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Reviewed by:
  • Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine under the Roman Empire
  • David Pingree
Tamsyn S. Barton. Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine under the Roman Empire. The Body in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. xiv + 254 pp. Ill. $44.50; £36.50 (U.K. and European Market).

The two main theses of this book—that astrology, physiognomics, and other “pseudo-sciences,” as practiced within societies that generally admit them to have the same claim to authenticity as do subjects that modern Western societies regard as “scientific,” must be studied historically as “sciences”; and that each such “science,” like each science and every scientist in every society (including our own), utilizes a rhetoric (and a set of normative regulations) to attain authority and “power”—can easily be granted. We do not need the rhetorical device employed by Barton, that of the citation of innumerable modern sages of sociology and other fields, to be convinced. The difficulty I find with the book lies not in what it sets out to argue, but in the weakness of the argumentation.

The chapter on astrology is written without any hint of an awareness of the philosophical (and “scientific”) distinctions that need to be made between astral divination—in which the gods proclaim their intentions through omens, in part at least in the hope that humans will propitiate them with sacrifice, ritual, and prayer so that they will be pleased to alter those intentions—and astrology as the Greeks who invented it in about 100 B.C. conceived of it: a purely mechanical working out of the complicated machinery of celestial motions and their natural influences on the sublunar world, a process with which humans are powerless to interfere. This difference, in fact, leads to a difference in the social function and strategy for authentification of the diviner and of the astrologer: their roles in antiquity were different—although individuals might often try to blur the distinction much as modern diviners, like Wall Street pundits, mask their reliance on hunches and guesses (the diviner’s tools) by appealing to charts and tables (the astrologer’s props). Without going into the details, it would be easy to demonstrate that Barton simply does not understand how astrology operates or what its history is; the result is simply inadequate to sustain her thesis.

The chapters on physiognomy and medicine are also weak. Each concentrates overwhelmingly on a single practitioner—Polemon in the one, and Galen in the other—who attained social and professional success (or “power”), but we are not told why the two subjects might be regarded as “sciences” within the ancient intellectual community. Why are mathematics, astronomy, and mechanics, for instance, excluded from this study that aims at such all-encompassing generalizations?

The author’s emphasis is on the interaction between individual “scientists” and the social situations within which they operated. This is often amusing, but it involves distortion of the historical situation and loses the power of persuasion.

David Pingree
Brown University

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