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date: 06 July 2020

Latin Didactic, Scientific, and Technical Literature

Abstract and Keywords

Roman authors developed a rich and creative literature in Latin on a wide range of scientific and technical subjects, intended for a variety of readerships and spanning many different genres, including didactic poetry, as well as technical prose. This essay discusses literature in Latin that sought to illuminate the natural world for its readers or instruct them in manipulating it. Particular focus is placed on the problems of identifying and classifying these varieties of literature and their relationship to other literary genres; their structure, language, and style; and their engagements with Greek technical literature. The literary traditions of individual disciplines (e.g., agriculture, architecture, astronomy, and surveying) are examined as case studies of broad patterns in literary developments including the building of technical vocabularies, the choice of poetry and prose, and the degree of organization of the text.

Keywords: didactic poetry, Roman science, Roman agriculture, land surveying, technical literature


The scope of “technical” pursuits in Roman culture took in quite a broad swathe of possible subject matter: law, grammar, and rhetoric were of obvious cultural importance and possess rich literatures of their own. However, in the essay that follows, I will focus on the disciplines more often referred to as “technical” in modern parlance, which include “scientific” disciplines engaged in discovering and describing the world, as well as the “technical” disciplines focused on manual engagement with objects in the world: medicine, architecture, surveying, and so forth. The practitioners who actually carried out these engagements were, of course, not necessarily the authors of the texts in which their activities were described. In certain disciplines, such as architecture or surveying, many or all of the surviving authors make a claim to professional practice; in others, such as medicine and agriculture, the field of surviving literature is dominated by nonpractitioners.1 This essay will provide an overview of these texts as literature: the textual genres into which they might be said to fall, the language their authors use, their reception of earlier literature (often in Greek) on their subject matter, and so forth.

Discussions of technical and scientific literature in the Roman world must even now begin by dispelling two persistent misconceptions. First of all, the “technical writing” of ancient Greece and Rome cannot be distinguished, neatly or at all, from some notional category of “genuine” or otherwise nontechnical literature. Second, scientific and technical literature in the Roman world represents a complex and creative engagement with, rather than slavish imitation of, its Greek antecedents. Indeed, the surviving Roman technical and scientific literature highlights the cultural value of its subject matter in a number of different ways, whether emphasizing its novelty or its long-standing tradition; its immediate utility to man or its power to illuminate the far reaches of the cosmos; its enticements to honesty or its enhancement of man’s deceptive abilities.


The categories “didactic,” “scientific,” and “technical” are themselves subject to considerable uncertainty and debate. “Didactic” literature, while by definition at least purporting to instruct, ranged in subject matter from practical topics like agriculture to theoretical subjects like natural philosophy; it could be delivered in the form of poetry as well as prose; and the extent to which an author of a didactic work intended to teach his reader anything at all remains the subject of considerable debate.2 Dalzell makes the distinction that although poets of many kinds were widely regarded in antiquity as possessing the power to instruct, “didactic” poetry in the sense we speak of it today is distinguished as a poem that treats a given subject systematically.3 The same criterion of systematization may apply to prose texts as well.

“Technical” texts are often construed as a very broad category, including legal, grammatical, and rhetorical texts alongside works on topics involving building, engineering, and other forms of manual activity such as military tactics, agriculture, surveying, architecture, and navigation.4 Also often included here are texts that fall into a category modern readers often separate off as “scientific.”

The category of literature now most often labeled “scientific” is typically defined more narrowly than the “technical” texts, often encompassing mathematical texts and those that describe the natural world, from the atomic scale (e.g. Lucretius’s De rerum natura), to the global (e.g. Pliny’s Natural History), to the cosmic (e.g. Seneca’s Natural Questions or Manilius’s Astronomica). Purely mathematical texts in Latin from the classical period are all but nonexistent, but the surveyors who applied mathematical methodology in their work frequently incorporate the language and methods of Greek geometrical texts into their own Latin works.5

Bruun warns, in a discussion of Frontinus’s work on the aqueducts of Rome, that even if we deem it appropriate to label that work a technical “handbook” of some kind, nevertheless the “handbook” genre might have been saddled with quite a different set of expectations in antiquity than the works to which we would apply that label today.6 Likewise, in the domain of “didactic” literature Volk writes of Manilius’s astronomical poem that to accuse the author of incoherence or imprecision is to miss the point, that in fact Manilius has “a different intellectual modus operandi, a way of presenting thought in speech” that might strike a discordant tone with modern expectations for scientific discourse, but harmonizes perfectly with the varied chorus of instructive poetic voices in the ancient world.7 The same cautions must be observed for all kinds of “didactic,” “technical,” or “scientific” literature from antiquity: though it may be convenient for us to designate them with these terms, we should not impose on them expectations derived from modern works.

