Archive for June, 2011

The Hellenistic Scientific Revolution

June 9, 2011

Today I wrote one hell of a forum post over at the alternative history forums, writing under the psuedonym. The background was that I had just finished reading Lucio Russo’s The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn, and as it was a timeline about a world without Rome, I listed some things I had learnt from the book to help the thread maker out. I provide what I wrote in this blog post in its entirety, as well as some additional comments I have in mind seperate from the forum post provided after the “footnotes”:
Military technology:

  • Non-gunpowder[1] siege weapons that made the medieval trebuchets pale in comparison[2].
  • There were repeating catapults, and repeating crossbows wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

Naval technology:

  • There was, as mentioned the ability to sail the open seas, which was possible because they possessed 1) a coordinate system, ie a scientific theory of cartography 2) reliable and 3) a method to locate the ship with respect to the coordinate system
  • It seems that there was a push towards building larger ships. The descriptions of some of them make me think of Zheng He’s treasure ships.[3]
  • Canal-digging was pretty advanced, as there was a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
  • Ships had lead-plating to protect from barnacles, of which none of the British and Dutch ships had as late as the seventeenth century.
  • Very advanced catoptrics, the ability to build lighthouses. Pharos in Alexandria would be the most famous example, but many others had started to built throughout the Mediterranean.

Water engineering (this area should not be underestimated):

  • In aqueducts, pressure pipes (simply called “syphons”) were used, which overcame depressions in the terrain.[4]
  • The Archimedean screw, a tool for lifting water.

Alternative (from muscle power, that is) energy sources[5]:

  • The water mill was known, and used throughout the whole Mediterranean. Horizontal ones to boot, which are more effective than vertical ones.
  • Windmills were in use, and so wide-spread that there were quite a few place-names named after them (anemourion)[6]
  • The possibilites of steam power had started to be explored[7].

Intricate machinery:

  • The Antikythera mechanism was found on a shipwreck outside the islet of Antikythera, between Peloponnesus and Crete. It was a sort of perpetual calendar that allowed the calculation of the phases of the moon, past and future. Two features stand out: 1) It uses at least thirty gears, which makes it almost seem like clockwork. 2) “[…] the presence of a differential turntable, a mechanism that allows the addition or subtraction of angular velocities. The differential was used to compute the synodic lunar cycle (moon phase cycle), by subtracting the effects of the sun’s movement from those of the sidereal lunar movement”.

Medicine, biology, botany, zoology etc:

  • Anatomical knowledge was quite developed[8].
  • Diagnosis, pathology etc. had been developed.
  • There was measurement of the pulse.
  • Mental illnesses had started to become explored.
  • Biological classification was in full swing[9], also fuelled by the conquests of Alexander the Great, who himself ensured that flora and fauna was sent back for study.
  • Fossils were widely studied, and many were identified as being of species no longer extant.
  • There had been developments towards an evolutionary theory[10].


  • The problems with understanding what rate of progress Hellenistic chemistry was at is that it later morphed into alchemy – “a syncretism of Greek natural philosophy, Egyptian magic, allusions to Judaism and Christianity, craftsmen’s recipes and empirical chemistry”.
  • What we can be quite certain of is that the artficial pigment industries, cosmetics and fragrance industries were quite developed.
  • The conception of a molecule had forerunner in the oncos.

Art, music etc.:

  • There is the possibility of primitive motion pictures[11].
  • Figurative art was pretty advanced, with there starting to be more emphasis on painting rather than sculpture. An example of the new figurative art:


  • The novel.[12]
  • The first keyboard instrument: the Ctesibius water organ.
  • More advanced music started to develop.
  • Greater interest in preserving cultural heritage, with traditional Greek songs etc. started to be written down.
  • The birth of Greek grammar.

