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What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking

Daryn Lehoux
University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Underwood Dudley
, on

The author, a professor of classics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, examines the Romans’ view of nature from the first century bc to the second century ad.

He considers works by Cicero, Seneca, Galen, Ptolemy, Lucretius, Plutarch and others and concludes, in effect, that they did the best that they could. They lived in a different world, so different from ours that it is hard for us to understand it. For instance, the assertion that the magnetism of a piece of iron could be eliminated by rubbing it with garlic was taken as true, I suppose because in the Roman world of the time the idea of doing an experiment was sufficiently alien that it occurred to no one.

The book is not for the general reader. Though the author writes with more verve than the typical scholar, the book is heavy with the technical terms of classics and philosophy (his conclusion is that he is an “epistemological coherentist”). He translates all his Latin and Greek quotations, which is helpful, but starting with the first paragraph on page 194, the next nine sentences have 80, 40, 40, 41, 55, 50, 52, 42, and 46 words, which is not. Those with suitable backgrounds will no doubt gain from reading what is one of the few books on Roman “science” of the period.

Ask a mathematician about Roman mathematics and the response is likely to be “What Roman mathematics?” The book does nothing to change that view because it contains zero mathematics. It is an estimable book, but its audience is not members of the MAA.

The book is well produced and edited, but I have no idea what “an chippy entomologist” (p. 215) is.

Among Woody Dudley’s many lacks is a classical education. Though he retired in 2004 and has had plenty of time to acquire one, he hasn’t. Nobody’s perfect.

1. The Web of Knowledge 
    A Roman World 
    A Roman World 
    Knowing Nature in the Roman Context 

2. Nature, Gods, and Governance 
    Divinity and Divination 
    Roman Virtues 
    Nature and the Legitimation of the Republic 
    A Ciceronian Contradiction? 
    Knowledge of Nature and Virtuous Action 
    Fabulae versus Learned Observation 

3. Law in Nature, Nature in Law 
    Laws of Nature 
    Natural Laws 
    Human and Divine Governance 
    Is a “Law of Nature” Even Possible in Antiquity? 
    Divinity, Redux 

4. Epistemology and Judicial Rhetoric 
    Theory-Ladenness and Observation 
    Observations as Models 
    Observational Selectivity 
    Examination of Witnesses 
    The Natural Authority of Morals 
    Declamation and Certainty 

5. The Embeddedness of Seeing 
    Doubts about Vision 
    Mechanisms of Seeing in Antiquity 
    The Eyes as Organs 
    Not Every Black Box Is a Camera Obscura 
    Epistemologies of Seeing 
    The Centrality of Experience 

6. The Trouble with Taxa 
    Knowledge Claims and Context-Dependence 
    Unproblematic Facticity 
    Problems with Experience 
    The Lab Section of the Chapter 
    The Question of Worlds 

7. The Long Reach of Ontology 
    Four Kinds of Justification for Prediction 
    Predictability and Determinism 
    Physical Solutions to Determinism 
    The Cascading Effect 
8. Dreams of a Final Theory 
    Explaining the Cosmos 
    Orbs, Souls, Laws 
    Numbers in Nature 
    Harmony and Empiricism 

9. Of Miracles and Mistaken Theories 
    History as a Problem for Realism 
    Quantum Magnum PI? 
    Can We Avoid the Problems History Poses? 
       First Strategy: We Have Something They Didn’t 
       Second Strategy: The Curate’s Egg 
    Other Ways Out 

10. Worlds Given, Worlds Made 
    What’s in a World? 
    Kuhn’s World 
    What Good Is Relativism? 
    Truth and Meaning 
    Realism, Coherence, and History 

11. Conclusion  

Appendix: Lemma to the Mirror Problem 
Reference List