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Letters to the editors

Vol. 7, NO. 3 / November 2022

To the editors:

Mike Edmunds is a great name in his own field of astrophysics, so we mere historians of ancient Greece can only gawp in admiration, respect, and gratitude when a scientist such as he crosses over into our field.

It used often to be said—and perhaps it still is—that, though the ancient Greeks were terrific pioneer theoreticians,1 they were not much cop at translating theory into technology—that is, making practical, experimental applications of it. Or, if they did translate theory into practice, they typically did so for non-productive, non-utilitarian reasons, as when Heron of Alexandria made temple doors open as if by magic through the controlled application of steam. Even Eratosthenes of Cyrene’s measurement of the circumference of planet earth to within an acceptable degree of error, though it was both theoretically and pragmatically brilliant, could not lead directly to any obvious economic or political improvements.

By and large, modern experts on antiquity believe that in this sphere at least the Greeks had been well surpassed by the Romans. In matters of high culture, the Romans admitted that the Greeks were their mentors and they the pupils, but they themselves took the palm as workaday technologists. Think only of Roman water-engineering or roadbuilding prowess. But all that was before the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, or rather before the discovery and the highly sophisticated analysis of this unpromising lump of corroded metal dragged up from the bottom of the Aegean Sea in 1901. Such analysis was conducted by Mike Edmunds, Tony Freeth, and other Greek and international collaborators using the latest infrared microscopy and other technology.

I first came across the mechanism in the early 1970s. At the time, I was an Oxford graduate student researching the general area of southeastern Greece within which the islet of Antikythera is located, between the mainland and Crete. My period of archaeohistorical interest was much earlier than the period in which the mechanism was created and subsequently lost onboard a cargo ship that was wrecked around the second quarter of the first century BCE. But I could not help but be fascinated by this extraordinary find—partly because the cargo also contained much earlier objects, including bronze statuary of the highest quality dating as far back as the fourth century BCE.

When first I came across the mechanism, the leading researcher in the field was Derek de Solla Price. One of the most important points to derive from Edmunds’s essay is not so much—or not only—how and where he differs in his interpretations from his current colleagues and competitors, but just how far research has come since the work of de Solla Price back in 1958. In just the last fifteen years alone there have been two major generalizing studies published in book form, aimed at and largely comprehensible by non-scientists like myself: journalist Jo Marchant’s Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World’s First Computer and New York University professor Alexander Jones’s A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World.2 And in 2013, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, where the mechanism is housed and curated, mounted a superb special exhibition entitled The Shipwreck of Antikythera: The Ship—The Treasures—The Mechanism.

In that exhibition’s useful guide booklet is written, rather modestly: “The tragical event of the Antikythera shipwreck turned out to be a valuable source of information and an incomparable adventure of delving into the past.” But information on what, or of what kind? Was the mechanism really the world’s first computer, as some have suggested, and if so, what data was it devised to crunch and compute? The computer issue is easiest to address. Insofar as the mechanism could be considered a computer at all, it was very much analog, not digital. Understanding the mechanism in its totality, as we now know, requires being not only a mathematician or astrophysicist, but also an epigrapher, or student of ancient Greek inscribed texts, and on top of those a historian—to put the whole thing in its not only scientific but also cultural, economic, and political contexts.

I cannot begin to do anything like a proper job of that here—beyond acknowledging and agreeing that the Antikythera calculating mechanism does indeed transform our understanding of ancient Greek eclipse prediction. Ordinary Greeks since the beginning of historical time had been peculiarly interested in prediction—hence their invention and consultation of, most famously, the oracle of their god Apollo at Delphi in central mainland Greece. Greek intellectuals since at least the time of Thucydides in the later fifth century had been interested in a more scientific kind of prediction. Namely, the likely outcomes of particular proposed courses of policy both domestic and foreign within a context of democratic popular decision-making. But ancient Greece’s greatest scientists in the general field of mathematical astronomy did not appear before the fourth century BCE, in the person of Eudoxus of Cnidus. Even he, great though he was, had to yield first place to Archimedes of Syracuse and Alexandria, who flourished in the third century BCE and was murdered by a Roman soldier in 212.

