Laws of Cosmic Regularity in the Imperial Period

Bern, September 14-15 (Thursday and Friday), 2023

Over the course of the past fifty years, scholars have come to acknowledge that ancient thinkers did not share the modern idea of nature as a defined and organized unity, dominated by human intelligence and technology. In Ancient Greek, the term physis generally refers to the nature of a thing or, more generally, to the natures of things rather than a uniform “nature” (French 1994). By contrast, although the Greek term physis was translated as natura in Latin, natura appears to link the nature of things additionally to divine potency (Beagon 1992). Although these discoveries transformed the scholarly discourse and an equation of physis with “nature” is no longer taken for granted, many research questions continually regard possible equivalents to modern laws of nature. Such questions unintentionally reinscribe modern concepts of nature back into Greek and Latin laws of cosmic regularity. Due to the linguistic consistency of terminology, for example, much scholarship on ancient “laws of nature” was concerned with the expression “laws of nature” in ancient texts. Yet they all had to admit (somewhat frustrated) that this terminology refers to moral behavior, rather comparable to the modern understanding of “natural law” (e.g., Naddaf 2005; Beagon 1992; French 1994; Grant 1952). More recently, Daryn Lehoux has suggested that previously denigrated ideas such as sympathy and antipathy, pneuma, harmony, symmetry, god(s), and intermediary beings are more likely to constitute an epistemological equivalent to modern laws of nature or even laws of thought (Lehoux 2012). Lehoux’ stimulating catalogue deserves further attention and refinement.

The change in terminology in the title of this conference—from nature to cosmic regularity—should help to break new ground in the description of the concept of nature in the Roman imperial period. At the same time, the term “laws of cosmic regularity” maintains the focus on what is at stake in modern laws of nature: regularity and control. Thus, the conference will address the range of fundamental ideas from which people during the roman imperial period drew to explain natural processes. It will explore the reasons for the momentum of certain ideas and concepts as well as inquire whether and how the sweeping persuasion of these rules can be linked to other rules governing people’s reason at the time, such as grammar, rhetoric, strategic thinking, or technology.

Thursday, September 14

1 Introduction: Ancient Nature ⎼ Regularly Irregular?

Monika Amsler, Universität Bern

2 Comets and Cosmic (Ir)regularity

Karen ní Mheallaigh, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

Aristotle defined comets as meteorological phenomena because they seemed to defy the laws of perfect regularity that governed his superlunary sphere. In contrast, Seneca (NQ 7. 22) defied both Aristotelian theory and the doctrine of his fellow-Stoics by asserting that comets are part of the eternal machinery of the universe, akin to the planets and stars. He did so in candid recognition of the limitations of his own understanding of the nature and behaviour of comets, but with a remarkably prescient intuition that these apparent celestial rogues were, nevertheless, obedient to cosmic law. This paper explores comets as harbingers of epistemological as well as cultural tumult, which challenged prevailing ideas about the structure and laws of the cosmos, as well as the outer limits of cosmological knowledge in the Imperial era.

3 Did the Methods of Ancient Astral Science Form a Coherent Whole?

Philip Thibodeau, Brooklyn College CUNY

Ancient astral science as a whole was constituted by two distinct systems of ratiocination. On the one hand there were numerical procedures used to generate epheremides (or design tools like the Antikythera device) that would allow the positions of the stars and planets at any given date and time to be determined. There also existed compilations of celestial omens that over time were systematized into houses, aspects, exaltations, and other such schemes to form the basis for horoscopic casting. Generally speaking, ‘astrology’ in the era of Imperial Rome involved interpreting the results of the first system in terms of the second. This paper first outlines how these systems, although deriving from a common Babylonian origin, drew on different styles of thinking and operated independent of one another. It then considers why practitioners of astral science by and large sought to downplay the salience of this divide.

4 Can a Monument reflect an Astronomical Conjunction?

Fabio Spadini, Freie Universität Berlin

An approach of all Roman monuments representing the zodiacal ring (2nd c. BC - 4th c. CE) reveals regular patterns which allow us to think that the representations of the zodiac obeys certain rules. A small group of monuments shows a scheme that is different from the “norm”.

One of the is the stone relief of Khirbet et-Tannur (2nd c. CE). It shows Niké holding a zodiacal ring framing the bust of Tyche. The arrangement of the signs is as follows: form Aries to Virgo they follow the natural order, i.e. anti-clockwise, then from Libra to Pisces, they are organized according to the clockwise direction. The iconography of some of the signs has unique characteristics: e.g. Aries is a male bust flanked by two circles on the right and left. The particular iconography of some signs suggests the intention to represent the position of the planets in these zodiacal constellations at a specific time.

