Online Review: Book

The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World

John Peter Oleson, ed.


Reviewed by Robert L. Hohlfelder

Pp. xviii + 865, figs. 162, tables 18. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008. $150. ISBN 978-0-19-518731-1 (cloth).



This is a comment on Robert L. Hohlfelder’s review of the Oxford Handbook. Hohlfelder has a general objection to the layout of the book: the number of illustrations is too low. There are more than 150, but in a book like this, he says, it is not enough. I agree with him.

However, I can understand that the editor had to restrict the number of illustrations. The book is already very long. What to do? There is an easy solution to this dilemma: split the book into two volumes and you can add some 50 pages of illustrations to each of them. It is a shame the editor or the publisher did not choose this solution.

Hohlfelder also has a specific objection to chapter 27: “Roman Warfare and Fortification.” He is disappointed to notice that this chapter omits any reference to warfare on the sea. Again, I agree with him. This omission is unfortunate.

Chapter 26, “Greek Warfare and Fortification,” includes a brief section about naval warfare. Obviously, there should be a similar section in chapter 27. The editor should have returned the first version of chapter 27 to the author and asked her to add a section about naval warfare. Why did he not do this?

I have another general objection to the layout of the book: all references to ancient sources and modern works are placed in the text. It would have been better to place them in footnotes at the bottom of the pages. Today this is easy to do. The computer can do it for you. The editor mentions this issue is a note about abbreviations and spelling norms:

“I asked contributors to avoid the use of footnotes with the result that there are occasional clusters of references in the text.” This is so true. I wish he had re-read this statement and realised that he had to change his mind: placing references in footnotes “makes for a smoother presentation.”

Hohlfelder says all authors are well-chosen and all chapters are well-written. On this point I do not agree with him. In my opinion, some chapters are better than others. Among the many good chapters I will mention the following:

* Chapter 5: “Quarrying and Stoneworking”
* Chapter 10: “Roman Engineering and Construction”
* Chapter 12: “Tunnels and Canals”
* Chapter 28: “Information Technologies”

Some chapters are not so good. Here are four examples:

Chapter 29: “Timekeeping.” The author of this chapter, Robert Hannah, decided to focus on the hours of the day, therefore the focus is on sundials and water clocks. There is nothing about the months and the year; there is nothing about Greek and Roman calendars. This omission is unfortunate, since a calendar is an important element of timekeeping. It is also strange, since Hannah is the author of a book with the title “Greek and Roman Calendars” (2005) – this book is even listed in the bibliography at the end of the chapter, on page 756.

Chapter 24: “Sea Transport, Part 1: Ships and Navigation.” This chapter by Sean McGrail is highly technical, and it is basically a chronological list of ships in the ancient world. His chapter is mainly descriptive; there is almost no analysis, almost no interpretation, even though the editor asked the contributors to avoid a purely descriptive approach. In my opinion, the editor’s choice of McGrail as author of this chapter was not so lucky.

Chapter 22: “Land Transport, Part 1: Roads and Bridges.” The author of this chapter, Lorenzo Quilici, decided to focus on roads and bridges in Italy, therefore there is almost nothing about roads and bridges in the provinces. Italy is the center of the empire, but with regard to size it is only a fraction the empire. The most famous bridge in the Roman Empire, Alcantara, in western Spain, near the border with Portugal, is not even mentioned here.

The bibliography at the end of this chapter is unfortunate in several ways: most of the works listed reveal the author’s Italian origin. Most of the works are written in Italian, and most of the Italian works are written by the author himself. Some important English works are not listed here. If the author did not know then, then the editor could and should have added them:

* Don Nardo, “Roman Roads and Aqueducts” (2001)
* Ivana Della Portella, editor, “The Appian Way” (2004)
* Romolo Augusto Staccioli, “The Roads of the Romans” (2004)

Chapter 23: “Land Transport, Part 2: Riding, Harnesses, and Vehicles.” This chapter by Georges Raepsaet is the worst of the four cases mentioned here. In this case we are not talking about unfortunate omissions. Some parts of the text are misleading, or perhaps even false. Raepsaet mentions (and rejects) the traditional view of the ancient harness system represented by the French author Lefebvre des Noettes, whose book on this topic was published in 1931. des Noettes claims the ancient collar is unfortunate for the horse, because it is placed on the throat and not the shoulders of the animal: the harder the pull, the stronger the choking effect.

Raepsaet mentions (and supports) the French author Jean Spruytte, who tried to refute the traditional view in a book published in French in 1977. An English translation “Early Harness Syststems” appeared in 1983.