Texts that communicated scientific or technical information in the ancient world came in many forms. Taub offers a useful introduction to the most prominent of these, including “lectures” (i.e., texts based on notes written down on hearing a lecture, or perhaps notes for the author’s own lectures), treatises, problem texts, letters, introductory works (eisagōgai), and commentaries.8 Fögen has amassed from various Greek sources a list of labels for different types of technical texts: eisagōgē, synagōgē, encheiridion, hypomnēma, technē, pragmateia, epitomē, diēgēsis, and synopsis.9 Not all these forms are represented in the surviving Latin literature: for example, the epistolary form is not the mainstay of scientific communication it was in the Greek world, and most of the forms Fögen cites have no particular Latin equivalent. The introductory eisagōgē, on the other hand, was quite a popular form in Latin scientific literature, sometimes even referred to under the equivalent Latin label (isagoga). The form of the problem text, which presents a list of questions on one or more subjects along with their answers, is echoed in Seneca’s Natural Questions.

The term commentarius appears to have been used to label many of these texts, but is at the same time a particularly vexed category. Saastamoinen provides a concise history of the label’s use, ultimately arguing that though it was often deployed, it was not generically well defined.10 Callebat argues that properly speaking, a commentarius transmitted technical knowledge unadorned by any literary refinements.11 However, Frontinus several times refers to his De aquis urbis Romae as a commentarius (2.2.4), even though this text has at least enough material beyond the bare-bones technical details of the water system to be categorized by Peachin as a political pamphlet first and foremost, and by Bruun as a moralizing text at least in part.12 Other ancient texts conventionally denoted as commentarii, like Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum and Bellum Civile, also appear to have been intended as something other than unadorned technical handbooks.13 The term can additionally signify memoranda or illustrated instructions, or a text designed to accompany an object, like the text written by Agrippa to accompany his map.14 The challenge of unambiguously defining even this one type of text (even granted that the commentarius represents a particularly complex case) indicates some of the pitfalls that await those who attempt a simple classification of ancient “technical” texts.

Technical Texts and Literary Style(s)

The commentarius may represent a particularly challenging terminological problem, but it is hardly the only bramble-bush in this tangled literary landscape. Stückelberger defines a wide range of ancient “technical” textual forms on the basis of their level of organization, level of accessibility to the novice reader, and the effort apparently exerted by their authors to make the reader’s experience pleasant.15 Callebat divides Roman “technical literature” into the bare-bones, practical commentarii on the one hand, and texts with more literary refinement on the other, arguing that the latter were intended for a general audience seeking a superficial familiarity with, rather than a working knowledge of, their subject matter.16 In a similar vein, Fuhrmann defines the “Lehrbuch” as a stylistically unpretentious collection of information intended to transmit basic knowledge to a young or lay audience.17 Von Albrecht differentiates technical works from “works of fact” on the grounds that the latter “take pains to establish appealing literary form.”18

Deinlein distinguishes three types of nonfictional literature in terms of how their level of literary style might define an intended audience.19 The first type consists of texts (like Fuhrmann’s “Lehrbuch”) without literary style or ambitions, which foreground the technical content and are aimed only at practitioners. The second consists of texts shaped for literary appeal to an educated general audience; to this category belong for example the didactic epistle, the symposium, and the dialogue. The third type is intermediate between these, offering a balance of literary structure and style with thorough coverage of its subject matter: this is the “Sachbuch,” which Deinlein associates particularly with Roman literature.

Vitruvius’s De architectura presents a rich opportunity to consider how these criteria of a work’s “technicality” or “literary appeal” might apply to particular texts. This work is by far the most influential treatise on architecture surviving from the ancient Mediterranean world; that it is nearly unique in its survival is of course an important factor in its longstanding influence. Faventinus’s De diversis fabricis architectonicae, dating from the third or fourth century CE, is considerably shorter and indeed largely epitomizes Vitruvius’s own text; Palladius in turn draws on Faventinus for his remarks on architecture in his fifth-century agricultural work.20 Extant Greek antecedents are effectively nonexistent; the Greek works on building that survive, like Philo of Byzantium’s Parasceuastica et poliorcetica, are devoted to the construction of fortifications and other wartime structures. Vitruvius, on the other hand, is concerned principally with civil building; though he does mention principles of fortification and describes several siege engines in his tenth book, the De architectura is certainly not principally focused on building for military purposes. Vitruvius’s text remained a central focus of study for Renaissance architect-writers like Leon Battista Alberti, Sebastiano Serlio, and Andrea di Pietro (Palladio), who replicated the principles of proportion and architectural style Vitruvius enumerates.21 In short, the long-term utility of the De architectura as a “technical text,” in the sense of a work used by practitioners in the practice of their craft, cannot be denied.