My main goal is to analyze the anomalies represented on the stone relief in order to reconstitute the reasons that led the commissioners to break away from the usual iconography and the usual astronomical orientation.

5 The War of the Worlds: Taxonomical Polemics in High Imperial Platonism

Michiel Meeusen, KU Leuven

World views and their underlying structures and taxonomies play a fundamental role in any serious philosophical system, today as much as in the past. They help making sense of the world around us and reflect on our (perceived) position in it. But what happens when world views collide? Throughout Antiquity the fundamental set-up of the world was subject to heated debate. Much of the sectarian polemics between intellectuals in the ‘Post-Classical’ ‘Globalised’ ‘High’ ‘Roman’ Empire boils down to the very question of world view and its philosophical implications (in terms of prescribed human behaviour, cognition, mind/body problematics, the afterlife, the divine, the existence of evil etc.). In this talk we will explore how a number of Imperial Platonists position themselves in these debates and how they react to rivalling world views (Epicurean, Stoic, Peripatetic, Judaeo-Christian). Special attention will go to two (time-allowing) Platonic heavy-weights among them: Plutarch and Galen.

6 How does the world of the Civil War function? Laws of nature, natura and related concepts in Lucan

Anne-Sophie Meyer, Universität Basel

The perverted relationship to the laws is a major theme of Lucan's poem (ius datum sceleri, 1,2; rupto foedere regni, 1,4). Early on, the parallelism between broken (human) laws and the laws of nature (foedera mundi, 1.80) was noted, the ekpyrosis – the Stoic end of the world by fire – becoming an effective metaphor for civil war (Lapidge 1979).

The question of how the natural and human worlds are interrelated in Lucan's epic is one I have partially addressed (Meyer 2023). In my paper, I would like to examine the terms used to describe the origin and functioning of the world, and to shed light on their proximity to certain traditions, especially the epic and Stoic philosophy. In addition to the juridical and the Stoic vocabulary, I will focus on the term natura and examine its variety of meanings. By considering the contexts and speakers of the statements, it will be clarified whether they complement each other to form a coherent world view and in which traditions this is to be located.

7 Recognizing Nature through Art: Water Sources

Maria Gerolemou, University of Exeter

This talk will explore the concepts of τεχνητός, artificial and ἄτεχνος, non-artificial specifically with regards to water sources (cf. rivers, lakes, aqueducts), and discuss how they are being informed by ᾽rules᾽ such as the automatonpoikilia and taxis. The talk will argue that ancient authors instead of using these 'rules' to detect differences between the artificial and the non-artificial and thus establish a distinction between technê and physis, they appear to depend on them to create classification schemes and taxonomic groups in nature. These taxonomies describe what is alike and what is different, what belongs together and what is segregated, and help approaching natural relationships and increase knowledge, which is then invested back in the artificial reproduction of nature.

8 The shriek of perception: trans-rational ways of knowing in Greco-Roman science

Courtney Roby, Cornell University

Studies of “laws of nature” and comparable mechanisms for understanding the workings of the cosmos in antiquity often center ancient authors who privilege logical arguments based on the mind’s rational capacities. After all, these are the kinds of arguments that map most neatly onto modern “scientific” approaches to studying the regularities of natural phenomena. Yet some ancient authors in “scientific” disciplines also legitimize ways of knowing that do not fit neatly within “rational” approaches to understanding the world. Claudius Ptolemy, for example, finds room in his highly mathematicized approach to harmonics for the trans-rational intuition that one’s perception and the soul’s hegemonika use to grasp the “rightness” of harmonic intervals and to enact them bodily, for example within the larynx while singing. Those abilities resonate as well with natural philosophical observations of animals’ capacities for discovering and responding to “laws of nature” in their own environments.

9 How Are Laws of Nature Written? (Keynote lecture)

Daryn Lehoux, Queens University, CA

Talk of ‘the laws of nature’ is widespread in Roman philosophical sources, and across different philosophical schools. This paper seeks to ask the question of how far the metaphor of ‘law’ was taken in the different schools, and whether it was indeed a metaphor at all. In particular, I want to ask whether and to what extent different conceptions of nature and its lawlikeness presuppose conceptions of how those laws came to be—who or what wrote them, so to speak—and what that causal or ontological backstop says about nature and our relation to it.


