Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Daryn Lehoux, What Did the Romans Know?: an Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 275. ISBN 9780226471143. $45.00.

Reviewed by Caroline Bishop, Washington University in St. Louis (

Version at BMCR home site


Classics has always been a field in which the tenets of New Criticism come easy; taking the text as completely self- contained can be an especially attractive prospect when the text is almost all that remains of the society in which it was written. At the same time, most of us now accept that literary interpretation acquires great benefit from increased understanding of the cultural, political, material, and even economic forces brought to bear upon a text. Yet there is one aspect of ancient society that the average classicist may still be wary of: ancient science. In this they would not be alone, for the average historian of science may also be wary of the era in which astrology and divination and the four humors represented not just valid, but popularly accepted, scientific theories. Daryn Lehoux's new book presents a welcome challenge to both, demonstrating to classicists just how constitutive ancient science was for the construction of the Roman worldview and to historians and philosophers of science the insight that can be gained from comparing the world of ancient science with our own.

I should note at the outset that I belong more to the former camp than the latter: while I work on ancient intellectual culture, my research focuses on ancient scholarship and literary interpretation. Thus while I am greatly interested in the workings of ancient science, I address this book from the point of view of a classicist seeking a greater understanding of Roman science. Though Lehoux's book seems geared more towards historians and philosophers of science, I do believe it has much to offer classicists as well.

The main goal of the book is to investigate a period of Roman science ranging from the first century BC to the second century AD through a modern theoretical lens. This was a rich era of intellectual innovation, and one that allows the book to range between native Romans such as Cicero, Pliny, and Seneca to Romanized Greeks like Galen and Ptolemy. What Lehoux is interested in showing is "how and why the Romans saw things differently than we do, or . . . how and why they saw different things when they looked at the world." (8) In other words, his goal is to demonstrate how societies make sense of the natural world, and why different societies have seen such different worlds. As a corollary, he strives to show that, just like every society, the Romans thought they had a pretty good idea of how the world is constituted. To a Roman, a world of sympathy and antipathy, of humoral theory and psychic pneuma, made just as much sense as our world of DNA, the Higgs boson, and the theory of relativity.

After an introduction ("The Web of Knowledge") that lays out his philosophical stance and approach, Lehoux devotes the next three chapters to considering how the Romans linked the natural world to the law in various ways. Cicero, who clearly saw the religious, legal, and political realms as a mirror for (and mirrored by) nature, is a good starting point, and Chapter Two ("Nature, Gods, and Governance") consequently considers his De Natura Deorum, De Divinatione, and De Fato, focusing primarily on the Div. Lehoux makes a good argument for not taking the denial of the efficacy of divination in Div. on its face, showing that for Cicero and his contemporaries, divination was an inextricable part of Roman self-identity, religion, and the legitimacy of the political system. Not only that, it was a self-evident component of the natural world, a world whose great order and regularity, when examined by a properly educated person, led to correct ethical behavior. It is at this intersection of ethics, theology, and politics, Lehoux argues, that Roman science is situated. Chapter Three ("Law in Nature, Nature in Law") broadens the examination of the link between nature and the law in antiquity, comparing ancient "laws of nature" with our modern understanding of the term. Here Lehoux tackles two different problems: first, what the phrases leges naturae and foedera naturae meant to someone like Lucretius (who uses both), and why the Roman worldview was congenial to this confluence between nature and the law. Next, he asks why modern historians of science deny Roman scientists an understanding of "laws of nature" in our modern sense, and uses the Almagest to successfully demonstrate that Ptolemy shared our concept of "laws of nature", even if he did not refer to them as such. Finally, in Chapter Four ("Epistemology and Judicial Rhetoric"), Lehoux considers another way the connection between nature and the law manifested itself in Roman thought: observation of the natural world often takes on the trappings of a court case. Using the Naturales Quaestiones as his main source (compared and contrasted with Lucretius), he considers how the "declamatory" nature of Seneca's work turns judicial rhetoric into an epistemological tool for science. In this way, Roman observation of natural phenomena becomes not just "theory-laden" (i.e., the phenomenon in which our observations are predetermined by our theories) but also ethically-laden: the Roman eyewitness to natural phenomena is like the eyewitness in an ancient court case, whose moral character forms the main basis for his trustworthiness.

