Transmission of Later Roman Science

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Transmission of Later Roman Science


The Transmitters. The handbook format was the most enduring form for the contributions that the Romans made to science. From the third century c.e. a group of writers in Latin wrote handbooks that served as textbooks for the Middle Ages. Prominent among them were Solinus, Calcidius, Macrobius, Martianus Capella, Boethius, and Isidore of Seville. Roman mathematics was transmitted by Calcidius and Boethius, astronomy and geography by Macrobius, the seven liberal arts by Martianus Capella, and an encyclopedia by Solinus and Isidore.

Transmitting Mathematics and Astronomy. Calcidius (or Chalcidius, flourishing fourth century c.e.) is virtually unknown as a person, but his Latin translation of Plato and commentary were widely used. He dedicated his work to Osius (or Hosius), who is speculatively identified with the person of the same name who attended the Council of Nicea in 325 c.e. Calcidius made a partial translation into Latin of Plato’s Timaeus and was the primary means through which Plato was known to the Middle Ages. In addition, he provided a commentary on Plato that incorporates higher mathematical concepts (for example, Pythagorean notions of varying units or numbers, and numerical rations of the harmonic intervals in the musical scale) and theoretical discussions of planetary and stellar motions. To explain Plato, Calcidius borrowed heavily from Theon’s Manual (circa 364 c.e.).

Boethius. Boethius (circa 480-524 c.e.) was the most influential of all Roman writers in transmitting Roman mathematics. Unlike many of the transmitters, we know Boethius through many details of his life as a Roman senator and intellect in the court of Theoderic (454-526 c.e.). The English historian Edward Gibbon said of Boethius that he is the last of the Romans whom Cato or Cicero would have acknowledged as a fellow countryman. Boethius was fluent in Greek and availed himself of Greek texts, but wrote in Latin. Perhaps Boethius is best known for The Consolation of Philosophy, a Platonic dialogue between him and Lady Philology, an important avenue by which Stoicism came to Christianity. It was long thought, although not by present scholars, that Boethius was a Christian and, in reading Stoicism, medieval persons thought it was Christian philosophy. Among his writings, three were on mathematics. On Arithmetic was, Boethius acknowledged, a free, improved version of Nicomachus’s Introduction to Arithmetic (circa 100 c.e.), clearly written and suitable for teaching. Boethius disagreed with Martianus Capella that the first position belonged to geometry. Arithmetic underlies the mathematical sciences, Boethius proclaimed. He asserted that there was a fourfold path—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—and, for the first time, employed the now-famous word, quadrivium, destined to organize the medieval curriculum. His second work, On Music, served as a textbook as late as the eighteenth century in Oxford. His restoration of music placed it in the curriculum from which it had fallen. He employed Nicomachus’s Manual on Harmony and Ptolemy’s Harmonics, both explications of Pythagorean axioms of musical chords and theories of the harmony of the spheres, involving numerical ratios of consonance and dissonance, analogies between the musical scales and planetary movements, and music theory—the ancient counterpart of modern musicology. The third contribution is a manual of geometry, but the surviving copies have emendations, and scholars have not isolated Boethius’s text from the additions. Likely he completed the fourth of his quadrivium, a manual on astronomy, but, if so, it is lost. Much of what the Middle Ages learned about arithmetic and music came from Boethius.

Macrobius. Macrobius was central in transmitting Roman science. Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius (flourishing early fifth century) was a high government official in North Africa. Probably in the 430s he wrote a series of works that were destined to be important to medieval thought regarding science. His seven-book Saturnalia is the last example of the ancient genre called “banquet” literature, among the earliest being Plato’s Symposium. A fictional banquet conversation is portrayed by attendees who were “real” people but whose dialogue was devised by Macrobius. Fittingly, Saturnalia begins with a discussion about the proper date on which the ancient holiday was to begin. This discussion led to a discourse on the Roman calendar in which the authorities of Varro, Aulus Gellius, and Plutarch were invoked. Macrobius’s greatest work in terms of scientific influence was The Dream of Scipio, where dreams, mathematics, cosmology, and world geography were subjects of learned discourse. The framework of the work was ostensibly Cicero’s dream. Macrobius had no hesitation about attributing Neoplatonic concepts to Cicero, who lived approximately three hundred years before Plotinus (205-circa 270 c.e.) founded the Neoplatonic School. Number lore was summarized intriguingly from the Pythagoreans. Macrobius employed pseudolamblichus’s Theology of Arithmetic and Nicomachus’s work (now lost), by the same name, to explore numbers as an asserted means of understanding the physical world. Much of the cosmology came from Porphyry’s lost commentary on the Timaeus. He argued that the earth was a sphere and around it revolved the moon, sun, and five planets, and that the outmost sphere rotated daily from east to west. Each of the planets had its motion caused by being dragged by the outer sphere of fixed stars. The more distant a planet was from the earth, the greater the time required for its earthly circuit. He connected planetary movements with Pythagorean musical scales in a theory appealing to medieval thought. The zodiac, Milky Way, and eclipses are explained. Asserting that his authority was the ancient Egyptians, Macrobius was critical of Eratosthenes’ and Posidonius’s calculations regarding the circumference of the earth and the relative distances of sun, moon, and earth. Falsely he quoted Eratosthenes as claiming the sun was twenty-seven times greater than the earth and that Posidonius’s figure was “many, many times greater.” In invoking the “ancient Egyptians” Macrobius was likely influenced by, if not copying from, the popular Hermetic literature that purportedly reclaimed lost Egyptian “secrets.” The cone of the earth’s shadow as cast by the sun extended, he claimed, sixty earth-diameters, a number double Hipparchus’s estimate. He adopted without attribution Eratosthenes’ figure of 252,000 stades as the circumference of the earth, and the diameter as 80,000 stades. Multiplying the latter by 60 (the apex of the earth’s shadow), he arrived at 4,800,000 stades as the distance between the earth and sun. In these and other calculations Macrobius attempted to impress his readers with his authority in devising elaborate mathematical calculations by using simple geometry. In what today is refered to as “cooking the data”, Macrobius wanted to connect ratios and celestial movements in a way that proved harmony and order. Among his authorities for his “data” were Cleomedes, Geminus, Posidonius, Pliny, and Vitruvius.

