Abstract: Herodotus, Aristotle, and Sounding Weights: The Deep Sea as a Frontier in the Classical World

The ancient Mediterranean cultures knew far more about the deep sea than is generally realized. Pharaohs, emperors, scientists, fishermen, ships’ captains, and sponge divers were all personally concerned with the topography and environment of the sea floor. Comments by the scientist-philosophers Aristotle and Posidonius indicate that by the early Hellenistic period many areas of the Mediterranean Sea had been accurately measured down to 2000 m. This was an impressive accomplishment, given the materials and technology available at the time. Both the difficulty of the undertaking and the apparently comprehensive scope of the inquiry reveal a profound and so far underrated interest in the deep sea among Greek and Roman intellectuals. In a richly illustrated talk, Prof. Oleson presents the surprising results of his research concerning ocean science and navigation in the ancient Mediterranean.


Suggested Bibliography/Websites

J.P. Oleson, “Ancient Sounding-weights: a contribution to the history of Mediterranean navigation,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 13 (2000) 293-310.

J.P. Oleson, “Testing the Waters: The Role of Sounding-Weights in Ancient Mediterranean Navigation.” Pp. 119-76 in R.L. Hohlfelder, ed., The Maritime World of Ancient Rome.

Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Suppl. 6. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

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