science in classical antiquity


  • Classical Greece Knowledge of causes[edit] This subject inquires into the nature of things first began out of practical concerns among the ancient Greeks.

  • The book was one of the first to be printed in 1489, and became a standard reference work for Renaissance scholars, as well as an inspiration for the development of a scientific
    and rational approach to the world.

  • At one extreme is the view of English classical scholar Cornford, who believed that “all the most important and original work was done in the three centuries from 600 to 300

  • [70] His astronomical work in particular defined the method and subject matter of future research for centuries, and the Ptolemaic system became the dominant model for the
    motions of the heavens until the seventeenth century.

  • Both authors describe the sources of the minerals they discuss in the various mines exploited in their time, so their works should be regarded not just as early scientific
    texts, but also important for the history of engineering and the history of technology.

  • Ptolemy’s Mathēmatikē Syntaxis (Ancient Greek:), better known as the Almagest, sought to improve on the work of his predecessors by building astronomy not only upon a secure
    mathematical basis but also by demonstrating the relationship between astronomical observations and the resulting astronomical theory.

  • Science in classical antiquity encompasses inquiries into the workings of the world or universe aimed at both practical goals (e.g., establishing a reliable calendar or determining
    how to cure a variety of illnesses) as well as more abstract investigations belonging to natural philosophy.

  • [67][68] Ptolemy’s thoroughness and his preoccupation with ease of data presentation (for example, in his widespread use of tables[69]) virtually guaranteed that earlier work
    on these subjects be neglected or considered obsolete, to the extent that almost nothing remains of the works Ptolemy often refers.

  • [citation needed] Even though science continued under Roman rule, Latin texts were mainly compilations drawing on earlier Greek work.

  • [14] Pythagorean philosophy[edit] The materialist explanations of the origins of the cosmos were attempts at answering the question of how an organized universe came to be;
    however, the idea of a random assemblage of elements (e.g., fire or water) producing an ordered universe without the existence of some ordering principle remained problematic to some.

  • [28] Pliny the Elder makes clear references to his use of the work in his Natural History, while updating and making much new information available on minerals himself.

  • [33] The device may have been part of an ancient Greek tradition of complex mechanical technology that was later, at least in part, transmitted to the Byzantine and Islamic
    worlds, where mechanical devices which were complex, albeit simpler than the Antikythera mechanism, were built during the Middle Ages.

  • [29] Hellenistic scholars often employed the principles developed in earlier Greek thought in their scientific investigations, such as the application of mathematics to phenomena
    or the deliberate collection of empirical data.

  • Aristotle thus distinguished between four causes:[25] • the matter of which a thing was made (the material cause).

  • [44] Among the most recognizable is the work of Euclid (325–265 BC), who presumably authored a series of books known as the Elements, a canon of geometry and elementary number
    theory for many centuries.

  • 347 BC), an Athenian who—perhaps under Pythagorean influence—appears to have identified the ordering principle of the universe as one based on number and geometry.

  • Greek mathematics in the Hellenistic period reached a level of sophistication not matched for several centuries afterward, as much of the work represented by scholars active
    at this time was of a very advanced level.

  • [17] Despite their wide variability in terms of style and method, the writings of the Hippocratic Corpus had a significant influence on the medical practice of Islamic and
    Western medicine for more than a thousand years.

  • [10] Heraclitus of Ephesus (about 535–475 BC), then maintained that change, rather than any substance was fundamental, although the element fire seemed to play a central role
    in this process.

  • [42] There is also evidence of combining mathematical knowledge with high levels of technical expertise, as found for instance in the construction of massive building projects
    (e.g., the Syracusia), or in Eratosthenes’ (276–195 BC) measurement of the distance between the Sun and the Earth and the size of the Earth.

  • The earliest Greek philosophers, known as the pre-Socratics, were materialists who provided alternative answers to the same question found in the myths of their neighbors:
    “How did the ordered cosmos in which we live come to be?

  • Classical antiquity is traditionally defined as the period between 8th century BC and the 6th century AD, and the ideas regarding nature that were theorized during this period
    were not limited to science but included myths as well as religion.

  • Since Plato believed that material things had an inferior kind of reality, he considered that demonstrative knowledge cannot be achieved by looking at the imperfect material

  • [37] Herophilos developed a body of anatomical knowledge much more informed by the actual structure of the human body than previous works had been.

  • [16] However, most of the Hippocratic Corpus—a collection of medical theories, practices, and diagnoses—was often attributed to Hippocrates with very little justification,
    thus making it difficult to know what Hippocrates actually thought, wrote, and did.

  • [7] Other notable peripatetics include Strato, who was a tutor in the court of the Ptolemies and who devoted time to physical research, Eudemus, who edited Aristotle’s works
    and wrote the first books on the history of science, and Demetrius of Phalerum, who governed Athens for a time and later may have helped establish the Library of Alexandria.

  • He came to this insight through his biological researches, such as those of marine animals at Lesbos, in which he noted that the organs of animals serve a particular function:
    The absence of chance and the serving of ends are found in the works of nature especially.

