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Aetna and the Moon

Explaining Nature in Ancient Greece and Rome

Liba Taub

Publication Year: 2008

Classical authors used both prose and poetry to explore and explain the natural world. In Aetna and the Moon, Liba Taub examines the variety of ways in which ancient Greeks and Romans conveyed scientific information. Oregon State University Press is proud to present this inaugural volume in the Horning Visiting Scholars Series.

In ancient Greece and Rome, most of the technical literature on scientific, mathematical, technological, and medical subjects was written in prose, as it is today. However, Greek and Roman poets produced a significant number of widely read poems that dealt with scientific topics. Why would an author choose poetry to explain the natural world? This question is complicated by claims made, since antiquity, that the growth of rational explanation involved the abandonment of poetry and the rejection of myth in favor of science.

Taub uses two texts to explore how scientific ideas were disseminated in the ancient world. The anonymous author of the Latin Aetna poem explained the science behind the volcano Etna with poetry. The Greek author Plutarch juxtaposed scientific and mythic explanations in his dialogue On the Face on the Moon.

Both texts provide a lens through which Taub considers the nature of scientific communication in ancient Greece and Rome. General readers will appreciate Taub’s thoughtful discussion concerning the choices available to ancient authors to convey their ideas about science—as important today as it was in antiquity—while Taub’s careful research and lively writing will engage classicists as well as historians of science.

Published by: Oregon State University Press


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pp. vii

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A Note on the Spelling of Greek Names and Terms

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pp. viii

For the most part (but not always), I have adopted a “latinized” spelling of Greek names and terms (for example, Eudoxus, rather than Eudoxos; Callippus, rather than Kallippos), to...

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A Note on References to Ancient Works

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pp. ix

References here to Plato’s Timaeus and Plutarch’s dialogue On the Face on the Moon cite “Stephanus pages.” This convention offers readers a uniform system of reference, regardless of...


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pp. x

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pp. xi

It is a very pleasant duty to acknowledge those who have contributed to the writing of this book. The essays presented here were given as public lectures when I had the pleasure of being a Horning Visiting Scholar at Oregon State University...

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pp. xiii-xiv

The Thomas Hart and Mary Jones Horning Endowment in the Humanities at Oregon State University was established by a bequest from Benjamin Horning (1890-1991) in memory of his parents, Mary Jones and Thomas Hart Horning, who were members of pioneering families of Benton County...

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Chapter 1: Genres of Scientific Communication

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pp. 1-30

On March 23, 1989, at a press conference held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, two electrochemists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, announced that they had achieved controlled nuclear fusion at room temperature with a “simple, table-top apparatus.” Their announcement immediately...

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Chapter 2: Scientific Poetry and the Limits of Myth

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pp. 31-56

In the Greco-Roman world, poetry was a particularly valued genre, not least because of the far-reaching cultural importance of the archaic epic poets, Homer and Hesiod.1 While prose forms often dominated the technical literature, a significant...

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Chapter 3: Scientific and Mythic Explanation in Dialogue

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pp. 57-78

Since antiquity, the recognized formats used to publish scientific work have not remained static. Some ancient formats, for example, the teaching text, continue to be used, while others have been discarded for scientific use, for example, poetry.1 In this...

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pp. 79-86

The preceding three chapters began life as lectures. During and following the delivery of the lectures at Oregon State University, they benefited greatly from the comments, questions, and interjections of the original auditors; the texts...

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A Note about Ancient 'Books'

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pp. 87-90

The shape of ancient “books” would, no doubt, surprise the modern reader. Furthermore, ancient authors would not recognize the form in which their writings are now available. Little of the physical evidence of ancient scientific...


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pp. 91-111


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pp. 112-130


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pp. 131-138

E-ISBN-13: 9780870716232
E-ISBN-10: 0870716239
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870711961
Print-ISBN-10: 0870711962

Page Count: 183
Illustrations: B&W illustrations
Publication Year: 2008