Ancient Greek science and technology: From Antikythera to Pharos

(ORDO NEWS) — The Antikythera computer was the culmination of advanced mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, and engineering. It absorbed the philosophy and science of Aristotle, the gear wheels of Ctesibios, the mathematics and mechanics of Archimedes, and the astronomical ideas of Hipparchus.

The Antikythera computer and the technological infrastructure that made it possible were products of the golden age of ancient Greek science and technology during the Alexandrian era, which spanned from the late 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD.

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The Antikythera mechanism, kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, is often called the first analog computer , an achievement of ancient Greek science and technology

Greek science and technology on the island of the sun god Helios

The clockwork Antikythera device was probably made in Rhodes, Corinth, or more likely one of Corinth’s daughter poles in northern Greece, Corcyra, Epiros, or Syracuse, Sicily. Rhodes and Syracuse are the most attractive opportunities for the emergence of devices similar to the Antikythera Mechanism.

In fact, the Antikythera Greek computer appeared on both. On the one hand, the advantage of Rhodes is that, according to the Russian historian Mikhail Rostovtsev, it was “the home of Greek civilization, Greek education and Greek art.”

Second, the fingerprints of two Rhodian astronomers, Hipparchus and Geminos, are visible on the Antikythera computer , which may be the original model or a copy of another standard astronomical model dating from the third century. If so, then Hipparchus and Geminos also reflect earlier advances in science.

The history of Rhodes goes back to the very beginnings of Greek culture. Strabo says that before Rhodes was called Rhodes, it was known as Ophioussa (island of snakes) and Stadia (strong). It then became Telchinis, the land of the Telchines who colonized it. These Telchines, according to Strabo, were a controversial people.

Some have described the Telchines as “spiteful” and “sorcerers” who mixed sulfur with water from the sacred river Styx to harm and kill animals and plants. However, there was an alternative view of the Telkhines as excellent craftsmen who were offended by competing workers.

The Telkhines arrived in Rhodes from Crete. They were the first craftsmen who worked iron and brass. In fact, the Telchines were so ancient that, according to tradition, they made a scythe for the titan Kronos, father of Zeus.

In time, the Telchines withered or mingled with a new group of Greek invaders of Rhodes known as the Heliadai, children of the sun god Helios. It was during the time of the Heliades that Athena was born on Rhodes from the head of her father Zeus.

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Silver tetradrachm circa 205-190. BC e. with the image of the sun god Helios, the main god of Rhodes. Around 205-190. BC

According to Pindar, Helios urged his children to build for Athena: “a shining altar and burn a sacred sacrifice to please the heart of Zeus and Athena holding a spear in her hand. Care, born in foresight, makes success and joy within the reach of people…

Zeus gathered light cloud and poured down on them a deep golden rain. Athena, the clear-eyed goddess, endowed them with all crafts so that they would surpass humanity in the skill of their hands. They seemed to breathe and move. ”

Eventually, the son of Hercules, Tlepolemos, led his followers to Rhodes, the island of Helios. Homer tells that Zeus blessed them with gold and wealth. Thus, Rhodes had a mythical and historical tradition of technological achievement.

In the Alexandrian era, the island of Helios was the center of science and, especially, astronomical research. Famous scientists and philosophers lived and flourished on Rhodes.

In fact, they were one of the reasons why Rhodes became one of the earliest and most important cultural centers of Ancient Greece. At the beginning of the III century BC.

Rhodes demonstrated its technological advances and power with a colossal bronze statue of the sun god Helios. Writing about three centuries after the construction of the Colossus of Rhodes, Pliny the Elder considered it a great achievement.

In addition, the first meteorological observations required for the Greek calendars or the Parapegmata were made on Rhodes. This technological tradition was not limited to Rhodes.

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Colossus of Rhodes by Louis de Colliery

Plato loved practice more than theory. He admired the craftsmanship of Hippias, and his technical skills allowed him to do almost anything he needed. He engraved his own ring, made his own shoes, wove a cloak and tunic, wove a belt that he wore around his tunic.

He was also a man of words and knowledge. Plato respected the people who worked with their hands for the care shown in their work and for the way they used their skills and organization to give their products the best possible shape, appearance and quality.

Moreover, Plato admired the mathematical nature of skill. Without counting, measuring and weighing, Plato said, arts and crafts would be practically useless. In dealing with each other and in business, people would have to resort to conjecture and conjecture.

Plato had a special sympathy for construction. He attributed his “superior craftsmanship” to his frequent use of tools and measures. Woodworking in shipbuilding and house building, for example, was accurate thanks to the tools of craftsmen: ruler, compass, mason’s rule, ruler and carpenter’s square.

Aristotle also admired artisans and inventors for their useful tools and wisdom. In fact, of all the social classes of the polis, he considered the class of mechanics to be the most necessary.

No city could exist without mechanics practicing their arts and crafts. Of these arts and crafts, Aristotle said, some are “absolutely necessary” and others add to luxury or enrich life.

One of the students or followers of Aristotle wrote a work on mechanics, and this book is in the collected works of Aristotle.

This technician focused on the lever, pulley, wedge, and windlass, which were not complex machines, but were practical contrivances for such essential work as lifting water from wells and sailing ships. However, the author of this technical manual also tried to show the mathematical principles behind his machines.

