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Photo of the Antikythera Mechanism by Gary Todd on Flickr

Greek Treasures in the Roman Empire

Tony Spawforth

Around 60 BC an ancient freighter foundered in the treacherous waters off the southeastern tip of mainland Greece. Two millennia later, fishermen happened upon remnants of its cargo still strewn on the seabed. Divers to the wreck site brought up ancient objects barely recognizable after their long immersion underwater. Only after restorers had done their painstaking work did the nature of the cargo become clearer. This was a treasure-ship of Greek luxury artefacts.

Divers found many marble statues. They include a fine figure of a boy in a wrestling position. One side of him is a delicate, almost translucent white. Walk round to his other side, and he is grotesquely deformed by centuries of attack from stone-eating organisms. Sculpturally the pièce de resistance is a luminous bronze of a young man, larger than life-size. The style is three centuries older than the date of the shipwreck. When it was loaded on board, this figure was already a prized antique.

Artworks ancient and modern were not the only cargo. Computer geeks as well as archaeologists have become enthusiastic about the find of a hand-sized lump of corroded bronze with a cogwheel embedded in it. Using twenty-first-century scanning tools, researchers have shown that inside the lump is a mass of interlocking gears. These once controlled dials and pointers on the two faces of an instrument housed in a wooden box.

This contraption would have faintly resembled an upright mantle clock. Despite modern media hype, it was not a ‘computer’, more a mechanical calculator. When the ancient operator turned its handle, dials and pointers on each face did a job not unlike the printed tables in a modern almanac. They gave out astronomical data along with information about the calendar, such as the day of the year, future eclipses and the position of heavenly bodies in the sky.

Whoever he was, the maker of this ingenious instrument would have needed great skill and precision to fashion the parts and fit them together. Equally unidentifiable is the Greek mastermind who designed the prototype – a scientific astronomer who could also invent machines. We have already encountered the most famous inventor of this type in Hellenistic Greek times, Archimedes, from the rich city of Syracuse.

One of his most renowned devices was an astronomical instrument in the form of a celestial sphere with moving parts. When the Romans captured Syracuse in 211 BC, the general in charge supposedly selected for himself this one object from all the available booty. At the time that our ship sank off the island of Antikythera, the other mechanism, this sphere, remained a precious heirloom of the general’s descendants, the noble family of the Claudii Marcelli. They kept it in their town house in Rome, where they would show it to curious visitors.

The fate of Archimedes’ sphere gives a strong hint as to the destination of our wrecked ship. Before the vessel foundered, the Antikythera mechanism was almost certainly bound for Rome.

The wreck site offers a watery window into a vast process of cultural transfer. It says much about what the Romans liked about Greek civilization: its arts, but also its scientific know-how, since both these instruments just mentioned modelled the scientific findings of Greek astronomers. By this date, the Greeks knew a great deal about the astronomical observations of the ancient Babylonians. For the first time in the history of classical civilization, we can follow how such a vast and prolonged process of cultural transfer worked in the detail.

As an imperial race the Romans could, and did, help themselves to the cultural goods of the conquered Greeks.

From The Story of Greece and Rome by Tony Spawforth. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Tony Spawforth is emeritus professor of ancient history at Newcastle University, presenter of eight archaeological documentaries in the Ancient Voices series on BBC2, and author of numerous books, including Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution.

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