Lost and Found

Marcus Terentius Varro  was called the most learned of the Romans.  But what did he know, and how did he know it? I ask because of this quote, from Rerum rusticarum libri III  (Agricultural Topics in Three Books):

“Especial care should be taken, in locating the steading, to place it at the foot of a wooded hill, where there are broad pastures, and so as to be exposed to the most healthful winds that blow in the region. A steading facing the east has the best situation, as it has the shade in summer and the sun in winter. If you are forced to build on the bank of a river, be careful not to let the steading face the river, as it will be extremely cold in winter, and unwholesome in summer. 2 Precautions must also be taken in the neighbourhood of swamps, both for the reasons given, and because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases.” “What can I do,” asked Fundanius, “to prevent disease if  I should inherit a farm of that kind?” “Even I can answer that question,” replied Agrius; “sell it for the highest cash price; or if you can’t sell it, abandon it.”

I get the distinct impression that someone (probably someone other than Varro) came up with an approximation of germ theory 1500 years before Girolamo Fracastoro.  But his work was lost.

Everybody knows, or should know, that the vast majority of Classical literature has not been preserved.  Those lost works contained facts and ideas that might have value today – certainly there are topics that we understand much better because of insights from Classical literature. For example,  Reich and Patterson find that some of the Indian castes have existed for something like three thousand years:  this is easier to believe when you consider that Megasthenes wrote about the caste system as early as 300 BC.

We don’t put much effort into recovering lost Classical literature.  But there are ways in which we could push harder – by increased funding for work on the Herculaneum scrolls, or the Oxyrhynchus papyri collection, for example.  Some old-fashioned motivated archaeology might get lucky and find another set of Amarna cuneiform letters, or a new Antikythera  mechanism.

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77 Responses to Lost and Found

  1. Beautiful post. A neurologist dryly observed of his discipline: “If you ignore the work done in the 19th Century you can publich new discoveries in the 20th Century. So, to your theme of “What do we really know” we must add your theme of “What have we already forgotten?”

    • dearieme says:

      A colleague of mine on another colleague: “He publishes so much because he applies no critical thinking to his own results, and is largely ignorant of the literature”.

  2. See No Evol says:

    This is more than 2,000 years old:

    Suppose all sprang from all things: any kind
    Might take its origin from any thing,
    No fixed seed required. Men from the sea
    Might rise, and from the land the scaly breed,
    And, fowl full fledged come bursting from the sky;
    The horned cattle, the herds and all the wild
    Would haunt with varying offspring tilth and waste;
    Nor would the same fruits keep their olden trees,
    But each might grow from any stock or limb
    By chance and change.

    On the Nature of Things, Lucretius (c. 50 B.C.E)

    Meanwhile, the greatest evolutionary biologist of our own day is pronouncing on HBD:

    RD: That was unfortunate. I should have compared religion with religion and compared Islam not with Trinity College but with Jews, because the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is phenomenally high.

    IC: OK, but what do you make of that?

    RD: Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture. Something about the cultural tradition of Jews is way, way more sympathetic to science and learning and intellectual pursuits than Islam. That would have been a fair comparison. Ironically, I originally wrote the tweet with Jews and thought, That might give offense. And so I thought I better change it.

    Richard Dawkins interview: On Pope Francis, poetry and why Jews win so many Nobel Prizes

    • 420blazeitfgt says:

      “RD: Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture.”
      Yeah right. He doesn’t believe that. This is insane. 2 days after he made that tweet comparing Trinity college to Muslims, he tweeted a link to the Steven Pinker lecture on Cochran et al’s Ashkenazi IQ hypothesis, here: https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/status/366156271222665217

      • aisaac says:

        wow, what a coward. Not only does he not dare to tell the truth, he doesn’t even keep his mouth shut about things he doesn’t dare to tell the truth about. That would be excusable if he was in a position to have his life robbed by Twitter sansculottes, but he’s rich and influential enough to push the boundaries and get away with it.

      • Ian says:

        I agree with aisaac: RD is a coward.

      • panjoomby says:

        I agree — I’m sure RD & those in his position think they have too much to lose by admitting such a thing.

      • reiner Tor says:

        And to think RD was once a hero for me… I am still not religious, but these days I can suffer a religious fanatic better than a committed proselytizing atheist.

      • reiner Tor says:

        He is such a liar. “Race does not come into it.” Does he even have a theory how evolution was supposed to stop for humans?

