The Golden Age of Greek Science



Helios (Sun) on his chariot. Image from a 330 BCE vase from Canossa, a Greek colony in southern Italy.

By Evaggelos Vallianatos*

What is a golden age?

A golden age captures the best and greatest virtues of human achievements. These accomplishments, however, must have the potential of uplifting humanity to a higher plane of living and be sufficiently moral for building civilization.

Greece had two golden ages. Their legacies, especially in science, made Western civilization.

The first Greek golden age took place after the Greeks defeated the Persians in the early fifth century BCE. During the fifty years between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War, Athens in particular shone with a flourishing and confident Greek culture: democracy, the building of the Parthenon, philosophy, science, classical architecture, theater, athletic games, and military strength.

The existence of free speech, prosperity, and confidence formed the pillars of this golden age.

The second golden age was the result of another Greek military victory over the Persians. This happened in the second half of the fourth century BCE when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and spread Hellenic culture throughout the world.

The capital of Alexander’s empire was Alexandria, Egypt.

Alexander and Aristotle

Alexander, who lived from 356 – 323 BCE, was the son of King Philip II of Macedonia. Philip hired Aristotle to tutor his thirteen-year-old son.

1977 Greek postage stamp celebrating the 2,300 anniversary of the birth of Alexander the Great

Aristotle, who lived from 385 – 322 BCE, was a student of Plato and a great philosopher who invented the study of science.

For about seven years, Aristotle taught Alexander Greek history, philosophy, politics, ethics, science and international relations, focusing on the Persian threat and the need for a united Greece to revenge the Persian invasion of Greece in the early fifth century BCE.

Aristotle edited Homer’s Iliad for Alexander. His message to Alexander, in short, was this: knowledge about the workings of the world matters, but so does knowing oneself.

Homer was the passport Aristotle gave Alexander for entering the world of heroes, Hellenic virtues and traditions. Greece needs to become one unified country, Aristotle constantly reminded Alexander.

And the ideas of Aristotle found a fertile ground in the brilliant student. Alexander became an intelligent and passionate lover of Hellenic culture and freedom.

Alexandria

In 336 BCE, a soldier assassinated King Philip II. Immediately, the twenty-year old Alexander became recognized as king, and he launched his invasion and conquest of Persia.

With Aristotle in mind, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt, making clear to his generals that Alexandria was to be the Greek Aristotelian capital of his empire.

Alexander appointed one of his generals and close friends, Ptolemy, the son of Lagos (who lived from 367 – 282 BCE) to be the governor of Egypt.

When Alexander died in 323 BCE in Babylon, Ptolemy consolidated his power in Egypt. In 305 BCE, he made himself king of Egypt and took the name Ptolemy I Soter (Savior). He started translating Alexander’s Aristotelian dream into reality.

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 Athens in Alexandria, first of all, by building a Library and a Mouseion, or Shrine of the Muses (a university-institute for advanced studies).

Ptolemy was also a student of Aristotle. He encouraged Demetrios to implement the Aristotelian proposal.

Archimedes, Alexander and Aristotle and students. Mural above entrance at the University of Athens. Photo: E. G. Vallianatos

Mouseion and Library

At about 295 BCE, Ptolemy founded the Mouseion for the study and cultivation of Greek culture and the sciences, as well as poetry and literature.

The methods and science of Aristotle took deep root in Alexandria, becoming the intellectual infrastructure of the golden age of Greek science.

Ptolemy I died in 283 BCE. His successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphos (or “Brotherly Love”), who lived from 308 – 246, continued his father’s tradition and lavished money and political support on the Mouseion and its staff, famous scientists, poets, and scholars recruited from all over the Greek world.

These academics did independent research and writing, advancing science and technology. They received handsome salaries and paid no taxes; they also lived in the Broucheion, which was part of the Palace.

The Ptolemies also established a Library of about 500,000 volumes in the Broucheion section of the palace and a sister Library of probably 42,000 volumes in the temple of Zeus Serapis (or Serapeion/Serapeum).

One of the librarians, Kallimachos, compiled the Pinnakes, (Πίνακες), a 120-volume catalogue of the collections of the Library. Staff of the library combed Greece for manuscripts. Books found in ships coming to the harbor of Alexandria were also copied for the Library.

The Mouseion and the Alexandrian Library were at the center of Greek society in Alexandria and the Greek world.

Alexandria eventually surpassed Athens in its many scientific and technological achievements. It became the center of knowledge and civilization for Greece and the world.

Science and scholarship

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 Homer, Hesiod and the Greek classics.

The scholars of Alexandria pioneered the techniques of scholarly research and painstaking study, which spread all over the civilized world. They continue to be the model for classical and scientific studies.

This enlightenment lasted for several centuries, from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE until the second century.

However, the late fourth, third and second centuries BCE were exceptionally fertile in Greek scientific genius.

In the late fourth century BCE, Euclid codified Greek mathematics in his masterpiece “The Elements.”

Archimedes of Syracuse was such a great third century BCE genius in mathematics and mechanics-engineering that, in a real sense, he set the foundations of modern science. Galileo and Newton relied on his findings for their own research.

