Thursday, October 14


Okay, Then, Show me an Ancient Roman Automobile

No, I don't know what the deal is with this, either, or where it came from, or, more importantly, just plain "why?" (When I showed this to a classicist friend of mine, she commented "What makes me think these guys are probably British?")

I've not bothered going to see it in the theater, and probably won't, but I read some interesting dissections of the latest science-versus-faith film schlockfest, Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as the lovely and irritatingly pagan Hypatia. At least she's easier to look at than Tom Hanks, though, for the record, the real Hypatia may well have been in her sixties by the time she was torn to shreds (or something) by albino mo--er--angry Egyptian Christians (or something) in AD 415. The truth is a lot murkier than that, and the old girl seems not to have been quite so relentlessly anti-Christian as all that, nor the Angry Albino--er--Egyptian Christians so relentlessly anti-pagan, either. (In other words, you shouldn't think of the Cyril-vs.-Hypatia rumble as High Noon with Grace Kelly in the Gary Cooper role. The whole thing was more of a messy political thing with the Christian-versus-Pagan business as a sort of unfortunate sideshow.) They certainly didn't torch the Great Library of Alexandria, for one thing. Scholars aren't even sure it was even around then, it having been something of a dump since centuries earlier. I'll leave the MST3K-ing of this bit of celluloid to the classicists in our audience, but thinking about this brought two points to my attention:

1. We hear a whole lot in the popular historical narrative about how Christianity pretty much snuffed out a great age of Roman science, invention and knowledge. Admitted, the ancients had some pretty nifty gadgets (aeliopile, anyone?) but they were pretty much toys, and rather antique Greek toys at that. Not so much Blackberries (are they still around? I can't keep track of the trends these days; my iPod is older than most people's cell phones) as Chia Pets. The order, stability, efficiency and grandeur of Rome was built not on labor-saving devices but...well, wait, yes it was built on labor-saving devices. They were called slaves. Instead of the Spinning Jenny, you had, well, some nice Briton captive called Jenny...or, more likely, something Welsh made out of phlegm and consonants. Or, to be fair, not just slaves but a whole lot of freedmen, bureaucrats, working class Joes and military migrants from the fringes of the empire (at least some of the barbarian hordes started out essentially as the Roman national guard) were needed to keep things running smoothly. The clockwork marvels of antiquity, such as the wondrous Antikythera mechanism, are notable primarily for their being strange anomalies. The genius of Rome was in its organization and centralization, not in some inventive spirit, and by time of Diocletian, even that was starting to go.

2. Much is made of the alleged loss of all the ancient wisdom and knowledge of classical antiquity during the medieval period. Yet, when the Renaissance rolls round, or the Enlightenment, the first thing those wacky medievals are pilloried for is following Aristotle or Galen like holy writ--authors who are precisely representative of all that lost knowledge. Indeed, the Middle Ages rediscovered some of those lost bits of knowledge via their recovery of Aristotle from the East. And when it counted, the medievals knew when to experiment and discard as necessary. No sailor of the period would have tried to steer via a largely symbolic mappamundi, and the age also gave birth to the horse-collar, stirrups, glasses, and the mechanical clock. The Venetian arsenal, the wonder of the world, was the fruit of this period. Contrast this to the Renaissance, which, until Newton and co. came along, was rather on the conservative side when it came to gadgets. I recall one anecdote of a Venetian commission which awarded a contract to design a new sort of galley to a classical scholar of Roman naval techniques, not an actual sailor or naval architect.

It seems if you're a medieval, you just can't win.

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