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Science in the early Middle Ages

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Saved by Keriann Collins
on September 25, 2008 at 11:49:03 am



The myth that science ceased to exist from the period of the Greeks until the scientific revolution seems to be a widely held thought.  However, this was not the case.  It was during this period that science mainly took to preserving and popularizing works that were already in existence from the prominent Greek philosophers.  The Romans, a more practical minded people who were not so much interested in philosophy for philosophy's sake, still admired the Greek philosophers and found their work worthy of being read, copied, and translated.  In fact, the Roman writer, Horace, noted that while Rome conquered Greece militarily and politically, the artistic and intellectual conquest belonged to the Greeks.  Natural philosopy was viewed more as an amusement to the Romans, so they ended up borrowing what they basically thought was interesting.  As Rome became more and more secure, its leisured class took a great interest in Greek literature, philosophy, politics, and art.  Any Roman wishing to pursue these topics was better off finding them through imitation of the Greek method and any Roman scholar who wished to proceed at the highest level would do so in Greece.  Any program of creative research was paired with other programs directed toward preservation, commentary, education, popularization, and transmission. This idea of research still exists today in schools, universities, and mass media. When it came to Greek science, the Roman public usually valued what had practical and intristic appeal. They were also interested in cataloging knowledge; in fact, the encyclopedia was a product of a Roman citizen named Pliny the Elder, whose work included 37 books in which he attempted to gather all of human knowledge into one source.  As the Empire was stretched increasingly thinner, and was facing adversity within and without, the copying of books simply became less important. 

     In fact, the western portion of the Roman empire was much less stable during this period and much of the preservation of scientific knowledge and scientific advancement was left to the eastern part, sometimes referred to as the Byzantine empire.  In essence, the Roman empire split culturally into two sects around the 4th century, each recognized as a seperate entity with their own emperor.  This is what is referred to the Western Roman Emprie and the Byzantine Empire. The Christian church was also seen as being against science when really it may have been a major reason for the survival of many Greek works and philosophies.  Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean region slowly over about 600 years.  This gradual diffusion allowed for it to mix with pagan ideas, including natural philosophy from such philosophers as Plato.


Natural Philosophers Under the Roman Republic:


Posidonius (ca. 135- 51 B.C.) :

     Posidonius, a Stoic born in Syria, was well known as a popularizer of Greek natural philosophy. He was a teacher of Cicero, and strongly influenced his intellectual life.  He was "the closest thing to a universal scholar that we can find in the first century B.C." (Lindberg 137).  He sought information and wrote about history, geography, moral philosophy, and natural philosophy.  He comented on both Plato's Timaeus and Aristotle's Meteorology.  Though most of his works have not survive, it is known that he found an estimate for the circumference of the Earth  different from Eratosthenes'.  This estimate of 180,000 stades was eventually used by Columbus to calculate the distance from Spain to the Indies.   


Varro (116- 27 B.C.) :

     Varro (116-27 B.C.), having studied in Rome and Athens, produced an enormous body of works (about seventy-five in all) on a variety of topics. The most influencial of these works was the Nine Books of Discipline which became a reference for many future Roman encyclopedists. The Disciplines became most widely known for its organization of nine fields of study into the liberal arts: the trivium (grammar, thetoric, logic), the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical theory), medicine, and architecture.  His Disciplines became a staple in every educated Roman's study, and was later altered slightly by Martianus Capella, who limited them to the trivium and the quadrivium.  


Cicero (106- 43 B.C.) : 

     Cicero was best known as a great politician and orator, but he also worked in the field of natural philosphy.  His natural philosophy consisted of a work entitled The Dream of Scipio which is a discussion of Aristotelian cosmology that describes the heavens in an attempt to outline Greek cosmology.  In this work Cicero describes the "music of the spheres" that is created due to the motioin of the heavenly bodies.  This outlines Cicero's belief that the cosmos' motion is highly proportional and harmonic.  Cicero also wrote a translation of Plato's Timaeus which did not survive to today.


Lucretius (ca. 99 B.C. -ca. 55 B.C) :

     Lucretius is most famous for On the Nature of the Universe or On the Nature of Things.  This work is a defense of the atomistic position, mainly with Epicurean influences.  It is also the source of most of what we currently know about atomism.  It does not, however, address astronomy.  


Under the Roman Empire:


Pliny the Elder (AD 23- AD 79):

Pliny the Elder was lawyer and read prolifically.  He collected information about the natural world wich he eventually compiled in his encyclopedia called Natural History.  Natural History has seven books that cover pretty much evry topic in natural philosophy.  It is also seen in Cicero's encyclopedia is extraordinary ability to juggle all the facts and still present them in a concise way.  He used 473 sources to write Natural History, of which 100 were his most trusted.  This encyclopedia later became a primary source in other encyclopedias, such as Solinus' A Collection of Facts which is basically a condensation of Pliny's work.


Early Christian:



Bede wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but is also known for his establishment of the dating system we use today.


Primary Sources


 If we compare the early church with a modern research university or the National Science Foundation, the church will prove to have failed abysmally as a supporter of science and natural philosophy.  But such a comparison is obviously unfair.  If, instead, we compare the support given to the study of nature by the early church with support available from any other contemporary social institution, it will become apparent that the church was the major paton of scientific learning.  Its patronage may have been limited and selective, but limited and selective patronage is a far cry from opposition. (Lindberg 150)


Lindberg points out a common flaw in modern thinking: the early Christian Church hindered scientific learning.  But this misconception is based on a skewed, presentist viewpoint of what "supporting science" is.


"What sound do I hear, so magnificent, so sweet, which fills my ears?"

"That is the music of the spheres," Africanus answered.

                                                       --Cicero, The Dream of Scipio



Key Terms and Definitions


encyclopedia - a compiling of all human knowledge, introduced by Roman Pliny the Elder as his Natural History




Relevant Links

 A great interactive on the Roman Empire.  Check out the timeline and maps.



Pliny the Elder's Natural History online.



Some more on Varro's life and works.

















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