Courtney A. Roby, Classics, has an unusual background. She’s a longtime math lover and a former electrical engineer, who turned to the ancient world.
As an electrical engineering PhD student, Roby was dissatisfied. She had some big context questions about technology and engineering: “Why do we use a particular set of practices in developing new technologies? How do an engineer’s priorities work together with the priorities of the entire superstructure, be it public or private, in which the engineer works?” The skills that she was learning in her graduate work weren’t getting her closer to any answers.
“It’s not the kind of thing that you spend much of your time thinking about as an engineer,” says Roby. “That’s not your job. That’s not your problem.”
Roby, however, decided to make it her problem by taking courses in classics. By the third year of her PhD program, she realized it was time to make a change. She committed full time to the ancient Mediterranean world.
The former engineer maintains her interest in math, technology, and science; only now she researches the topics through a different lens. “Classics is great because you can take a really big step back from the backdrop of technology as it is now and appreciate that it is just another ‘right now’ in a long series of ‘right nows,’ ” she says.
Now, Roby spends her time studying ancient scientific and technical texts. She’s particularly interested in texts that involve mathematical challenges, but still lend themselves well to being described in text. This includes texts on ancient technologies such as the Roman land surveyor, the seemingly simple screw, and the catapult.
Ekphrasis—In the Presence of Awesome Machinery
In her book, Technical Ekphrasis in Ancient Science: The Written Machine between Alexandria and Rome (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Roby examines literary techniques used in texts describing technological devices. She explores how ancient authors dealt with the mathematical and verbal challenges of describing machines. Unlike today’s world, where we can easily copy and replicate CAD diagrams or schematics, ancient world authors needed to depend on other techniques.
Roby traces the use of technical ekphrasis—a description that makes readers feel as though they’re in the presence of a device or machine. The strategy can involve giving a lot of structural or material detail. It can also involve directing the reader in the second person or using references to a reader’s past experience. For example, Roman author Vitruvius explains the acoustical design of an amphitheater by asking the reader to picture expanding water ripples. He compares it to how an actor’s voice travels from the center of the theater, explaining that the rows of benches match the same kind of flow of ripples.
Roby traces ekphrasis from Hellenistic Greece to late-ancient Rome, particularly in texts such as Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture, Cicero’s books in which he describes Archimedes’ planetarium, Hellenistic Greece poems, and the works of mechanical engineer, Hero of Alexandria. What is particularly interesting about these works is that the authors drew on the same strategies used by their contemporaries in other fields, from historians to poets.
“There’s a real cultural interchange between authors writing about art and authors writing about science,” says Roby. “We see a place where nobody is even pretending that there’s a solid divide between those two. It’s nice to observe a culture where the norms are quite different from our own. It makes me optimistic that we can improve our own dialogue.”
The Books of Hero of Alexandria, a Study in Cross-Disciplinary Work
In her latest book project, Roby delves into the works of one especially cross-disciplinary author, Hero of Alexandria. She is researching the practical nature of his work—he wrote many on surveyors, catapults, and pneumatic devices—and how he established his works as an archive of those who came before and for those who came after him.
“There’s a real cultural interchange between authors writing about art and authors writing about science,” says Roby. “We see a place where nobody is even pretending that there’s a solid divide between those two.”
Hero’s books reference each other and “you get this picture of someone who is trying to build up a big system of knowledge,” says Roby. Hero also puts many of his projects into a larger intellectual context. “He sees himself in competition, not with scientists, but with philosophers,” she says. Only, instead of answering philosophical questions with words, Hero answers them with machines. For example, to achieve a state of “ataraxia,” a Greek term used by philosopher Epicurus to describe a tranquil state of mind, Hero builds a larger catapult.
Despite Hero’s wide range of interests and achievements, there isn’t a book written about him. “Here’s a guy who is not only important to classics, but to people in history, English, philosophy, and engineering,” says Roby. “This book can be useful to a lot of people.”
By taking a step back and out of our current technological existence and delving deeper into a much earlier period, Roby says that she’s been able to find some of her answers. The narrative that technology is always progressing, that we are always moving forward and that the past, ancient worlds were rudimentary is false, she says.
“It’s not night and day. There is a lot of continuity, especially in scientific methodologies that were really developed and cemented in the ancient world. They are still the same ones that we use today,” she says.
More than answers, however, Roby says that what she’s gained most from this work is that it has given her the skills to extract herself from the modern-day thinking and to ponder technology in a different and bigger way. “I feel like I’m making a more valuable contribution in that sense,” she says. “The humanities are there to get people to think about things. I think it’s useful to take that step back and to encourage other people to do it.”