      • reiner Tor says:

        All proselytizing atheist types i know are HBD-deniers. Apparently their scientific super-skepticism only applies to religious tales which not even most religious people believe any more, but it never applies to the catechism of the official PC-religion.

      • Ian says:

        >All proselytizing atheist types i know are HBD-deniers.

        🙂 Mostly right. I’m the exception. To be exact, I’m more of the live-and-let-die kind of atheist (and a right-winger) than a proselytizer. But yes, ideology and HBD-awareness interact in very funny ways.

      • reiner Tor says:

        I’m more of the live-and-let-die kind of atheist

        I only wrote about the proselytizing types. I know a lot of HBD people (or even white separatist/nationalist etc. types) who are atheists, but they never proselytize much for atheism.

      • See No Evol says:

        He doesn’t believe that.

        Agreed. He knows the truth but won’t come out and say it, because he’s frightened of the witch-burners who would immediately come after him.

        This is insane.

        It’s worse than insanity: it’s lying: “Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture.” So Dawkins continually campaigns against religious irrationality, obscurantism and mendacity, while keeping quiet because he’s frightened of the most irrational, obscurantist and mendacious cult of all. Believing in the virgin birth or night flight to Jerusalem is much less irrational than believing in We’re All the Same under the Skin. The religious hypotheses are no longer accessible to science. The racial hypothesis definitely is.

    • misdreavus says:

      Richard Dawkins totally believes in “HBD“, whether he admits it publicly or not. You just have to read his works carefully.

      My favorite passage in the Ancestor’s Tale is where he conclusively debunks Lewontin’s fallacy. He’s also drawn the ire of many of his more liberal oriented followers on his website by defending race as a useful taxonomic category for the human species.

      • reiner Tor says:

        This makes him all the more responsible. If he was just a clueless idiot, then… well, he would only be a clueless idiot. But if he knows well, then he is essentially lying.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        Some people pick their battles reiner Tor. It doesn’t upset me that Richard Dawkins chooses to avoid pissing people off that aren’t ready for the complex truth regarding human biodiversity. You can call him a liar if he avoids this controversial subject, it doesn’t bother me one bit. Joke time to make my point.
        A guy went on a job interview that went like this
        Interviewer; “So, tell me what your worst trait is.”
        Applicant “I’m honest”
        Interviewer “That doesn’t sound like such a bad trait to have.”
        Applicant “I don’t give a shit what you think.”
        I used to be a head up his ass HBD denier. But I read a lot and changed my opinions. Most of my old liberal friends will go to their grave believing ANY discussion regarding HBD makes you a racist, period. But you know what, their kids have a different perspective. Times are a changing, nothing happens overnight.

      • Richard Sharpe says:

        Some people pick their battles reiner Tor. It doesn’t upset me that Richard Dawkins chooses to avoid pissing people off that aren’t ready for the complex truth regarding human biodiversity

        Do you think he has been as sensitive about Christian sensitivities as he has about others?

        One could be forgiven for thinking that he views Christian sensitivities as easy targets.

        (As a non-religious person, I think we should either be equally insensitive of all religious sensitivities or equally insensitive.)

      • aisaac says:

        Dave c, he didn’t merely avoid the subject, he actively spread misinformation when he apparently knows better.

      • reiner Tor says:

        @Dave Chamberlin: There are at least three problems with Dawkins’s behavior, the first two already mentioned.

        Mr. Sharpe has already mentioned that you shouldn’t be picking easy targets, a virtuous person would pick targets regardless of whether they are easy or difficult.

        Aisaac mentioned that not only does he avoid certain subjects (picking fights with Jehovah’s Witnesses while not doing anything against the high priests of the PC religion) but that he is actively spreading misinformation when he knows better.

        I would add a third point, namely that having false knowledge leads to highly and irreversibly harmful immigration policies. The white race doesn’t have such a long time to survive under the current PC regime. I’m sure Dawkins can do the math, so he knows or should know that he is spreading the misinformation when we don’t have many generations’ time to change the policies based on the misinformation.

      • reiner Tor says:

        OTOH, Misdreavus, thanks for mentioning The Ancestor’s Tale – I don’t quite remember that passage, but will reread it. Needless to say, at the time I was a firm HBD-denier (at least in terms of race), and the book didn’t cause any change in my outlook here.