Some advances in agriculture:

  • Plants from outside Hellenistic kingdoms started to be cultivated, and preexisting plants were improved through seeds imported from different countries.
  • “Animals from elsewhere were acclimated, breeds were improved through crosses, and wild animals such as hares, dormice and boars began being raised, as did fish species”.
  • Egg incubators.[13]
  • There were animal-powdered automatic harvesters with teeth and blades. Very simple, but beyond the ken of medieval and early modern Europe.
  • Egypt’s population around 1 B.C. was eight million, with a half million in Alexandria, and they were major exporters of grain. An estimate of Egypt’s agricultural capacity in 1836 had it that eight million was the maximum population that could be fed if all land capable was cultivated…
  • The production of olive oil throughout North Africa was very advanced, aided by the invention of the screw press.

Some advances regarding metals:

  • There were drainage installations in mines, from Andalusia to Afghanistan.
  • In early Hellenistic times iron came into common use for tools and machinery of every kind.
  • “From the little information we have about metallurgical procedures we can glean certain technological innovations in the area of metal refining. Polybius tells us about a new blacksmith’s bellow, perhaps fed by the Ctesibian pump”.
  • The clearest example of advances in metallurgy would be the Colossus on Rhodes; when in the Renaissance they wanted to build a similar structure, they had no idea how to go about it.

Lucio Russo also has written a word of caution, useful to alternate history writers:

I think there can be no doubt about the importance that ancient science and Hellenistic technology could potentially have had for production processes, but in assessing the extent of applications actually deployed in Antiquity we must avoid certain traps that lurk in making comparisons, whether explicit or implicit, with our own age.
In Chaplin’s movie Modern Times, the tokens of modernity are screws, gears, transmission belts, valves, steam engines, automata: a smorgasbord of inventions from ancient Alexandria. How can one say that these innovations were useless back then? Yet, though so much of the technology that made up the movie’s factory goes back to the third century B.C., it is clear that in that century there were no factories like Chaplin’s.
The Western world has experienced since the late seventeenth century a unique phenomenon in human history, characterized by an exponential increase in several technological and economical indicators, and the source of achievements and problems without parallel. (This growth certainly cannot continue for long at the same exponential pace.) The primitivists are right in warning us against the pitfalls of “modernizing” Antiquity by reading into it the accoutrements of modern life. There was certainly no Hellenistic Industrial Revolution, there were no stock brokers in Alexandria and the Mouseion was not the Royal Society. On the other hand, using today’s Western world as a sort of universal standard, lumping all ages other than ours into an undifferentiated “underdeveloped” category, can be highly misleading. If we think that biology has predetermined a unique possible path for the human race, culminating in the “economic rationalism” of today, it may be possible to define other civilizations by how far they are from ours; but human history is much more complex than that.
The application of scientific technology to production does not necessarily mark the beginning of the process in which we find ourselves now, where technology itself grows exponentially. Having made this clear, I think it must be agreed that scientific technology did have in Antiquity important applications to production. The Mouseion’s economic role was not comparable to that of the Royal Society, but that does not mean this role was insignificant, nor does it imply a lack of wisdom or foresight on part of the ancient scientists. The process of exponential development starting with what is usually called the Industrial Revolution as triggered by a plethora of economic, social, political, cultural and demographic factors that we have not yet understood in depth. It is more sensible to try to figure out what happened in Europe in the late seventeenth century than to ask why the same thing did not happen two thousand years earlier. Hellenistic scientific development was violently arrested by the Roman conquest. We may wish to speculate on what might have happened had this interruption not taken place. Nothing authorizes us to conclude that things would have gone the way it did in seventeenth century Europe; we do know, however, that the recovery of ancient knowledge and technology played a major role in the modern scientific take-off.

