Archive for the ‘200s BC’ Category


Archimedes (287-212 BC) was a Greek mathematician from Syracuse, Italy, back when the city was still Greek. He was one of the greatest minds of the ancient world. He gave us the word “Eureka!” and worked out how levers work, but most of all he showed us how you could use numbers to do science.

His use of numbers in science did not catch on in his own time, but it did later when his writings came out in Latin in 1544. Galileo read them and used the same approach, which led to the rise of Western science and our faith in numbers.

Even today Archimedes is worth reading because of how sees and understands the world through number and shapes, through geometry.

He used number and measurement to work out how levers work and how strong they are in different cases. From this he knew there was no limit to what they could do. He said he could move the whole world if he had a place to stand.

Archimedes worked out pi to two places: 3.14. He knew it was somewhere between 3.141 and 3.143.

The word “Eureka!” comes from the time when the king asked Archimedes to find out whether his crown was made of pure gold.

Gold was the heaviest metal known in those days: for a given size, nothing else was so heavy.

The easy way to find out if the crown was pure gold would be to melt it down to a block and compare it to a block of pure gold of the same weight. If the melted down crown was larger, then something was added to the gold. It was not pure.

But Archimedes could not destroy the crown. So he had to find out how much space it took up some other way.

But how?

One day as he was getting into his bath he saw the water flow over the sides.

When he saw that he jumped out of his bath and ran through the streets naked shouting “Eureka! Eureka!”, which is Greek for “I have found it! I have found it!”

Meaning he had found out how to measure the size of the crown: by putting it in water and seeing how much water it pushes out. The water it pushes out had to be the same size as the crown.

Archimedes found out the crown was not made of pure gold and the king put the goldsmith to death.

Later the Romans made war on Syracuse for siding with Carthage. To defend the city Archimedes came up with different inventions, like one that turned over ships. It came from his work with levers. The Romans grew to fear him.

When Syracuse was falling, Archimedes was drawing circles in the sand, working on something in geometry. He asked a Roman soldier not to mess up his circles. In spite of orders to take him alive, the soldier killed him.

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Epicurus (341-270 BC) of Athens founded the Epicurean school of Greek philosophy, one of the five great school of ancient times. Its glory days ran from about 300 BC to 200 AD. It taught that the world is nothing more than matter in motion, that things happen by chance – not even the gods are in control. To live well in such a world and have peace of mind, one must avoid pain and seek pleasure.

Although the Epicureans later got a bad name as immoral pleasure seekers, Epicurus himself lived very simply as an example to his followers. He lived in a house in a garden where he taught his followers. His school was therefore called the Garden. It stood there in Athens from 310 BC to 529 AD.

Epicurus said that the aim of life was peace of mind. To attain it you must seek pleasure and avoid pain according to the following principles:

  1. Fear no god: Gods exists, yes, but they want to live in peace. They do not care about us. The universe is ruled not by gods but by matter, motion and chance.
  2. Do not care about death: it does not hurt, you will not even know you are dead! You will be gone, even your soul. There is no hell to fear.
  3. The good is easy to get: Man does not need much – he can live on “water and barley cakes.”
  4. The bad is easily endured: if sickness or pain is horrible it is short-lived. If it is long-lasting, it is bearable.

Epicurus was against suicide because it goes against the fourth principle. Some later Epicureans, however, were for it.

For Epicurus there is no such thing as morals, as right and wrong – just pleasure and pain. Not just those of the flesh, but, even more important, those of the mind.

To attain peace of mind it helps to be just, prudent and honourable. So does friendship. Family and political affairs, on the other hand, do not.

The Stoics also sought peace of mind, but looked for it in duty, not pleasure.

Epicurus’s physics was based on the atoms of Democritus. Democritus said that everything was made up of atoms: very small bits of matter – too small to see and too small to cut up into smaller parts. They are uncreated and eternal.

The universe is just atoms moving about. To some degree they follow the rules of physics, but there is also an element of chance as well. There is certainly no divine design or purpose to it all.

Epicurus said that even the gods were made of atoms. While his universe does not require gods, either to create it or rule it, he believed they existed because it is a universal belief among mankind. Gods should be worshipped out of respect not fear.

Famous Epicureans: Cassius, Lucretius, Lucian, Lorenzo Valla, Gassendi, Thomas Jefferson.

Influenced by Epicurean thought: Virgil, Horace, Locke, Boyle, Newton.

Against it: Cicero, Plutarch, Origen and Augustine.

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The Library of Alexandria was the largest library of ancient times. It stood for centuries, from about 295 BC to 270 AD. In 2002 a new Library of Alexandria was opened.

The ancient library had about 490,000 scrolls. That comes to about 100,000 of our books or, on a computer, 64 gigabytes. For us that would be a small-city library. But in its time only the Library of Pergamum (the library that invented parchment) could even come close to it.

The Library was conceived as a universal library: to have a copy of every book ever written. It seems it came very close to that for books in Greek.

It was not a free-standing, public library. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria which in turn was part of the king’s estate. It was not a museum as we think of it but something more like a research institute, which brought together some of the greatest minds of the age.

Among other things the Museum and Library gave us:

  • putting things in alphabetical order
  • dividing a work into “books”
  • the Septuagint
  • the works of Homer as we know them
  • grammar books in the form we are used to seeing them
  • punctuation
  • the first good measurement of how large the earth is

The Library had a branch in the temple of Serapis. It was about a tenth the size but it seems to have been opened to the public.

The kings of the Ptolemies who started the Library were like the princes of the Renaissance except that they loved books instead of art.

They say that ships that came to Alexandria were searched for books. Those that were found were copied: the owner got the copy, the Library kept the original! The Library also sent its men all over the known world to find the oldest copies of books. The older the better.

Because the Library often had many old copies of the same book it could compare the copies that it had and work out what the original must have been. This is how the Library was able to create copies more trustworthy than anyone else’s. What we have of Homer and Aristophanes came from such library copies.

The Library also seems to have had foreign books, in both the original language and translated into Greek. The Septuagint is the famous example: it is the Jewish Scripture as translated by the Library into Greek. When St Paul and others quote Scripture, they almost always quote the Septuagint.

The Library was burned on at least two occasions: first when Julius Caesar fought in Egypt and again in 270 when Aurelian fought Zenobia, queen of Palmyra.

You hear about Christians burning down the Library in 391 but that was the Serapis branch. It was destroyed not as a library but as a temple to idols. Theodosius, who then ruled the empire, had ordered all temples to be turned into Christian churches or shut down.

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