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Technology and Religion in Ancient Greece and Rome  

Tatiana Bur

Coupling together “technology” and “religion” might, to the modern mind, sound rather antithetical. The former, as we know it, is based in scientific knowledge and produces tangible results; the latter is phenomenological and spiritual. Yet this does not do justice to the full character of ancient science, or of ancient religion. Technologies in Greco-Roman antiquity could, and did, help create and sustain a sense of the divine, whether this was in the context of sanctuary space, or as part of religious occasions or rituals, for example. The kinds of evidence available to unearth the realities of the relation between technology and religion in ancient Greece and Rome span literature, material culture, and, importantly, ancient technical manuals. This final genre tends not to be as familiar to students of the Greco-Roman world in general and especially to students of ancient religion. Yet by combining these dry, and at times abstruse, texts with anecdotal evidence, technical realities and issues of viewership which surround the use of technology in ancient religious contexts can be better understood. One of the more familiar instances of religious technologies from ancient Greece is that of the theatrical crane (mēchanē). There, epiphanies of gods were fabricated using a conspicuous mechanical construction which speaks to the fundamentally mediated nature of ancient epiphany. The sense of sacred presence within ancient temples in the Greco-Roman world was enhanced using various technical methods including catoptrics—the science of reflection. Religious processions in antiquity involved parading a vast array of objects through the cityscape and technologies of automation began, in the Hellenistic period onward, to feature as part of this conspicuous display of the marvelous. Various other rituals which formed the very basis of Greek religious life, such as divination and dedication, relied on technical, including mechanical, expertise to create, enhance, or authenticate connection with the divine. Traces of the intersection between religion and technology in Greco-Roman antiquity can be found not only from the Classical institution of the theater but even earlier, including in the Homeric epics. Yet the formalization of the discipline of mechanics in the Hellenistic period gave new shape and vigor to the relation between religion and technology. Subsequently, the Roman period saw increased meta-discourse on the phenomenon, especially thanks to the culturally vibrant “Second Sophistic,” as well as the rise of Christianity, where the word (logos) of god was privileged above anything material.