[1] “The introduction of firearms in the modern age concerned primarily large-bore guns used against fixed positions; as a personal weapon, the arquebus took centuries to supplant the pike. So the role of gunpowder was to replace the catapult, the technology of which had been lost”.
[2] Fortification overall did change as well, because walls started to become “thicker and started being surrounded by moats, but were complemented by towers capable of hosting catapults”. The advances in siege outpaced advances in defense, though, as shown by a rapidly increasing amount of victorious sieges.
[3] “Merchantmen also got bigger. Hiero II of Syracuse had a cargo ship built, the Syracusia […] Thus we know that the ship, whose construction had required as much wood as sixty quadriremes, had on board, among other things, a gymnasium, a library, hanging gardens and twenty horse-stalls.”
[4] “The most remarkable syphon was at Pergamum; it pushed water uphill to a height of perhaps 190 meters from the deepest point, and the pressure at the bottom must have been almost 20 atmospheres.”
[5] Whoever holds Iberia is in a good position, as both wind and water energy is plentiful there, and there’s even coal in the north.
[6] “Many scholars have felt that the Heronian passage can be disregarded because it is not confirmed by other writings. Heron presumably meant anemourion in a moment of distraction, forgetting that it had not been invented yet. We know that he was given to such lapses.”
[7] “The first steam engine actually built in modern times seems to have been the one described in 1615 by Salomon de Caus; it operated an ornamental fountain intermittently. Thus the inheritance from Heron was so complete that it even concerned the end to which the machine was put. Heronian technology hung on for another century in various hands, until it became convenient to start building steam engines – which is to say, when the rapidly growing energy needs of nascent industrialization no longer could be met by watermills alone.”
[8] There’s even evidence of there being dissections of “condemned men” while they were still alive!
[9] It would not be seen again until Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus).
[10] “We have seen, then, that the bases of modern evolutionism, namely the notions of mutation and natural selection, were both present in Hellenistic thought.”
[11] “This is consistent with Heron’s remark that an early automatic playlet merely showed, by way of motion, a face with blinking eyes – something that is of course easy to accomplish with an alternation of just two images. Heron also says that with still automata one can either show a character in motion, or a character appearing or disappearing.”
[12] “The Hellenistic origin of the novel has long been obscured. It was thought that Greek-language novels first appeared in the late imperial age; this changed in 1945 when a papyrus was found in Oxyrynchus that dates from the first century B.C. and contains fragments of the Novel of Nivus. Now many scholars think that the novel originated in the second century B.C.”
[13] “In the early sixteenth century Thomas More wrote admiringly that in Utopia “vast numbers of eggs are laid in a gentle and equal heat, in order to be hatched”, but incubators would remain a mere literary memory still long after that.”


History, both in the past and into the future is not deterministic, there is nothing inevitable about our situation. At the same time, it is not completely random, either. The term convergence can be of help, with some forms of possibilities being more probable than others. The similarities between the feudalism of Europe and Japan is striking. Yet, there is much variation, too, in this convergence, especially in how different civilizations interact, mix, with each other.

The Greek city-states had throughout the centuries developed science, and democracy. Macedonia then united all of Greece, and set out to conquer vast swaths of the world under Alexander the Great. Of course, war is never a pleasant matter, and many of the Greek cities’ democracies had been halted in the process. But the mixing between ancient civilizations and Greek culture, becoming known as Hellenistic civilization, is still incredible. The Greeks were technologically inferior to the civilizations they became rulers of, but the scientific culture they carried with them had very impressive results. The future looked bright, indeed.

Unfortunately, the mixing of different cultures can go both ways. The Roman conquest of Mediterranean can very well be considered the most somber event in history. A pre-scientific, militaristic culture, the Romans could not understand anything of the scientific methodology the Greeks used, and were not interested in preserving it. These were not the Romans of Virgil; indeed, any cultivation they had was through what they adopted from the Greeks. By the time anyone in the Roman empire actually cared about Hellenistic civilizations again, they simply could not comprehend these writings. The decline after that unstoppable. After that the Roman empire slowly collapsed, and in its place came the dark ages, and it got even worse, somehow. It was only through the Renaissance and the (very partial) recovery of Hellenistic knowledge that Europe started to wake up from her horrible nightmare.

I’ll end with a quote from Peter Englund’s essay On a Stroll in the Hilbert Room:

And we are lonely, lonelier than any generation have been on this side of Nicolaus Copernicus, when he twisted around the whole solar system with help of a goose quill pen and threw us all out into an infinite universe. Lonelier, but paradoxically also stronger, because now there are no excuses anymore, no musts, no historical metaphysics to cling onto or blame. We ourselves form our destiny. What happens in the future is thus driven by ourselves. […] What is needed is merely a reason large enough to not be tempted by repressions, and as critical that it doubts everything, even itself. History is made by humans.


