Lucio Russo :The Forgotten Revolution, reviewed by Rajesh Kochhar (2006)

Book Review

The Forgotten Revolution: How Science was Born in 300 BC and How it had to be Reborn

By Lucio Russo (trans. by Silvio Levy)

Springer $99. ISBN 3-540-20088-1


Rev by Rajesh Kochhar (2006) Indian Journal of History of Science, 41:3, 335-338.



Alexander’s military campaigns which extended up to the River Indus brought about intellectual interaction and cross-fertilization of ideas in the region. The cosmopolitan Egyptian  city of Alexandria ( founded 331 BC), with a substantial Greek-speaking population, emerged as a major center of  activity. Starting with the year 212 BC when Syracuse was plundered and Archimedes (287-212 BC) killed, Hellenistic centers were defeated and conquered by the Romans, with Alexandria itself being conquered in 30 BC. Scientific activity there however had already come to  an abrupt end in 144 BC, when the king Ptolemy VIII , acting as proxy for the Romans , “initiated a policy of brutal persecution against the city’s Greek ruling class”.  This scholarly book discusses   “the appearance of science as we understand it now” in the Hellenistic period. (The Classical period that lasted the preceding two centuries can be taken to close with the death of Aristotle in 322 BC.) The Hellenistic period includes, apart from Archimedes,  such well-known names  as  Euclid(c. 300 BC), Aristarchus(c. 310-230 BC) , the librarian Eratosthenes( c. 275-192 BC),and Hipparchus(c.190-120 BC) plus a host  of lesser known names.
Science went into decline with the rise of Rome and eventually disappeared. Most of the writings of the period ( with the notable exception of Euclid’s Elements) have been lost. Much of our information about the scholars of the Hellenistic period comes from remarks made by later authors.  Also, even when texts were saved, the selection process worked in reverse, preserving some of the worst and destroying some of the best. Hellenistic period was almost immediately forgotten and interest in classical philosophers like Aristotle and Plato revived. Reconstruction of past from such scanty and dispersed primary materials is a difficult task. Russo, who is a modern mathematician as also a classical philologist, seems to have done an admirable job.


As an illustration of decline in science, Russo gives an interesting example. Pliny in his Natural History refers to Aristomachus of Soli who “did nothing else” in his whole life than study bees. Pliny knows that beehives have hexagonal cells, but instead of digging complex reasoning from his Greek sources simply says that this is so because “each side is the work of one leg”. Consistent with the apathy of the times, translation of Euclid into Latin was not attempted till the 6th century AD. The first complete translation seems to have been made as late as around 1120 AD and that too from the Arabic.


How did Hellenistic science come to being? Alexander’s conquests brought Greeks to  Egypt and Mesopotamia, both of which had older civilization , bigger economy and geography and higher levels of practical knowledge and  technological developments. The combination of these with the classical Greek tradition gave rise to science. Thus the vastness of Egypt made possible the celebrated experiment by Eratosthenes to measure the circumference of the earth. (His own work is lost: we know about it from a later account.) Aswan (modern name) and Alexandria are on the same longitude: the noon therefore occurs at the same time at both the places. Aswan in addition lies near the tropic of Cancer, so that at noon on summer solstice the sun is almost exactly overhead. By measuring the inclination of the sun to the vertical at Alexandria on summer solstice noon, we get a value for the angle subtended by the Aswan-Alexandria base-line at the sun. Now, combining this angle with the direct distance between the two cities translates one degree of great circle into  a length. In other words, we obtain a fairly accurate value for the circumference of the earth (Similarly, the vastness of British India permitted the measurement of the great meridional arc under George Everest.)


The best-known surviving documentation of Hellenistic technology is the work by Heron of Alexandra who probably lived around 100 AD. Too much reliance on this late work can be misleading in the sense that he gives the impression of technology for amusement only. Russo persuasively argues for a high level of technological knowledge and application in a wide variety of fields: instrumentation, aqueducts ,ship building ,  light-houses, etc.


The author is on less firm ground while discussing the role of Hellenistic achievements in fashioning modern science. To him, Copernicus was merely taking sides in the old dispute between Aristarchus’ heliocentrism and Ptolemy’s geocentrism. It is more likely that Copernicus worked out his model and then sought to use   the authority of the ancient Aristarchus as a shield against anticipated contemporaneous hostile attacks.


Russo does not take into account the impetus given by maritime trade and colonial expansion to the advent and growth of modern science. Isolated pieces of information cited by Russo make better sense if they are placed in an external context.


Russo asks: “How did solutions with ruler and compass, which in Antiquity were considered simpler, got replaced by numerical calculations in the modern age?” He gives the answer himself: advent of printed tables of logarithms, in 1614. It is noteworthy that log to the base ten was devised by Briggs in Gresham College Oxford to help East India Company with the laborious navigational calculations.


Similarly , Russo points out that the ancient light – houses were half heartedly revived in the 12th century , but it was only  in the closing years of the 17th century “ that light-house construction began in earnest, and on new and original lines”. This makes sense when you notice that at the time European ships had a whole lot of far-off places to bring merchandise from.


Russo is plainly anachronistic   when he dubs as primitive the ancient lack of interest in technological progress. He gives the example of Emperor Vespasian who vetoed a device to move heavy columns at a low cost in order “that he might be able to feed the mob’ [Quotes in the text itself] with labour intensive projects. In the 18th century England John Kay of Bury who invented the weaving machine called the fly shuttle faced such violent hostility from fellow weavers that he had to flee the country. In fact , industrial innovation did not take roots in England  till  the textile manufacture focus shifted from the traditional woollen to pure cotton ( as distinct from the mixed linen warp-cotton weft  cloth), which could be exported to a captive India and elsewhere.


Russo has done well to caution  on academic grounds against  talking of an unresolved monolithic period of Antiquity extending from the 6th century BC ( Greek philosopher Thales) to 2nd century AD ( Greek astronomer Ptolemy) .And yet , this monolithic nomenclature did serve a  valuable practical purpose. Creation of the modern powerful system of modern science was used to assert the cultural and ethnical superiority of its authors, which thus had a right to dominate over others. In this ideological game, the roots of science were taken back to the European Greece but no further. Any discussion of the structure and influences within the antiquity would only have weakened the imperialist argument.


It is in this context that one can appreciate the significance of Russo’s observation that in the hybrid Hellenistic period  the classicist Aristotle did not enjoy the type of reputation Europe bestowed  on him later.


It is my assessment that even if Europe had not been aware of the Greek science, modern science would still have come up the way it did. Emphasis on its Greek antecedents (even if not to the extent Russo would have preferred) helped present it as Western Science to the exclusion of others. In this scheme of things, Arabs were wrongly told that their role had been no more than as librarians and archivists for preserving Greek science till Europe was in a position to take its heritage back. And yet when the Indians pointed out that the Buddhists had worked extensively on health-related  chemistry , they were told with a straight face that  in their ancient texts , probably by Buddhist , Arabs were meant.


Incidentally, the book is a good example of constructive cooperation between the author and the translator. The English translation is an improvement over the Italian original; the improvements are now being taken to the new Italian edition.


Given the limitations of the source material it is at times difficult to say where rigour ends and speculation begins. Whether Russo overstates his case and undermines the Classical period to sharpen the contrast can only be decided  by  the specialists . But there can  be no doubt that he has produced an influential text. It would be useful to those who are interested in antiquity ,  in the internal growth of modern science  or in assessing the influence of external factors on the advent and growth of modern science and technology.//


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