      • Anthony says:

        Dawkins goes after Christians much more than he goes after “progressives”, but unlike most lefty atheists, he’s actually willing to attack other culture’s religions, too. He’s gotten a lot of blowback for that, but so long as he doesn’t offend core PC principles, he’s still listened to. And having leftists listen to people who tell them that Islam is at least as bad as Christianity is worth something.

    • dearieme says:

      Does RD have any evidence for that unlikely claim?

    • feministx says:

      “Race does not come into it. It is pure religion and culture. Something about the cultural tradition of Jews is way, way more sympathetic to science and learning and intellectual pursuits than Islam. That would have been a fair comparison. Ironically, I originally wrote the tweet with Jews and thought, That might give offense. And so I thought I better change it.”

      This statement must be at least partially true. In the 7th century when Islam arose, there probably was a small IQ differential between Jews and Arabs. They are two groups of people that originate from the same area in the Middle East. Today the average IQ of an Ashkenazi may be 112 and their distribution of cognitive traits allows for a lot of intellectual curiosity. The average IQ of a Muslim Arab around Israel appears to be much lower than this. Something in the last 1400 years has allowed the originally Middle Eastern Jews to intellectually surpass Arab Muslims in capacity for science. That thing was a cultural tradition that developed among Jews in the west.

      Race might come into it now, but race can only come into this discussion because of how a recent cultural tradition shaped these races.

      • gcochran9 says:

        European Jews look to be at least half European – so now the Arabs are only their half-brothers. Moreover, the Arabs of today aren’t the same people that lived in the Middle East two thousand years ago: they have a lot more South Arab ancestry (Yemen, more nor less) and some recent African ancestry. Not counting those admixtures, both Arabs and European Jews have undergone selection (not for the same things) – another reason for them to differ from each other.

        There were two Jewish cultural traits that were necessary preconditions for their selection for high intelligence: a requirement for literacy, and a strong aversion to intermarriage, reinforced with dietary laws and other rules that discouraged social contact. Those two traits, and fairly long-term persistence of those two traits. One reason for the long persistence of those key Jewish customs was that Judaism was quite unfriendly to rationalistic speculation – in other words, Maimonides lost. In 1305, a herem was issued against “any member of the community who, being under the age of 25 years, shall study the works of the Greeks on natural science or metaphysics, whether in the original language or in translation.” If European Jews had been open to such speculation, they would have abandoned key customs that kept them endogamous, and would have gone after bacon and blondes. This would have ended the natural experiment – just as it is ending now.

        Moslems made the same philosophical choice at about the same time, which may be more than a coincidence. But they never formed an endogamous caste that specialized in white-collar jobs, so it didn’t have the same consequences as it did among the European Jews.

        I doubt if Dawkins knows this. Whether he does or not, saying that Jewish achievement is due to culture is, in my opinion, just false. Culture shaped biology over time, but you can’t undo those effects in one generation, and that’s what everyone hearing “culture” instead of “biology” thinks it means.

      • misdreavus says:

        Well if you follow his Twitter, he did post approvingly of a link to Steven Pinker’s talk regarding the paper you co-authored. Around the same time, he also stated blathering on and on about how people who claim that eugenics (e.g. for higher intelligence) couldn’t possibly work are wrong, wrong, wrong. I always wondered what that was all about. He even specifically mentioned “15 IQ points” somewhere. Ummm…

        I think he probably knows.

      • feministx says:

        “One reason for the long persistence of those key Jewish customs was that Judaism was quite unfriendly to rationalistic speculation – in other words, Maimonides lost. In 1305, a herem was issued against “any member of the community who, being under the age of 25 years, shall study the works of the Greeks on natural science or metaphysics, whether in the original language or in translation.””

        I agree that the prohibition of intermarriage was far more crucial to the development of high intelligence than anything in the religious doctrine itself. By their tenets, Judaism and Islam are extremely similar religions. The difference is mainly that Judaism prohibits intermarriage and prostelyzation. The old testement and the Quran are practically identical in terms of favorability towards scientific rationality.

        I think a lot of secular people have a hard time being fully objective about the moral equivalence between Judaism and Islam. They see Jews and their list of nobels and they see Muslims and their constant calls to behead the doubters and they assume that the religion of Judaism itself is more open to progression and curiosity.

        But read the Quran and then read the Old Testament. The Old Testament is every bit as restrictive and dogmatic and irrational. However, Christianity is not like either of these religions. The ethical framework of the New Testament differs significantly from the OT and the Quran.