However, Vitruvius’s reader does not find himself presented with a compendium of unadorned technical information. Vitruvius takes care to enliven the text with philosophical prologues, historical vignettes, and other elements that place architecture in a broader cultural context, where it is perhaps most likely to appeal to an elite readership.22 The architect, he says, should be versed in mathematics, history, philosophy, music, medicine, jurisprudence, and astronomy (1.1.3); the breadth of Vitruvius’s own work signals his own mastery of this diverse array of subjects. Vitruvius often reflects on his own authorial work, including explicit guidance in how the text can best be read.23 The work is constructed with care; Vitruvius describes the ten-book ordering of his De architectura as presenting “the whole body (corpus) of architecture” (10.16.12). Indeed, McEwen argues that the ordering of the books reflects the very ideas about symmetry that Vitruvius discusses throughout the work, particularly given the third book’s discussion of ten as a “perfect” number.24

Each of the ten books begins with a preface, which as Callebat observes are exemplars of the rhetorical genus deliberativum.25 These take on a variety of topics, from the praise of the patron in the first, to improving anecdotes about famous intellectuals of the past whose behavior either should (Aristippus, book 6) or should not (Zoilus of Macedonia, book 7) be imitated, to praise of the civic value of the discipline of architecture (book 9). Every prologue is linked somehow with the subject matter of its book, yet none reads as particularly “technical.”

The De architectura is one of many texts that problematize the differentiation of technical texts on the basis of their degree of literary polish. The distinction between technical texts with and without “literary ambitions” is particularly often raised in explanations for the popularity of didactic poetry in antiquity, as when Volk suggests that it was “appreciated for evoking (not actually teaching) an interesting subject matter in an aesthetic way.”26 Indeed, Dalzell compares didactic poetry to the modern coffee-table book; these, too, may be splendidly constructed and absorbing in their beauty but serve more to engage and aestheticize their subject matter than to offer practical instruction.27 The special role played by didactic poetry in making instructive material palatable is of course most often connected to Lucretius’s description of the poetic form of his hexameter verse work on Epicurean physics as the “honey” that makes the “wormwood” of its lessons less distasteful. Despite the rhetoric Lucretius here deploys, the pleasing form enhances rather than distracts from the poem’s instructive work, just as in Vitruvius, as well as a host of other Latin scientific and technical texts.28

Technical Vocabularies

The use of “technical terminology” or “technical vocabulary” is sometimes suggested as a way of distinguishing “technical texts” or “technical authors.” Fleury argues, for example, that Vegetius should be categorized as a technical author on the basis of his use of technical vocabulary: Vegetius is a technical author if and only if he uses precise technical terms.29 This criterion is not without advantages. For one thing, “technical terminology” seems like it ought to be straightforward to spot: such vocabulary might be distinguished by its infrequent appearance in the surviving corpus of literature, or by marked changes in a word’s meaning in a “technical” context. Encountering such specialized terminology in a text also markedly affects the reader’s experience. As Vitruvius notes, the specialized vocabulary that often allows technical artifacts to be described with maximum precision may have an alienating effect on the lay reader, so the presence, absence, and marking of such vocabulary can be an indicator of the audience for which a text is intended.30

However, “technical” language remains a complex and much-contested category. Schiefsky has suggested that “a term or phrase qualifies as a technical term if there is good reason to think that it was used in a reasonably standardized way by practitioners of a given τέχνη to refer to objects, concepts, or procedures connected with that τέχνη.”31 This definition is particularly useful because it does not exclude the use of words that already have some significance in common parlance from taking on specialized significance as technical terms. Langslow describes “technical languages” in a compatible manner, as “varieties of a language with their own history,” which may overlap with the “standard language” even though they tend toward application in a certain subject area or among a certain group of practitioners.32 Fögen uses modern linguistic analyses of technical languages to approach the problem of how ancient authors might have deployed comparable specialized languages. Following Langslow, Fögen differentiates “Fachsprachen” from “Sondersprachen” on the grounds that the latter are intended to restrict communication to a small community of experts, while the former primarily aim at precision and clarity rather than limiting the sphere of communication.33

The clarity of technical terminology of all kinds is often related to an ideal of univocality; hence one of the usual mechanisms for forming technical terminology is to narrow down the meaning of an existing word to a much smaller semantic sphere. Krenkel identifies some very clear examples of this type of development within the specialized language of naval terminology (the so-called sermo nauticus). The verb escendere, for example, narrows its everyday meaning of “climb” to the special significance in the sermo nauticus of climbing into the lookout to scan for fish or find one’s own location.34 The result of such a narrowing process may of course be that a single word signifies different things in different domains, or that close variants arise to describe related phenomena.35 Technical terminology may also be developed or differentiated through metaphorical or metonymic transfer of significance.36 All these mechanisms can be engaged to create terminologies that clearly signal their applicability to a particular technical domain.

Textual Structures

“Technical language” can thus operate on a local scale as a tool to distinguish literature that is meant to instruct. Other patterns may be discerned at a larger scale. The preface or proem is of course a signal feature of didactic and technical works of many different kinds, a place for an author to assign (at least notionally) a reader or addressee and to spell out the motivation and structure of the text that is to follow.37 Fuhrmann’s “Lehrbuch” is rigidly characterized by a predictable form consisting of three elements (classification, definition, and detailed description) deployed in a small set of predictable patterns with formulaic transitions between individual elements.38 While Fuhrmann’s proposed structure is too rigid to account for much of the surviving Latin technical literature, macrostructural properties nevertheless provide useful guidance for defining and classifying ancient technical texts.

