Saturday, July 07, 2007

BOOK: Polydore Vergil, "On Discovery"

Polydore Vergil: On Discovery. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 6. Harvard University Press, 2002. 0674007891. xxx + 721 pp.

A lament

This is a clear sign that senility is creeping fast upon me. Generally, I read the I Tatti Renaissance Library volumes in the same order they were published, with some exceptions (e.g. I'm skipping Ficino's Platonic Theology because reading it would require as much effort as reading a mathematical textbook, but his arguments (if I may judge by book I which is the only part of it I've read so far) are so full of holes, unwarranted religious axioms, and all-round wishful thinking that I really can't bring myself to spend so much effort on such a book). Anyway, after I had read Vegio's Minor Epics, I was wondering what comes next, and then I remembered that nice big fat book of Polydore's On Discovery, and I started wondering when I would finally get to read that. After some searching I found that the book was on my stack of already-read ITRL books rather than on the not-yet-read one; which rather surprised me as I was sure that I hadn't yet read it, but its ITRL sequence number is 6 while Vegio's is #15 — why then hadn't I read On Discovery before? Anyway, I figured there's nothing else to do but to start reading On Discovery before moving on to the later ITRL volumes from the not-yet-read stack.

I got nearly halfway through the book before one particular passage finally started to seem a little bit too familiar. It finally struck me that I am, after all, keeping an Excel file with a list of all the books I have, and there I also keep track of which ones I've read so far. And sure enough, when I went to look there, I saw Polydore marked as already-read. So I had read it, but had then forgotten about that so completely that I could read almost half of the book again before realizing that I'm reading it for the second time, not the first. Utterly shameful senility.

But anyway, there's something good even in this. When I had read it for the first time, I wasn't yet keeping this blog, so by re-reading it now I have the opportunity to write a post about it. Besides, it was a pleasant enough read (more interesting than pretty much all the other ITRL volumes I've read so far), so I continued reading even after I realized that I had already read it before.

About this book

In this book, Polydore (a 15th/16th-century humanist) describes the origin of numerous discoveries and practices — from almost all spheres of life, e.g. technology, society, culture, etc. Only religion is not covered so well because this volume contains only books I–III of On Discovery, whereas the origins of various Christian practices and such things are covered in the rest of the work (books IV–VIII, not included in this volume).

The book is divided into a number of fairly short chapters, each about one particular subject, e.g. gods, languages, marriage-related customs, religions, letters, grammar, poetry, meter, tragedy, comedy, satire, history, rhetoric, music, philosophy, astrology, astronomy, geometry, medicine, magic, divination, laws, government, calendar, books, writing, memory, military science, weapons, horsemanship, sports and games, truces and treaties, triumphs, wreaths, perfume, metals, fire, coins, rings and jewelry, glass, statues, incense, painting, ceramics, farming, hunting, cloth and clothes, architecture and building, towns, labyrinths, pyramids, obelisks, theatre, carpentry, sailing, trade, prostitution, etc.

I must say that I also admire the editor/translator for the thorough job he's done; although I'm not interested in textual criticism, I cannot help being impressed by the critical apparatus in this book, which shows that he has collated the text of nine early editions! There are also lots and lots of interesting notes (about a hundred pages) to the text itself, as well as precise references to all the passages from ancient authors to which Polydore often refers just vaguely. There's also a fairly extensive introduction of almost 30 pages. I do have a small complaint about the notes, though: the page headers don't say which book the notes on those pages are to; so when you see that they are e.g. the notes to chapter 13, you don't know if it's chapter 13 of the first, second or third book, so you have to leaf back and forth to find what you are looking for.

Polydore's methodology

Polydore's approach usually consists more or less of summarizing what various ancient authors have to say on the subject. Among the pagan authors, his favourite authority is Pliny, but also other encyclopedic authors, such as Diogenes Laertius and Diodorus Siculus; for Jewish and Christian history, he mostly refers to Josephus and Eusebius. Sometimes the various authorities conflict amongst themselves, which he usually resolves by saying that if various authors attribute a discovery to different persons, this probably means that each of these persons was actually the first one to discover that thing among his own people, while elsewhere somebody else may have discovered the same thing independently, and possibly earlier.