      • Philip Neal says:

        I see something of a paradox here. The herem cited is merely one instance of a philistine, positively anti-intellectual strain in orthodox Judaism. I understand that on a strict interpretation of Jewish law, only two kinds of education are legitimate: immersion in religious texts and studies leading directly to a livelihood – hence the monotonous pursuit of legal and medical careers. It is also my personal experience that orthodox, as distinct from progressive, Jews have no great liking for curiosity and intelligence. The Jewish enlightenment and the ensuing achievements of the 19th and 20th centuries were far more a reaction against traditional attitudes than a fulfilment of them. Can it be that the whole process was an example of the law of unintended consequences, or possibly even unwelcome consequences considering that the ultimate result was more assimilation not less?

      • reiner Tor says:


        This would have ended the natural experiment – just as it is ending now.

        No it is not. Those Jews or Jewish groups who leave the Jewish gene pool (are outmarrying, or accepting non-Jews among their ranks) are disappearing, whereas Orthodox Jews keep to themselves and are reproducing well above replacement. I think their internal selection is the same or similar as it has been for centuries. Two or three centuries hence, Jews will be the descendants of a small subset of present-day Jews. The rest of the Jews will either leave no descendants (I read that in Russia they were the nationality with the lowest fertility rate of around 1.0), or those descendants will not be Jews but just people with some fractional Jewish ancestry.

        So if you will be genetically analyzing Jews in the 24th century, you will find that they were a highly inbred population with basically no gene inflow from the rest of the population. (Though with plenty of outflow.)

        • neilfutureboy says:

          Or maybe in the 24thC everybody will be Jewish.
          As religion ceases to be a major factor Jewishness will become a matter of inheritance. Just as anybody in America with a Amerindian ancestor (or just the rumour of one) boasts of it by the 24thC, with Jews being respected as brainy anybody with a touch of it will boast of their jewish heritage.

          A bit like the way a Jewish religious cult, by ceasing to be exclusivist and allowing men to keep their foreskins, conquered the world.

          • reiner Tor says:

            Or maybe in the 24thC everybody will be Jewish.
            As religion ceases to be a major factor Jewishness will become a matter of inheritance. Just as anybody in America with a Amerindian ancestor (or just the rumour of one) boasts of it by the 24thC, with Jews being respected as brainy anybody with a touch of it will boast of their jewish heritage.
            A bit like the way a Jewish religious cult, by ceasing to be exclusivist and allowing men to keep their foreskins, conquered the world.

            If everybody boasts for Jewish ancestry, there will still be a small subset of Orthodox Jews, who will also boast of 100% Jewish ancestry, and correctly so. So they will stay separate. Maybe everybody else will call themselves Jews (but they won’t be Jews), and then this small subset of population will have to call itself (or will have to be called by others) something else to be able to differentiate, like Hasidim or something else. And then these Hasidim will be the Jews. Just as now we call David the king of the Jews (when he was king of all Hebrews, of whom the tribe of Juda was but a subset), or we call Jesus a Jew (when present-day Jews are descendants of a small subset of Jews called the Pharisees), so we need to realize that such mass desertions have happened to Jews before.

  3. d0jistar says:

    This sounds like an old (oldest?) written description of the gaseous theory origin of “bad air” aka “mala aria” aka “malaria” to me, which persisted until 1900 until, whoa, mosquitoes.

    Lost works to ponder:
    * All of Aristotle’s exoteric works. It only took one book to kick off Scholasticism.
    * All of Democritus, who was considered their greatest philosopher by the ancient Greeks. His surviving fragment of atomism alone is a brilliant synthesis between the hyper-rationalism of Parmenides and the dismal empirical phenomenalism of Heraclitus and the foundation for much of epistemology and perhaps even the philosophy of science. In addition to correctly deducing many of the properties of the structure matter from observation, of course.
    * I have no idea how much Chinese thought from “the burning of books and burying of scholars” was lost forever Perhaps Confucianism wasn’t even meant to be that dominant; maybe it just luckily survived?

  4. Ian says:

    > It only took one book to kick off Scholasticism

    And, was Scholasticism a good thing at all? I’m very skeptic about the usefulness of all this philosophical business.

    The Greeks were great using the deductive method, but when it came to using experimentation, they were simply pathetic. For instance, the great Archimedes said some very silly things about semen. He could have avoid the shame by experimenting (cheap materials, btw). But his semen facts were, basically, inspired by first principles (semen was a mix of air and water) and all the deductions that flowed from this false starting point.