Asper provides a thorough analysis of the structural patterns exhibited by Greek scientific works, many of which are followed in Latin texts as well. He distinguishes, for example, between “discrete” and “continuous” text structures. Series of problems or other formulaic passages are not explicitly linked in “discrete” texts, so that the reader must himself come to the text equipped with this relational knowledge.39 “Continuous” texts, on the other hand, use structural or lexical cues to bind the material together into a whole whose very principles of organization are often central to the text’s instructive work.40 Callebat makes a similar distinction, identifying Varro, Celsus, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, and Seneca’s Natural Questions as examples of the discrete style and Vitruvius’s De architectura as an example of a text with more structural continuity.41

Completely “discrete” texts are comparatively rare in the surviving Latin literature. The compendium of surveying texts known as the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum contains a few, like the section of the anonymous Ratio limitum regundorum about the significance of surveyors’ boundary markers, that consist purely of a series of statements structured in no particular order and not exploring a coherent collection of concepts. More common in the surviving literature are texts that house a collection of discrete informational nodes within a linguistic superstructure established by a preface or some other way of motivating the collection of information.

The large number of extant Latin texts on agriculture creates a good opportunity for observing the many possible variations in textual structure even on texts focused on a single subject. Praise of the landholder and instruction in agricultural technique is most thorough in several agricultural “manuals,” ranging from Cato’s second-century BCE De agri cultura to Varro’s first-century BCE Res rusticae to Columella’s first-century CE De re rustica.42 Diederich argues that these works were in different admixtures part technical text, part literary work, and part moralizing celebration of the tradition of elite Roman landholding.43 Kronenberg, in partial contrast, argues that Varro’s work at least was written with subversive, satirical intent.44 Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus Palladius’s fifth-century Opus agriculturae was of course written under literary and cultural circumstances quite different even from those that separated Cato from Columella. However, he drew much of his information from Columella, and his own status as a vir illustris keeps him squarely in the tradition of the elite agricultural author.45

Of the three major surviving Latin agricultural works, Cato’s De agri cultura might most uncontroversially be labeled a “technical treatise” on agriculture: the work consists principally of instructions for buying land and farm equipment, sowing and harvesting various crops, and maintaining the health of both animal and human residents of the farm. Cato’s text observes a more or less “discrete” structure, but this does not mean that the whole work consists of a haphazard aggregation of unrelated statements. Rawson observes that at the beginning of the work Cato follows some organizational patterns familiar from Greek technical literature, as when he provides a threefold division of types of cabbages and for each defines its natura and vis.46 However, though this classificatory approach does seem to suggest some common ground with Fuhrmann’s “Lehrbuch,” it does not closely match the bulk of the text. Most of the work leads the reader through a great variety of topics in a fashion that might not be quite random, but whose organizational principles are far from clear.47 The text is divided into 170 sections, each dealing with a single topic (planting an orchard, preparing cakes for sacrifice, sowing asparagus). Cato does not suggest connections between these sections or establish any rationale by which they build up into a coherent complex of concepts.

The structure of Varro’s Res rustica distinguishes it sharply from other Latin agricultural texts: it is composed as a dialogue between Roman speakers, supplied with names (Gaius Fundanius, Gaius Agrius, and Publius Agrasius) elsewhere attested as genuine Roman nomina but obviously chosen here for their agricultural resonance. These speakers are soon joined by Gaius Licinius Stolo and Gnaeus Tremelius Scrofa. The latter of these is said by Columella to have written his own agricultural treatise and indeed thereby to have “restored eloquence” to the topic, though how he achieved this we cannot know, since his text does not survive.48 By integrating Scrofa as a participant in his own dialogue rather than listing him among his sources, Varro imposes his own brand of eloquence on the topic.49 The dialogue format’s pretense of spontaneous, oral composition naturally places some constraints on the continuity of the discussion, though Fuhrmann comments on the surprising degree of didactic systematization Varro manages to impose upon the dialogue format.50 Varro himself promises in his preface to specify everything he is leaving out, and to follow through the rest according to its “natural divisions” (1.1.11). Nevertheless, Varro’s interlocutors do, as is often the case in dialogues, debate, interject, and double back to topics already touched on—the speakers impose their own idiosyncratic structure on the flow of the text, which does not always follow the orderly structure promised at the outset. For example, Kronenberg observes how Scrofa “completely bungles his own categories when he actually discusses them,” so that what originally looked poised to be an orderly review of the principles of agriculture turns into something considerably, perhaps even comically, different.51 Varro’s dialogue is considerably more freewheeling than the “problem texts” Taub mentions, or the “catechistic” question-and-answer format Asper describes in more detail for Greek texts.52

Columella’s De re rustica is a more traditional representative of the “continuous” technical treatise. The work might be taken at face value as intending first and foremost to offer practical agricultural instruction: it is prefaced by a lament that while men of his time appeal to experts in military matters, navigation, and most other practical matters, and even in frivolous pursuits like hairstyling, it is difficult to obtain instruction in agriculture. At the same time, the De re rustica bears many distinctive signs of literary polish, even before the reader arrives at the tenth, versified book. Fögen and Reitz both remark on the “signposting” language Columella employs, both at the level of connecting local sections and indicating the structure of the work as a whole.53 Some of these terms lend temporal structure, whether absolute (nunc, mox, deinceps) or keyed to the flow of the reader’s experience (tempestivum, opportune), while other references are keyed to the book structure.

