Thursday, November 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Maurizio Gatto (ed.), Il Peri mechanematon di Ateneo meccanico. Edizione critica, traduzione, commento e note. Aio 567. Roma: Aracne editrice, 2010. Pp. xli, 581. ISBN 9788854831025. €36.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Serafina Cuomo, Birkbeck College

The ancient ways of war are endlessly fascinating for that elusive audience, the general public. Every time I teach Greek or Roman history, there is always someone in my class of adult learners who knows everything about the phalanx, or wants to hear more about tactics at the battle of Gaugamela, or is disappointed that I do not devote the entire course to the ethos of Roman legionaries. There is a definite appetite for ancient military history, but at the same time, the literary evidence on which we base our understanding of the technicalities of the ancient Greek and Roman ways of doing war remains relatively obscure. Much of the secondary literature from which popular knowledge of ancient military history derives, does not properly acknowledge the complexity and often partiality of the extant evidence. Passages abstracted from Polybius, Livy, or Arrian are made to bear the weight of unfeasibly detailed reconstructions of army formations and battle strategies, with hardly any concession to the ancient historian's overall aims and agendas. Meanwhile, the treatises which are explicitly concerned with war stratagems, techniques and machines, have received comparatively little attention, even among academics.

Frontinus' Stratagems or Hero's treatise on catapults may not get many readers, but they are still relatively well-known compared to Athenaeus Mechanicus. His one extant work, traditionally called Peri Mechanematon, has gone mostly unnoticed for a long time. The first English translation dates to 2004,1 and it is based on a critical edition of the Greek text which was itself in need of revision, as Gatto explains in his introduction (xxxiii). The present volume thus offers not just an Italian translation, but also a new edition of the Greek text, based on an exhaustive survey and analysis of the extant manuscripts.

There were many Athenaeus in antiquity – our author, nicknamed Mechanicus because of the content of his only surviving work, has been persuasively identified with a Peripatetic author, from Seleucia, active around the middle to the end of the first century BC, in Rome among other places (chapter 2). The short treatise (less than 400 lines) is addressed to a Marcellus, who can be identified with Marcus Claudius Marcellus, son of Octavia and nephew of the emperor Augustus. If the identification stands, the work must have been written before 23 BCE.

Athenaeus begins by reminding the reader of the importance of time: it is so precious that it should not be wasted, especially not in reading over-long treatises (208-11). Athenaeus thus purports to be brief and to the point: he is going to talk about machines, in particular those useful in the course of sieges. He mentions the mechanician Agesistratus as one of his main sources, and starts to describe various devices, commenting on the history of their discovery and successive development, their specifications and building materials, as well as details about their use. We start wit the ram, first discovered by the Carthaginians at the siege of Gades (213). To follow, we have mobile siege towers, which are allegedly to be credited to Diades, along with the siege drill and other devices, some of which Athenaeus does not think worthy of description (215-9). A third source, Philo of Athens (evidently, Athenaeus here means Philo of Byzantium, a well-known mechanical author), provides material for a description of a type of 'tortoise', i.e. a mobile shelter for soldiers, used to facilitate the levelling of terrain (219-20), while Hegetor of Byzantium is mentioned with reference to a ram-equipped 'tortoise' (221-6). The well-known siege-tower called helepolis (226-7) ushers in another section, devoted to ineffective machines, and, shortly after that, a section on machines of Athenaeus' own devising, including the so-called 'little monkey', which stabilizes ships carrying siege engines, and two more types of 'tortoise' (230-6). Athenaeus concludes the treatise thus: "Do not suppose us to be so cruel as to have collected all these commentaria about destroying cities. On the contrary. What has been said in this treatise makes a city safe; for those who know these things will easily be able to guard against what will harm them. Our main business had been directed against those who will not submit to the fine laws of the empire. Hence, if you see fit, all the machines will come illustrated with plans; and what is hard to describe in words will be clear to see from them. As for the measures needed to counter what has been discussed, if we collect any from the ancients we will try to describe those too for you. This statement has been made because there are some people who measure their neighbours' capacity for toil by their own idleness, and who deny that in much (of this) there is practical knowledge to be had, as if learning could cramp the enthusiasm of our spirit."(236-7)2

To summarize, Athenaeus is a Greek, writing for a Roman addressee, and not just any Roman, but a member of the imperial family, possibly about to set out on a military campaign. He comes across as a philosopher, and he expounds about time and opportunity, but also claims to be enough of a technical expert to devise new machines, and to describe old ones accurately. His work reads like a catalogue of siege engines, examples of which would have played a part in many military encounters before, after and during his time. He is a good example of how the ancient art of war, technically conceived, was embedded in the literary and philosophical culture of the time.

Maurizio Gatto's hefty volume begins by summarizing the contents of Peri Mechanematon, briefly introducing the author, and providing a survey of the (scarce) literature on the text. Chapter 1 takes the reader through a history of siegecraft in Greek and Roman antiquity, until the Jewish Wars of the imperial period. Chapter 2, as we said above, discusses in greater detail the identity of Athenaeus, who remains a rather shadowy figure, even though there is now some consensus as to his period and general context. Chapter 3 tackles one of the best-known features of Peri Mechanematon: large chunks of the text are very similar to sections 13 to 16 of the tenth book of the contemporaneous Vitruvius' De architectura. Vitruvius also mentions Agesistratus as a source, but does not give him as much prominence as Athenaeus does. Various hypotheses have been formulated to explain the overlap between the two works: excluding for chronological reasons one author's dependence on the other, it seems plausible that Vitruvius and Athenaeus drew on the same source, presumably Agesistratus. In chapter 4 Gatto juxtaposes Athenaeus this time to a probably tenth-century author, the so-called Anonymus Byzantinus, who also shares large chunks of content with Peri Mechanematon.