  • As reported by such later writers as Aristotle, their explanations tended to center on the material source of things.

  • [6] Nonetheless, observations of natural phenomena continued to be compiled in an effort to determine their causes, as for instance in the works of Aristotle and Theophrastus,
    who wrote extensively on animals and plants.

  • [38] Herophilos also wrote on the distinction between veins and arteries, and made many other accurate observations about the structure of the human body, especially the nervous

  • • the form into which it was made (the formal cause; similar to Plato’s ideas).

  • [3] Around 450 BC we begin to see compilations of the seasonal appearances and disappearances of the stars in texts known as parapegmata, which were used to regulate the civil
    calendars of the Greek city-states on the basis of astronomical observations.

  • [43] Although few in number, Hellenistic mathematicians actively communicated with each other; publication consisted of passing and copying someone’s work among colleagues.

  • Hellenistic science differed from Greek science in at least two respects: first, it benefited from the cross-fertilization of Greek ideas with those that had developed in
    other non-Hellenic civilizations; secondly, to some extent, it was supported by royal patrons in the kingdoms founded by Alexander’s successors.

  • One answer to this problem was advanced by the followers of Pythagoras (c. 582–507 BC), who saw number as the fundamental unchanging entity underlying all the structure of
    the universe.

  • [4] Medicine is another area where practically oriented investigations of nature took place during this period.

  • The legacy of Greek science in this era included substantial advances in factual knowledge due to empirical research (e.g., in zoology, botany, mineralogy, and astronomy),
    an awareness of the importance of certain scientific problems (e.g., the problem of change and its causes), and a recognition of the methodological significance of establishing criteria for truth (e.g., applying mathematics to natural phenomena),
    despite the lack of universal consensus in any of these areas.

  • Finally, he reduced the importance of Plato’s forms to one of four causal factors.

  • It was largely the work of authors active in this period that would be passed on uninterrupted to later civilizations.

  • [11] Finally, Empedocles of Acragas (490–430 BC), seems to have combined the views of his predecessors, asserting that there are four elements (Earth, Water, Air and Fire)
    which produce change by mixing and separating under the influence of two opposing “forces” that he called Love and Strife.

  • He wrote two great anatomical works, On anatomical procedure and On the uses of the parts of the body of man.

  • Anaximander (610–546 BC) then suggested that things could not come from a specific substance like water, but rather from something he called the “boundless.”

  • It was through his experiments, however, that Galen was able to overturn many long-held beliefs, such as the theory that the arteries contained air which carried it to all
    parts of the body from the heart and the lungs.

  • For him, directly observable things are real; ideas (or as he called them, forms) only exist as they express themselves in matter, such as in living things, or in the mind
    of an observer or artisan.

  • The methods used made no explicit use of algebra, nor trigonometry, the latter appearing around the time of Hipparchus (190–120 BC).

  • Galen was able to demonstrate that living arteries contain blood, but his error, which became the established medical orthodoxy for centuries, was to assume that the blood
    goes back and forth from the heart in an ebb-and-flow motion.

  • [58] Anatomy was a prominent part of Galen’s medical education and was a major source of interest throughout his life.

  • Most characteristic of Aristotle’s causes is his final cause, the purpose for which a thing is made.

  • [32] Technology[edit] A good example of the level of achievement in astronomical knowledge and engineering during the Hellenistic age can be seen in the Antikythera mechanism
    (150–100 BC).

  • Pliny is especially significant because he provides full bibliographic details of the earlier authors and their works he uses and consults.

  • Although it is difficult to separate fact from legend, it appears that some Pythagoreans believed matter to be made up of ordered arrangements of points according to geometrical
    principles: triangles, squares, rectangles, or other figures.

  • He also played down (but did not negate) the importance of mathematics in the study of nature.

  • Since the celestial bodies (i.e., the planets and stars) were seen to move in circles, he concluded that they must be made of a fifth element, which he called aether.

  • The first use of human bodies for anatomical research occurred in the work of Herophilos (335–280 BC) and Erasistratus (c. 304–c.

  • Two major themes that run through Ptolemy’s works are mathematical modelling of physical phenomena and methods of visual representation of physical reality.

  • Around 100 of his works survive—the most for any ancient Greek author—and fill 22 volumes of modern text.

  • Late Roman attempts to translate Greek writings into Latin had limited success (e.g., Boethius), and direct knowledge of most ancient Greek texts only reached western Europe
    from the 12th century onwards.

  • He also reversed the longstanding notion made by Aristotle that the heart was the “seat of intelligence”, arguing for the brain instead.

  • [63] Likewise, the Geography was concerned with the drawing of accurate maps using astronomical information, at least in principle.

  • Despite their severe style and high technicality, a great deal of them have survived, in some cases the sole remnants of their kind of writing from antiquity.

  • A geared calendar similar to the Byzantine device was described by the scientist al-Biruni around 1000, and a surviving 13th-century astrolabe also contains a similar clockwork

  • [24] Aristotle’s theory of reality led to a different approach to science.

  • For instance, an attempt to establish a calendar is first exemplified by the Works and Days of the Greek poet Hesiod, who lived around 700 BC.


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