Experiencing Geometry in Roman Surveyors’ Texts

In: Nuncius
Courtney Roby Department of Classics, Cornell University, USA

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The surveyors who mapped and measured the Roman world engaged broadly with the Greek tradition of mathematical literature, transforming it to fit their profession’s practical needs and to enhance the cultural status of their discipline. This paper will explore the transformative strategies used by Hyginus Gromaticus and Balbus, two agrimensorial authors who wrote in the late first or early second century ce. Both authors work to integrate Greek mathematical knowledge into a literary milieu in which broad appeal is privileged over narrow expertise, and a profession which demanded the application of mathematical knowledge to the experiential needs of surveyors. The hands-on experiences of practicing surveyors selectively re-formed the mathematical and literary structures of Greek mathematics, including both verbal and visual elements. Far from being derivative repetitions or simplifications of the mathematical material, these texts build it into a rich structure of creatively deployed experiential knowledge, giving it a new life in a complex and concrete world.

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