Thursday, August 27, 2015


Luis Arturo Guichard, Juan Luis Alonso, María Paz de Hoz (ed.), The Alexandrian Tradition. Interactions between Science, Religion, and Literature. IRIS Ricerche di cultura europea – Forschungen zur europäischen Kulturz 28. Bern: Peter Lang, 2014. Pp. 324. ISBN 9783034314527. $101.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Fabio Stok, Università di Roma Tor Vergata (

Version at BMCR home site


The volume includes 13 papers, presented at an international meeting held in October 2011 in Salamanca. The purpose of the conference, as the editors write in the Foreword, was to explore the importance of the "Alexandrian model" in the imperial age, and the contacts and the relations between science, religion and literature, in a historical context characterized by the emergence of new cultural centres, in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, and by a circulation of knowledge which spread Hellenistic science and led to new specialisations.

The book does not offer a general outline of Alexandrian influence in ancient cultural history, nor was this the editors' purpose, but it makes interesting contributions in several fields of ancient science and literature. The chronological focus of the book is the imperial age, but Bergreen's paper covers the period from early Pythagoreanism to the Islamic Middle Ages, that of Santamaría deals with Apollonius of Rhodes, and Agosti's concentrates on fifth-century Greek poetry.

The topic of the interaction is well treated by James Evans, a well-known scholar of Greek astronomy (he published an important book on Geminos in 2006), but also a historian of modern physics. In the paper published in the present volume, "Mechanics and Imagination in Ancient Greek Astronomy: Sphairopoïia as Image and Tool" (pp. 35-72), Evans presents a scientific field between astronomy and mechanics, that of sphere-making, that is the construction of models of the heavens and their parts. The paper also has useful photographic reproductions. The origin of sphere-making is dated by Evans to the time of Plato, but its wider diffusion is due to Aratus, whose Phaenomena strongly popularized astronomy. Evans also considers gnomonics, that is the constructions of gnomons, like the one constructed around 10 BC in Rome by Augustus (now in Piazza di Montecitorio), and the documentation about some ancient planetariums, such as the one built by Archimedes and brought to Rome by Marcellus. An important contribution to the knowledge of sphere- making is provided by the Antikythera mechanism, discovered in an ancient shipwreck in 1901. This discovery clarifies, as Evans shows, not only how mechanics was used in the construction of the spheres, but also some details of the ancient lunar theory, as developed from Hipparchus to Ptolemy.

Three other papers deal with ancient astronomy. Anne Tihon ("Alexandrian Astronomy in the 2nd Century AD: Ptolemy and his Times", pp. 74-95) gives a good outline of Ptolemy's culture and works (with a useful bibliography on the editions of Ptolemy's works). In addition, she presents the Papyrus Fouad Inv. 267, discovered by Jean-Luc Fournet (and published in 2014 by Fournet, R. Mercier, and the same Thilon). The papyrus contains a fragment of an astronomical treatise which provides a new outline of the sources used by Ptolemy.

Thilon's paper is followed by Sebastien Moureau's short note "Note on a passage of the Arabic translation of Ptolemy's Planetary Hypotheses" (pp. 93-95). The Arabian translator of Planetary Hypotheses (p. 70, 19-23 Heiberg) interprets as a real phenomenon what Ptolemy proposes as a mathematical hypothesis about the celestial movements.

The epigram of the Greek Anthology attributed to Ptolemy (9.577) is examined by Juan Luis García Alonso ("When I scan the circling spirals of the stars, no longer do I touch earth with my feet", pp. 233-44). He does not deal with the problem of the attribution, but highlights the interesting aspect of the epigram: its evaluation of the ancient idea of the perfection of the cosmos, a myth which was transmitted by both science and religion. García Alonso scans this myth from the Ionic cosmologies to the affair of Hypatia (and also discusses the 2009 film version by Alejandro Amenábar), also considering Galileo Galilei's research in Padua.

John Lennart Berggren, a historian of mathematics and astronomy, explains the interactions between religion and mathematics from the Pythagoreans to the Arabs ("Mathematics & Religion in Ancient Greece and Medieval Islam", pp. 11-34). Several chapters on this subject are given in the survey: early Greek temple architecture, which used mathematical proportion in buildings such as the Parthenon and the temple of Apollo in Corinth; Ptolemy's view, in the Almagest, of mathematics as propaedeutic to theology; the mathematical works of al-Kindi and other Islamic authors. Bergreen observes that the often conflicted relations between science and religion in medieval Islam did not prevent important practical applications: the regulation of the Islamic lunar calendar, the calculation of the prescribed times of prayer, and the mathematical methods for calculating the qibla, that is the direction facing Mecca from a given locality.

