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The encounter of knowledge: technical ekphrasis between Alexandria and Rome

July 2011

This dissertation is a study of the techniques used to represent mechanical technology in ancient literature from Hellenistic Greece to late-ancient Rome. Ancient authors used a variety of verbal descriptive techniques, as well as visual elements like diagrams and tables, to bring their audience into imaginative contact with the artifact. Certain texts also make use of an instructional mode of description, presenting the artifact as a creation that comes together before the reader's eyes; many of these texts implicate the reader in this process through direct address and imperative commands. Ancient descriptions of machines make use of a rich store of rhetorical techniques in order not only to provide the reader with a mental picture of the artifact's physical form, but also to interpret the artifact and provide it with cultural context by unfolding the different types of knowledge it embodies (including scientific, mathematical, and craft knowledge). This process of interpretation is key to the classification of these passages as a kind of ekphrasis. Because of this interpretive aspect, ekphrasis should not be understood simply as description, but rather a powerful rhetorical mechanism illuminating the connection between objects and their culture of production or use. In order to encompass the full range of such connections, the project draws not only on technical literature such as construction manuals, but also on the representations of technological artifacts found in ancient historical, philosophical, and poetic works. This work shows that technical authors like Vitruvius and Hero of Alexandria, far from producing "naïve" descriptions of machines isolated from their culture, are in fact self-conscious participants in an ongoing discourse about the place of technical knowledge within the landscape of scientific, philosophical, and cultural values. This discourse reaches beyond the community of technical practitioners to influence literature in other genres; at the same time, the response of authors in other genres to contemporary technological developments influences the way technical authors present themselves and their work. In this way the project serves to explore the complex integration of ancient mechanical technology with the surrounding culture.