Eratosthenes of Kyrene (the eastern region of Libya in north Africa) flourished in the third century BCE. HE was such a versatile polymath, he was known a the Pentathlos (“All-rounded”).

Eratosthenes made outstanding contributions to the realms of geography, chronology and astronomy. He measured the distance between the Earth and the Sun and calculated the circumference of the Earth. He was also the chief librarian in the Library of Alexandria.

Aristarchos of Samos, also of the third century BCE, invented the Heliocentric Theory of the cosmos.

Ktesibios of Alexandria, who worked in the early third century BCE, invented mechanical gears, a form of advanced technology that made possible the Antikythera Mechanism of the second century BCE — as well as the Industrial Revolution of the seventeenth century.

Apollonios of Perga, a contemporary of Archimedes, advanced Conics, a geometry of curves (ellipse, parabola, and hyperbola) resulting from the intersection of planes and cones.

In the second century BCE, Hipparchos, the greatest Greek astronomer, set up shop in Rhodes, where he invented mathematical astronomy and left his fingerprints on the Greek computer, the Antikythera Mechanism.

Antikythera Mechanism – the First Computer in the World

This computer, which archaeologists of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism, or machine, is a marvel of heavens and Earth.

Sponge divers from the small Aegean island of Symi discovered the bronze device in the deep waters of the tiny Ionian island of Antikythera in the spring of 1900.

For about half a century, scientists, Greek and foreign, were shocked with an ancient Greek astronomical machine that worked with gears, the first gears that had survived from antiquity to modern times. So, not knowing what to make of it, they described it as an astrolabe, another ancient Greek invention, but of limited astronomical capabilities.

It could identify planets and stars and measure the altitude of a celestial body above the horizon.

Modern scientists have been facing a metaphysical dilemma. Some today reject any notion that ancient Greeks had advanced technology. And yet, in front of their eyes in the Archaeological Museum in Athens, there are fragments of a device that worked with advanced gear-driven technology.

The device, however, is at least 2,200 years old. Could the ancient Greeks have reached that high level of scientific technology?

Derek de Solla Price, a British experimental physicist and historian of science, wrote in the 1959 issue of the Scientific American that he saw the Greek computer as “the venerable progenitor of all our present plethora of scientific hardware.”

“It is a bit frightening,” Price admitted, “to know that just before the fall of their great civilization the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology.”

Price became professor of the history of science at Yale University. He continued studying the fragments of the ancient computer at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Yes, he concluded, the Greek computer was indeed a product of scientific technology, the likes of which did not appear in Europe before the eighteenth century.

In his insightful 1974 study of the Antikythera Mechanism, “Gears from the Greeks,” he found that the Antikythera Mechanism was a “singular artifact… The oldest existing relic of scientific technology, and the only complicated mechanical device we have from antiquity. (It) changes our ideas about the Greeks and makes visible a more continuous historical evolution of one of the most important main lines (of Greek science and technology) that lead to our civilization.”

One of Price’s principal discoveries was that in addition to its precisely interlocking gears, the Greek computer had a differential gear, the first ever created, which governed the entire mechanism.

This was the gear that enabled the Antikythera computer to show the movements of the Sun and the Moon in “perfect consistency” with the phases of the Moon. “It must surely rank,” Price said of the differential gear, “as one of the greatest basic mechanical inventions of all time.”

Price shows that this technological advancement preceded the geared inventions of Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance inventors.

The Antikythera computer could accurately predict the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon as well as track the movements and position of the planets.

The computer was like a miniature galaxy encompassing the technological legacy and philosophy of the golden age of Greek science. It benefited from the widespread tradition of techne (craftsmanship), the application of the sciences ,and crafts coming out of geometry purposefully applied in the design of machines for the benefit of all Greeks.

A reconstruction of the Greek computer by Dionysos Kriaris, a mathematician living in Athens. Courtesy Dionysios Kriaris.

First, the Antikythera computer was a reliable religious, athletic, and agricultural calendar. It connected celestial phenomena to a calendar of the seasons, sowing and harvest, sacrifices to the gods, and the two and four-year cycles of religious and athletic celebrations in the Greek world. Because of its predictive function, it served not only astronomers, but farmers, priests, and athletes as well.

It revealed the secrets of the stars by exhibiting the order of the whole heavens: it predicted the will of the gods.

The golden age of Greek science that produced the world’s first computer lasted from the late fourth century BCE till the second century of our era.

A Greek ecumene

Alexander’s successors spread Hellenic (not Hellenic-like or Hellenistic) civilization throughout Asia and the Middle East while uniting Greece for the first time.

The rapid expansion of the Greek world gave an opportunity to Greeks to earn a good living almost everywhere.

Alexander’s vision of Greek ideas and culture spreading East and West triumphed for several centuries.

Strabo, a Greek geographer whose life covered the violent transformation of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, 63 BCE to 23 CE, visited Alexandria. He was impressed by its wide streets crossing each other at right angles, suitable for horses and carriages.

