes with very surprising new information, such as the detailed representation of a pair of water-wheel-driven saws on a sarcophagus at Pammukale—long exposed to view, but only recognized in 2006 (Ritti et al. 2007). Ancient workshops and production sites are now more readily recognized for what they are, and the animate and inanimate materials, products, or by-products can be subjected to increasingly sophisticated analytical procedures. Ceramic clay, stone, and metals can be traced to their sources; bones, phytoliths, and microscopic traces of food residue provide detailed information about diet; the analysis of ancient DNA, still in its rudimentary stage, has already provided astonishing information about the interrelationships of human groups and the domestication of plants and animals (Jones 2002). The application of three-dimensional X-ray microfocus computed tomography has extracted important new data from the corroded remains of the Antikythera Mechanism (Freeth et al. 2006). Archaeological survey, on the ground or even from space, continues to reveal important remains relevant to the history of ancient technology without excavation: the sites of previously unrecognized Roman water-mills, for example (Wikander 1985), or Roman fortifications (Kennedy and Bewley 2004). Survey in the deep Mediterranean by means of submersibles or remotely operated vehicles has revealed a rich supply of well-preserved shipwrecks of all periods (McCann and Oleson 2004).

Many technologies that were ubiquitous and important in the classical world have not received commensurate analytical attention: basketry, for example, or applied chemistry, or textile and leather production. In addition, quantitative approaches such as product life-cycle analysis should be applied to many of the ancient manufactured products. DeLaine 1997 has reached remarkable conclusions through calculation of the amount of labor and materials required for the construction of a major imperial building, and the hypothetical process and schedule of completion. This approach should be applied to other regions and periods. Experiments in the replication of ancient artifacts and materials (e.g., Lierke 1999, glass), structures (Oleson et al. 2006), and vehicles or boats (Raepsaet 2002; Morrison et al. 2000) also provide scope for further inquiry.

Finally, there is more work to be done in the analysis of ancient literary sources. Even familiar passages in Pliny the Elder's Natural History that concern technical processes or attitudes toward technology require further interpretation or decoding. Lewis (1997, 2001) has made remarkable discoveries by carefully mining the surviving Arabic translations of Greek technical writers whose original works are lost. The papyri from Egypt continue to require transcription and analysis, and new methods of imaging have made possible the transcription of previously illegible papyrus documents. The digitization of nearly all the works of the Greek and Latin authors now allows rapid and comprehensive searching for key words and phrases, and the enormous mass of raw data and synthetic studies on the (p. 10) Internet make it possible for the historian of ancient technology to peruse a breadth of material unthinkable only five years ago.

Together, all of these resources will allow the continued reconstruction of Greek and Roman technological procedures and accomplishments, as well as ongoing analysis of the relationship between technology and the ancient economy and ancient society. Even our understanding of such an important topic as the role of women in ancient technological processes is still in its infancy (cf. Kampen 1982;Stern 1997; Glazebrook 2005). Clearly, there is a bright future for the study of ancient technology.


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