Two papers deal with medicine. "Lucian's Podagra, Asclepius and Galen. The popularisation of medicine in the second century AD", by María Paz de Hoz (pp. 175-210), takes its cue from Lucian to determine the presence of medicine in the culture of the age of Galen, considering both the spread of scientific medicine through public lectures and demonstrations, and the theraputic pratices carried out in the sanctuaries of Asclepius. Laurent Bricault ("Isis, Sarapis, Cyrus and John: Between Healing Gods and Thaumaturgical Saints", pp. 98-114) relates the history of the cult of two Egyptian healing divinities, Isis of Menouthis and Serapis of Canopus. These cults, hellenized by the Ptolemies, presented analogies with the practice of the Asclepieion of Epidaurus: people went to the sanctuary of Serapis for an incubation ritual and received prescriptions from the god through dreams. Both cults were abolished by the Christians, but their role was inherited at the beginning of the sixth century by the Christian cult of Cyrus and John, presented by the clergy of Menouthis as thaumaturges who give prescriptions to the sick through dreams. The miracles of the two saints are recounted in the work of Sophonius of Jerusalem published in 2006 by Jean Gascou.

Geography is one of the aspects dealt with in the paper by Jane Lucy Lightfoot ("Between literature and science, poetry and prose, Alexandria and Rome: the case of Dionysius' Periegesis of the Known World", pp. 157-74), who has recently published a book on Dionysius's work. The Periegesis shows the influence of two different cultural traditions, both Alexandrine, the literary one of Callimachus and Apollonius, and the scientific and geographical one of Eratothenes, an author known to Dionysius, indirectly, through Strabo. Another field which is both scientific and literary is paradoxography, explored by Luis Arturo Guichard ("Paradox and the Marvellous in Greek Poetry of the Imperial Period", pp. 141-56). Guichard echoes the title of the book edited in 2009 by Philip Hardie ("Paradox and the Marvellous in Augustan Literature and Culture"), moving from Latin to Greek literature: he examines some epigrams of the Greek Anthology and the work of Oppian, using the analytical method proposed in 1963 by Alessandro Giannini. Imperial poetry favoured research about the marvellous but did not exclude, as Guichard shows, a rationalistic approach, so determining an ambiguous co-presence of credulity and incredulity. A different approach is revealed by Nonnus and Gregory of Nazianzus and other Christian authors, whose image of the marvellous is very closely linked to the concept of the Christian miracle.

The presence of scientific topics in literature is indicated by two other papers, that of Marco Antonio Santamaría on an episode of the Apollonius's Argonautica ("The Song of Orpheus in the Argonautica and the Theogonic Library of Apollonius", pp. 115-40), in which echoes of Hesiod and Empedocles are pointed out; and that of Laura Miguélez-Cavero on Nonnus of Panopolis ("Nonnus' natural histories: anything to do with Dionysus?", pp. 245-86), which examined the several references in the Dionysiaca to real and imaginary animals. Nonnus, as Miguélez-Cavero observes, possesses an educational acquaintance, not a specialist's knowledge, but is a good heir of the tradition of Alexandria.

The relations between Christians and pagans is also treated by Clelia Martínez Maza ("Christian paideia in early Imperial Alexandria", pp. 211-31), who compares the schools of Alexandria with those of Athens, revealing the Alexandrians' greater interest in the teaching of mathematics, and the usefulness attributed by Christians to this training.

In the last paper Gianfranco Agosti ("Greek Poetry in Late Antique Alexandria: between Culture and Religion", pp. 287-312) criticizes the traditional opinion on the decadence of poetry in late Alexandria, and highlights the role of poets such as Nonnus and Palladas. He pays particular attention to some of Palladas' epigrams, the paraphrase of the Psalms attributed to Apollinaris of Laodicea, but in fact composed by an Egyptian author about 460, and the Paraphrase of the Gospel of John written by Nonnus.

The volume, in conclusion, contains valuable contributions to several topics and authors and will of course stimulate further research on the presence of science in ancient culture.

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