Gears, Galleys, and Geography:
The Antikythera Mechanism's Implications
It is neither facile nor uninstructive to remark that the
Antikythera mechanism dropped and sank--twice. The first time was
around 76 B.C., when the intricate astronomical computer was lost with
the rest of a treasure-ship's cargo. The second time came after Derek
De Solla Price analyzed and published its construction and nature
decades after its recovery. Since his Gears from the Greeks in 1975,
little attention has been paid to our most exciting relic of advanced
ancient technology. It is the purpose of this paper to take Price's
conclusions, and to use that information in furthering our
understanding of the civilization that created it.
From the fragments of the inscriptions and the position of the
gears, Price deduced that the device was linked closely to Geminus of
Rhodes, and had been built circa 87 B.C. Besides the inscriptions'
near-identity to Geminus's surviving book, distinctive Rhodian amphorae
from the wreck supported Price's deduction. Rhodes was a center for
astronomical thought, where Poseidonius determined the nature of the
tides and built a much more complicated astronomical computer than the
one recovered (Cic. Nat de. 2.34-35).
Price drew his conclusions despite the widespread belief that
continues to maintain that Rhodes in 1st Century was a fading ghost of
past glory, crippled economically by the competition of the free port
of Delos. Scholars before and after Price ignored and continue to
ignore Rhodes' enduring reputation in antiquity as a center for
intricate military and naval technology (Dio Chrys. 31.104). With it,
the last of the Greek democracies successfully warded off even Roman
domination until 43 B.C. (Strabo 14.653, Polyb. 21.7.1-4)
The proof the mechanism offers of Rhodes' enduring technological
expertise and economic vitality poses a question the device also helps
to answer: Why was such an expensive and intricate device constructed?
Even in its supposed "glory days" Rhodes was chiefly famous for the
abilities of its seafarers--and therein lies the answer.
Very little indeed, is known about ancient celestial navigation,
besides indisputable proof that it did, in fact, occur (Homer, Od.
5.233- 40, Libanius, Progymnasmata, Sententiae 1.13). It is worth
noting, however, that the man who invented trigonometry and first
scientifically catalogued the stars' positions was Hipparchus of
Rhodes; that in more than one ancient system of latitude and longitude
the meridians crossed at Rhodes (Dicearchos Fr. 33, Strabo 2.1.1, 5.7,
12.5, 31) and that Poseidonius's travels and mechanisms found support
at the same place where Geminus did his writings--and inspired or
built the Antikythera mechanism.
Besides such tantalizing synchronicities, the existence of the
Antikythera mechanism also should prompt fundamental change in the
way the ancient sources are read. When Cicero, Ovid (Fast.
6.263-283), Plutarch and others speak of intricate devices and their
use--such as an intricately- geared "machine gun" catapult, supposed
to have been built on Rhodes (Philon. Bel. 73)--the Antikythera
device's very existence should prompt us to something besides
skepticism. When all the implications of Price's discovery are
understood and acted upon, modern scholarship shall truly be said to
have understood the Antikythera technology.
Text of the 1993 APA Abstract
Rob S. Rice