Technology and culture in antiquity

image: survey instruments, 1728

The history of technology was sometimes approached as a self-contained field of study. A more fruitful approach in the past thirty years has involved a broader perspective, placing technology change within a broader context of social change and cultural values. A good example is Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change, where he places historical analysis of the plough and the stirrup within the social and political arrangements of late antiquity, and the emergence of new systems of military organization in the medieval period. A key insight has emerged that complicates the picture further: cultural and social arrangements influence the direction of change of technologies in use, but further, those cultural and social facts and practices are themselves affected by the emergence and adoption of new technologies. So technology and technology change are interwoven with social and cultural history, all the way down. (Here is an earlier post on the relationship between technology and culture; link.)

Serafina Cuomo’s Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity (2007) provides this kind of orientation to the nature and role of technology in antiquity. Her central goal is to place the several ideas of “technology” that can be found in Greek and Roman letters and artifacts into a semiotic place: what did the Greeks think about machines? How did they define and evaluate “technicians”? What is the relation between an ability to build and use artifacts and the possession of theoretical and mathematical knowledge? In what ways was techne a morally laden concept? Cuomo’s general view is a radical one: we cannot treat the history of ancient technology without first and fundamentally addressing these questions of meaning and value.

She also pinpoints an important idea about the nature of an artifact or machine and the attitudes and representations that the users and observers brought to it. The definition of the technology itself is culturally specific, and we should not imagine that there is a universal “meaning” associated with a catapult or a medical treatment. The history of military technology, for example, cannot be correctly understood without investigating the “Greek way of war” and the valuations that Greek elites and philosophers brought to their understanding of the practices of war. 

Cuomo is especially critical of the idea that the history of technology is about the progress of a set of tools or machines, proceeding from invention through refinement to final form. On that line of interpretation, machines become more productive and useful through innovation; technological change is progressive; and the aim of the history of technology is to identify moments of invention and pathways of diffusion. Against these views — which she fundamentally rejects — she offers what she describes as the “scatter” theory of technology. (She sometimes uses the idea of a Creole technology to describe a cluster of innovations that occurred in a single locale but did not lead to broader diffusion. This idea is evidently borrowed from David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900.) Here is her description of the “scatter” model of technological change:

The term ‘scatter’ model refers both to the fact that there was a variety of ‘older’ and ‘newer’ catapults, or more generally siege engines, being employed at the same time, and to the fact that these technologies were geographically scattered. I imagine a situation where we have a number of points or clusters of technology with varying accompanying circumstances — so with, for instance, a greater concentration of financial resources, some with a smaller number of available experts, some with easy access to some materials, some not in a position to take their own decisions when it came to war policy. A linear model would seek a way to connect the dots, as it were, which can only be done … by making a number of problematic assumptions, whereas a scatter model may choose to accept the fact that the evidence is scattered and insufficient, and leave the dots unconnected. (56)

And she draws an interesting analogy with Darwin’s observations of variation of finch species across the Galapagos islands: 

Darwin’s avian populations developed in very different ways — adapting to the individual environment of their island or part of island. Similarly for catapults: no matter how catapults got to a certain place … changes were introduced at the local level, or not, in different ways and depending on different circumstances, so that at any given time we find catapults that seem to belong to different phases of development cohabiting. (56)

What is a little disappointing about this book is the lack of attention it provides to the details of the various technologies that are mentioned. It is a very “meta” book — it is about “thinking about technology” rather than about the technologies themselves. Chapter 4 concerns itself with “boundary disputes in the Roman Empire”. Land surveying is plainly key to this topic, and one would like to know in detail how geometry (a field of mathematics that was well understood in the ancient world) was applied to the gnarly realities of delineating plots of land. What tools were available for measuring distances and elevations? Cuomo makes it clear that “surveying” took place in the Roman world (103); but how was it done? Some of the tools depicted in the 18th-century diagram above are based on simple Euclidean principles, and it is natural to ask whether some of these instruments were available to Roman engineers and surveyors. Cuomo does not tell us. Rather than addressing these technical questions, Cuomo focuses instead on the question of dispute resolution. Her summary is distinctly uninformative:

In sum, the knowledge of the land-surveyors when it came to dealing with disputes, was characterized epistemically as a reading of signs, supported by mathematical knowledge, and in terms of practice as a complex negotiation between old and new, pre-Roman and Roman, natural and artificial, general rule and individual case. (113) 

For a historian who argues that we cannot separate “history of technology” from history more generally, she gives remarkably little attention to the technologies themselves. She is more interested in how people of the time, both elite and non-elite, conceived of “machines” and “artifacts”, and the practical skills of the technical experts, than she is in the nuts and bolts of how the machines worked. The most detailed discussion offered in the book centers on several varieties of catapult; but even here, the technical details about how these variants worked are not provided. Lynn White’s writings about medieval technology in Medieval Technology and Social Change get this balance much better, in my view. For example, White permits the reader to form a fairly clear understanding of the ecological, material, and social circumstances within which the heavy plough was adopted. 

The third advantage of the heavy plough derived from the first two: without such a plough it was difficult to exploit the dense, rich, alluvial bottom lands which, if properly handled, would give the peasant far better crops than he could get from the light soils of the uplands. It was believed, for example, that the Anglo-Saxons had brought the heavy Germanic plough to Celtic Britain in the fifth century; thanks to it, the forests began to be cleared from the heavy soils, and the square, so-called ‘Celtic’ fields, which had long been cultivated on the uplands with the scratch-plough, were abandoned, and generally remain deserted today…. The saving of peasant labour, then, together with the improvement of field drainage and the opening up of the most fertile soils, all of which were made possible by the heavy plough, combined to expand production and make possible that accumulation of surplus food which is the presupposition of population growth, specialization of function, urbanization, and the growth of leisure. (43-44)

This is perhaps an illustration of the “progress of technology” mindset that Cuomo criticizes; but in the context of medieval social and political life and in the circumstances of the ecologies of north and west Europe, White’s account makes eminent good sense. Likewise, the essays on agriculture and metalworking in John Peter Oleson’s Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World provide a clear understanding of the craft and technique involved in cultivation and land preparation, in the first instance, and refining and shaping of metal objects, in the second. Research in the history of technology requires at least this level of technical detail for it to be genuinely insightful.

Cuomo’s emphasis on discovering the mentality and conceptual geography through which the peoples of ancient Greece and Rome thought about technology, craft, and machines is certainly important and valuable, and her discussion of classical texts and inscriptions is vastly learned. But this does not supplant the need to look carefully at the details of the technologies themselves.

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