Sunday, December 11, 2016


Courtney Roby, Technical ekphrasis in Greek and Roman Science and Literature: the Written Machine between Alexandria and Rome. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 336. ISBN 9781107077300. $120.00.

Reviewed by Maria Gerolemou, University of Cyprus (

Version at BMCR home site


Technical ekphrasis, as Courtney Roby uses the term, is a description of a technical artifact either in a mechanical text or embodied in fiction or history. In the introduction, Roby argues that the aim of mechanical texts is not merely to describe the physical attributes of artifacts, their construction and operation, but to fuse these with the literary concern of communicating with an audience; in essence, they are concerned with advertising the machine's novelty and its potential to be well received, along with the intelligence of its inventor. In this vein, authors depicting mechanical artifacts appeal to rhetorical techniques, such as enargeia. Specifically, through their explicit descriptions they create vivid mental images, which demand from the audience a cognitive response that presupposes the contribution of its cultural imaginary. In this way, the authors succeed in informing not solely an expert audience but also laymen about complicated technological artifacts. That said, Roby does not distinguish between different genres and prefers taking literary interactions as they are. However, one could argue that the reverse of her approach offers interesting possibilities; namely that we consider directing our attention to the influence of mechanics after the Hellenistic era to other scientific writings, such as those in medical science, for which the imaginary representation of the body's mechanics has been attested (see Berryman 2009, p. 200)1). Other examples include astronomy (cf. Aratus' Phaenomena) or, even more interestingly, ekphrastic writings aiming to represent figurative art as naturalistic, three-dimensional and lifelike (cf. e.g. Callistratus' Statuarum descriptions).

Chapter one introduces various kinds of mechanical writing, represented, as indicated in the introduction, not only in scientific texts but also in fiction. These could be classified either by the depicted artifact or by the communicative purpose of their texts. That is, on the one hand the categorization of mechanical artifacts could be determined by the devices themselves, by the group to which they belong, or by their cognitive claims. On the other hand, the classification of mechanical descriptions could be based on whether they are representing basic facts of construction (materials, measurements and construction principles), whether they seek to train their audience on how to construct a machine in the future, or merely wish to show how a machine was made in the past. Roby concludes that it is trivial to categorize descriptions of mechanical artifacts, as they tend to differ in form, text structure, their intended audience, and the aims of their authors. For that reason, Roby asserts: "…passages were selected on the basis of the presence of the 'technical ekphrasis' rather than by their location in a work somehow qualifying as a 'technical text'." Setting this as her starting point, Roby creates a homogenous group of verbal representations of mechanical artifacts, which share the rhetorical technique of enargeia, and which support the author's project and respond to audience expectations.

Chapter two presents how changes, i.e. advances in technological artifacts, have influenced the textual representation of mechanical artifacts. More precisely, it examines how technical ekphrasis was shaped by the literary and technological cultures in which it was produced, starting with the Hellenistic era and its focus on innovation and conservation of past inventions. During this era, mechanical artifacts and their illustration were influenced by the enhancement of military technology, which was promoted by kings in the areas of medicine, mathematics, geometry and philosophy. On the other hand, Roman technical texts, which appeared later in the Hellenistic period, try to downplay features like mathematical formulae and instructions for construction, or seek to integrate them within a larger body of theoretical knowledge. For the Roman authors of mechanical texts, much more challenging was the attempt to re- contextualize Greek scientific knowledge in a Latin context in order to make them comprehensible to the Roman audience. In Imperial times, the influence of rhetoric on the description of technological artifacts appears to have been massive; through enargeia, the author of a technical ekphrasis manages to engage the designer's and, accordingly the viewer's phantasia, that is, the potential of his imagination, in order to understand the designer's mechanical vision. In late antiquity, the processes of exegesis and commentary were adapted to mechanical texts.

Chapter three examines various ekphrastic strategies that serve mechanical writing. The goal of mechanical ekphrasis is to provide a clear picture of the mechanical artifact to an audience formed by the cultural necessity of the time. Some authors describe an artifact in terms of its construction, the physical properties of its materials, or the mechanics of its operation. In the service of realism, mechanical authors also use data such as numbers and details regarding building materials, informing their audience about basic tactile information and the audible features of the machines which does not directly reflect the artifact's visible qualities. Here, the synaesthetic character of technical ekphrasis implies perceptively that visuality and non- visuality do not mark the limits of ekphrasis. Parekphrastic strategies, such as stimulating the memories existing in the perceiver's mind by referring to related objects or describing the subjective responses of the spectators to the objects, are further employed in order to delineate the object for the reader. Here, the ancient authors elaborate on the surprising beauty provided by the artifacts, which are described as wonders, clashing with certain expectations on the part of the reader. Roby does not however forge connections between mechanical treatises and Wunderkultur; that is, it is not clear if wonder, a leitmotif of ekphrasis, involves the layman's response to the spectacular, or if it emerges as a cognitive skill. Furthermore, is the wonder of the designer and author something real or is it a lure? 2

Chapter four examines visual representations, graphics that supplement textual descriptions of technological artifacts and have, according to Roby, the same persuasive power and cognitive results as verbal representations (Diagrams themselves are also described on occasion in the texts). In this way, the envisaged machine comes more readily into view, creating, as Roby argues, a more intense and sympathetic relationship with the reader, affording the machine greater agency, as it were, before its intended audience. However, this mutual interdependence between the reader and the artifact is not actually explored in the book. As Roby argues, the ekphrastic model including diagrams that show a complicated mechanical reality, which is otherwise inexpressible, fills a gap that a verbal description alone fails to do. However, Roby doesn't proceed to offer further explanation on the synaesthetic experience of the viewer dealing with a presentation that integrates a haptic reading of the technical artifact. The role of emotion also seems to be relevant here: How is this connected with the visual or textual signifier? Does a possibility exist here of overthrowing the image-text dichotomy?

