Photo of a fragmentary illustration of the world, showing various land masses and bodies of water.

Codex Seragliensis, Topkapi Sarayi Müzesi. Photographed for Adolph Deissman in the 1920s. Hosted by the University of Bern. Wikimedia Commons (

Rostovtzeff Lecture Series:Epistemic Corruption and Epistemic Progress in Ancient Science

Lecture 4: The Question of Progress

Daryn Lehoux

Queen’s University

This lecture will take place in person at ISAW.

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The Rostovtzeff Lectures are supported in part by a generous endowment fund given by Roger and Whitney Bagnall.

How did ancient Greek and Roman authors conceive of their own knowledge of the natural world? Did they see it as progressing and increasing, or as degenerating in some way? What did they see as the strengths or dangers posed by their own and others’ epistemic practices, and what are the strengths and dangers that we in turn face in interpreting and understanding those practices today? By framing these questions in terms of a larger category of ‘epistemic corruption,’ I hope to show that ancient ideas about knowledge practices are tightly correlated with claims about moral and bodily virtues and vices.

Once we have seen the different ways in which knowledge practices can be compromised by corruption, both in ancient sources themselves and in our understanding of those sources, we can begin to appreciate some of the difficulties that can arise in articulating a clear and transhistorical notion of scientific progress. Ancient authors, for their part, were often ambivalent about progress, sometimes cleaving to a narrative about a lost golden age, and sometimes celebrating the triumphs of their own times or developments that they anticipated in the future. What might this mean for our own understandings of science, then and now?

Daryn Lehoux is Professor of Classics and Archaeology and Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s University. He is the author of Astronomy, Weather, and Calendars in the Ancient World (Cambridge, 2007), What Did the Romans Know? (Chicago, 2012), and Creatures Born of Mud and Slime (Hopkins, 2017). He is co-editor of Lucretius: Poetry, Philosophy, Science (Oxford, 2013) and the author of more than forty articles on ancient science and epistemology.

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