Friday, September 15

10 The Nature of Disasters in Late Antiquity

Tina Sessa, Department of History, The Ohio State University

Modern scholars underline the revelatory effects of disasters by drawing attention to how they lay bare preexisting structures of power and inequality that produce differentiated experiences of vulnerability and resilience. However, disasters are revelatory in another way: as events that involve complex interplays of human and non-human agents, disasters often invite speculation about the operation of these agents, and how they may demonstrate, or violate, laws of nature. Disasters, in other words, can reveal how a particular historical community understood the mechanics of the material world under extreme conditions. This talk explores how two late ancient authors, Gregory of Tours (d. 590) and Agathias (d. 582), brought multiple, and sometimes competing, interpretive frames to bear on their understandings of the “nature” of disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and plague. It aims to show how their imbricated knowledge systems reflect something like a “lived science,” wherein individuals drew on multiple epistemological tools to explain disaster.

11 Miracles upon Miracles. Ancient conception of nature in the Ps.-Aristotelian Mirabilia and its reception - Wunder über Wunder. Antike Naturvorstellung in den ps.-aristotelischen Mirabilia und ihre Rezeption

Arlette Neumann-Hartmann, Université de Fribourg (presentation in German)

The work attributed to Aristotle Περὶ θαυμασίων ἀκουσμάτων, called Mirabilia for short, is one of the oldest collections of miracle reports to have survived in manuscript. It may have had its origins in the Peripatos of the 3rd century BCE and was expanded in the late imperial period. The mostly short entries about miraculous rocks, plants, animals, peoples and also waters focus on descriptions of mirabilia proper, whereby source information and explanations are missing in the vast majority of cases. Yet the reports always contain a reference to their geographic location, thus making it clear that a certain natural wonder occurs only at a single place or in a certain area. Based on the Ps.-Aristotelian Mirabilia, we will examine which conclusions such collections allow for the conception of nature in the Greco-Roman world and how the natural wonders described therein were received until late antiquity.

12 Natural Problems in the Paraphrase of Shem (NHC VII,1) and Poimandres (CH 1)

Dylan Michael Burns, Universiteit van Amsterdam

The Greek word φύσις is of course commonly translated into English as ‘nature’; other connotations that scholarship has noted for the word include “natural order,” “Creation,” “creature,” “animal nature,” and “natural instinct” (see LSJ 1964–1965, s.v. φύσις). However, some late ancient religious and philosophical literature—particularly the data that today is commonly denoted as ‘Gnostic’ and ‘Hermetic’—describe φύσις not as a source of order, but as a source of disorder and chaos. In such texts, ‘Nature’ is hardly ‘natural,’ in the sense of the established ‘order of things’; rather, ‘Nature’ is here a problem to be solved. This paper will investigate two cases of problematic, challenging uses of the term φύσις in Gnostic and Hermetic literature: first, the description of φύσις as a confused, demiurgic chaos-agent in the Coptic Paraphrase of Shem (Nag Hammadi Codex VII,1), and second, that of φύσις as the vessel of embodiment in the Hermetic Poimandres (Corpus Hermeticum 1).

13 Natures, Capacities and Substances in Graeco-Egyptian Alchemy

Matteo Martelli, University of Bologna

My paper will explore the use of the term physis in Graeco-Egyptian alchemical writings, with special attention to the works of Pseudo-Democritus (1st century AD) and Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th centuries AD), both in the Byzantine and the Syro-Arabic traditions. The term physis, indeed, is ubiquitous in early alchemical texts: along with dynamis and hylē, it is often introduced to describe the properties of single natural substances or to explore the mechanics of their transformations according to processes that we would conceptualize today as ‘chemical reactions.’ Through the study of relevant case-studies, I will explore these concepts in the framework of the discourse that Graeco-Egyptian practitioners developed about the transmutations of metals and their color changes.

14 Really Great Men: Exceptional Human Natures and Roman Aetiologies

Catherine Michael Chin, UC Davis

Founding myths and legends of invention abound in Roman writing, although they are rarely placed in serious dialogue with histories of Roman science. Yet such stories possessed explanatory power in antiquity, even when Roman authors who report them were skeptical about their veracity. Likewise, the claims of prominent Roman families about their divine ancestries explained aspects of Roman social relations even when these stories were obviously later fabrications. I am interested in what the narrative impulse toward “founding figure” aetiologies tells us, not about specific technological or cultural inventions, but about Roman conceptions of human capacity or “human nature” and its fluctuation or variability over time. The impulse to personify, to answer the question “Who was the first person to…?” bespeaks a specific cultural formulation of what knowledge of the human, and of the human-over-time, can be.