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What Did the Romans Know?

An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking

What did the Romans know about their world? Quite a lot, as Daryn Lehoux makes clear in this fascinating and much-needed contribution to the history and philosophy of ancient science. Lehoux contends that even though many of the Romans’ views about the natural world have no place in modern science—the umbrella-footed monsters and dog-headed people that roamed the earth and the stars that foretold human destinies—their claims turn out not to be so radically different from our own.
Lehoux draws upon a wide range of sources from what is unquestionably the most prolific period of ancient science, from the first century BC to the second century AD. He begins with Cicero’s theologico-philosophical trilogy On the Nature of the Gods, On Divination, and On Fate, illustrating how Cicero’s engagement with nature is closely related to his concerns in politics, religion, and law. Lehoux then guides readers through highly technical works by Galen and Ptolemy, as well as the more philosophically oriented physics and cosmologies of Lucretius, Plutarch, and Seneca, all the while exploring the complex interrelationships between the objects of scientific inquiry and the norms, processes, and structures of that inquiry. This includes not only the tools and methods the Romans used to investigate nature, but also the Romans’ cultural, intellectual, political, and religious perspectives. Lehoux concludes by sketching a methodology that uses the historical material he has carefully explained to directly engage the philosophical questions of incommensurability, realism, and relativism.
By situating Roman arguments about the natural world in their larger philosophical, political, and rhetorical contexts, What Did the Romans Know? demonstrates that the Romans had sophisticated and novel approaches to nature, approaches that were empirically rigorous, philosophically rich, and epistemologically complex.     

288 pages | 6 halftones, 4 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Ancient Studies

History of Science


“No mere catalogue of accomplishments, [Lehoux’s] multifaceted book brilliantly rethinks both the Roman and our own approaches to the cosmos. . . . Between the coherent past world that the Romans made and the presumed timelessness of our scientific world, Lehoux leaves us not with an unbridgeable chasm but with his pragmatic realism, born at the confluence of ancient science, historical epistemology and the philosophy of science. First rate.”

Michael H. Shank | Times Higher Education

“This is a thought-provoking book, and I think in its broad strokes it is successful; Lehoux demonstrates to my satisfaction both that all science is socially constructed to a degree and that we should take every society’s science seriously, because they certainly did. . . . It certainly gave me a new and profound respect for the world of Roman science, and for those who practiced it.”

Caroline Bishop, Washington University in St. Louis | Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“[A]n unprecedented and fascinating description of the mental experience of educated inhabitants of the Roman Empire looking at the natural world.”

Edith Hall | History Today

“Elegant. . . . Lehoux’s persuasive narrative . . . is not only a work of classical scholarship: it is also a significant contribution to the philosophy of science.”

David Sedley | Times Literary Supplement

“In this important, brilliant, and truly admirable book, Lehoux has laid the groundwork for a deeper and clearer understanding of Roman science, most of all that it was rich and significant. May he continue to help us enter still further into what the Romans really knew and ponder what that should mean, in turn, for us.”

Peter Pesic | Science

“This epistemologically sophisticated interrogation of Roman ‘scientific’ activities represents an exciting opportunity for a new beginning in the dialogue between philosophy of science and the history of scientific practices in the ancient world.”

Courtney Roby, Cornell University | Expositions

“[A]n innovative and commendable exercise at the intersection of ancient history and the philosophy of science.”

Jacqueline Feke, University of Chicago | Expositions

“[C]omprehensive and thoughtful. . . . With a sound understanding of Roman natural philosophy and a touch of humor, Lehoux’s work investigates ideas fundamental to the history and philosophy of science.”

Elizabeth A. Hamm, Saint Mary's College of California | Expositions

“This stimulating book richly repays study.”

T. E. Rihill, Swansea University | British Journal for the History of Science


H. Doss, Wilbur Wright College | Choice

“This book is a jewel.”

Karin Verelst | Isis

“This is a fascinating analysis of how elite Romans thought about their place in nature. It will be a permanent contribution to our attempts to understand how literate civilizations at various times and places have thought about human relationships to other creatures, to things, and to the gods.”

Ian Hacking, Collège de France

What Did the Romans Know? is a brilliant achievement. Equally historical and philosophical, Lehoux’s book is simultaneously sophisticated and accessible. Virtually every page presents provocative and well-grounded insights that reshape what we thought we knew about the Romans and their interconnected world of nature, law, and religion. It is required reading for historians and philosophers, classicists, and anyone interested in antiquity and the bases of human knowledge about the natural world.”

Lawrence M. Principe, Johns Hopkins University

“At the intersection of classics, history, and philosophy of science, this is a very original book that explores Roman ways of knowing the world and shows how, despite seeming irrational or completely alien to us today, those views of nature did make perfect sense. Engagingly written, replete with insights and flashes of humor, and addressing current debates in several disciplines, What Did the Romans Know? will finally put to rest the idea that ‘Roman science’ is a contradiction in terms.”

Serafina Cuomo, Birkbeck, University of London

Table of Contents


1. The Web of Knowledge 
    A Roman World 
    A Roman World 
    Knowing Nature in the Roman Context 

2. Nature, Gods, and Governance 
    Divinity and Divination 
    Roman Virtues 
    Nature and the Legitimation of the Republic 
    A Ciceronian Contradiction? 
    Knowledge of Nature and Virtuous Action 
    Fabulae versus Learned Observation 

3. Law in Nature, Nature in Law 
    Laws of Nature 
    Natural Laws 
    Human and Divine Governance 
    Is a “Law of Nature” Even Possible in Antiquity? 
    Divinity, Redux 

4. Epistemology and Judicial Rhetoric 
    Theory-Ladenness and Observation 
    Observations as Models 
    Observational Selectivity 
    Examination of Witnesses 
    The Natural Authority of Morals 
    Declamation and Certainty 

5. The Embeddedness of Seeing 
    Doubts about Vision 
    Mechanisms of Seeing in Antiquity 
    The Eyes as Organs 
    Not Every Black Box Is a Camera Obscura 
    Epistemologies of Seeing 
    The Centrality of Experience 

6. The Trouble with Taxa 
    Knowledge Claims and Context-Dependence 
    Unproblematic Facticity 
    Problems with Experience 
    The Lab Section of the Chapter 
    The Question of Worlds 

7. The Long Reach of Ontology 
    Four Kinds of Justification for Prediction 
    Predictability and Determinism 
    Physical Solutions to Determinism 
    The Cascading Effect 
8. Dreams of a Final Theory 
    Explaining the Cosmos 
    Orbs, Souls, Laws 
    Numbers in Nature 
    Harmony and Empiricism 

9. Of Miracles and Mistaken Theories 
    History as a Problem for Realism 
    Quantum Magnum PI? 
    Can We Avoid the Problems History Poses? 
       First Strategy: We Have Something They Didn’t 
       Second Strategy: The Curate’s Egg 
    Other Ways Out 

10. Worlds Given, Worlds Made 
    What’s in a World? 
    Kuhn’s World 
    What Good Is Relativism? 
    Truth and Meaning 
    Realism, Coherence, and History 

11. Conclusion  

Appendix: Lemma to the Mirror Problem 
Reference List 

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