Roby does not in general elaborate on what it would have meant for an ekphrasis to be supported by visual means, such as diagrams, given that an ekphrasis is based on absence, i.e. on not seeing the artifact. More precisely, according to Webb, "when the audience actually had before their physical eyes the sight which the orator was supposed to bring before the eyes of the mind" ekphrasis ran the risk of being superfluous (p. 172).4 Webb, referring to authors describing, for instance, architectural artifacts—i.e. artifacts known to the audience—argues that they actually aspire towards describing the unseen, that which lies at the heart of the tropos, and the marvel of their construction, in order to engage their audience's phantasia (p. 174). Memory and imagination constitute the basic parts of an ekphrasis; a verbal description of something unseen is based on past memory and promotes future memory through the listener's phantasia. According to Roby, diagrams are constructed in an abstracted analogy with the real artifact or tend to play with optical illusion,; one way or the other, they run the risk of endangering the experience of the ekphrastic passage. Here again, Roby seems to try to expand the limits of ekphrasis beyond the visual.

Chapter five focuses on the ekphrastic description of mechanical artifacts per se, as well as on the cognitive, active response of the audience. Machines are treated as the embodiment of the knowledge possessed by the author and the audience, whereas ekphrastic texts guide the spectator to decode the artifact, its physical features and main functional principles. How do they succeed in this? The artifact is described by way of detailed instructions that explain how it could be fashioned before the reader's eyes, giving him the impression that he could even take part in the manufacturing process. Authors of mechanical texts employ various literary techniques, using direct imperatives or personal pronouns, promoting an authorial voice that exhibits first-hand knowledge, while also targeting an intra-textual virtual audience which stands in for the actual readers of the text. On the other hand some authors, using impersonal verb forms, wish to theorize the principles behind an artifact, achieving in this way objectivity by disconnecting, in a sense, the reader from the artifact. As a case study, Roby employs the example of military machines.

The last chapter, entitled "Knowledge and Artifact," discusses texts that focus on knowledge that is presupposed for designing and building an artifact, part by part, and on how attention to the structure and function of certain types of artifact enhances the ability of the artifact to communicate with external knowledge (e.g. harmonics, pneumatics), beyond the artifact itself. However, the scientific part should not be divided from the former technological part; they both share an experientially cognitive potential that is often employed in the texts in an epideictic manner, such as when a mechanical procedure could not be sufficiently explained through words alone; that is, the role of experiment or testing, as related to the artifact, is being illustrated. Such an approach underscores, once again, the unwillingness of those texts to conform to a single textual, verbal and visual form that observes specific genre characteristics, authorial intentions, and intended audiences.

The last chapter of the book functions as a formal conclusion. Here, Roby discusses the limits of technical ekphrasis, in particular the cases when the description of the mechanical artifact fails to achieve its communicative purposes. According to Roby, on some occasions texts are overloaded with information, technical vocabulary, and complicated details, which discourage the reader by making them difficult to follow; sometimes the nature of the mechanical artifact defies clear and effective description.

In conclusion, I repeat that the book offers a great contribution both to ekphrastic and technical writing, particularly as Roby links the latter to both fiction and reality. However, Roby could have developed further the concept of ekphrastic poikilia by elaborating on the idea of technical ekphrasis in a systematic way beyond the visual field, specifically in the areas of sound and touch. What does it mean when, for instance, Hero, in Dioptra 20.32, who does not want to go into meticulous details, avoids, as he says, ποικιλογραφία? On the other hand, again in Hero, what does it mean when already in the proemium of the Automata he states that poikilia and ekplexis are constituent parts of the artifact and its perception respectively (cf. Philo Bel. 51.35)?5 The necessarily abstract character of technical ekphrasis seems to force the authors to include or not include in their depictions, according to their intentions, further sensory information in order to intensify the relationship between the artifact and the audience. Finally, clarity is sometimes compromised by the absence of the original text.


1.   Berymann, Sylvia 2009. The Mechanical Hypothesis in Ancient Greek Natural Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2.   Cf. e.g. Hunzinger, Christine 2015. "Wonder". In Destrée, Pierre, and Penelope Murray (eds.), ACompanion to Ancient Aesthetics. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 422-437.
3.   On the concept of synaesthesia see Butler, Shane, Purves, Alex (eds.) 2013. Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses. Durham: Acumen.
4.  Webb, Ruth 2009. Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical. Theory and Practice. Surrey, England: Ashgate.
5.   Grand-Clément, Adeline 2011. La fabrique des couleurs. Histoire du paysage sensible des Grecs anciens (VIIIe- début du Ve siècle av. n. è.). De l'archéologie à l'histoire. Paris: De Boccard.

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