  5. Patrick Boyle says:

    I immediately assumed you were writing about Gaius Terrentius Varro with whom I am well acquainted because most of the Roman history I have read has been Roman military history. Gaius was the man who lost the most famous battle in antiquity – maybe the most famous battle in all history. And it was his fault.

    Many of the famous Roman military disasters were caused by split command. That was also true at Orange – the only loss of comparable size to Cannae. Varro’s impetuousness was supposed to be balanced by Paulus’ caution. But authority switched between the two consuls every other day. Varro unwisely attacked Hannibal as soon as possible. Paulus was killed along with maybe 80,000 Romans. Every military school in the West has had Cannae in their curricula for the last two millennia.

    The most remarkable event of this story is that the Roman Senate forgave him. Carthaginian commanders at the time were routinely executed after defeats.

  6. Jim says:

    Ian – Where did Archimedes say anything about semen? I don’t believe it.

    A great amount of Hellenistic mathematics is gone. We have nothing of the work of Perseus. He is said to have written a work on the curves obtained by intersection with a torus. This work was much praised but no trace of it survives. There are many interesting curves which arise as intersections of a torus with other surfaces. You can get Bernoulli’s Lemniscate as the intersection of a plane with a torus. What would a Greek mathematician have had to say about Bernoulli’s Lemniscate?

    Almost nothing is known about how Greek mathematics began. There are only fragments from before the third century BC.

    • Ian says:

      Funny, indeed. I found the story in Matt Stewart’s The truth about everything. Of course, I didn’t checked experimentally the truth about Matt’s assertion…

    • Ian says:

      Oops… I should have said “Aristotle”. Lapsus calami. Archimedes, the poor little one, is one of my héroes, actually. I learnt integral calculus before diferential calculus using the Archimedes’ method of subdividing a solid, back when I was 13. My fault.

  7. Jim says:

    About Richard Dawkins – It stuns me that anybody could be aware of the role of Ashkenazi Jew in twentieth century mathematics and not realize something very out of the ordinary is going on – almost certainly genetic.

    We’re suppossed to believe this phenomenon is due to wearing little skullcaps and eating gefilte fish. Give me a break!

  8. IC says:

    On the shoulder of giants.

    And tell others there is no giant. Then every thing is your idea.

  9. Patrick Boyle says:

    Lost books also effect our modern view of historical figures. Camus and Hustler Magazine both have used Caligula as the epitome of Roman corruption. But was he? There are only about a half dozen major works on all the events of the Republic and the early Empire. There are only two – Suetonius and Tacitus – for the early emperors and Tacitus’ book on Caligula is lost. So Caligula’s unsavory reputation rests almost only on the opinions of Suetonius.

    Suetonius was a gossip monger who related the most salacious rumors largely without comment. It would be as if the only record of George Bush had been written by written by MoveOn or one of those MSNBC commenters. Tacitus clearly felt that the worst early emperor was Tiberius. Claudius is today held in reverence but only because Graves made him the hero of his novels. Read the original accounts of Claudius and he seems much less admirable.

    The lesson of the Antikythera device is not invention so much as it is continuity. Another example is the Song clock. In both cases the actual device appears to have been centuries ahead of its time. But both were lost because there was no follow up. The missing invention was the idea of invention. If we dig more as you suggest we will no doubt find more cases like these where there is a solitary ‘out of time’ discovery or invention. But what we will not find is broad major school that builds upon the those findings.

    On this planet we had to wait for Filipo Brunelleschi.

    • reiner Tor says:

      Seneca also had a very low opinion on Caligula. But of course he was his political opponent, so we shouldn’t be surprised about it. Interesting that Seneca originally had something positive to say about Claudius, until his views on him turned sour as well. It’s easy to forget that Seneca was a very rich businessman (somewhere I read during the reign of Nero he was the richest in the empire) meddling in politics, so he is hardly an impartial observer.

      Probably anybody rich enough with enough idle time on his hands to write books on just about any topic was also rich enough to be involved in politics. So there were no impartial observers writing anything.

      • Patrick Boyle says:

        I don’t think you have an accurate picture of Seneca. Rather than being just a dabbler in politics he was in a sense the ruler of the entire Western world for a time. He was the tutor to Nero in his minority which made him in effect the Regent of the Roman Empire.. That’s one reason Nero’s order to take that final bath is so effective in the opera.