Moreover, the text is addressed to a Publius Silvinus, whom Columella describes as having previously read and discussed his work on planting vines (4.1.1), but addresses the poem of the tenth book also to a certain Gallio (9.16.2). This Gallio seems likely to be identical with Seneca’s elder brother, suggesting the De re rustica was intended to circulate in some very elevated literary territory indeed.54 Besides the literary elevation he might himself bring to the subject of agriculture, Columella also reviews the achievements of his predecessors: Cato first transmitted the topic in Latin, Scrofa made it eloquent, Varro added further polish, Vergil gave it the power of poetry, and so forth.55

Palladius’s agricultural text is organized chronologically, describing the tasks to be performed during each month of the year; the list of tasks for each month is as “discrete” as Cato’s work, so that the text as a whole has a structure only slightly more complex than Cato’s own. In his preface he claims the work as a simple text for simple readers, arguing that whoever intends to instruct farmers should not (as many agricultural authors have done before him) vie with orators in eloquence, that doing so will only confuse the intended audience of rustici. Yet Palladius then immediately indulges in wordplay, saying that he must “prune back (recidamus)” his preface lest he do what he critiques in others. Nor is this the limit of his literary style; Diederich comments on the unassuming elegance of his prose, his use of variatio, his personification of inanimate objects and abstract concepts, among other flourishes.56 And this is only his prose: the Opus agriculturae concludes with a poem, the Carmen de insitione. Palladius writes off this poem as nugae in its prose preface, but the poem itself (written in elegiac couplets, rather than the hexameters usual for didactic poetry) is quite elegant and full of allusions to both Columella and Vergil. Clearly, a “discrete” textual structure need not connote a lack of literary style.

Prose and Poetry

Volk acknowledges that the form of didactic poetry seems to trouble modern readers, observing further that ancient critics seem to have relegated it to something less than a genre in its own right, classifying it rather as a subcategory of epic due to its hexameter form.57 Quintilian, for example, categorizes Lucretius among the epici alongside Vergil and Ennius (Instititiones oratoriae 10.1.51). Latin didactic poetry in the scientific vein most often retains the hexameter, though Ovid’s Fasti, if construed in this category, was written in elegiac couplets (as was his more famous, if distinctly unscientific, Ars amatoria).58

But didactic poetry has other features, besides appearing in verse rather than prose, that distinguish it from other forms of scientific and technical writing. Volk calls attention in particular to the poetic self-consciousness of the form, in which the author frequently intervenes to comment on his poetic handiwork and the work of teaching he carries out.59 Author-teacher and reader-student, in this view, form a strong didactic bond, a “constellation” of collaborators in learning not regularly seen in prose scientific and technical works. Indeed, Gale argues that (at least for the case of Lucretius’s De rerum natura) the instructive “journey to the truth” these two figures take together can be construed as a narrative, thus collapsing one of the persistent distinctions drawn between epic and didactic poetry.60

In turn, Columella’s De re rustica challenges any notional separation of the information-bearing responsibilities of poetry and prose, as the tenth of its twelve books, on the cultivation of gardens, is written almost entirely in hexameter verse. As already noted, Columella’s fusion of prose and poetry would be imitated centuries later in Palladius’s own text on agriculture. Columella prefaces his verse with a brief prologue in prose, where he explains that garden cultivation is now more in vogue than it had been in earlier generations, and thus claims the opportunity to explore a topic that did not receive as much attention in Vergil’s Georgics as its current prominence warrants. Columella frames his efforts not as correcting a mistake on Vergil’s part but as a poor and inadequate contribution to a topic Vergil indicated he would leave for future generations (10.3).

This kind of apologetic stance is a common feature of Roman poets, which Volk describes as a kind of “Roman Callimacheanism.”61 As Volk notes, many Latin poets (perhaps especially, though not exclusively, didactic poets) begin their works in a defensive stance, with an apology for the work’s inadequacy compared to its forebears. This then of course requires that the poet offer a reason for going ahead with the project, often a command from a god or another authority figure. Columella steps outside this framework slightly with his own reason: he will versify this topic, inadequate though his effort may be, because it covers a practice that has achieved a new practical prominence and thus requires a type of attention it never received before.