He is very keen to identify each discoverer by name, even in the case of discoveries for which it would be obvious to us nowadays that trying to pin them down to an individual inventor is silly, e.g. agriculture. Sometimes, of course, his authorities let him down and he has to regretfully admit that the name of the discoverer has been lost in the mists of time :)

He is also very keen about priority — he wants to know who was the first to discover something, even if others elsewhere discovered it independently. This pissing-contest mentality is especially regretful considering the fact that he is far from an impartial observer — you can see quite clearly that he is rooting for the Judeo-Christian side as opposed to the Greco-Roman one :) His job is made quite easy by virtue of the chronology established by Eusebius. Eusebius tried to place various events from secular and biblical history on a common time-scale (pp. 493–502), in the course of which he e.g. places Abraham at 2016 BC, Moses at 1592 BC, the Trojan war in 1191–1182 BC, and so on. Polydore follows Eusebius' chronology and for many discoveries, he simply has to look up the earliest mention of that thing in the bible, see where that fits into Eusebius' chronology, and conclude (without taking much trouble to conceal his gloating and glee) that this is so and so many centuries earlier than e.g. the Trojan war / the reign of Saturn / etc., and thus much earlier than any mention of this discovery among the pagan classical authors (see also p. xix).

(Incidentally, Polydore and Eusebius believe that when an ancient author attributes the discovery to some pagan god or demigod, this actually means that the thing was discovered by an ordinary human king or ruler who later came to be worshipped as a god (this is known as Euhemerism, p. xix). Some of these supposed rulers were even assigned places in the Eusebian chronology, e.g. Zeus in the 20th century BC, Apollo in the 14th, etc. Admittedly, history indeed shows many examples of rulers who tried to get themselves worshipped as gods, either during their lifetime and/or posthumously; e.g. pharaohs, Roman emperors, etc.; but to say that nearly all pagan gods originate in deified human rulers (and that even the century of their reign can be determined) is, I think, an unacceptable and silly generalization.)

Almost all of the discoveries he mentions are no later than the late antiquity; the few exceptions are printing (mentioned in 2.7.8–9) and firearms (2.11.5–7, 3.18.3–4). Every now and then he does grudgingly admit that many interesting new things are still being discovered (3.18), but then he usually goes on to talk about ancient things anyway. Sometimes he even seems somewhat disapproving of discoveries in general, suggesting that they cause more trouble than good. For example, he often laments discoveries related to ship-building and navigation, because they cause people to risk long voyages, and sometimes to lose their lives, in the pursuit of maritime trade (3.6.1, 3.15); but he doesn't ever seem to stop and think about how many good things also come from overseas trading. Anyway, I'm not the kind of person who would be uncritically happy about every new discovery, but his conservatism is surely unreasonable and excessive.

Here's one of the rare instances where he admits that progress keeps on going — and even here he has to cite an ancient author in support of this: “no art has stood still, as Quintilian says, remaining as it was when invented” (3.2.9).

Money money money

There's an interesting discussion in 2.3.12–13 about the growth of Roman wealth. “[W]hen Servius Tullius was king, according to Pliny in book 33, the highest census was 110,000 [asses], which makes 1,100 gold pieces. And this, as Pliny says, was in the first class, so scanty were the resources of the Romans at that time; later they became huge when the senatorial census was 1,200 sestertia, according to Suetonius. [. . .] it should be recognized that each sestertium was worth twenty-five gold pieces [. . .] From this calculation we conclude that the senatorial census was at the level of 30,000 gold-pieces and the equestrian at 12,500”. The gold-pieces Polydore refers to are “our ducats or gold crowns” (earlier in the same paragraph); according to the Wikipedia, one ducat is 3.4909 grams of gold, which would make the senatorial census was equivalent to 104.7 kilograms of gold, which as of this writing equals $2.2 million, or €1.7 million.

In 3.5.11 he mentions that Cleopatra's famous banquet that involved the drinking of a pearl cost “ten million sesterces (100 times 100,000 sesterces, which makes 250 of our gold pieces)”. I'm not quite sure how all this fits together; all the dictionaries say that one sestertium equals 1000 sesterces; thus, if, as the previous quote said, one sestertium equals 25 gold pieces, then 1000 sesterces also equal 25 gold pieces, and ten million sesterces equal 250,000 gold pieces, enough money to make eight senators and have almost enough left for a knight :-) This does seem a bit unrealistically extravagant for a dinner, even for Cleopatra. But a mere 250 gold-pieces for the whole banquet seems unrealistically modest; if we multiply this by 3.4909, we get 872 grams of gold, currently around $19000 — from what I've heard, nowadays in the U.S. that kind of money would hardly suffice for a middle-class wedding, much less a royal banquet.

[To be continued in a few days.]

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home