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A glimpse over Lucio Russos scientific collapse from first century BC Remus Titiriga, PhD*

Assistant professor, Inha Law School, Incheon, Korea

Introduction The decline and collapse of human societies is nowadays a very popular subject. The environmental questions, the resource shortage, the nuclear proliferation menace, the demographic explosion and other apocalyptic dangers taught us that our civilization might have a limited life. From Gibbon1 to Tainter2 and more recently to Jarred Diamond3 the decline and collapse of societies like Roman or Maya empires was largely studied. Nobody ever mentioned a similar collapse of the Hellenistic societies. But an author, Lucio Russo 4, discovered another kind of collapse, an invisible and maybe more important one: a scientific collapse. The main topic of Russo is that a scientific revolution took place in Hellenistic times and it was forgotten since the science as a method has been abandoned in Antiquity. Its recovery has been realised only 17 centuries later. Russos contributions covers in detail the birth, the place, the decline and fall of this Hellenistic science and technology in the * Remus Titiriga is Law professor at INHA Law School in Incheon, Korea (South Korea). His main research areas are European Union Law, Legal Methodology and ICT Law ( La comparaison, technique essentielle du juge europen , LHarmattan, Collection Logiques juridiques, Paris, France, 372 pages, 2011). Address: 1501 HiTech Center, INHA University, 253 Yonghyun-dong, Nam-gu, Incheon, 402-751, Korea, Email:, blog:

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88). Tainter, Joseph (1990), The Collapse of Complex Societies (1st paperback Ed.), Cambridge University Press. 3 Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed . 4 Lucio Russo, an Italian physicist, mathematician and historian of science is professor at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. He reconstructed some contributions of the Hellenistic astronomer Hipparchus ([1]"The Astronomy of Hipparchus and his Time : a Study Based on Pre-Ptolemaic Sources", Vistas in Astronomy, 1994, Vol. 38, p. 207-248), reconstructed the proof of heliocentric attributed by Plutarch to Seleucus of Seleucia ([2]The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had To Be Reborn , Berlin, Springer, 2004, ISBN 978-3-540-20396-4) and studied later the history of theories of tides, from the Hellenistic to modern age ([3] Flussi e riflussi: indagine sull'origine di una teoria scientifica, Feltrinelli, 2003).

domains like mathematics, mechanics of solids and fluids, topography and geodesy, optics, astronomy, anatomy. He obtained some very interesting results among which the discovery of the inverse square law of gravitation by some Hellenistic authors. These statements may be challenged (and were really challenged). This is not the point here. We shall focus our inquiry on Russos supporting hypothesis and researching methodology. And that may offer more subjects for reflection and for futures studies5.

1. Timing of the first scientific revolution and the Hellenism It is now generally accepted that the Hellenistic age starts in 323 B.C., with the death of Alexander the Great and finishes by 30 BC with the death of Cleopatra and the annexation of Egypt by Rome. Russo agrees with the starting point of the Hellenistic times. But contrary to others historians, for him the end of this age was connected to the end of a scientific revolution. And that end happened from the second century B.C. when the scientific studies declined rapidly. For Russo the most serious adverse effect to the scientific activity lay in the longs wars between Rome and the Hellenistic states, from the plunder of Syracuse and the death of Archimedes in 212 B.C to 146 B.C. when Carthage and Corinth were razed to ground. Russo considers that the Roman world from the third and second centuries B.C. was much more brutal than that of Virgil and Horace. As a matter of fact the refined culture later acquired by Roman intellectuals was the result of a continuing contact with the Hellenistic civilization, mainly through Greeks taken as slaves and the plundering of Greeks works of art. And finally Alexandria's scientific activity, in particular, stopped in 145-144 B.C., when the king Ptolemy VIII initiated a policy of brutal persecution against the Greek ruling class. Polybius says that the Greek population of Alexandria was almost entirely destroyed at that time6.

2. Arguments for a scientific discontinuity followed by decline

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Such a glimpse is developed by the end of the paper. Russo, [2], p 11.

