Jason König and Greg Woolf, eds. Authority and Expertise in Ancient Scientific Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017
Authority and Expertise in Ancient Scientific Culture examines rhetorical strategies for establishing authority in Greco-Roman scientific texts, focusing largely on the late Republican/Hellenistic and Roman imperial periods. The editors define “scientific” broadly as “the whole industry of ancient knowledge ordering”(3), and the contributions cover everything from philosophy and medicine to military strategy. The hypothesis of the volume is that “experimentation and cross-fertilisation in techniques of self-authorisation … is at its richest and most variable in the globalised intellectual culture of the Roman Empire” (5). This hypothesis is explored through close readings of such techniques, including appeal to the addressee as witness, obfuscating sources, and constructing (pseudo-)collaborative relationships with past authorities.
The volume is the product of a series of workshops and conferences held in St Andrews, as part of a project called Science and Empire in the Roman World. It is the third in a trilogy of edited volumes, following Ancient Libraries and Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Despite the lack of explicit reference to texts in the title of the current work, it is similarly focused upon textual constructions of “authority and expertise.” Central themes include the tension between textual authority and practical experience, the relationship between the author and their patron or addressee, the assemblage and presentation of written sources, engagement with tradition, and the impossibility of comprehensive knowledge, a trope familiar from Homer’s catalog of ships.
The chapters are organized loosely by discipline. Jason König’s introductory chapter situates the volume both in history of science and its growing concern with rhetoric, and in ancient intellectual history and the social values attached to different kinds of technical expertise. Immediately following are two chapters dedicated to philosophy, which was perhaps the most highly-valued of ancient “sciences.” Michael Trapp explores the different contexts and interactions in which “philosophical achievement and authority could be encountered – asserted, deferred to or resisted” (43), emphasizing plurality and contestation throughout. Harry Hine focuses on philosophical authority in the moral writings of Seneca the Younger, taking as his starting-point Seneca’s non-professional identity (58). Hine’s analysis suggests that Seneca drew on philosophical expertise selectively, in response to the varied attitudes toward philosophical inquiry in Roman society. Seneca presented himself as a model, Hine argues, “of how to bring philosophy into the warp and weft of Roman life” (81).
The next two chapters focus on authors who are also technical practitioners. Jill Harries examines legal authority, arguing that, despite the overbearing influence of imperial patrons, lawyers maintained authority both through “their ownership of a system of knowledge” (87) that demanded lengthy and difficult training, and through the aura of permanence and inflexibility that that textualization lent to the law (105–06). With a similar interest in the relationship between text and expertise, Daniel Harris-McCoy explores editorial authority in Vitruvius’s treatise On Architecture. Highlighting the historiographical shift from reading such works as sources of information (about, for example, war machines) to situating them in their political context, Harris-McCoy goes further, by focusing on the construction of On Architecture as a body of knowledge.
The contributions then turn to military strategy, with two chapters on the art of war. Marco Formisano offers a tightly-argued account of how “the tension between theory and practice, which is inherent in any discourse of war, … destabilises the very authority of those who write” (131). He emphasizes throughout the literary, rather than technical, authority of the authors examined in his analysis. Alice König examines a single text, Frontinus’ Strategemata, but similarly emphasizes the tension between “scholarly learning and practical know-how” (157). König suggests that Frontinus’s unwillingness to exhibit his own practical expertise may have been a response to his political context, under Domitian, and emphasizes the interrelationship of textual authority and political contexts (180–81).
The three chapters that follow each deal with the role of ancient scholarship in reinforcing power relationships. Aude Doody’s compelling discussion of Varro’s agricultural treatise On Agriculture argues that “[w]riting on agriculture was an important means of asserting control over knowledge about the land” (201), especially among members of the Roman elite whose slaves might in fact have more (practical) expertise. Emily Kneebone explores how ancient authors of didactic poetry “orientate their authoritative claims” around their status as poets, rather than around their technical expertise (203). At the center of Kneebone’s analysis are the tropes of human knowledge as limited, and of writing as a kind of measurement (that is, of making and ordering knowledge). Nicolas Wiater, focusing on historiographical texts, examines what he calls the “authority effect”—that is, the strategies employed by the author not only to assert his own authority, but also to encourage his reader to recognize the need for the author’s authority: by making his reader appreciate the difficulty of organizing the sources, Dionysius of Halicarnassus encourages his reader to rely on his account; by asserting the impiety of disagreeing with his moral position, he steers his reader toward acquiescing with his evaluation of events.