Columella was of course not the first or only author to combine poetry with prose. Reitz points out that Menippean satire appears to have consisted of varied combinations of poetry and prose, suggesting that in texts as diverse as the Satyrica of Petronius and the Consolatio philosophiae of Boethius, “single verses or short poems within the prose text seem to convey a certain impromptu character.”62 However, as Reitz observes, Columella’s tenth book represents quite a different literary phenomenon, something much closer to didactic poetry in its robust establishment of a consistent relationship between teacher and student, Columella and Silvinus. The poetic book is structured around a central inset passage where Columella explains his poem’s relationship to epic poetry: Calliope may still be his muse, but she permits him to fly only in a moderate gyre compared to the loftier epic poets (10.215–229).

Greek Antecedents; the Anxieties of Translation

Roman authors of scientific and technical literature, like their counterparts in other genres, exhibited considerable self-consciousness about working in territory that had been previously covered by Greek authors. Nearly every subdiscipline represented in the surviving Latin technical literature is known to have had Greek antecedents, even if in some cases (such as agriculture and architecture) these do not survive. Responses by Latin authors to preexisting Greek technical literature in both prose and poetry range from close translations to developments and extensions of the prior work to works that seek explicitly to compete with or correct their predecessors.63

Didactic poetry had a particularly strong tradition of Greek antecedents; these covered a very broad range of subjects, from the agriculture-focused instructional mode of Hesiod’s Works and Days to the natural-philosophical explanations of Empedocles’ On Nature. Aratus’s Phainomena, which combined a catalog of constellations (itself a poetic reworking of Eudoxus’s prose work of the same name) with instruction in their meteorological significance, attracted especially vigorous attention in the form of Latin translations and adaptations, like those by Cicero and Germanicus.64

Within the context of didactic poetry, Volk distinguishes three varieties of authorial engagement with a past literary tradition. The first is the act of producing a work in a preexisting genre or even simply possessing formal characteristics, like a poetic meter, typical of a certain type of literature. The second is more particularly marked as an imitation of or improvement on a particular prior work or group of works. The third is yet more strongly marked by the author’s explicit reflection on his participation in such a tradition. Volk exemplifies the difference between the second and third using Vergil. The Aeneid obviously alludes to the Homeric epics, but Vergil never explicitly announces that this is what he is doing. In the Georgics, on the other hand, he labels himself a Roman Hesiod (2.176).65

Authors of technical and scientific treatises in prose exhibit somewhat different patterns in the way they engage with prior work and other genres, but their responses to their predecessors nevertheless play a crucial role in shaping the text’s form as well as its content. Vitruvius’s De architectura incorporates many of the responses a Roman technical author could direct at his predecessors, and is therefore a good place to start considering these mechanisms. The originality of his work is the subject of ongoing debate. Varro is supposed to have written a work on architecture, which Vitruvius is sometimes alleged to have slavishly copied.66 Vitruvius does, however, allude to named Greek sources, and in fact includes an impassioned plea for acknowledging one’s sources; this goes ignored in strong claims like Fuhrmann’s that Vitruvius merely added some new details to a system of architectural knowledge already established by Varro.

In fact, Vitruvius acknowledges in his text a robust and complex relationship with his Greek forebears, as well as indicating the innovations he sees himself making. For example, in the preface to his fourth book he stakes a claim to be the first to put his material in the proper order, while at 9.7.7 he says he cannot himself invent a new type of sundial, but will rather offer a catalogue of those developed previously. Gros credits Vitruvius with a “triple originalité”: not only will he be the first to put the body of architectural knowledge into its proper, coherently organized form, but in doing so he will also create a Latin technical vocabulary, as well as carrying out a cultural transformation in which he shifts characteristically Roman buildings of his era (such as the theatrum latinum, the basilica, the forum, the domus, etc.) into the framework of symmetria that characterized Greek architecture.67

Varro highlights the Greek antecedents of his own text on agriculture even more intensively, providing a lengthy list of names, accompanied where possible by toponyms (I.1.7–8). The bulk of his list is occupied by prose authors, but at the end he lists additional contributors in poetry: Hesiod and Menecrates of Ephesus. Pride of place is reserved, at the end of this list, for Mago the Carthaginian, who Varro says composed an agricultural text in Punic in twenty-eight books, which was later rendered into a twenty-book Greek version by a Cassius Dionysius of Utica.68 Though Varro gives no details of the treatise’s contents, he emphasizes that Cassius added quite a lot of material, drawn from the very Greek sources Varro has just named, and removed eight books. Afterward, claims Varro, a certain Diophanes in Bithynia further reduced (redegit) the work to six books, and Varro himself proposes to do him one better by producing his own work in three books. As Fögen observes, all this adds up to something quite different from direct translation.69 The term Varro uses (vertit) for Cassius’s operation on Mago’s work clearly must mean something other than “translation” in the default sense in which we use it today. The same is true for a host of other Latin treatises that rework Greek subject matter.