The feeling of decay was generally shared in Antiquity. As an example Seneca 7 thought that "... far from advance being made toward the discovery of what the older generations left insufficiently investigated, many of their discoveries are being lost". The interruption of the oral transmission made ancient works incomprehensible. As an example among others, Russo mentions the case of Epictetus, regarded, at the beginning of the second century A.D. as the greatest luminary of Stoicism. And Epictetus confessed being unable to understand Chrysippus, his Hellenistic predecessor. Russo challenges also the common opinion that the Almagest rendered earlier astronomical treaties obsolete. To him such a vision is inconsistent with an overlooked reality that: whereas astronomy enjoyed an uninterrupted tradition down to Hipparchus (and especially in the period since Eudoxus), the subsequent period, lasting almost until Ptolemy's generation, witnessed no scientific activity. There was in that period a deep cultural discontinuity. This break, attested in different ways, is clearly illustrated especially by the astronomical obse rvations mentioned in the Almagest. They are spread over a period of a few centuries, from 720 B.C. to 150 A.D., but leaving a major gap of 218 years: from 126 B.C., the date of the last observation attributed to Hipparchus, to 92 A.D., corresponding to a lunar observation by Agrippa 8 . The author mentions also the relationship between the Almagest's star catalogue and the star coordinates of Hipparchus citing the works of Grasshoff which agreed that, although Ptolemy included in his catalogue some coordinates measured by himself, he also largely used the Hipparchian data of three centuries before. 3. A partial recovery based on reproduction and selection of some scientific results (drawback: the simplest and not the best results have been preserved) Hellenistic culture survived during the Imperial Roman age. The former kingdoms were not assimilated linguistically or culturally and from a technological and economical point of view there was certain continuity with the preceding period. After the interruption produced by the wars with Rome, the Pax Romana allowed a partial recovery of scientific research in the first and second centuries A.D. (in the time

Seneca: Quaestiones naturals., VII, xxix, 4.apud THE ANCIENT ENGINEERS by L. SPRAGUE DE CAMP, The MIT Press Paperback Edition, March 1970. 8 Russo, [2], p. 282.

of Heron, Ptolemy and Galen). After that moment the decline was inexorable. For some centuries Alexandria remained the centre of any scientific activity to be. The last scientist worthy of mention may have been Diophantus, if he really lived in the third century A.D. The activity documented in the fourth century A.D. is limited to compilations, commentaries and rehashing of older works; among the commentators and editors of that time we will be particularly interested in Pappus, whose Collection brings together many mathematical results9. The extent of the destruction of Hellenistic works has usually been underestimated in the past, due to the assumption that it was the best material that survived. Russo challenged this opinion because the optimistic view that classical civilization handed over certain fundamental works that managed to include the knowledge contained in the lost writings has proved groundless. In fact, in the face of a general regression in the level of civilization, it's never the best works that will be saved through an automatic process of selection10. Is this vision of Russo consistent with other researches? We may say yes. It is possible to discover similar discontinuities and decays in the field of special technologies closely related to scientific activity. In this respect Derek de Solla Price11 considered that The existence of [...] Antikythera mechanism necessarily changes all our ideas about the nature of Greek high technology. [...] Hero and Vitruvius should be looked upon as chance survivors that may not by any mean be as representative as hitherto assumed. Price12 state also that Judging from the texts of Heron, Philon, and Ctesibiusfrom the tradition of automatic globes and planetarium made by Archimedes and from the few extant objects (...) we may say that the technology of astronomical automata underwent a period of intense development. The first major advances seem to have been made by Ctesibius and Archimedes, and the subsequent improvement must have been prodigious indeed. Those facts made possible, in the first century B.C. the Antikythera mechanism with its extraordinary complex astronomical gearing. From this we must suppose that the writings of Heron and Vitruvius preserve for us only a small and incidental portion of the corpus of mechanical skill that existed in Hellenistic and Roman times.

Russo, [2], p. 240. Russo, [2], p 8. 11 Derek de Solla Price, Science since Babylon, Enlarged Edition, New Haven and London Yale University Press, Third printing, 1978. pp44. 12 Idem. Pp 56, 57.