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A gold coin minted in Sardis, the key city of Lydia, which by the time of Alexander the Great was a province of Persia. Alexander used Sardis for his mint. The coins depict Alexander the Great on the left and the winged Nike on the right, crowning Alexander

Explosion of objective knowledge about the world

Greek thinkers, starting with Thales, laid the groundwork for the final flourishing and globalization of ancient Greek science and technology in the era of Alexander the Great. This went on for about 300 years: from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. until the death of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt in 30 BC.

However, the Greek scientific revolution that gave birth to the Antikythera Mechanism extended beyond the Alexandrian era by another 200 years, spanning the second century of our era.

The 3rd and 2nd centuries BC were the culmination of the golden age of Greek science. The Greeks institutionalized their new way of building and thinking about the world.

According to Plutarch, Alexander brought to life the best ideas of the Greek philosophers. He also abolished many disgusting traditions among some of the non-Greeks in his empire. Alexander united the world for the first time, although he rejected Aristotle’s advice to treat the Greeks as masters of the barbarians.

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Alexander the Great and Faros (lighthouse) of Alexandria on a 1977 Greek postage stamp commemorating the 2300th anniversary of Alexander’s death in 323 BC

Plutarch reports that Alexander implemented the following strategy for creating a unified world : he was sure that he was a god-sent ruler and mediator for the whole world. Alexander waged war against those whom he could not convince.

Uniting people from all over the world, he told them to consider the inhabited world as their homeland, and their camp as an acropolis for protection. Alexander also expected his subjects to make alliances with good people and treat evil people as strangers.

The difference between Greeks and barbarians, he told them, was not in weapons and clothing, but in craftsmanship. Wickedness marked the barbarian.

Alexander’s successors also spread Hellenic civilization into Asia and the Middle East, uniting Greece for the first time. The “extremely sudden expansion” of the Greek world made it possible for the Greeks to make good money almost everywhere.

This promoted the use of reason “without any traditional limitations”. Advanced educational institutions funded by the Greek rulers gave a great impetus to scientific research.

By this time, philosophy was so widespread that when the scientific disciplines began their journey towards specialization, they carried with them, in the words of Albrecht Diehl, “a valuable dowry of a well-developed consciousness of methods and problems, a consciousness formed at a time when scientific efforts undertaken in the context of philosophy.

In other words, Alexander’s vision of the spread of Greek ideas and culture to the East and West became what Peter Bamm called the “wonderful reality” that triumphed for several centuries after his death, creating the civilization of the whole world.

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King Ptolemy I Soter (Savior), 305-283 BC e., was a student of Aristotle. Silver tetradrachm (four drachmas)

The Ptolemies and the Spread of Ancient Greek Science and Technology in Egypt

The Greeks made impressive progress in Egypt, especially thanks to one of Alexander’s best generals. It was Ptolemy, son of Lagos, who lived from 367 to 282 BC. Alexander appointed him ruler of Egypt.

When Alexander died in 323 B.C., Ptolemy consolidated his power and in 305 B.C. became the king of Egypt, taking the name Ptolemy I Soter (Savior).

Ptolemy was fortunate enough to use the help of Demetrios of Phaleron, a student of Aristotle, who was also the author of philosophical works.

Demetrios persuaded him to repeat the school of Aristotle in Alexandria, first of all by building a library and Mouseion, the temple of the Muses. Ptolemy was also a student of Aristotle. He supported Demetrios in his Aristotelian proposal.

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Ptolemy II is depicted with Jewish scholars who translated the Bible for the Library of Alexandria, Jean-Baptiste de Champaign

Around 295 BC King Ptolemy founded Mysion to cultivate Greek culture, sciences and literature. The library also flourished very quickly. Thus Aristotle’s methods and science took deep root in Alexandria, becoming the intellectual infrastructure of the golden age of Greek science.

Ptolemy I died in 283 BC and was succeeded by Ptolemy II Philadelphos (Brotherly Love) who reigned from 285 to 246.

Ptolemy II continued his father’s tradition and generously endowed Myshion and his staff with money and political support, while famous scholars, poets and scholars were recruited from all over the Greek world. He also built the Pharos, or Lighthouse of Alexandria.

Pharos symbolized the enlightenment of the Greek kings of Egypt. But even more enlightenment came from the scholars who advised the Ptolemies.

They conducted independent research and wrote writings promoting ancient Greek science and technology. These scholars received substantial salaries and paid no taxes; they even ate and lived in Bruheion, which was part of the palace.

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The Great Library of Alexandria was part of Myshion

The Ptolemies also created a library at Mouseion: a main library of about 500,000 volumes in the palace, and a sister library, probably 42,000 volumes, in the temple of Zeus Serapis or Serapeion.

One of the librarians, Callimachos, compiled “Pinakes”, Πίνακες, a 120-volume catalog of the library’s collections. Library staff scoured Greece for manuscripts, and books found on ships sailing into Alexandria harbor were copied for inclusion in the collection.

The Greek kings of Alexander’s empire, especially the Ptolemies of Egypt, created the foundations of a rational commonwealth characterized by state-funded scientific research, scientific study of early Greek culture, and editing of the Greek classics.

Alexandrian scholars pioneered the “technique of painstaking study and exegesis” that spread throughout the civilized world. These ancient Greek scholars remain a model for classical and scientific research today.


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