Two chapters on the imperial physician Galen of Pergamum follow. Daryn Lehoux analyses the extent to which Galen appeals to the testimony of his addressees, and discovers that Galen bookends his works with such claims (“… as you have seen …”), to give the impression that his addressee was witness to the events described throughout. Ralph Rosen focuses on a single Galenic text, On the Construction of Fetuses, and finds a contradiction between Galen’s critique of his philosophical opponents, who do not make sufficient use of anatomy in their theorization of embryonic development, and his own embryological arguments, which rarely make use of anatomical evidence, and which are oriented around philosophical questions. Central to Galen’s question of which organ develops first is the philosophical question that haunts much of his work: which organ is the instrument of the governing soul?
Following this are two chapters dedicated to religious authority. Leah Kronenberg offers a fresh reading of the fragments of Varro’s Divine Antiquities, which are preserved in Augustine’s City of God. The inconsistency and apparent hypocrisy of Varro’s work (its “comic elements”), Kronenberg argues, is due less to Augustine’s polemical selection of quotations, and more to Varro’s “satirical” critique of his own project of melding “philosophical approaches to religion” with the traditions of Roman cult (306). Katharina Volk also highlights the disingenuity of elite support for Roman cult, in her discussion of divinatory expertise in Cicero and Nigidius Figulus: Cicero upholds the importance of divination as a social and political practice, but dismisses the reality of “Divination” (i.e., its efficacy); Nigidius Figulus, by contrast, is presented as “an active diviner and … scholar of divination,” who nonetheless similarly employs his expertise “as a tool of political propaganda” (346).
Concluding the meat of the volume are two chapters that focus on mathematic expertise. Johannes Wietzke’s examination of Ptolemy’s Syntaxis finds that the author of this work, which appears to be aimed chiefly at those with substantial mathematical training, establishes his own position through a “collaborative” relationship with his predecessor Hipparchus, whose scholarly agenda he presents himself as carrying out. Reviel Netz charts the use of “writings ‘more geometrico’” (375) in ancient texts from a range of disciplines, and finds that the early modern interest in mathematical language as “generally exportable to other fields” cannot be traced in antiquity (405). The explanation, Netz suggests, is that ancient mathematics carried limited authority: outside of its own domain, it was “perceived as a vehicle of clarity, not of validity” (406). Technical brilliance does not necessarily make a text authoritative. “Sometimes,” Netz writes, “boring is just boring: it makes you yawn without making you genuflect” (407).
G. E. R. Lloyd’s closing chapter is a concise survey of strategies of authority and expertise in scientific texts from ancient Mesopotamian, Indian, and Chinese cultures. Lloyd’s interest lies in the extent to which strategies might be considered universal, as well as in the differences that can be mapped out. He concludes by distinguishing “the rhetoric of presentation” (that is, the rhetorical strategies that the volume takes as its central focus) from “the reality of actual innovation,” and highlights the importance of distinguishing the two when interpreting any scientific text (423).
While the ancient texts examined in this volume are marginal to the classical canon, the chapters are exemplary in their accessible presentation of the material for non-specialist audiences, and individual chapters could fruitfully be included in advanced undergraduate or graduate syllabi. As a whole, the volume provides compelling evidence that various, interrelated “techniques of self-authorisation” were employed across (what the modern reader might categorize as) different scientific and technical genres, as a means not only for professionals to establish their credentials, but also for non-professionals to situate themselves in the social and political networks of the late Republic and the Roman Empire.
Jessica Wright is Assistant Professor of Classics and Medical Humanities at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She writes on the brain and mental health in late antiquity.