Alexandria, Strabo said, had “magnificent” public buildings and palaces that covered a fourth to a third of the city. Alexandria was also “full of dedications and sanctuaries.” The Gymnasium was the most beautiful building in Alexandria. The length of its porticoes was around 175 meters.

The Greek writer Theokritos of Syracuse, Sicily, was born at the end of the fourth century BCE. He knew Alexandria well. In his pastoral poetry, he praised Ptolemy II Philadelphos for his wealth, military might and wisdom. He reported Ptolemy II reigned over Egypt, rich in soil and towns, regions of Syria, Asia, Phoenicia, Arabia, Libya and Ethiopia. Ptolemy II was also the wealthiest king of the world.

Another Greek writer, Athenaios, who lived in the second century, quotes a book on Alexandria written by Kallixeimos of Rhodes. Kallixeimos, 210 – 150 BCE, described the great procession of 279 BCE.

This was a procession of wealth and power the likes of which were rare in any time in the ancient world. The display of unfathomable riches was the work of Ptolemy II Philadelphos.

Alexandrians must have been astonished by the exotic animals, carriages full of representatives of the gods, 57,600 soldiers and 23,200 cavalry, and huge amounts of gold in statues, jewelry, and decorations.

Kallixeimos explained this unrivaled wealth in gold as a gift of the Nile, which “streamed” with gold and unlimited amounts of food.

Kallixeimos also reports that in the procession he saw a mechanized statue standing up and sitting down on its own. It held a gold libation bowl from which it poured libations of milk. The automated statue held a garlanded staff like that of god Dionysos.

The statue operated on a cart decorated with a canopy and four gilded torches. We don’t know who mechanized the statue, but, in all likelihood, it was Ktesibios who lived in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy II.

Another report on the splendor of Alexandria under the Ptolemies comes from Herodas, a poet of mimes who flourished during the reign of Ptolemy II.

Herodas bragged that all that the world produced existed in Egypt, and, most probably, Alexandria:

“Wealth, wrestling grounds, power, peace, renown, spectacles, philosophers, money, young men, the precinct of the Brother-Sister gods [deified Ptolemy II and his sister-wife, Arsinoe], a good king, the Mouseion, wine, everything good one might want, women more in number – I swear by Kore [daughter of Demeter, Persephone] wife of Hades – than the sky boasts of stars, and in appearance like the goddesses who once rushed to be judged for their beauty by Paris.”

Pergamum also had a famous Library dedicated to research, science, inventions, and learning. King Attalos I, 241 – 197 BCE, lavished the Library with wealth and prestige. His dream was to make Pergamum a second Athens.

He built the Pergamum Library next to a temple of Athena. He funded a replica of the Pheidias statue of Athena in the Parthenon for his Library.

During the reign of Eumenes II, 197 – 159 BCE, Egypt stopped exporting papyrus to Pergamum.

Papyrus was essential for book production. Pergamum used this unexpected crisis and invented a better alternative to papyrus.

This was a product from sheepskin known as pergamene from the name of Pergamum. Pergamene eventually came to be known as parchment, a technology that guaranteed hundreds of years of survival for books.

The Greeks in Alexandria, Pergamum, and, possibly, other Alexandrian kingdoms and Greek poleis produced modern-like science and institutions.

Miroslav Ivanovich Rostovtzeff, a great Russian and American historian of Greece and Rome in the twentieth century, admired the achievements of the Greeks.

Greek literature, art, and science, he said, remained Greek even after the death of Alexander the Great.

It’s wrong to call this a decadent or Hellenistic age. On the contrary, he insisted, the Greek genius in the centuries after Alexander was just as creative as it had been in the centuries before Alexander. Greek civilization, in fact, spread over the world.

City people spoke Greek. Cities in the post-Alexander Greek world, says Rostovtzeff, had a modern-like infrastructure of water supply, paved streets, healthy markers, schools, athletic stadia, libraries, outdoor stone theaters, race-courses, public buildings for local assemblies, and beautiful temples and altars for the worship of several gods.

Egypt under the Ptolemies, for example, had banks in all administrative districts and most villages. These royal banks lent money and regulated the currency and the economy. They invested funds and paid interest to depositors.

Ptolemy II put up unparalleled displays of wealth and funded unparalleled advancements in science and technology.

Throughout the Alexandrian world the educated classes read the same Greek books, went to the theater, and sent their children to the same wrestling schools and gymnasia. Children studied music, literature and science – “a combination characteristic of Greece.”

Finally, says Rostovtzeff, Greek education was the badge of civilization. Reading Homer, Plato, and Sophocles and enjoying the comedies of Menander was essential to being a citizen of the Alexandrian Age. Failure in this Greek education was the equivalent to being a barbarian.

The Greeks did not force non-Greeks to become Greek, much less take up their civilization. The culture of the Greeks, says Rostovtzeff, “owed its worldwide recognition mainly to its perfection.”

  • Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental theorist. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US Environmental Protection Agency for several years. He is the author of hundreds of articles and 6 books. The article is republished with permission from the author’s blog https://vallianatos.blogspot.com/.