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The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World

July 2009 (113.3)

Book Review

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).

Reviewed by

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

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1133.Hohlfelder


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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