‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. The opening sentence of L P Hartley’s The Go-Between has become a cliché, although not necessarily a helpful one. Misleadingly, it suggests that a distinct territory is waiting and ready in the far distance, ever-available for exploration by historical time-travellers. Yet the past is constantly shifting, an imagined entity repeatedly plundered and rewritten by souvenir-hungry tourists. Eager to consolidate their origins, they often search out evidence that will illustrate a narrative of inevitability culminating in themselves. Far from being a fixed entity, the story of Greek science is a work in progress with its own meta-history – an account of how interpretations have changed over the centuries, and how they are continuing to do so.
Isaac Newton famously wrote in a letter to his arch-rival Robert Hooke that ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants’. That remark now epitomises progress, a concept that had not yet been established as a universal goal. Newton had no way of knowing that he would himself become regarded as a giant by a society that – in strong contrast with his own – places science at the peak of human achievement. He was reiterating a familiar image coined by Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century, who had been concerned to emphasise the need for Christian humility. A cruel sub-text was concealed within Newton’s words: angrily rejecting Hooke’s accusations of plagiarism, he mocked his adversary’s small stature and deformed spine.
Throughout the mediaeval period and into Newton’s lifetime, the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome were regarded as vanished ideals represented by a few figureheads of great symbolic significance. A Christianised version of Aristotelianism was still being taught in the two English universities, and scholars admired a small group of Greek thinkers – Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras – as great intellectual heroes important for their ideas, not their lives. Always depicted as contemplative men with long white beards, they were often distinguishable only by their labels. Newton’s own idol was Euclid, founder of geometry, which he regarded as the supreme mathematical language of a golden era that could never be surpassed (Figure 1).
Like Theseus and other legendary human heroes, Greek philosophers acquired an almost mythical status, and often had semi-fictional stories attached to them. These anecdotes can now seem alien, because knowledge was divided up differently. In the traditional syllabus inherited by Newton and his contemporaries, there was no separate subject called ‘science’. Instead, four topics were bracketed together that no longer form a natural grouping: geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. Pythagoras was represented not by his theorem about triangles (which in any case was known to the Babylonians many centuries before he was born), but by the tale that he discovered the arithmetical relationships governing the musical scale when he was walking past a blacksmith’s shop and heard different notes being struck on the anvils (Figure 2).
More generally, during the Enlightenment period the characters of Greek mythology were as familiar to educated people as Cinderella or Santa Claus are today. They featured regularly in art and literature to illustrate moral dilemmas and codes of behaviour; Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus even used them in his scientific poetry explaining the principles of Linnean plant classification. When Mary Shelley dubbed Frankenstein a modern Prometheus, she felt no need to explain that the god had been punished by Zeus for stealing the secret of fire and giving it to human beings.
Similarly, in the design for Newton’s monument in Westminster Abbey, no explanatory captain was required for Urania, the Muse of Astronomy reclining on top of the celestial globe (Figure 3). Female figures were often used in this way to represent academic disciplines – and of course Wisdom had its own female Greek goddess, Athene (Minerva in Latin), immediately recognisable by her owl. Athene was, however, an ambiguous person: also the Goddess of War, she had an unusually muscular physique and wore a helmet on her head. These female deities were purely symbolic: most people (women as well as men) believed that women were intrinsically unsuited to scholarly studies as well as to military action.
One rare exception was Hypatia, a scholar in 4th-century Alexandria who was murdered by a mob and has since been transformed into an iconic martyr for a variety of causes, including philosophy, anti-Catholicism and women’s liberation (Figure 4). Renowned in her own lifetime as an eminent teacher of mathematics and astronomy, Hypatia contradicts suppositions that women were totally excluded from the ancient world of learning. Her violent death ensured that Hypatia’s memory was preserved, but surely she cannot have been the only female mathematician in the entire Greek empire? Her existence suggests that other clever girls were also benefitting from the education assumed to be exclusively reserved for their brothers. Finding counter-intuitive evidence often demands searching in different places or rereading familiar sources from a fresh angle.
The first major history of western science was compiled (in several successive editions) by the Cambridge mathematical astronomer William Whewell around the middle of the 19th century. He followed the broad Victorian view of history as articulated by the essayist Thomas Carlyle – that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men.’ The new word ‘scientist’ had recently been invented (in 1833) to describe a masculine profession that was not yet fully established. Writing about philosophy as well as history, Whewell sought to pin down science’s meaning, aims and methods. Focusing primarily on the physical and mathematical sciences, he identified the Greeks as the originators of systematic approaches to knowledge that rely on logical arguments and abstract theories – what he defined as the key distinguishing features of science. Under his influence, the history of science became a success story of ineluctable European progress since the time of the Greeks. Led by individual male geniuses such as Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Newton, scientists became the intellectual equivalents of Olympic athletes, passing on the torch of knowledge in a relay race up the mountain of truth.
