Sunday, July 30, 2017


Jason König, Greg Woolf (ed.), Authority and Expertise in Ancient Scientific Culture. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xi, 473. ISBN 9781107060067. $135.00.

Reviewed by Emilie-Jade Poliquin, Columbia University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Someone reading the title, the list of contributors, and part of the introduction might expect to find many similarities between this book and Taub and Doody's 2009 volume Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing.1 Indeed, the two books have much in common: several scholars contributed to both (Harry Hine, Alice König, and Aude Doody), and Jason König, analyzing self-promotion and self-effacement in the introductory chapter, seems—at least at first sight—to correlate authority with authorial voice. This first impression is, however, misleading. In many respects, this collection of seventeen articles deals with the notion of authority and expertise in ancient scientific culture from a broader perspective. The editors voluntarily go beyond the traditional limits of technical literature (medicine, law, architecture, etc.) by including chapters on philosophy and historiography. Moreover, they treat authority not only as an intratextual (for example auctorial), but also as an extratextual phenomenon (i.e. real expertise of a particular group of people, expressed through literature). Indeed, by assembling interdisciplinary articles focused mostly on the Roman Empire, they endeavor to set forth how scientific authority influenced and was influenced by social and political context.

Unfortunately, the structure of the book does not help the reader appreciate this dual perspective (intra- v. extratextual authority); dividing the volume into different thematic sections could have been an easy way to highlight it. Instead, the order of the chapters is dictated by the different scientific disciplines, creating constant movements back and forth between methodological approaches. Therefore—and also in order to bring out further interdisciplinary parallels—I have chosen not to follow it in writing this review.

In two similar chapters, Michael Trapp ("Philosophical authority in the Imperial period") and Jill Harries ("Iurisperiti: 'men skilled in law'") try to define the expertise of two groups of professionals, philosophers and jurists, respectively. The scholars highlight how these men dealt with political authority and how, when competing for public recognition, they produced diverse rivalries not only among themselves but also with other professions, and how each group managed to establish a clear, yet complex field of expertise.

Three chapters explore the tension between theory and practice. In the first ("Fragile expertise and the authority of the past: the Roman art of war") Marco Formisano asks the question: Can we learn something useful from military treatises ? After showing that literary sources are less univocal than we might think — he offers an interesting reading of Ovid's iudicium armorum —, Formisano explains the role and importance of theory in two military texts: Onasander's Strategikos and Vegetius' Epitoma rei militaris. Next is an article by Alice König ("Conflicting models of authority and expertise in Frontinus' Strategemata") in which she examines both the textual representation of military expertise and the intratextual authority of Frontinus' persona. She demonstrates how the narrative strategies developed by Frontinus not only do not widen the gap between theory and practice, but even create a bridge between them. Aude Doody begins her chapter ("The authority of writing in Varro's De re rustica") by saying that "In Varro's De re rustica, owning a farm does not make you a farmer" (p. 182), a playful sentence that also evokes the tension between theory and practice. Doody offers an investigation of the use and authority of written texts in an agricultural world constituted mostly of illiterate slaves.

A unique chapter looks into mathematics. Reviel Netz ("The authority of mathematical expertise and the question of ancient writing more geometrico") asks if ancient authors tried to enhance the authority of their texts by writing more geometrico. To answer this question, Netz presents (long and sometimes convoluted) analyses of four "mathematised treatises" and four "mathematical-like passages," concluding that in antiquity, mathematics did not carry the same authority as today.

The remaining papers deal with auctorial authority. Four different chapters develop the notion of self-presentation, especially vis-a-vis other writers or sources. Daniel Harris-McCoy ("Making and defending claims to authority in Vitruvius' De architectura") discusses Vitruvius both as a compiler of information and the editor of his treatise. He points out how Vitruvius cites his sources with parsimony and with as few references as he can in order to make himself essential to the reader. Harris-McCoy then explores two metaphors relating to nature that show how Vitruvius gathered his information to create a new body of knowledge in the same way Nature does with atoms. Emily Kneebone ("The limits of enquiry in Imperial Greek didactic poetry") argues that didactic poets, in ways reminiscent of Vitruvius, expressed their authority through their relation to Nature or especially to a boundless Nature. This group differs greatly from prose authors, as they claim poetic authority, not technical expertise, and because they emphasize the limits of their mortal knowledge more often than writers of prose. Kneebone points to one exception: Marcellus of Side's Iatrica, "a point of self-conscious intersection between the ‛epic' and ‛scientific' didactic traditions" (p. 224). According to Johannes Wietzke ("The public face of expertise: utility, zeal, and collaboration in Ptolemy's Syntaxis"), Ptolemy presented himself as a literary euergetês: through a long-term process of collaboration with a source far in the past (Hipparchus) and a reader far in the future (us?), Ptolemy emerges as the only possible authority in astronomy. A similar argument can be found in Ralph M. Rosen's chapter ("Anatomy and aporia in Galen's On the Construction of Fetuses"). Focusing his analysis on one particular treatise, Rosen shows how Galen, even though he admits the limits of observation in embryology and his own failure to find clear answers, nevertheless positions himself as better equipped than anyone else would ever be, thus endowing himself with greater authority.

