In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mechanics

  • Introduction
  • Introductory and General Works
  • Technological Background
  • Scientific Background
  • Mechanical Texts in Antiquity
  • Technology and Society
  • Mechanics and Philosophy
  • Practitioners

Classics Mechanics
Courtney Ann Roby
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0132


Mechanics in antiquity was a complex discipline, including both theoretical and applied components, drawing methodology and practices from mathematics as well as hands-on craft disciplines. Though the subdisciplines involved were not strictly fixed, Vitruvius On Architecture Book 10 and Pappus Synagōgē Book 8 classify the components of mechanics, while the Belopoeica of Philo of Byzantium was part of a nine-volume work called the “Mechanical Collection” (Mēchanikē Syntaxis). This work is almost all lost, but the titles of the works survive, and suggest a division into topics like artillery, pneumatics, and levers. The testimony of these ancient sources suggests that mechanics spanned a wide range of machine types (including military, astronomical, pneumatic, construction, and calculating devices), scales (from heavy machinery like catapults and olive-presses to small clockwork gadgets), and domains of application (including military, civil, and theoretical mechanics). Textual, material, and epigraphic evidence survives to provide clues to the technical details of machines, the principles according to which they were designed, and the lives and social status of the engineers and craftsmen who created them.

Introductory and General Works

Brumbaugh 1966 and Chevallier 1993 provide accessible grounding in basic information, while Gille 1980 discusses this technology and its development in greater detail, without sacrificing readability. Drachmann 1963 is a thoughtful, well-illustrated introduction to the textual evidence for ancient mechanical technology, including careful commentary on the most important passages of text describing machines. Fleury 1993 provides an excellent overview of popular perceptions of the discipline of mechanics in antiquity, along with the textual tradition that propagated technical knowledge. The papers collected in Oleson 2008 cover a broad range of specialized topics; Wilson’s chapter “Machines in Greek and Roman Technology” (pp. 337–366) provides the most concentrated information on mechanics. Cotterell 1990 finds common ground in the mechanical properties (tensile strength, shear strength, etc.) of the materials used by many different cultures in a wide range of technological applications. Oleson 1986 is the best resource to point the way toward further reading on the technology of the ancient Mediterranean.

  • Brumbaugh, Robert S. 1966. Ancient Greek gadgets and machines. New York: Crowell.

    Designed for accessibility to a general readership rather than to appeal to specialists, this short volume introduces the reader to some of the highlights of Greek machinery, quite thoroughly illustrated with line-drawing schematics. Organization is roughly chronological but rather miscellaneous, making this work more useful as a first introduction to mechanical technology’s place in Greek society than as a guide to any specific technology. A moderate annotated bibliography points the way to more detailed resources.

  • Chevallier, Raymond. 1993. Sciences et techniques à Rome. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

    “Machines au service de l’homme,” the third chapter of this small, very readable book, collects useful basic information about mechanical devices used in Roman life. Particular attention to military, building and water-lifting machines, and aqueducts. Includes clear illustrations and a topical bibliography at the book’s end which will point the way to more detailed reading.

  • Cotterell, Brian. 1990. Mechanics of pre-industrial technology: An introduction to the mechanics of ancient and traditional material culture. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Concentrates on the common ground of mechanical and material principles upon which the technologies of a wide range of ancient and nonindustrialized cultures rely. An extremely useful resource for anyone interested in understanding the mechanical properties of different structures and materials, well beyond the more common treatments of the basic laws of statics.

  • Drachmann, A. G. 1963. The mechanical technology of Greek and Roman antiquity: A study of the literary sources. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    Provides excerpts from the Peripatetic Mechanica, Hero, Vitruvius, Oribasius, Philo, and others, along with detailed explanatory material. Drachmann makes extensive use of diagrams, wherever possible following the surviving manuscript illustrations rather than providing the misleading modernized versions found in most treatments. A very readable and thoughtful guide to the textual sources.

  • Fleury, Philippe. 1993. La mécanique de Vitruve. Caen, France: Université de Caen, Centre d’études et de recherche sur l’antiquité.

    A detailed yet focused introduction to both theoretical and practical mechanics in the ancient world. Though he emphasizes machines and mechanics as described by Vitruvius, Fleury details their roots in past works like the Peripatetic Mechanica and their echoes in later authors like Ammianus Marcellinus. Provides a chronology of Greek and Roman mechanical practitioners and authors, extensive diagrams and photographs of surviving material evidence, and numerical examples that clarify mechanical principles.

  • Gille, Bertrand. 1980. Les mécaniciens grecs: la naissance de la technologie. Paris: Seuil.

    This accessible work presents developments in Greek mechanical technology from archaic building techniques to Alexandrian advancements in the Hellenistic period and beyond. Careful analysis of the textual evidence is contextualized with essays on how technical knowledge was most likely propagated in the ancient world, the varying speeds at which technology seems to have developed at different times and in different places, and the factors that might have governed this variation.

  • Oleson, John Peter. 1986. Bronze Age, Greek, and Roman Technology: A Select, Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland

    A mammoth collection of over two thousand sources on the technology of the ancient Mediterranean, this is a superb resource on a host of technical topics ranging from agriculture to complex machinery. Each entry includes thoughtful commentary on its contributions, utility, and methodological problems (where appropriate), making this an easy resource to navigate and select from despite its comprehensive scope.

  • Oleson, John Peter. 2008. Oxford handbook of engineering and technology in the classical world. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides a comprehensive view of technology in ancient Greece and Rome, including chapters on theoretical approaches to textual, epigraphic, and material evidence that render it more useful than the typical sourcebook. Information most relevant to the design and use of mechanical devices ranges from “gadgets and scientific instruments” to the massive machinery of construction. Each of the chapters is complemented wherever possible with illustrations and charts, and each has its own bibliography.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.