During the eighteenth century, English investigations into the distant past had centred on Stonehenge and other ruined evidence of previous inhabitants. But subsequently, the search broadened out. Archaeologists ventured abroad and developed more methodical techniques, while philologists began cracking the linguistic codes of ancient cuneiform scripts and hieroglyphs. In addition, attitudes towards the past were changing: especially after Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection, people became fascinated in the Earth’s history and were ready to accept a greatly extended chronology that involved progressive change rather than the permanence taught in the Bible.
The first accounts of ancient Greek science began appearing in the early twentieth century, but it was not until after the Second World War that the subject expanded rapidly. Even so, although scholars presented a great deal of information and artefacts, the essential precept remained unchanged – that thanks to a revolutionary transformation of thought patterns during the early 5th century BCE, Greek philosophers were the unique founders of modernity. Some historians still cling to the appealing notion of a ‘Greek Miracle’ as the early starting point of western superiority, as if all societies were pre-ordained to advance at different rates towards a common goal. Yet during the last few decades, there have been several substantial challenges to conventional stories about science’s progressive past.
One trend has been to broaden what counts as science by recognising that it entails far more than abstract ideas and also demands searching well beyond a narrow academic elite. For instance, investigations of the natural world were stimulated by the search for useful medical and agricultural knowledge, while practical expertise was essential for building instruments to collect and record data. Once historians began focusing on objects, they retrieved many examples demonstrating the Greeks’ technological abilities: Archimedes designed his screw for lifting water; the Parthenon is astronomically oriented and mathematically proportioned; some aqueducts and underground tunnels extended over several kilometres.
Particularly startling was the unanticipated recovery of the Antikythera mechanism from a Mediterranean shipwreck (Figure 5). With its complex sets of rotating wheels for calculating astronomical phenomena, this ancient instrument overturned entrenched views by revealing that Greek artisans possessed advanced metallurgical skills usually attributed to mediaeval craftsmen. On the other hand, it can be tempting to exaggerate achievements of the past. Hero of Alexandria may (or may not) have been the first inventor to make an aeolopile, a small device that rotates a globe with puffs of steam. Intended as a demonstration gimmick, it was incapable of doing useful work and was certainly not a harbinger of industrialisation some seventeen centuries later.
Another major shift entailed demoting Greek exclusivity and priority by appreciating that every human civilisation has developed its own approach to the natural world: there is no unique or objective vantage point. Complex urban societies existed long before the relatively small city of Athens was founded, and programmes of intellectual activity thrived well in advance of that supposedly pivotal era, the 5th century BCE. Stonehenge, for example, bears testimony to a society well-informed about astronomical patterns, while ruins in Central America reveal a Mayan civilisation that developed sophisticated calendars, mathematical techniques and writing. Historians of ancient China have further disrupted traditional timetables by demonstrating the eastern origins of many early inventions and discoveries. At around the time that Plato was setting up his Academy in Athens, Chinese astronomers were compiling what is now the world’s oldest written list of comets.
As the Greeks themselves acknowledged, they benefitted directly from predecessors such as the ancient Egyptians, relying particularly heavily on mathematical expertise and astronomical data inherited from the Babylonians. Thanks to that pre-Greek culture, there are still 360 degrees in a circle, seven days in a week and sixty minutes in an hour: digital clocks are closer to clay tablets than they might seem. In order to run their society, the Babylonians developed administrative and agricultural techniques later adapted to underpin science – keeping accounts, constructing irrigation systems, parcelling out plots of land. Their system for classifying the skies remained prevalent in Europe up to the end of the 17th century, when clouds were still being bracketed with comets and meteors (hence the name of weather science, not founded until the 19th century). The Babylonian equivalent of Athene is now known as the Queen of the Night (Figure 6). In each outstretched hand, she holds a rod and ring to represent a surveyor’s ruler and tape: symbolically, these measuring instruments of power confirm her divine status.
Approaches towards the past are constantly evolving to meet contemporary concerns, and in recent decades historians of Greek science have shared the wider academic determination to retrieve the lives of those who were previously ignored, including artisans, women and enslaved peoples. Apollo may still be the Greek god of beauty, but it is no longer assumed that he has golden hair and white skin. Furthermore, rather than thinking about cities, individuals or institutions as central hubs of power, historians now focus on networks of exchange, showing how information, people and goods constantly circulated for mutual benefit over large areas.
Long after his death, Newton acquired his own heroic myth: that he conceived the concept of gravity in a sudden flash of inspiration while watching an apple fall from a tree. When Whewell compiled his Great Man history of science, he conveniently glossed over the 18th century so that he could imagine himself standing directly on Newton’s shoulders. Since then, other men – Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking – have clambered up and themselves become giants for future generations of scientists. But scientific achievements rely on the collective efforts of many many thousands of less well-known people – women as well as men from all over the world. Their stories have been concealed, but today’s historians are resolved to uncover them. The epoch of celebrating dead white male scientists has been brought to a close.
This was originally posted in support of our exhibition Ancient Greeks: Science and Wisdom that was open from 17 November 2021 – 5 June 2022. This collection displayed intriguing examples of how science is being used to uncover new insights about the Ancient Greek world.