Even where Latin authors appear to translate Greek texts (or parts of them) word for word, they may use those words to do very different work. The surveyor Balbus composed an Expositio et ratio omnium formarum (Description and explanation of all figures), which appears among the texts of the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum. He begins with a preface in which he purports to describe his own experiences using surveying skills in wartime. The bulk of the work, however, consists of a catalog of pseudo-geometrical “figures”: straight and curving lines, areas bounded by various curves and polygons, and solid shapes, many exemplified by the real-world objects that resemble them, like rivers or race-tracks. Balbus describes these “figures” in language that suggests a Latin version of Euclid’s Elements, ranging from general patterns like the use of impersonal verbs to precise translations such as “a point is that which has no part (signum est cuius pars nulla est)” (97.15 Lachmann), an unmistakable translation of the beginning of Euclid’s Elements.70

Balbus is not, however, presenting his reader with a translation of Euclid, but rather repurposing Euclid’s work, transposing it into a material world to which it does not perfectly match up. He includes but a fraction of Euclid’s work, and of that only part is integrated through word-for-word translation; he likewise incorporates a great deal of extra material that is specifically concerned with the work of the surveyor, which is of course very different from that of the geometer. Yet he takes pains to make his integration of the Euclidean material crystal-clear by imitating both Euclid’s verbal and structural patterns, so leaving cues for his reader to understand the process by which he puts his Greek predecessor to work in a whole new field.

Astronomical poems in Latin represent a particularly rich opportunity to consider the relationship between Latin scientific texts and their Greek antecedents. These texts, many derived partly or wholly from the Greek Phainomena of Aratus, enjoyed remarkable popularity. Aratus’s poem was written in the third century BCE, composed in the hexameters typical of didactic poetry. He begins with a hymn to Zeus, goes on to describe the constellations in what appears to be a versification of the Phainomena of Eudoxus, and concludes with a list of atmospheric phenomena to be used in weather forecasting. Though we now delimit the scope of astronomy in a rather different way, the practical functions of astronomy in the ancient Mediterranean, particularly before the Julian calendrical reforms, included tracking meteorological phenomena by the stars. The risings and settings of certain constellations were very often a more reliable guide for predicting terrestrial climatic phenomena than state calendars, which often departed drastically from the solar year.71

Aratus’s ongoing popularity is particularly notable in light of the Julian calendar reforms that finally yoked the unruly Roman luni-solar calendar to the solar year.72 Even after the Julian reforms were put into place, the robust established tradition of literature linking astronomy and meteorology continued to develop. This tradition is reflected in the Fasti, Ovid’s calendar-poem, as well as in the calendar sections of Columella’s De re rustica, but perhaps most prominently in the many Latin versions of Aratus’s work. Cicero wrote his Aratea (of which some 500 lines survive) early in his career, while the minor poet Publius Varro Atacinus composed a Latin version of the material on weather-signs in the first century BCE. After the calendrical reforms, Germanicus composed an Aratea of his own; later versions include Avienus’s fourth-century translation and the anonymous eighth-century Aratus Latinus. Other debts to Aratus are less immediately apparent: Gee argues that Lucretius in turn drew on Cicero’s Aratea for his own De rerum natura; Farrell describes Vergil’s transformation of Aratean material for the first book of his Georgics (to say nothing of his explicit invocation of Aratus in Eclogue 4); and Volk traces Manilius’s poetic rivalry with Aratus.73

The broad spectrum of works engaging with Aratus’s poem suggests an equally diverse set of ways Latin authors could treat Greek source material. Latin “translations” might replicate Aratus’s star-catalogue perfectly or closely, or introduce modifications to the catalogue itself, or place the catalogue in a new philosophical context, and so forth. Gee describes Vergil as “Platonizing” Aratus, for example, introducing a motif of cyclical recurrence modeled on the human life-cycle into his account of the ages of man in the fourth Eclogue, fusing a modified Hesiodic cosmology with Aratus’s astronomical model (itself already engaged with Hesiod).74 Other modifications are subtler, as when Germanicus repeats Cicero’s exchange of bronze for iron in his own passage on the ages of man, which looks to Possanza like a poetic misstep and to Gee like a decisive echo of the motif of civil war as treated in Latin poetry.75 The act of “translation” that seems to be signaled by how closely these authors hew to Aratus’s work on a coarse level turns out to be more complex upon closer inspection of these fine-grained modifications, which include edits to the astronomical information, philosophical repurposings, and invocations of specifically Roman cultural touchstones.

Manilius’s Astronomica is in turn not without its Aratean influences, but is focused largely on astrological interventions in human fate. Manilius goes to considerable lengths to emphasize his own original contributions to the form. He will not commit the “theft” (furtum) of repeating others’ work, difficult as this may be in such a crowded literary field—he will even journey to the heavens in search of new territory to cover (II.58–60). He will preserve the mathematical intricacies of his astronomical subject matter even in poetic form (III.29–34), an approach quite different from Aratus’s distinctly qualitative account. Manilius reflects with particular clarity the element of aemulatio or rivalry that balances out the apologetic “Roman Callimacheanism” Volk observes in many Roman authors who engage with Greek antecedents.76 Both elements are present in Manilius (as they are in Lucretius, Vitruvius, Vergil, and a host of other Roman authors who engage explicitly with their disciplinary predecessors), but his brash assertions of originality highlight with particular brilliance that all these engagements serve to do new scientific and cultural work with preexisting texts.