Blind Liberalism

June 6, 2011

There were theologians working in the Islamic world during the Middle Ages who thought that they were living in the best possible of worlds. The same appears to be true of liberal theologians – even though they tend to worship “progress” they have a very technocratic conception of what this “progress” is. What I think is most depressing is the incredible sense of triumph they seem to have, history is over and all that. But I just have to wonder why they are so happy about they way things are going. My hidden assumption here is that they actually believe in liberal values.

The background of this post is the so-called “globalization party” which a liberal think-tank called Timbro is arranging. They mention the struggles going on during the early noughties, in Gothenburg, Genoa and Seattle. Elin Grelsson writes in reply “you dance on our grave”:

But yesterday I read this open invitation to a “globalization party” the 15th of June and for me there stopped being some sort of feeling of OK towards Timbro. Ten years after the Gothenburg demonstrations of police harassments, suspension of law and sharpshooting against demonstrators Timbro celebrates that the movement for global justice (what they call “the anti-globalization movement”) went into the grave and history got a happy ending with a global, hypercapitalist system. One gets an international buffet, champagne and a globalization anthology. All is stringently decorated by a cobblestone-throwing demonstrator.

You know how people write in social media write that they cry or their “tears flow” because of some link? I always wonder if it’s for real. Sit and cry at any moment because of some cute animal or sad story. Few things bring me to tears. But this event was the last drop and I cried.

On day I would like to read the stories of those who took part in these riots. It’s the first time since Ådalen 1931 where police have shot at demonstrators. It can be a good idea to look at this wikipedia article for a general outline of what it is. I was admittedly only nine years old at the time, and I’m not even sure if I was aware of what had happened at that time. Anyway, I believe that 2001 will go down in infamy as the year when political liberalism really started dying.

If we look at World Values Survey there appears to be a greater loss of faith for democracy in the young generation. Of Swedes between 18 and 29, 23% don’t think it matters very much if they live in a democracy or not. 26% think it would be quite, or very good if Sweden was ruled by a “strong leader which doesn’t have to care about the parliament or elections”. 21% are willing to change parties for a smaller amount of money. World Values Survey also ranks Sweden as one of the, if not the most individualistic country in the world.

Rights are not things that come down from nature or God. They are things which must be fought for. Through the struggle of our ancestors we have managed to gain things which we now take for granted. But the thing about these rights is that if the glow of struggles wane, the tide will turn and the things that have been fought for starts to be disassembled. Herein I think the very nature of liberalism lies: it arrogantly appoints itself as the protector of these rights, but it is like a parasite, slowly killing them. It has been very obvious how the truncheon liberals throughout Europe and the US has continued this trend of slowly killing everything we hold dear.

And remember that saying of Winston Churchill’s, “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried” one has to wonder about what one is measuring. Is it economical performance, as many liberals are wont to do? As I have mentioned previously on the blog, China I think is very interesting. Through its “capitalism with Asian values”, ie authoritarian capitalism they are currently doing capitalism the best in the world. For those who put equality marks between capitalism and democracy China must be a bit of a conundrum, to put it mildly. While the Chinese are now more enthusiastic about capitalism than ever, the interest in democracy is mild at best.

The economic policies of the sad excuses which set Europe’s agenda is finally twisting the knife in the wounds of the public sector. In the name of “tightening of the belts”, in the name of realism, Western “democracy” is finally starting to dig its own grave. Not surprisingly, fascist and populist movements are starting to gain ground. The whole thing is starting to seem pretty dark. China seems to be the most realistic country in the world.

When we look back later, I think the early 21st century will be remembered as pretty dark age. But all is not said and done quite yet. Once again the radical left will have to pick up the slack, and the revolutions that have shaken North Africa can possibly be repeated in Europe as well, and in other places. This is not the end, and the end is not yet. This I am convinced of, however: Whatever liberals be – be they useful idiots, extreme hypocrites, or just the sort who think freedom is the freedom to exploit in any manner they can – they don’t have anything to offer to global justice. Not an ounce.