“Invention”, Innovation or Tradition? Using Texts, Archaeology, Ethnography and Comparative History to Reconsider Agricultural Technology in the Roman Empire

A paper by Tamara Lewit, University of Melbourne and Paul Burton, Australian National University, for the Ancient World Seminar at 1:00 on Monday 27 August in the South Theatre, Old Arts, room 224.

From the early 20th to the early 21st century, historians have presented a teleological vision of Roman agricultural machines, according to which successive types each superseded earlier and “inferior” types to increase “efficiency”.  This picture has been based on our only complete Latin description, a 52-word passage from Pliny the Elder.  It is completely at odds with recent archaeological evidence, which reveals far more varied and regional patterns of innovation.  Using comparative history and ethnography can help us to consider who innovated, why and how innovations might be localised or spread.  Lewit and Burton also present some results of a cross-disciplinary study of Pliny’s text, revealing that modern scholars have routinely misinterpreted and mistranslated his account, which in fact very accurately aligns with archaeological and ethnographic evidence.

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