Technical Traditions in Greece and Rome: Between Theory and Practice (GSAS Workshop, 2016–18)

Scholarly approaches to ancient technical traditions (τέχνη/ars) in Greco-Roman antiquity tend to focus on theoretical assessments of technical knowledge that are dominated by Classical Greek thought, especially by the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The viewpoints of others, not least the practitioners or ‘technicians’ themselves, are often marginalized or altogether excluded. This workshop examines these alternative, sometimes non-theoretical perspectives, and aims to restore them to a place of central importance in the interpretation of ancient science and technology: How did the ancient technicians and scientists themselves conceive of their own disciplines? What did they actually know, and how did they put that knowledge into practice? In seeking to answer these and other questions, we will attempt to overcome the longstanding division between historically-minded approaches focusing on the materiality of extant ancient technologies and purely text-oriented narratives drawn from canonical works of Greek philosophy.

We approach the subject by examining the treatment of technical theory and practice in a set of ancient knowledge traditions, including among others medicine, mechanics, mathematics, architecture, agriculture, rhetoric, and law. In studying each of these branches of knowledge, the workshop will seek to integrate a variety of text-based and non-text based investigative methods. We will explore the potential of digital tools (such as Arboreal) to aid in the diachronic study of the development of specialized language and thought. The workshop will also attempt to engage with non-Western traditions of technical thought and practice, especially pre-modern China and the medieval Islamic world. It is one of our goals to develop focused and productive research questions that can be used in the comparative study of Western and non-Western knowledge traditions.

Graduate Student Coordinators: Marco Romani-Mistretta ( and James Zainaldin (
Faculty Advisors: Jared Hudson ( and Mark Schiefsky (

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