        BTW one of my favorite Web conspiracy theories is that all of Christianity is bogus. The apostles had just attended a play by Seneca and were so impressed that they wrote the plot up as a religion. Shades of L. Ron Hubbard!

      • reiner Tor says:

        Yes, the impression my comment gave needed to be corrected. I haven’t seen (or heard) the opera, I’m going to check out. I have never heard anything from Monteverdi, so maybe my starting point for his music won’t be the opera, but I added it to the list.

  10. neilfutureboy says:

    I have elsewhere suggested that the invention of patenting allowed the survival of new ideas. Basically if you are going to have anything patented you have to have a written record of what it is and how it works sufficiently detailed to identify its construction. At a pinch I might also include mass production of paper as a requirement.

    Imagine if the patent record of the Antikythera device had remained available for the last 2,000 yrs..

    Patents started in Italy in the late Middle Ages – also England at about the same time but the first one isn’t really a patent but a monopoly on a technology already well known in Europe. A Greek city also had a 1 year local patent but that didn’t survive. That fits fairly well with the growth of western technology.

    Up until then nobody gain motivated explained their invention and it died when they or their son did.

    Which suggests the most important inventions are ones concerning our social structure. Pity it’s so antiquated isn’t it?

  11. Jim says:

    Some Byzantine named Philoponus or something like that compared the times it took heavy objects to fall to test Aristotle’s assertion that heavier objects fell faster. He concluded that there was no significant variation by weight contrary to Aristotle.

    • a very knowing American says:

      Russo (see below, p.351) argues that the principle was known to Lucretius (De rerum natura II:225-239) and that circumstantial evidence points to Hipparchus as the source. Looking up the Lucretius, it’s a pretty clear statement that objects of different weight fall at the same speed, unless air resistance kicks in.

  12. a very knowing American says:

    Worth checking out:

    Lucio Russo. 2004. The forgotten revolution: How science was born in 300 BC and why it had to be reborn.

    Russo argues that science reached an extremely high level of development in the Hellenistic period, including, for example, a theory that gravity could account for falling objects and for the spherical shapes of the earth and planets, and that the balance between gravity and linear velocity could account for circular orbits. Regarding the latter, Russo has a painstaking analysis of weird passages in Vitruvius and Pliny about the sun making planets go around by shooting out triangular rays that make sense if you assume the authors were looking at, but not understanding, vector diagrams of successive straight line motions bent into a circle by a centripetal thrust. A lot of his evidence comes from accounts by later authors who didn’t know what they were talking about: like trying to figure out what 20th C scientists knew about kin selection by reading Stephen Jay Gould.

    One implication is that later Renaissances, in the Islamic world and medieval Europe, may have been sparked by the recovery of Hellenistic documents since lost.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      What is Russo’s timeline?
      Are Pliny and Vitruvius confused because they are dilettantes, because Rome is a backwater, or because science has already collapsed?

      I heard a claim that the peak of astronomy was Apollonius and even Hipparchus was a step backwards (though surely he had better data). Of course, Apollonius’s astronomy is completely lost. All we know is that he introduced the equant and later became interested in conic sections. The claim I heard that I have not yet checked is that Ptolemy says that Apollonius introduced the equant only as an approximation to another theory which Ptolemy does not describe.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        After poking around a big, I think Russo’s answer is both that Rome was a backwater and that science had collapsed. He puts the main show at 300-150 in Alexandria, destroyed by Roman conquest. But though science had been destroyed, people in Alexandria, like Ptolemy, did a better job of salvaging the wreckage than did Romans like Vitruvius.

      • a very knowing American says:

        “Later Roman writers like Pliny or Seneca are fascinated by Hellenistic scientific works: they cannot follow the logic of the arguments but nevertheless admire their conclusions, precisely because they appear unexpected and marvelous. … This contact with the results of a science whose methodology remains impenetrable then has the glaring effect of causing faith in common sense — a quality that earlier writers like Varro did not lack — to be jettisoned.

        In Vitruvius’ work, the hydrostatics of Archimedes boils down to the observation that, if you immerse something into a full container, the liquid overflows in an amount equal to the volume of the object … recounting this “discovery” as one of the scientist’s most dazzling ideas.” (Russo, p. 237-8)

        I remember as a kid reading the story about Archimedes having this insight while slopping water out of the bath, and being puzzled that it took a supergenius to figure out that the volume of water displaced by a crown is equal to the volume of the crown.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I found some similar quotes at wikiquote, eg, “in all of Antiquity not a single Latin author succeeded in stating it coherently.”

