Richard Carrier, The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire: review by a classicist

©James Jope

Richard Carrier (www.richardcarrier.info) is a prominent freethinker and historian of natural philosophy. His previous books include Science education in the early Roman Empire

In The Scientist, Carrier argues regarding science (then known as natural philosophy) what Gibbon argued regarding classical civilization: that it made progress until  it was extinguished by the Church. In particular, he rejects the view that the Romans themselves neglected science because they lacked the mindset to continue the scientific activity of Hellenistic Greeks, and sets out to demonstrate not only (1) scientific progress, but (2) a positive attitude towards scientific progress in Roman society during the High Empire.

In spite of the quibbles which it will be my duty as a reviewer to express, this is a very impressive book. The documentation is more than extensive; it is immense. The argumentation is skillful and persuasive. And the thesis is a timely contribution to an important issue.

 (1) Scientific progress

Literary classicists who have read one or even a few handbooks on ancient science will be surprised at the array of discoveries which Carrier recounts. I did not know, for example, of the work of Strato of Lampsacus on gravity and inertia, which approximated Galileo’s findings. Chiding others for emphasizing what the Romans did not do instead of what they did, Carrier discusses lost as well as extant works. While the former are simply omitted by some scholars, we do know something about them from other ancient sources, and Carrier ferrets out such information. Works were lost, he argues, not because they lacked merit or even popularity in the Roman world, but because of medieval copiers’ “preference for simple, fabulous, amusing, or entertaining work, over the boring but… technically superior scientific books”. Carrier documents more than two hundred useful, scientifically based inventions under Rome. He does exaggerate a few of these: medical application of eels is “electroshock therapy”, the Corinthian diolkos is a “railway”, five-story buildings are “high-rise apartments”. But this hardly diminishes the impact of the entire assemblage. However, some items might be susceptible to his own strict criteria by which he dismisses medieval accomplishments as trivial modifications, rediscoveries of previously known facts, or not science-based (p. 16).

(2) Attitudes

It was a common topos under the Empire to bemoan contemporary circumstances as manifestations of decline, in natural science as well as other areas of discourse. However, Carrier succeeds in revealing a diversity of views which included also an awareness and appreciation of progress, not only among scientists themselves, but from surprising sources like Cicero and Seneca. Even the complaint of decadence could be cast as a call for more dedicated efforts by contemporaries or as implying the existence of other observers who disagreed with such pessimism. Every philosophical sect with the exception of the Cynics valued natural philosophy. The symposia recorded or imagined by Imperial authors also praised science. Texts like the Aetna make clear that knowledge could still be sought for its own sake by the ‘practical’ Romans. And although the emperors did not formally create research institutions like the Hellenistic ones, there were appeals for them to do so. Finally, while some senators may have disdained experimentation, the most  notable scientists tended to come from equestrian backgrounds.


Carrier ascribes to the view of some previous authors (e.g., Marshall Claggett, G.E.R. Lloyd) that, although Christians did not originate the anti-intellectual values which arrested scientific progress, taking them up especially from less educated pagans, they greatly escalated them. Carrier examines the attitudes of Tertullian, Lactantius, Origen and others and finds scientific knowledge and methods dismissed contemptuously, replaced entirely by supernatural criteria.

Although the New Testament nowhere discusses natural philosophy in particular, Carrier reveals a core of antiscientific values in its implicit epistemology. Nothing is ever “proven” by logic or investigation, but always by spiritual inspiration, miracles, etc.


The Middle Age is beyond the scope of the book, but Carrier offers his rather dark view, arguing against medievalists’ attempts to find some creditable scientific advances. It is usually suggested that the scribes made a contribution to science by transmitting a few ancient works. Carrier argues that preservation is not progress. The glass is not half-full, but half-empty.


I have mentioned the strength of Carrier’s argumentation. Sometimes he is perhaps too combative--dismissing rivals’ views as “stupid”, ridiculing their inconsistencies, and once even suggesting that their books be burned! (p. 464)—yet his own logic and evidence suffice to refute them. In spite of his assiduous documentation, Carrier seems to have surprisingly missed some very relevant works. He presents Aristotle as the founder of science, but is unaware of the excellent work on this point by Armand Marie Leroi (The Lagoon: How Aristotle invented Science, 2014, also reviewed on this site). He cites Marcus Aurelius, but not the famous diatribe of Lucretius, for the view that life essentially does not change and has nothing new to offer.   In fact, serious use of Lucretius is surprisingly absent from this book. Carrier’s principal authority on Epicureanism is Cicero, and he cites Virgil’s felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas without acknowledging that it alludes to Lucretius. Finally, it is a little unfair to classify men like Ptolemy and Galen as Roman simply because they flourished under the Pax Romana. Lucian and other Second Sophistic authors made it very clear that the Greeks still clung to a separate cultural identity throughout this period. However, it is true, as Carrier argues, that although technical scientific works (Ptolemy, Galen) were in Greek, the excellent popularizations which appeared in Latin (Celsus, Seneca, Pliny) attest the interest of Romans in the scientific enterprise.

Slowly but surely, ancient science was moving in the right direction until it fell under Christian domain.

No comments: