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The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World
July 2009 (113.3)
The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World
Edited by John Peter Oleson. Pp. xviii + 865, figs. 162, tables 18. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008. $150. ISBN 978-0-19-518731-1 (cloth).
The world of classical studies seems awash with handbooks these days, but all are not created equally. The Oxford Handbooks series is a recent entry into this expanding publication arena. The intent of the Oxford University Press’ initiative is to offer survey articles written by international experts from relevant disciplines that provide scholars and advanced students with a thoughtful introduction to state-of-the-art research and critical thinking in different subfields of the topic encompassed by an individual volume. The various survey and analytical essays in this volume provide specific answers to questions relating to ancient technology and engineering in classical antiquity and serve as an excellent starting point for further investigation by providing current bibliographies of major scholarship on the subjects covered. The embracing purpose of this series, I believe, is to make the Oxford Handbooks the acknowledged first place to go to gain entry into an unfamiliar aspect of the ancient world.
If such is the aspiration for this new series, Oleson’s volume meets and exceeds the goal and, in doing so, sets the gold standard for other handbook volumes now in preparation for publication by the Oxford University Press and other publishing houses. The scope of this work is vast and ambitious—the inclusion of engineering and technology from the classical world in one large volume (865 pages). But as Oleson explains in his introduction, the book’s aim is not to be just “a compendium of all technological procedures, devices, and machines in use in the classical world” (6). Rather, he instructed his contributors to review recent scholarship and issues relating to their topics and to provide introductory essays that synthesize current and past scholarship and assess the impact of these technologies on the societies that produced them. In this regard, this volume transcends the more traditional approach to ancient technology and engineering, which tends to be descriptive in character. This handbook moves beyond this convention and aims to highlight the technological and engineering achievements of the classical world while seeking to understand these accomplishments in the social context of the eras that spawned them.
Oleson was certainly the correct choice for editor of such a work. In his own right, he stands as one of the foremost scholars in the field of ancient technology. He judiciously selected an international panel of 31 scholars to write the 33 chapters that appear in this work. They are organized into eight parts: part 1, “Sources”; part 2, “Primary, Extractive Techniques”; part 3, “Engineering and Complex Machines”; part 4, “Secondary Processes and Manufacturing”; part 5, “Technologies of Movement and Transport”; part 6, “Technologies of Death”; part 7, “Technologies of the Mind” (a most interesting category that might well have been expanded in intriguing ways); and part 8, “Ancient Technologies in the Modern World,” an original section that unfortunately is represented by only one essay but is offered in the hope of stimulating more theoretical investigations of the technology of antiquity.
Any anthology, of course, is only as good as its individual contributions. Sometimes, if good fortune, a careful selection of contributors, and judicious editing combine, the sum can be better than the parts, as is the case in this compilation. In spite of its size, all contributors faced the same problem of how best to use their allotted space. Their common problem was to decide what should be included vs. what could most expeditiously be omitted and yet still provide the coverage and analysis required. This reviewer was pleased with the decisions made by all the contributors, except with regard to the number of figures. The total number is high (162), but surprisingly, because of their distribution, there are actually too few for a book of this magnitude and gravitas. Some chapters appropriately include none, while others skimp on illustrations when more would have been salutary. One suspects that behind this inconsistency stood a publisher’s mandate to limit the number of figures.
Oleson was successful in convincing those scholars whose research we might expect to see in such a work to contribute articles on their special interests. For example, Blackman was the perfect choice to write on ancient harbor technology—updating and expanding his earlier seminal articles on ancient harbors while including a new examination of ancient ship sheds, a current research interest. De Souza’s essay, “Greek Warfare and Fortification,” offers an abridged but lucid assessment of the Greek contribution to the technology of war, except that only three pages are devoted to naval warfare, a subject that requires a much fuller treatment, which happily he is now preparing for publication elsewhere. Unfortunately, Davies’ chapter, “Roman Warfare and Fortification,” omits any reference to warfare on the sea. Lancaster provides a panoptic survey and analysis of recent scholarship on Roman engineering and construction. McGrail writes a thoughtful précis on ancient ships and navigation, although the inevitable space restrictions limited him to including only two pages on navigation, a subject needing far greater coverage. Wilson and Greene both offer three wide-ranging and thoughtful essays, while Wikander and Ulrich each contribute two.
The only scholar who does not appear, whom one might legitimately expect to see listed in the table of contents, is Oleson himself. While his decision not to contribute substantively to his own anthology is understandable, it is regrettable nonetheless that this volume does not benefit from at least one article on some aspect of his own research on ancient technology.
Without parsing each individual contribution in detail, one can say that all chapters justify their inclusion in what is destined to become a standard in the field. To summarize the entire collection in a word, I would simply say “magisterial.” This volume meets the lofty expectations of the Oxford University Press for its Handbooks series and the equally high standards set forth by its editor. It is not by definition a monographic treatment, but for what it is—a superb research tool intended to inform and to guide scholars and advanced students approaching an unfamiliar field—there is nothing of equal importance now available. One can purchase this handbook with confidence that it will have a long shelf life and provide an invaluable gateway to the world of engineering and ancient technology in classical antiquity for years to come.
My only issue with this publication is the consistent quality of its concise treatments of complex subjects. As the coeditor of another Oxford University Press volume in this same series, now in the planning stage (on ancient seafaring), I admit to a certain anxiety, perhaps one might even say “handbook envy,” about equaling the professional standards that distinguish this book. In fact, for all who have been, are now, or will be involved in the burgeoning explosion of handbooks relating to antiquity, be advised. The bar of excellence has just been raised to a much higher level.
Robert L. Hohlfelder
Department of History
University of Colorado, Boulder
Boulder, Colorado 80309-0234
Book Review of The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, edited by John Peter Oleson
Reviewed by Robert L. Hohlfelder
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 3 (July 2009)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/618