Raepsaet and Spruytte claim the traditional view is based on evidence which is limited and misunderstood. This claim is highly dubious, and in a funny twist Raepsaet himself delivers the evidence needed to refute it. One of the illustrations in his chapter is a picture of a funerary monument at Gorsium in Pannonia Inferior, in present-day Hungary (figure 23.1, page 583).

The monument is divided into three sections. The upper section is a relief which shows a local woman Flavia Usaiu, while the lower section gives a Latin inscription. The text explains that Flavius Titucus erected this monument out of respect for his mother. The central section is relevant for the topic of this chapter: it is a relief which shows a carriage and two animals. The caption reads: “Horses or mules pulling a wagon.”

If you look closely at the relief, you can see that the collar is placed on the throat and not on the shoulders of the animals. In other words: this picture, taken by Raepsaet himself, supports the traditional view, which Raepsaet wants to refute!

Throughout the book there are minor flaws (not mentioned by Hohlfelder):

(A) In the bibliography at the end of chapter 28 there are two misprints and two obvious omissions: John Bodel, “Epigraphic Evidence” (2001). Bodel is listed as the author of this book. In fact, he is the editor (page 736).

Greg Woolf, “Monumental Writing…” an article in the Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 86, 1998. The volume is correct, but the year is false. Volume 86 was published in 1996 (page 739).

Supplement # 3 about “Literacy in the Roman World” published by JRA in 1991 is listed (under Hopkins) on page 737. But supplement # 48 about the same topic published by JRA in 2002 is not listed. The title of supplement # 48 is “Becoming Roman, Writing Latin? Literacy in the Roman West.”

“Literacy and Power in the Ancient World” edited by A. K. Bowman and Greg Woolf (hardcover 1994, paperback 1997) is not listed either.

(B) “Hypocaust” or “hypocaustum” is mentioned two times in the text (pp. 273 and 307) and shown in figure 10.3, on page 265, but this important concept is not listed in the index.

(C) The siege of Masada is mentioned in chapter 27. The text (page 704) does not say when this event took place. The caption to figure 27.2 (page 705) gives the date AD 73. This is the traditional date, which seems to be untenable. Most modern scholars prefer the following year, AD 74. For discussion see Maurice Sartre, “The Middle East under Rome” (2005) page 428 (note 204).

(D) On page 291 Andrew Wilson writes: “Traces of what may be a comparable system were recorded at Babylon by Rassam in the late nineteenth century.” I think many readers will have to ask: who is Rassam? His name is Hormuzd Rassam, he lived 1826-1910, and he was an archaeologist and a diplomat. Why is he only identified by his last name?

The items mentioned above (A-D) are minor flaws. But I am disappointed to see that they are repeated in the paperback version published in 2010. Why were they not detected and corrected before the publisher ordered the paperback version to be printed?

Best regards,

Torben Retboll

Three additional points about the Oxford Handbook:

(1) Figure 13.3 in chapter 13 shows a full-scale reconstruction of a Roman bucket chain (page 352). The caption says: "Working reconstruction of the first century AD water-lifting device discovered at Gresham St., London, on display at the Museum of London."

The picture is taken by A. I. Wilson, who is the author of this chapter.

The model was indeed placed in the rotunda in front of the Museum of London in 2001 and remained there for several years. But it is not there anymore: in 2010 it was moved to the Ancient Technology Centre in Dorset (UK).

(2) Chapter 12 about tunnels and canals includes the story of the Roman engineer Nonius Datus and the aqueduct which delivered water to the Roman town of Saldae (in French colonial times: Bougie, today Béjaïa in Algeria). The story is quite famous. It is mentioned (briefly) in several modern books. Here are two examples:

* Paul MacKendrick, "The North African Stones Speak" (1980) pp. 247-248

* J. G. Landels, "Engineering in the Ancient World" (second edition, 2000) pp. 52-53

Serafina Cuomo (author of chapter 1 in the Oxford Handbook) has recently written an article about Nonius Datus. It is the first full-scale study of this case. Here is a reference:

Serafina Cuomo, "A Roman Engineer's Tales," JOURNAL OF ROMAN STUDIES, vol. 101 (2011) pp. 143-165.

(3) There is a minor flaw in the bibliography at the end of chapter 25 about harbors. On page 668 we have the following entry: R. L. Hohlfelder, "The Maritime World of Ancient Rome" (2008).

Hohlfelder is listed as the author of this book. In fact, he is the editor, and the book was published in 2007 (not 2008).

Incidentally, Hohlfelder is the reviewer of the Oxford Handbook, but In his review he does not mention that the details of this book, which he himself had just edited, are incorrect.

Best regards,

Torben Retboll

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