Both Vitruvius and the Anonymus Byzantinus play a role in establishing the best Greek text for Athenaeus. Like many technical treatises, Peri Mechanematon is replete with obscure words and phrases. Faced with bits of text they do not understand, scholars tend variously to invoke interpolations, scribal errors or technical terms so specialized that their meaning is now irretrievable. Thus, given the opportunity provided by the closeness to Vitruvius' text, in the past difficult passages of Peri Mechanematon have been amended to match it, in the name of their shared original source, even when the two texts appeared significantly different (xxxiii-xxxiv). Conversely, the Anonymus can provide insight into a version of the text that was available around the tenth century, and thus also proves useful in the resolution of knotty sentences. Gatto is very good at explaining the edition process under such complex circumstances: chapter 5 includes a description of all the manuscripts containing Athenaeus' text, while chapter 6 provides a step-by-step rationale for ordering them into a certain stemma, completed on p.188. Chapter 7 discusses the manuscripts' illustrations – Gatto believes, however, that the original text did not possess any. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 are devoted to Greek text, Italian translation, and notes on the text, respectively. The details of construction of individual machines make up the bulk of chapter 11, and, finally, chapter 12 lists the people and authors mentioned in Athenaeus' text, and provides short biographies.

At over 500 pages of dense technical discussion in clear but occasionally over-formal Italian, Gatto's volume is unlikely to become a bestseller. Indeed, one has to wonder whether a project like this would have found a publisher in the UK or USA. Even Whitehead and Blyth's translation of Peri Mechanematon, slimmer and in English, was picked up by a German press. The issue is, more generally, that of 'marginal' or 'minor' Greek and Roman authors, many of whom also happen to be 'technical' writers. The publication of this volume begs a few questions: does the category of 'minor' or 'marginal' stand closer intellectual scrutiny? Should not all antiquity matter to us? Or are there legitimate criteria to declare a mainstream, and confine people like Athenaeus to relative obscurity – is it intellectually legitimate to simply find him boring? The first approach is perhaps more traditional, and, these days, better entrenched in continental Europe, where smaller academic publishers continue to survive, if not flourish, and pressure on academics to be 'popular' may not be so strong as elsewhere. Hence Gatto's volume, which rather refreshingly takes it for granted that its subject-matter needs no justification, and that one can spend pages on the precise shape of the various levels of an ancient siege tower, without worrying about the wider relevance of such details.

The second line of questioning, however, is preoccupied with relevance; a problem often resolved by returning the so-called marginal authors to their wider context, and showing that they can provide insights into aspects of life, society and culture, which would be otherwise only partially accessible to us. Gatto is not at its strongest when it comes to context. His account of ancient siege technology is very dependent on Marsden's,3 which, while still extremely valuable, suffers from a view of technological progress as linear, and of technological choice as almost inevitably aimed at greater simplicity and better performance. It may not be coincidental that Gatto's bibliography does not include much in the way of recent historiography of ancient, or indeed modern, technology. I would also have wished to see more references to archaeological evidence for sieges and siege technology (Gatto's sources are almost all textual), and about Athenaeus' wider cultural context – patronage, Augustan literature, along the lines of what has been amply done for Vitruvius, which may also have helped better define the relationship between the two authors.

But, as I said above, these may be not Gatto's main concerns. His volume's principal selling point is the new Greek edition, painstakingly collating thirty-four manuscripts, eleven of which had not been taken into account by the previous standard edition, on which Whitehead & Blyth's English translation is based. Some of the differences that emerge are rather significant: for instance, Gatto demonstrates that, while Athenaeus mentions Diades, who built machines for Alexander the Great, he has no word about Charias, another technician often mentioned along with Diades. Previous editions (and the English translation) restore Charias to the text on insufficient grounds (262-3). Gatto's careful analysis of Athenaeus' words, and overall preference for straightforward interpretation, allow him persuasively to resolve several difficulties, as well as to bring further support to some previous interpretations. For instance, only one manuscript has the verb anegnokamen to describe the relationship between Athenaeus and Agesistratus, whereas the rest have egnokamen. Gatto (not deviating in this from the previous edition) chooses the lesson of the single manuscript, because the verb anagignosko better fits his support of the interpretation according to which the overlap between Athenaeus and Vitruvius is due to them drawing on the same text, rather than them having been both students of Agesistratus (267-8).

To summarize, this is a very significant contribution to scholarship – while Gatto may not yet manage to make Athenaeus a household name, he has provided good, solid foundations for future study.


1.   D. Whitehead & P.H. Blyth (eds.), Athenaus Mechanicus, On Machines. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2004.
2.   Translation from Whitehead & Blyth, with modifications.
3.   E.W. Marsden, Greek and Roman Artillery. Historical Development. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

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