In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek and Roman Science

  • Introduction
  • Editions of Texts
  • Scholarly Aids
  • Journals
  • Mathematics
  • Harmonics
  • Optics
  • Astronomy
  • Astrology
  • Geography
  • Meteorologika
  • Mechanics Including Pneumatics
  • “Biology” (Plants and Animals)
  • Alchemy
  • Paradoxography

Classics Greek and Roman Science
Paul T. Keyser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0181


The study of the science of the ancient Greco-Roman world falls between two academic stools: on the one hand, the history of science privileges the period opened by the inventions of the telescope and microscope; on the other, “classics” (i.e., Altertumswissenschaft) privileges the works of literary figures such as Homer or Sophocles, Horace or Vergil. The paradigm of classics since Antiquity has been to focus strongly on a single author or even work and to read closely the texts, leading to rich commentaries; however, that paradigm fails to consider larger-scale patterns over time or space. This paradigm persists despite extensive recent flux in the field, especially around literary theory. Thus, scientific works are considered subliterary and neglected, or else they are studied in isolation. Conversely, since the Renaissance, the paradigm of science and its history has been creative destruction, both of theories and of evidence, leading to rapid evolution and diversification. That paradigm fails to consider longer-term trends and traditions, so that the history of many sciences focuses on the most recent few generations, and, for all sciences, scarcely any attention is paid to developments before the Renaissance. Some scholars of ancient science privilege one or more of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine as being somehow more similar to modern science, especially in their results: that distinction is less clear than such a privileging would presume. Although ancient astronomy did determine that the moon shines by reflected sunlight, that eclipses were syzygies of sun, moon, and earth, and that the sun was much larger and more distant from the earth than was the moon, most of the rest of its agreed model, as well as the range of debate, was by modern standards entirely misplaced. Likewise in medicine, if items such as the role of diet and regimen in health, the craniocentric model of cognition, and the ability to treat some injuries and illnesses were genuine accomplishments, much of the practice and theory was misplaced and even damaging. On the other hand, sciences such as geography, mechanics, biology, and even alchemy also produced a comparable corpus of reliable and still valid accomplishments. The range of topics explored in ancient science, as seen in the outline, is quite broad, and includes studies that were sciences within the ancient framework, but would not now pass muster as scientific. Most topics are designated by a suitable ancient term, though modern categories are also used for clarity of presentation. (For the reception and transformation of Greek science by the Romans, see the section on Roman Science.)

General Overviews

The study of the history of science is constantly challenged to explain the known evolution of concepts, while avoiding the twin extremes of relativism and teleological progressivism. Much of the study of early Greek science has been characterized by teleological progressivism, as already seen in Aristotle’s approach of interpreting all the “pre-Socratics” plus Plato as somehow leading up to his theory. Since more nuanced and insightful accounts of those early Greek workers are now available, and since early Greek science is remarkable, this article provides a section devoted to those scholarly efforts, Origins and Early Development. Correlatively, some accounts of the history of science, ancient or later, too much dismiss or neglect the results of science and explain all scientific activity as being primarily the seeking of power or as rhetorical display, an approach pioneered by Nietzsche. Therefore, a section of this article, Surveys, is devoted to surveys and syntheses of Greek science that give due credit to accomplishments, without falling into Aristotle’s error of teleological progressivism. The aims and methods of ancient Greek science represent an early stage in a long and still ongoing evolution, but they are recognizably consonant with what we would demarcate as science. Any evolutionary track of sufficient length will display a greater and greater variety of species occupying a greater and greater number of niches, and so it is with science that we see a greater and greater range of coverage, of understanding, and of results.

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