Ancient Greek Science and Technology – From Antikythera to Pharos
The Antikythera computer was the culmination of advanced mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy and engineering. It incorporated the philosophy and science of Aristotle, the gears of Ktesibios, the mathematics and mechanics of Archimedes, and the astronomical ideas of Hipparchos. The Antikythera computer and the infrastructure of technology that made it possible were the products of the golden age of ancient Greek science and technology in the Alexandrian Era, which came about between the late 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD.
The Antikythera Mechanism kept at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, is often described as the first analog computer, a feat of ancient Greek science and technology. (Tilemahos Efthimiadis / CC BY 2.0 )
Greek Science and Technology on the Island of the Sun God Helios
The Antikythera clockwork geared device was probably made in Rhodes, Corinth or, more likely, in one of the daughter-poleis of Corinth in northern Greece, Kerkyra, Epiros, or Syracuse, Sicily. Rhodes and Syracuse are the most attractive possibilities for giving birth to the Antikythera Mechanism-like devices.
In fact, the Greek Antikythera computer came from both. On the one hand, the advantage of Rhodes is that, in the words of the Russian historian Michael Rostovtzeff, it was “a home of Greek civilization, Greek learning and Greek art.” Secondly, the fingerprints of two Rhodian astronomers, Hipparchos and Geminos, are all over the Antikythera computer, which may be the original model or copy of another standard astronomical model dating from the third century. Were that to be the case, Hipparchos and Geminos also mirrored earlier advancements in science.
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The history of Rhodes goes back to the very beginnings of Greek culture. Strabo says that before Rhodes had the name Rhodes, it was known as Ophioussa (Serpent-island) and Stadia (Strong). Then it became Telchinis, the country of Telchines who colonized it. These Telchines, Strabo recounts, were controversial people.
Some described the Telchines as “maligners” and “sorcerers” who mixed sulphur with water from the sacred River Styx to damage and kill animals and plants. However, there was an alternative view of Telchines as superb craftsmen maligned by competing workers. Telchines came to Rhodes from Crete. They were the first craftsmen who worked iron and brass. In fact, the Telchines were so ancient that, according to tradition, they manufactured the scythe for Titan Kronos, father of Zeus.
In time, the Telchines withered away or intermarried with a new group of Greek invaders of Rhodes known as the Heliadai, children of the Sun god Helios. It was also during the time of the Heliadai that Athena was born in Rhodes from the head of her father Zeus.
Silver tetradrachm from about 205 to 190 BC featuring the Sun god Helios, the chief god of Rhodes. About 205-190 BCE. (Courtesy of the Numismatic Museum of Athens / Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Archaeological Receipts Fund)
According to Pindar, Helios urged his children to build for Athena: “a shining altar and burn a sacred offering to gladden the heart of Zeus and Athena holding in her hand the spear-bolt. Care born of forethought puts success and joy within men’s reach… Zeus gathered a blond cloud and rained deep gold upon them. Athena, the bright-eyed goddess, gave them all craftsmanship to outshine mankind in the skill of their hands. Their avenues hosted works of superior cunning. They seemed to breathe and move.”
Eventually, the son of Herakles, Tlepolemos, brought his followers to Rhodes, the island of Helios. Homer tells us that Zeus blessed them with gold and wealth. Thus, Rhodes had the mythic and historical tradition of technological achievements. In the Alexandrian era, the island of Helios was a center for science and, especially, astronomical studies. Famous scientists and philosophers lived and flourished in Rhodes.
In fact, they were one of the reasons why Rhodes became one of the earliest and most important cultural centers of ancient Greece. In early 3rd century BC, Rhodes showed off its technological achievement and power with a colossal bronze statue of the Sun god Helios . Writing about three centuries after the construction of the Colossus of Rhodes, Pliny the Elder thought it was a great achievement.
In addition, the first meteorological observations necessary for Greek calendars or Parapegmata took place in Rhodes. This tradition of technology was not limited to Rhodes.
The Colossus of Rhodes by Louis de Caullery. ( Public domain )
Marriage of Craftsmanship and Theory in Ancient Greece
Plato loved more than theory. He admired the craftsmanship of Hippias and his technical skills enabled him to do just about everything he needed. He engraved his own ring, made his own shoes, wove his cloak and tunic, and plaited the belt he wore around his tunic. This was also a man of words and knowledge. Plato respected men who worked with their hands because of the care demonstrated in their work and the way they used their skills and organization to give their products the best possible shape, appearance and quality.
Moreover, Plato admired the mathematical nature of craftsmanship. Without counting, measuring and weighing, Plato said, arts and crafts would be pretty much worthless. Men would have to resort to conjecture and guesses in dealing with each other and in doing things. Plato had a special liking for building. He explained its “superior craftsmanship” to the frequent use of instruments and measures. The woodworking craft in shipbuilding and house building, for example, was accurate thanks to the tools of the craftsmen: straightedge, compass, a mason’s rule, a line, and the carpenter’s square.
Aristotle also admired craftsmen and inventors for their useful devices and wisdom. In fact, of all the social classes in a polis, he considered the class of mechanics the most essential. No polis could exist without the mechanics practicing their arts and crafts. Of those arts and crafts, Aristotle said, some are “absolutely necessary” while others contribute to luxury or enrich life.
One student or follower of Aristotle wrote a work on mechanics, and that book is within the works of Aristotle. This technician focused on the lever, pulley, wedge and windlass, none of which were complicated machines but practical aids to doing necessary work like lifting water from wells and the sailing of ships. Yet, the author of this technical manual also tried to show the mathematical principles behind his machines.