According to Russo, even among some real scientific works which were preserved by Byzantines and Arabs, two selection criteria seem to have been in use. The first was to give preference to authors of the imperial period, whose writings are in general methodologically inferior but easier to use: we have, for example, Heron's work on mirrors, but not the treatise that, according to some testimonies, Archimedes wrote on the same subject. Next, among the works of an author the ones selected are generally the more accessible, and of these often only the initial chapters. We have the Greek text of the first four, more elementary, books of Apollonius' Conics, but not the next four (of which three survived in Arabic); we have Latin and Arabic translations of the work of Philo of Byzantium on experiments in pneumatics, but none of his works on theoretical principles. 4. The fossilisation of knowledge as a mean for the reconstructing ancient scientific achievements Russo considers that Latin or Greek authors of imperial period are citing the Hellenistic authors without really understanding the ancient scientific methodology. The science became fossilised13, crystallized, a dead fragment from an ancient living organism. Is this vision of a fossilised science consistent? We may think yes. We can give just an example of such a fossilised astronomical knowledge transmitted by means of oral communication. In this respect Neugebauer14 cites the book Kla Sankalita published in Madras in 1825 by Warren. Warren had travelled extensively in Southern India and had recorded the astronomical teachings of the Tamil natives for the computation of the lunar motion. His informants no longer had any idea about the reasons for the single steps which they performed according to their rules. The numbers themselves were not written down but were represented by groups of shells placed on the ground. (...) Nevertheless they carried out long computations for the determination of the magnitude, duration, beginning and end of an eclipse with numbers which run into the billions in their integral part and with several hexadecimal places for their fractions. Simultaneously

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Russo[3], p 13. O. NEUGEBAUER Chapter VI, Origin and Transmission of Hellenistic Science, pp 165 in THE EXACT SCIENCES IN ANTIQUITY Second Edition, DOVER PUBLICATIONS.

they used memorized tables for the daily motion of the sun and moon involving many thousands of numbers. For Neugebauer it is evident that the methods found by Warren still in existence in the 19th century are the last witness of procedures which go back through the medium of Hellenistic astronomy. This kind of Hellenistic fossilised knowledgeis for Russo the origin for the recovery of science in XVIth century. And the fossilised scienceis also the ground on which he realised the spectacular and highly controversial reconstructions of some scientific Hellenistic theories. In order to accomplish that Russo opens a methodological novelty in the interpretation of the original sources. He focuses on second hand information (fossilised knowledge) spread throughout the literary and not the scientific sources. Such close examination of many more sources than the traditional ones allows him to deepen the historical perspective and makes possible new spectacular discoveries. 5. Conclusions and evaluations A. The actuality of Russos study Such a research seems in the first instance without practical significance. But the final interrogation of Russo concerns us all. The author asks if the decrease of a general and unified scientific theory to some fragmented and fossilised knowledge unable to produce new results may occur in the coming future or is just a matter of ancient past. His answer to the question is definitely positive. Russo thinks that the vital substance of knowledge is now reserved to smaller and smaller groups of specialists and that may endanger the future survival of science. Knowing what produced the ancient decay may allow us to avoid the same destiny in the future. B. The testing of some basic hypotheses In our description of Russos results we have seen that his hypothesis and conclusions were agreed by other savants. However in this way we can just verify that such phenomenon were possible without knowing anything about their probability. In fact some of Russos hypotheses may be tested. We may verify for example if the transmission of scientific knowledge between the more advanced society (Hellenistic) versus the least advanced one (Rome) was truly realized by a reproducing the most 6

accessible works and not the most advanced ones. Therefore we can imagine a sociological test finely tuned in order to meet the real conditions from Hellenistic to Roman times. C. The opening up of other research (some questions and tentative answers) We may underline a number of other questions raised by the Russos constructions such as: -How one can measure the scientific and technological creativity of an ancient society (without the patent system of today)? -Which is the element that makes the Greek Hellenistic world the first (and the last) scientifically developed society before the modern one? Is it the plurality of science centers (linked to the plurality of competing Hellenistic kingdoms)? What other issues were still important? -Why this Hellenistic culture was so fragile? Is it because of the reduced number of Scientifics, the inexistence of printing facilities, the spreading of illiterate, the inexistence of institutions like modern scientific academies? -What kind of sociology of science characterized the Hellenistic times? What makes the transfer of scientific knowledge different from the transfer of technology? -Has the Hellenistic science played an inevitable role in the emergence of modern science? Could the developments of science have followed a different pathway? -Finally, what role played this scientific decay in the fall of the Western Roman Empire? If the Romans, as successors of the Hellenistic states, lived in a scientifically impoverished society was the path to the Decline and fall of the Empire unavoidable? Was the disappearance of scientific method the mortal illness of Roman Empire? Anyway we may assume that a society without real technological and scientific creativity has a dark future. All these questions open up a new domain for future research. And this kind of inquiry makes the history of science and technology such a captivating subject.