        The comparison between Vitruvius and the stories you heard as a child is a great point (unless you were reading the classics). Modern popular science is no better than Vitruvius, hero-worship of scientists, both Archimedes and Einstein, recited by people who don’t understand. But we also have real science. So Vitruvius’s popular science doesn’t rule out the possibility of actual comprehension elsewhere in Rome.

  13. gp says:

    Where would be the best place to look? Do monasteries still have uncataloged works (viz. Name of the Rose)? Would it be a good idea to get Google scanning, or maybe not? Or better to dig in the ashes of Pompeii?

    • neilfutureboy says:

      North Africa was Rome’s breadbasket before the Sahara expanded. There must be Roman villas in what is now the uninhabitable Sahara – any documents would not have been destroyed by water and would have been less subject to human predation.

      There is, as Greg pointed out, a recently discovered library in Herculaneum which is being slowly examined.

  14. dave chamberlin says:

    I wonder if we will ever know how important the spread of P. Falciparum Malaria is in shaping human history. I’ve read that populations collapsed in certain Greek city states and in bronze age powers like Sardinia when this most deadly form of malaria arrived. Was there a Mason-Dixon line across Europe south of which it was warm enough to sustain Falciparum Malaria. I can guess but I don’t know.

  15. Jim says:

    Somewhat related to recovering ancient documents. Cuneiform tablets last basically forever but they break easily so what happens is that museums and collections wind up with fragments of texts. Just when it gets interesting the text breaks off. But the missing piece to a tablet in New York might in a museum in Moscow. If this could all be put into some kind of digital form maybe computer software could find matching fragments.

    • This has already started on the Dunhuang manuscripts. After the manuscripts were discovered in 1900, museums and collectors snatched up everything they could get, sometimes scattering different pages of the same book. Now those books are being digitally reconstructed. http://idp.bl.uk/

  16. ironrailsironweights says:

    It’s become politically incorrect to extol the achievements of Classical Rome and Greece. Praising Chinese and other Asian accomplishments is somewhat more acceptable, but it won’t win you the same degree of admiration in polite society as will, for example, praising the Iroquois “constitution,”


  17. Yudi says:

    Looks like a lot of the shipwrecks were found decades ago by sponge divers. How’s the sponge industry doing these days? Perhaps some targeted Keynesianism is in order.

  18. Rudolf Winestock says:

    My professor in Patristics and Greek told me that things that lost and found all the time. Those medieval monks copied all kinds of manuscripts. A bomb during World War II may have taken out one small library, but there’s always the hope that another library has something in the uncatalogued section of its own archives.

  19. I would add that there is some value in older texts even if they are wrong, as they do not share our biases and blind spots. It is so very hard to step outside our own days.

  20. j3morecharacters says:

    I’ve read M Terentius Varro’s Rerum rusticarum libri III (On Agriculture, Volume III), but found no useful, practicable techniques in it. I dont think the Ancients had made significative discoveries that we have not re-discovered. Yet I’d love to have Aeschyllus’s lost tragedies (with partitures), they would be an important addition to human culture.

    • neilfutureboy says:

      If there were to be subjects on which their knowledge was greater than ours they would probably be involving humans, not requiring complex measurement and ones which are politically incorrect to study. The “social sciences”.

      Things like training and breeding of slaves, training men for battle, use of pain for reform of crime or insanity, the construction of stable, non-democratic governmental systems etc. You get the point.

      On the other hand if they were ahead of us how would we recognise it?

      • Anthony says:

        On the other hand if they were ahead of us how would we recognise it?

        See how they stack up against 19th century techniques.

  21. ziel says:

    We spend about $50b a year on Pell Grants…wouldn’t you think some nuggets from that pot might be better spent recovering/deciphering these ancient scrolls?

    • Toddy Cat says:

      Given what some of the recipiets of Pell Grants study, we would probably be better off spending it on almost anything else.

  22. Toad says:

    “float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases.”

    Just breathe through a scarf when you go by a swamp and you’ll be fine. Also works for plague. Plague doctor

    If Medieval Europeans had primitive folk methods, we berate them for being stupid and superstitious, but Antiquity doing the exact same thing and we marvel at a lost Golden Age. The Medieval superstitions were inherited from the previous eras.

    The famous Galileo disproved Antiquity’s Celestial Spheres (the motion of which the Antikythera mechanism was designed to calculate).