Gold coin minted in Sardes, a key city of Lydia, which by the time of Alexander the Great was a province of Persia. Alexander used Sardes for his mint. The coins depict Alexander the Great on the left and a winged Nike on the right crowning Alexander. (Courtesy of Collection Saroglou, Numismatic Museum of Athens / Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Archaeological Receipts Fund)
Explosion of Objective Knowledge About the World
Greek thinkers since Thales sowed the ground for the final flowering and globalization of ancient Greek science and technology in the era of Alexander the Great. This lasted for about 300 years: from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC until the death of queen Cleopatra of Egypt in 30 BC.
However, the Greek scientific revolution that produced the Antikythera Mechanism went beyond the borders of the Alexandrian Age for another 200 years, covering the second century of our era. The 3rd and 2nd centuries BC marked the climax of the golden age of Greek science. The Greeks institutionalized their new way of constructing and construing the world.
According to Ploutarchos, Alexander put into practice the best ideas of Greek philosophers . He also abolished many abominable traditions among some of the non-Greeks in his empire. Alexander united the world for the first time, although he rejected Aristotle’ advice to treat the Greeks as the masters of barbarians.
Alexander the Great and the Pharos (Lighthouse) of Alexandria on a 1977 Greek postage stamp honoring 2,300 years since the death of Alexander in 323 BC. (Lefteris Papaulakis / Adobe Stock)
Ploutarchos reports that Alexander implemented the following strategy for creating one world: He was certain he was a god-sent ruler and mediator for the whole world. Alexander waged war against those he could not bring over by persuasion. Integrating people from all over the world, he instructed them to consider the inhabited world to be their native land, and his camp to be their acropolis for their defense. Alexander also expected his subjects to ally with good men, and treat the wicked as strangers. The difference between Greeks and barbarians, he told them, was not a matter of arms and clothing but excellence. Wickedness marked the barbarian.
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Alexander’s successors also spread Hellenic civilization throughout Asia and the Middle East while uniting Greece for the first time. The “extremely sudden extension” of the Greek world gave an opportunity to Greeks to earn a good living almost everywhere. This encouraged the use of reason “without any traditional constraints.” Advanced educational institutions funded by Greek rulers gave a great boost to scientific research.
By this point, philosophy was so widespread that when scientific disciplines started on their road to specialization, they carried with them, in the words of Albrecht Dihle, a “valuable dowry of a well-developed consciousness of methods and problems, an awareness formed while scientific efforts had taken place within the context of philosophy.” In other words, Alexander’s vision of Greek ideas and culture spreading East and West became what Peter Bamm termed a “marvelous reality” that triumphed for several centuries after his death, building the civilization of the world.
King Ptolemy I Soter (the Savior), 305-283 BC, was a student of Aristotle. Silver tetradrachm (four drachmas). (Courtesy Numismatic Museum of Athens / Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Archaeological Receipts Fund)
The Ptolemies and the Spread of Ancient Greek Science and Technology in Egypt
The Greeks did spectacularly well in Egypt especially because of one of the top generals of Alexander. This was Ptolemy, son of Lagos, who lived from 367 to 282 BC. Alexander appointed him governor of Egypt. When Alexander died in 323 BC, Ptolemy consolidated his power and, in 305 BC made himself the king of Egypt, taking the name Ptolemy I Soter (Savior).
Ptolemy was fortunate to have the assistance of Demetrios of Phaleron, a student of Aristotle who was also author of philosophical works. Demetrios convinced him to replicate Aristotle’s school in Alexandria, first of all, by building a library and a Mouseion, Shrine of the Muses. Ptolemy was also a student of Aristotle. He encouraged Demetrios to go ahead with his Aristotelian proposal.
Ptolemy II depicted with Jewish savants who translated the Bible for the great library of Alexandria, by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne. ( Public domain )
Around 295 BC, King Ptolemy founded the Mouseion for the cultivation of Greek culture, the sciences, and literature. The library also thrived very quickly. That way, the methods and science of Aristotle took deep roots in Alexandria, becoming the intellectual infrastructure of the golden age of Greek science.
Ptolemy I died in 283 BCE, only to be succeeded by Ptolemy II Philadelphos (of Brotherly Love), who ruled from 285 to 246. Ptolemy II continued his father’s tradition and lavished money and political support to the Mouseion and its staff, while famous scientists, poets, and scholars were recruited from all over the Greek world. He also built the Pharos or Lighthouse of Alexandria.
The Pharos was symbolic of the enlightenment of the Greek kings of Egypt. But there was more enlightenment emanating from the scholars advising the Ptolemies. They did independent research and writing, advancing ancient Greek science and technology. These scholars received handsome salaries and paid no taxes; they even ate and lived in the Broucheion, which was part of the palace.
The Great Library of Alexandria was part of the Mouseion. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe Stock)
The Ptolemies also established a library in the Mouseion: a main Library of about 500,000 volumes in the palace and a sister library of probably 42,000 volumes in the temple of Zeus Serapis or Serapeion. One of the librarians, Kallimachos, compiled the Pinakes, Πίνακες, a 120-volume catalogue of the collections of the library. The staff from their library combed Greece for manuscripts, while books found in ships coming to the harbor of Alexandria were copied for inclusion in their collection.
The Greek kings of Alexander’s empire, especially the Ptolemies of Egypt, created the foundations for a rational commonwealth characterized by scientific exploration , state-funded research, the scholarly study of earlier Greek culture and the editing of the Greek classics. The scholars of Alexandria pioneered the “techniques of painstaking study and exegesis,” which spread all over the civilized world. These ancient Greek scholars continue to be the model for classical and scientific studies even today.
The above article is an extract from the book The Antikythera Mechanism : The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise .
Top image: Ancient Greek science and technology represented by a 3D image of Athens landmark the Parthenon emerging from a smartphone screen. Source: scaliger
By Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D.
Dr Evaggelos Vallianatos is the author of The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise
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