Latin scientific, technical, and didactic authors might well be viewed as having engaged in a kind of literary reception comparable to that of their colleagues in other genres. They certainly perceived themselves as operating in a literary landscape already populated by earlier works, but they creatively reengaged with those works to build up new systems of scientific and technical knowledge and new ways of carrying that knowledge in textual form. Often, the texts they produced were anything but dry technical works intended for a narrow audience of specialists, and the techniques refined by authors in Latin to appeal to a broader readership were probably crucial to their survival. Indeed, texts in Latin that rework technical topics previously treated in Greek for a broader audience are often the best or only surviving textual sources on their subjects (think, for example, of Lucretius’s role in preserving Epicurean philosophy). These texts comprised creative re-imaginings and expansions of their Greek predecessors as well as purely Roman innovations and were thus “translations” in every sense: works of literature in Latin that have carried their subject matter down to us today.


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(1) Particularly good recent studies of the cultural status of these professions and the social status of their practitioners include Purcell, “The Apparitores”; Schürmann, Griechische Mechanik und antike Gesellschaft; Meißner, Die technologische Fachliteratur der Antike; Cuomo, Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity.

(10) Saastamoinen, “The Literary Character of Frontinus’ De aquaeductu.” As well as offering a capsule history of the controversies surrounding Frontinus’s work, this chapter also contains helpful etymological and historical background to the term.

(13) On the use of this term for Caesar’s work, see Bömer, “Der Commentarius.”

(14) Nicolet, Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire, 101–114. See also Vitruvius, De architectura 14, I.1.4;, and 17, as well as Pliny Naturalis Historia 17.234.

(21) On these figures and their relationship to Vitruvius, see for example Hart and Hicks, Paper Palaces; Kanerva, Between Science and Drawings.

(24) Vitr. 3.1.5; McEwen, Vitruvius, 39–54.

(30) Vitr.

(33) Fögen, “Metasprachliche Reflexionen,” 34; Fögen, Wissen, Kommunikation und Selbstdarstellung, 13–19. The connection between the qualities labeled saphēneia or perspicuitas and technical vocabulary is discussed in Fögen, “Metasprachliche Reflexionen,” 38. For discussion of lexical clarity in this context, see Fögen, Wissen, Kommunikation und Selbstdarstellung, 28–34.

(34) Werner Krenkel, “Sprache und Fach-Sprache,” in Horster and Reitz, Antike Fachschriftsteller, 12.

(36) Fögen, Wissen, Kommunikation und Selbstdarstellung, 46–48; Schironi, “Technical Languages: Science and Medicine” discusses this type of development in more detail for the case of Greek technical terminology.

(46) Rawson, Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic, 135. This particular discussion of the properties of cabbages (just one of many; they are a prominent feature in Cato’s work) occurs at De agricultura 157.

(48) Columella, De re rustica

(49) On Varro’s relationship with his literary forebears, see Rawson, Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic, 135–138.

(58) On the choice of meter see Dalzell, The Criticism of Didactic Poetry, 137–138; on elements in the poem common to amatory elegy, see Volk, The Poetics of Latin Didactic, 163–173.

(63) A selection of case studies illustrating some of these possibilities is given in Fögen, “Zur Transformation griechischer Wissensbestände durch römische Fachschriftsteller.”

(67) Gros, “Les Illustrations Du De Architectura de Vitruve: Histoire D’un Malentendu,” 43. The creation of Latin technical vocabularies from existing sets of Greek terms is discussed at Fögen, Wissen, Kommunikation und Selbstdarstellung, 92–105.

(70) Σημεῖόν ἐστιν, οὗ μέρος οὐθέν, Elementa 1 def. 1. On the deployment of language from Greek geometrical texts in the context of the Roman surveyors, see Guillaumin, “Géométrie Grecque et Agrimensorique Romaine. La Science Comme Justification D’une Idéologie.”

(71) Lehoux differentiates ancient meteorology into two traditions: the “Theophrastan” tradition tracked everyday atmospheric phenomena (ranging from haloes around the sun to the croaking of frogs) in an effort to make predictive connections with weather patterns, while the tradition of astrometeorology relied upon patterns in the appearance and disappearance of stars to mark the seasons, and so to predict the weather (Lehoux, Astronomy, Weather, and Calendars in the Ancient World, 5).

(73) Farrell, Vergil’s Georgics and the Traditions of Ancient Epic, 157–168; Volk, Manilius and His Intellectual Background, 28, 34–35, 188–192; Gee, Aratus and the Astronomical Tradition, 60–109, 189–231 (the latter an appendix presenting all the parallels).