Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hellenistic Science Rules

The best books come to me as gifts from my children. Michelle gave me The Forgotten Revolution, by Lucio Russo, for my birthday. It is subtitled “How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn.” The original in Italian appeared in 1996, the English version, Springer imprint, in 2004. Russo is an Italian historian of science, a physicist, and a professor at the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

This is a splendid and decidedly original work. Its thesis is that what we call modern science originated in full during the Hellenistic era and was essentially lost before that era ended thanks to the collision of Greek with Roman culture. The Romans had no interest in science; their focus was exclusively on power and administration. Science was reborn, and largely through the rediscovery of lost documents (many recovered only as Arabic translations from the Greek) beginning in the sixteenth century. One of his (for me) more fascinating observations is that our tendency to speak of the Graeco-Roman civilization as if it was a coherent whole is a coarse and ignorant blending of what were really opposites, an advanced civilization overcome and essentially buried under by a more primitive force.

Hellenism is typically dated from the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) to the death of Cleopatra (30 BC), thus the onset of the decadent Roman imperial age. Russo thinks that the scientific era that began with Hellenism actually faded earlier, destroyed by Roman expansionism. He dates it to Rome’s conquest of Greece in the Battle of Corinth (146 BC —the same year that also saw Carthage destroyed). That date also roughly coincided with the Egyptian Ptolemy VIII’s rule (a monarch under Roman influence) who began the intense persecution of the Greek community in Alexandria (145-144 BC), a major center of Greek science.

Anybody interested in the history of science will find this book eye-opening. One of its valuable features is that it corrects a deeply rooted current view. It is that the ancients had discovered bits and pieces of science—but it required our genius to do the thing right. Russo’s view is that the Greeks had already done it—right, in other words. We are just now catching up with them. And in some ways some of our greatest (Newton) had still not caught the spirit of the thing and some of our more recent heroes (e.g. Niels Bohr) were again sliding away from the core insights of the Hellenists.


  1. I am so pleased to hear that this Russo book is turning out to be as intersting as Michelle hoped it would be. How funny that we do rather think ourselve, we humans, "ahead" of our forebears.

  2. The origins of Greek Science are also of interest: the influences of Egypt and Crete and other civilizations.