    Saturday Night Live’s ‘Theodoric, barber of York’ mocks the primitiveness of Medieval medicine. It contains the dialogue:

    “well, let’s give her another bloodletting, Brunhilda, take two pints…
    nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humours”

    We are supposed to be appalled at Medieval superstitious practices like humourism and bloodletting, but those ideas were common in classical Greece, and all the famous physicians from Hippocrates to Galen wrote about it.

    • reiner Tor says:

      Just breathe through a scarf when you go by a swamp and you’ll be fine. Also works for plague. Plague doctor

      And yet the plague doctors’ defense appears to be at least somewhat effective, if it really was pneumonic plague.

      Just remembered this comment (and largely agreed with it), and when I found this article, thought it might be interesting in that context. Maybe medieval people weren’t that stupid, either?

      Who knows, maybe we’ll discover how sheep’s bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.

  23. Half Man- Half Amazing says:

    Sort of on topic:
    Mimnermus’ Poem 1 (ca. 625 B.C.)

    But what life would there be, what joy, without golden Aphrodite?
    May I die when I be no more concerned with secret love
    and honey-sweet gifts and the bed,
    Such things as are the very flower of youth,
    a delight to men and women alike.
    But when dolorous Age comes,
    which makes a man both ugly and worthless,
    wretched worries wear his mind away.
    The bright rays of the sun do not delight his eyes,
    for he is despised by boys, and contemptible to women.
    It’s a wretched thing that God made–Age.

    [c/o Steve Hays, Ohio University]

    • ivvenalis says:

      Well, on the other hand:
      “You should understand, that if reason and wisdom did not enable us to reject carnal pleasure, we should be most thankful to old age, which effects that one does not desire what one ought not to do. For carnality impedes judgment, is the enemy of wisdom, of the mind let me say that it blindfolds it, and has no fellowship with with virtue.”

      Cicero, De Senectute

  24. Jim says:

    Rudolf Weinstock – Extensive unpublished manuscripts on Hilbert modular varieties written by David Hilbert were lost in World War II. Sad.

    • reiner Tor says:

      Doesn’t have anything to do with science, but the same fate befell several of Wagner’s manuscripts. Fortunately for mankind we still have Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne to make up for the loss.

  25. melendwyr says:

    I am reminded of the criticism of the frequently-made claim that science fiction predicts future technological advancements: it’s easy to hit a bullseye with enough buckshot. Make sufficiently many different suggestions as to what’s going on, and some of them will probably end up having a resemblance to the truth.

    If a Roman author managed to say something that’s more or less correct, but he pulled it out of his ear and it was nothing more than a personal opinion… well, how and why the statement was held isn’t important, it’s utterly vital. It’s everything.

    How could they have concluded that there were tiny living things? They didn’t have the technology necessary to detect them (microscopes) and I can’t think of any test they could have made with what they had available that would justify that assertion.

    • Lee Wang says:

      As detailed in Russo’s book it is likely that Late Hellenistic Civilizations did indeed have loops/ primitive microscopes used as a reading aid; IIRC Russo’s talks about 7x magnification.
      That might not be enough, considering the small size of most microorganisms. The initial discovery of microbes by Anton van Leeuwenhoek specifically rested on his pioneering innovations in lensmaking. (actually van Leeuwenhoek did not use glass cutting but ‘While running his draper’s shop, Van Leeuwenhoek wanted to see the quality of the thread better than the then-current magnifying lenses available allowed. He began to develop an interest in lensmaking, although few records exist of his early activity. Van Leeuwenhoek’s interest in microscopes and a familiarity with glass processing led to one of the most significant, and simultaneously well-hidden, technical insights in the history of science. By placing the middle of a small rod of soda lime glass in a hot flame, Van Leeuwenhoek could pull the hot section apart to create two long whiskers of glass. Then, by reinserting the end of one whisker into the flame, he could create a very small, high-quality glass sphere. These spheres became the lenses of his microscopes, with the smallest spheres providing the highest magnifications.’)

      However there might have been more accurate microscopes than just the loops used for reading aids – unlikely, since we have not mention of them- . On the other hand using primitive microscopes it is possible to see a large number of very small organisms and details of structures that are invisible to the naked eye, it is not a large jump to conclude there might be a whole world out there.

  26. Pingback: Roman Germ Theory | Random Nuclear Strikes

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  28. Surely the scholars trying to reassemble classical manuscripts from fragments could use some automated help.

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