What the Romans learnt from Greek mathematics

March 1, 2009

Greek mathematics is considered one of the great intellectual achievements of antiquity. It has been decisive to the academic and cultural development of Western civilisation. The three Roman authors Varro, Cicero and Vitruvius were all, in their own way, influenced by Greek knowledge and transferred it to Roman literature. In his dissertation, Erik Bohlin, at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, studied the traces of Greek influence on these authors with regard to the mathematical branch of geometry.

Most people have heard of the great Greeks Euclid and Archimedes. And who is not familiar with Pythagoras’ theorem? When Rome usurped political power around the Mediterranean, the Romans came into close contact with Greek culture, its literature and science.

According to some sources, the Roman author Varro is supposed to have written a book on the subject of geometry. This book has not been preserved however. In Erik Bohlin’s view, after critical examination of the collective historic evidence, very little can be established with reasonable probability about its contents. Earlier research has attempted to claim, for example, that Varro’s book was used by later Roman authors as a source of geometric teaching matter. This assertion does not stand up to critical examination, however, and must be seen as a more or less unfounded hypothesis according to Bohlin.

Cicero’s rhetorical and philosophical writings contain many passages that deal with or touch on the subject of geometry. Geometry and geometric knowledge are fundamental in Vitruvius’ De architectura (On architecture). There are many passages in which geometry is applied practically or which assume that the reader is familiar with it. The dissertation comments on and interprets a selection of significant passages from both these authors.

For Vitruvius, the practical use of geometry does of course come first: geometric designs are required in architecture, not least, to achieve exact drawings. In general, the scientific view of the Romans was strongly influenced by limiting utilitarianism: only knowledge with immediate practical use was worth cultivating.

According to the author of the dissertation, this picture ought to be nuanced, however, especially with regard to the authors Cicero and Vitruvius who essentially had an open and appreciative attitude to the Greek advances in mathematics and studies of geometry - even if practical use came first. Bohlin finds a clearly expressed ideological dimension to the significance of geometry in both Cicero and Vitruvius. Geometry is regarded as an integrated part of civilisation and refined human culture. As such, an inherent cultural value, which is thereby also universal, is attached to geometry.

For Cicero and, in particular, for Vitruvius, this ideological dimension was not independent of practical use, but both aspects were seen as linked.

“With this perspective, the actual differences between that which is Roman and that which is Greek can be toned down, and in this we find a motivation for Cicero’s and Vitruvius’s more open attitude to geometry and Greek knowledge in general,” says Bohlin.

More information: gupea.ub.gu.se/dspace/handle/2077/19411?locale=en

Provided by University of Gothenburg

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1.5 / 5 (2) Mar 01, 2009
More scientific: "But I thought of it first!" In a way, a little childish.

Nor does knowing more about some math make the Greeks overall "better". For all we know, some math discoveries might have been largely the result of a freak genius such as Leonardo. Any number of other factors may have crept in. Looking backward 2,000 and making value judgments about a "contest" that the participants themselves did not see themselves as involved verges on the pointless and invalid, along with the childish.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 01, 2009
Yes, patents on software are childish and counterproductive.

But historical developments which take place in different centuries are not contests, no way. When Athens was at its first cultural and political height, Rome was of local importance only - this is not a contest, it's a historical fact.

What the article tries to describe is another fact, namely that Roman thinking and Greek thinking were as different as today, say, Chinese and American thinking. Romans were very practical people, very good at engineering, administration, and warfare.
Greeks instead were deep thinkers. Their main goals were not technical but philosophical. They were looking for the principle of harmony everywhere. In geometry, in astronomy, in music, in philosophy, in education, and even in politics.
There is some resemblance to the Yin-Yang principle of taoism.
not rated yet Mar 02, 2009
Software isn't patentable.

The Romans and Greeks were really not that different. Greek philosophy is just more noteworthy as the seat of Greek power was also the center of Greek philosophy, where as the center of Roman power was also the center of Roman leisure.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 03, 2009
The Romans and Greeks were really not that different.

For some, especially those knowing neither Latin nor Greek, there might be similarities. That's no wonder because a copy always bears some similarity with the original.

Apart of that, it's a matter of how distant your perspective is. All Africans seem similar from an European perspective, and all Europeans from an Asian perspective.
not rated yet Mar 03, 2009
Very true, but if that's the case, one could say that attempting to draw any parallel, or consider one culture the source of another is fallacy as all cultures are different when observed on a close enough scale or from a particular frame of reference.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 04, 2009
Very true, but if that's the case, one could say that attempting to draw any parallel, or consider one culture the source of another is fallacy as all cultures are different when observed on a close enough scale or from a particular frame of reference.

We can't neglect the facts. E.g. the fact that all of the Roman gods are mere copies of their Greek equivalents (and not vice versa). E.g. the facts presented to us by the mere existence of the vocabulary of culture and science: music, mathematics, philosophy, biology, geometry, history, architecture, technics, physics, chemistry, theatre, cosmology, astronomy, mythos, hero, anthropology, archaeology, democracy, politics, psychology, meter, micro, nano, kilo, mega, giga, tera ...
Science, democracy, rational reasoning are Greek inventions.
The Latin alphabet (sic!) is a descendant of the Greek alphabet and the Greek alphabet is the first complete (containing vowels and consonants) alphabet of mankind.

The "Ilias" and the "Odyssee" were written around 800 BC, when Rome wasn't even founded.
Of course, Greek and Roman cultures are different - different like master and pupil.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2009
What the Romans learnt from Greek mathematics




WTF does learnt mean?
not rated yet Mar 12, 2009
If we compare Greek and Latin philosophers, it's obvious that Greek came first and thought of most of the things first.

But there is a very important detail. Greek philosophers weren't merely Greek /not to mention how Greek they actually were/-they were adjacent to many formidable cultures and they took as much out of it as they could.

For example my dear Pythagoras is known to have travelled to the Near East-to Babylon, to Egypt and learnt from their priests and philosophers. His life finished in Italy. He was a man of the world and the world lived in his teachings! And Pythagoras was much more than the theorem! But that's another story.

My point-this isn't about whose scientists are better-they all kept in touch with the ancient knowledge. The Latin copied from the Greek, the Greek copied from Egypt, Babylon and Trakia. This simply is the way life went in the Ancient times. They didn't have patents and knowledge flowed freely into the hands of the most capable person at the time-be it Greek, Latin or whatever. And nationality didn't quite exist at those times, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to call someone a Greek or a Latin, simply because they moved around quite freely and probably the only origin they had was the ethnics of their parents which is not always so simple to trace.

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