The book's remaining chapters are more discrete, though some linkages can be found. For example, the next two chapters hinge on the problematic nature of scientific observation. Chapter Five ("The Embeddedness of Seeing") considers Ptolemy and Galen's response to the potential threat to empiricism posed by Pyrrhonian Skeptics, who distrusted all sense perception. Both Galen and Ptolemy offer complex theories of the mechanism of sight—Ptolemy from the point of view of mathematical optics, Galen from a physiological standpoint—that guarantee its accuracy in representing a truthful portrait of the world. Ironically, Lehoux shows, these theories rely on blind spots caused by epistemological and ontological biases. Empiricism, in other words, is not the guarantor of accuracy that we think it is. Chapter Six ("The Trouble with Taxa"), which is particularly engaging, builds on this conclusion, looking at the phenomenon of paradoxography in ancient science. This is often a major sticking point for the study of ancient science: how could so many great minds have believed in things that to us seem so patently absurd? What Lehoux shows is that when we ask this question, we must also ask a corollary: why is it that we think they're so absurd? He takes as his main example the implausible ancient belief that garlic rubbed on magnets takes away their power of attraction and repulsion. For an ancient thinker, garlic and magnets belong to a taxonomic system (sympathy and antipathy) in which they are fundamentally opposed, and as he shows, anyone raised to look at the world in this way needn't run an experiment to prove that garlic has this effect on magnets; he simply knows that it's true. In the same way, we, who slot them into a different taxonomic system (magnets in the class of magnetism, and garlic . . . somewhere else entirely) needn't perform an experiment to prove that this is decidedly not true. In other words, many of the things we confidently assert as provably and empirically true are, in fact, determined by the theoretical contexts in which we operate. It is for this reason, Lehoux concludes, that we should take seriously the many claims of ancient science that we find ridiculous: after all, they rest on the same epistemological foundations as our own scientific claims.

The following two chapters are only loosely connected, though each considers further the way the notion of sympathy, broadly defined, made its mark on ancient scientific theory. Chapter Seven ("The Long Reach of Ontology"), in my opinion the weakest in the book, looks at the role astrology had on the ontology of the Roman world, and how it shaped theories of free will and determinism. Lehoux ranges widely here, looking at authors as diverse as Ptolemy (the Tetrabiblos), Sextus Empiricus, Geminus, Manilius, and Firmicus Maternus, but never in any great detail. His main point seems to be that just as we believe physics to be inarguably true, so the Romans had good reason for believing astrology was both highly rational and manifestly empirical. Chapter Eight ("Dreams of a Final Theory") then considers how symmetry (the belief that parts of the universe—whether physical, ethical, theological, or psychological—can also explain other parts) made its mark on the Roman world. To illustrate just how far-reaching symmetry was as a heuristic tool, Lehoux demonstrates its role in Cicero's Dream of Scipio, Macrobius' commentary on the work, and Ptolemy's fascinating treatise Harmonics ; for the Romans, the notion of cosmic harmony (understood numerically) becomes a sort of "final theory", explaining almost everything in the world.

The final two chapters, followed by a short conclusion, pull back from specific evidence and consider the theoretical implications of these findings. On the one hand, Lehoux has shown convincingly just how much science—both the Romans' and our own—depends on our epistemological and ontological settings, which may lead us to wonder if all science is relative. On the other hand, most of us implicitly assume that there is some "real world" out there and that we can attain reasonably certain knowledge of it. Chapter Nine ("Of Miracles and Mistaken Theories") provides an extremely lucid and compelling account of the strengths and weaknesses of these two opposed positions—realism versus relativism—before ultimately concluding that both have their merits. The upshot, Lehoux says, is that we must assume people are justified in believing their scientific theories are (approximately) true of the world. Chapter Ten ("Worlds Given, Worlds Made") further clarifies this position, arguing for a pragmatist theory of truth (truth must be verifiable and testable) coupled with a coherentist epistemology (all the interlocking parts that make up our systems of understanding the world must cohere). In wedding these two notions, Lehoux believes we can "give Roman investigations into nature their due as sophisticated and interesting epistemic projects" (244) without assuming that the light this throws on the contingent and culturally specific nature of all science means that we cannot know for certain that we are right about, e.g., magnetism, and that the Romans were wrong about sympathy and antipathy.

This is a thought-provoking book, and I think in its broad strokes it is successful; Lehoux demonstrates to my satisfaction both that all science is socially constructed to a degree and that we should take every society's science seriously, because they certainly did. This is a fine line to walk, but Lehoux accomplishes it well. On the other hand, when he considers specific examples of how Roman science was constructed, his emphasis on theory can come at the expense of context. I can understand why he did not feel the need to extensively explain the current state of, e.g., astronomy at the time Ptolemy was writing, but some brief contextualization of his authors' scientific fields, their place within them, and a general overview of the thrust of the primary sources that he draws from would have been welcome. This goes hand in hand with another problem, which is that at times the book suffers from a lack of cohesion, both in the construction of individual chapters and in their relationship to one another. It can also be a challenging read if one is not already familiar with Lehoux's theoretical terminology. This is not to say it is not a worthy endeavor for anyone with an interest in the topic, because I think it is. It certainly gave me a new and profound respect for the world of Roman science, and for those who practiced it.

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