Seven Liberal Arts. What became the core educational curriculum for Western Europe was based on the work of Martianus Capella (circa fifth century). Little is known about his life, although he is truly one of the most important Roman writers on science. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that he wrote a textbook that lasted for a thousand years, the envy of any modern writer. The nine-book work, symbolizing the combination of pagan and Christian learning, is presented allegorically as a wedding. It is titled The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, with Lady Philology the symbol for Christian learning and Mercury, the pagan messenger god, for pagan learning. Each of the bridesmaids was a “subject” in the curriculum. First down the aisle and constituting book one was Lady Grammar, followed by Dialectic and Rhetoric, each containing a discussion with the spokesperson for that art. Grammar was a stern old woman ready to whack those not learning her rules, whereas Dialectic was a woman “whose weapons are complex and knotty utterances” and Rhetoric was of “outstanding beauty” and “abounding in self-confidence.” Next came four bridesmaids—geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and harmony (for example, music). The first three will come to be called the Trivium and the last four, the Quadrivium. Together they constituted the seven liberal arts (artes liberales, or studia liberalia, the pursuits befitting a free man), the curriculum for monastic and cathedral schools, the latter of which evolved into modern universities. In the last four books, Martianus Capella summarizes Roman science.

Roman Encyclopedic Tradition Transmitted. A tradition of compiling all kinds of informational data in an encyclopedia began with Pliny’s Natural History (circa 75 c.e.). Two writers in the late Roman period summarized Pliny, with additions and subtractions according to the different disposition of the Christian era. lulius Solinus (flourishing third century c.e.) and Isidore of Seville (circa 560-636 c.e.) summarized general knowledge of the ancients, and their works were those principally relied upon during the early Middle Ages. Little is known of Solinus’s life, but his work had great appeal because it preserved various facts about the world in an almost encyclopedic manner. Primarily, Solinus’s work is a compilation about geography, customs, and places. Although largely without original material, Solinus introduced the name “Mare Mediterraneum” for the sea known in English as the Mediterranean.

Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages. Isidore of Seville wrote a twenty-book encyclopedia, titled Origines (Origins), which summarizes the learning of antiquity through Latin authors. In 1999 a Pontifical Council of the Roman Catholic Church officially designated Isidore as the patron saint of computer technicians and users, computers, and the Internet. This assignment is appropriate, because like the Internet, Isidore had a fund of knowledge, but he uncritically presented it in such a way that fact and fiction are difficult to distinguish. The Origines was based on the hypothesis that the meaning of a word informs one about its original significance. In twenty books he dealt with astronomy, mathematics, geometry, medicine, mineralogy, human anatomy, zoology, meteorology, geography, botany, and agriculture. He asserted that originally there was primordial matter that changed according to the elemental qualities of coldness, dryness, wetness, and hotness. All elemental qualities created matter and were constantly in flux. Things on earth arranged themselves by weight, such as birds in the air, fish in water, and animals on earth. Humans were the central purpose for creation. Astronomy was a ticklish subject for a Christian writer who attempted to summarize the subject. It is not surprising that the first printed map in Europe is from Isidore, showing a flat, tripartite world with heaven above, Jerusalem in the center, Asia accounting for one-half of the land surface, Europe and Africa equally divided, and all continents surrounded by the ocean. Even so, Isidore’s encyclopedia contained much of the learning of Roman science.


Margaret Gibson, ed., Boethius, His Life, Thought, and Influence (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981).

David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 b.c. to A.D. 1450 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

William Harris Stahl, Roman Science: Origins, Development, and Influence to the Later Middle Ages (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1962).