Why might Archimedes be legitimately brought into discussion of an object found in a wreck that went down some century and a quarter after his death? One reason is that the object could have been made much earlier than the date it sank. But that is not the main reason, which is that the writing on the gearwheel discs of the mechanism is transcribed in Doric, a dialect spoken and written in Archimedes’s native Syracuse. Adding Archimedes into the mix can only enhance the newsworthiness of this quite remarkable discovery. I have to say that the notion of Archimedes as having been somehow behind the mechanism does have something going for it.

In my view, the mysteries of the various planetary cycles, Saros and otherwise, are and will always remain just that—mysteries. But I am reliably assured that whoever commissioned and first used the mechanism, probably somewhere toward the end of the second century BCE to judge from the letter-forms of the writing, would have put themselves in a position to predict not only major astronomical phenomena, such as eclipses, but also the cyclical reoccurrence of major Greek panhellenic religious festivals, such as the Olympic Games. But then comes the biggest—historical as opposed to scientific—question of all: Why? Why should anyone have done so? And, even though just one such device has been discovered so far, were there perhaps several mechanisms commissioned and in regular use?

This is where I revert to the original problematic—theory versus practice. It does not seem all that useful for anyone to have been able to predict at this level of exactitude the future iterations of the Olympic Games. But it would have been very useful indeed to predict total lunar or solar eclipses. Consider the total lunar eclipse of 413 BCE that had so flummoxed the Athenian commander of a major and ultimately disastrously unsuccessful naval expedition to ironically, of all places, Syracuse. Nicias, though a member of the Athenian economic elite, was no intellectual but rather “too much prey to divination and the like,” as historian Thucydides sadly put it. And so Nicias listened far too carefully to the soothsayers who told him the eclipse meant he must delay withdrawal for “thrice nine” days, or almost an entire lunar month. As a result, the withdrawal came far too late and at a cost of many Athenian lives.

Clearly, the mechanism, besides being a work of great craft and skill, was extremely sophisticated, prohibitively expensive, and thus likely commissioned either by a whole community or by a rich individual, such as by the city of Rhodes or a Rhodian citizen. Rhodes was where a budding young Roman such as Cicero went for his higher education. And it is here that I as a historian have to leave the Antikythera mechanism—in the more than capable hands of Edmunds and his colleagues.

Paul Cartledge

Mike Edmunds replies to Paul Keyser, Paul Cartledge, and Kyriakos Efstathiou:

I am very grateful for the kind and informative comments that these three authors have made on my slim essay. Venturing to cross from one discipline to another is a stimulating but dangerous activity, and I have often been conscious of my lack of deep classical and historical background. Nonetheless, we all seem to be in welcome agreement that the Antikythera mechanism is indeed a child of its time.

Paul Keyser provides much additional food for thought—in particular on the idea that there are further design conventions to be recognized in the mechanism. I am sympathetic to Keyser’s feeling that Archimedes has been accorded rather more expertise in the invention of sphaerae than is really justified by the evidence—at least until the contents of his lost book de Sphaerae is discovered. I might be a little more egalitarian than Paul Cartledge in estimating the cost of the mechanism. It was made of bronze not gold; any stones incorporated were semi-precious rather than true gems; and a rough estimate of the mechanical craftsmanship involved might only be a few weeks—i.e., requiring sufficient expertise to make it indeed an expensive object, but not prohibitively so. This suggests that such devices might not have been terribly rare, with the hopeful prospect that another example or variant might yet be found in the future, perhaps preserved at a suddenly-terminated site such as Pompeii or Herculaneum. Kyriakos Efstathiou is of course correct in asserting that no driving knob survives on the side of the mechanism, but the presence of a crown gear that would drive the main Sun gear is excellent circumstantial evidence that a knob or similar drive may have existed. Even if it did not, and the drive was indeed from the moon pointer, the philosophical—or, even theological—nicety of a single driver or Primum Mobile still remains.

We all seem rather stumped by the question of the mechanism’s primary purpose. But perhaps it is appropriate that some uncertainty should remain about this marvelous artefact, especially given that so much valuable de-mystification has taken place in recent years!

Paul Cartledge is an Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge.

Mike Edmunds is Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at Cardiff University and the current President of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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