Auctorial authority should not be studied only in regard to self-presentation: the relationship established with the reader is also very important and is, to different degrees, the subject of three articles. Nicolas Wiater ("Expertise, 'character', and the 'authority effect' in the Early Roman History of Dionysius of Halicarnassus") shows how Dionysius, through enumerations, voluntarily confuses his readers in order to prove his superiority over them. In this context, Wiater coins the phrase "authority effect" to express the effectiveness of a variety of rhetorical devices that give more authority to the author. Harry Hine ("Philosophical authority in the Younger Seneca") reflects on how Seneca the Younger, even though he was not a professional philosopher, was able to adapt his level of philosophical expertise to his readership. Studying examples from the Consolations, the De beneficiis and the Letters, Hine sees a correspondence between the wide spectrum of attitudes toward philosophy seen in Seneca and the one we can perceive in Roman society. Daryn Lehoux ("The authority of Galen's witnesses") highlights how Galen, in some of his treatises, not only plays with the authority of his eyewitnesses to increase his own, but also uses the addressee as a witness to involve the actual reader.

Literary genre also affects auctorial authority and is especially important for the understanding of apparent inconsistencies or contradictions. Leah Kronenberg ("Varro the Roman Cynic: the destruction of religious authority in the Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum") claims that the Divine Antiquities should be read as a Menippean satire: in them, Varro creates the persona of a pedantic expert whose inconsistent sayings parody Roman religion and are not to be taken too seriously. Katharina Volk ("Signs, seers and senators: divinatory expertise in Cicero and Nigidius Figulus"), aiming to resolve a long-standing controversy over De diuinatione, points out how Cicero used the dialogue form to create two personae (Quintus and Marcus) and to express through them two apparently irreconcilable attitudes toward divination. Volk concludes that Cicero, like Marcus, did not "believe" in Divination (the ontological fact), but, like Quintus, respected divination (the social practice).

The book closes with a chapter by G.E.R. Lloyd ("Authority and expertise: some cross-cultural comparisons"), undertaking some comparisons involving ancient India, Mesopotamia, and mostly China. Lloyd demonstrates how our perceptions of authority and expertise can change according to time and/or culture.

Finally, anyone interested in the study of scientific/technical literature will certainly find something useful in one or another of the seventeen individual papers. However, for the scholar studying authority, this volume has, as we say in French, "the defects of its qualities and the qualities of its defects": its dual approach, looking to both intra- and extratextual expertise, can lead to confusion — one feels, for example, that some authors have hesitated between the two approaches. These reservations do not alter the fact that, without any doubt, the volume provides a rich survey of the theme of authority.

Technically, the copyediting is excellent and the volume is easy to use: it has copious notes and bibliography (860 titles); the original texts are often given in addition to the English translation; and there is a helpful index.

Authors and Titles

1. Introduction: self-assertion and its alternatives in ancient scientific and technical writing — Jason König
2. Philosophical authority in the Imperial period — Michael Trapp
3. Philosophical authority in the Younger Seneca — Harry Hine
4. Iurisperiti: 'men skilled in law' — Jill Harries
5. Making and defending claims to authority in Vitruvius' De architectura — Daniel Harris-McCoy
6. Fragile expertise and the authority of the past: the Roman art of war — Marco Formisano
7. Conflicting models of authority and expertise in Frontinus' Strategemata — Alice König
8. The authority of writing in Varro's De re rustica — Aude Doody
9. The limits of enquiry in Imperial Greek didactic poetry — Emily Kneebone
10. Expertise, 'character', and the 'authority effect' in the Early Roman History of Dionysius of Halicarnassus — Nicolas Wiater
11. The authority of Galen's witnesses — Daryn Lehoux
12. Anatomy and aporia in Galen's On the Construction of Fetuses — Ralph M. Rosen
13. Varro the Roman Cynic: the destruction of religious authority in the Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum — Leah Kronenberg
14. Signs, seers and senators: divinatory expertise in Cicero and Nigidius Figulus — Katharina Volk
15. The public face of expertise: utility, zeal and collaboration in Ptolemy's Syntaxis — Johannes Wietzke
16. The authority of mathematical expertise and the question of ancient writing more geometrico — Reviel Netz
17. Authority and expertise: some cross-cultural comparisons — G. E. R. Lloyd.


1.   Liba Chaia Taub, Aude Doody (ed.), Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2009.

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