Method and Theory in Classics
Getting the measure of the land 1: Founding a new colony.
Some Saian exults in my shield which I left – a
faultless weapon – beside a bush against my will. But I
saved myself. What do I care about that shield? To hell
with it! I’ll get one that’s just as good another time.
(Archilochus (7 century BC), fragment 5).
The establishment of new settlements was an important feature of many
periods of classical antiquity.
The English word ‘colony’ is derived from the Latin colonia. The Romans
meant by this a specific kind of new settlement, which was not quite like
anything in Greek experience (and so in Greek texts the word is not
translated but transliterated as kolonia). The word for the new
settlements founded by Greeks in the archaic and classical periods was
apoikia (pl. apoikiai; literally something like ‘new home’).
• In the archaic period especially there is often no clear distinction
between the settlements referred to as apoikiai and those called
emporia (sing. emporion) or ‘trading posts’.
From the ‘Brea decree’, 5 century Athens (detailing the arrangements
for a new settlement in the northern Aegean):
“The founders of the settlement are to provide means for sacrificing to
obtain good omens on behalf of the settlement. They are to choose ten
men, one from each tribe, to divide up the land, and they are to divide up
the land. Demokleides is to be given power to establish the settlement in
the best way he can...” (Meiggs & Lewis 49).
Contemporary comedy includes jokes about the use of ‘geometry’ and
especially its associated equipment – see for example Aristophanes’
Strepsiades: And what’s that thing for?
Strepsiades: So what’s the use of that?
Student: Measuring land.
Strepsiades: You mean for settlers? Student: No, land in general.
Strepsiades: How urbane! There’s a trick that’s both democratic
and Birds 992-1020:
[Enter M ETON ]
Meton: I have come here...
Peisetairos: Here’s another nuisance. What are you doing here?
What form does your plan take? What’s your thinking? What’s
Meton: I want to survey the air for you, and parcel it into acres.
Peisetairos: By the gods, who on earth are you?
Meton: Who am I? I am Meton: famed throughout Greece! And I’m
big in Colonus.
Peistetairos: So tell me, what’s all this stuff you’ve got?
Meton: Air rulers. For the sky is like a saucepan lid. So, if I position
this curved ruler over the top, and insert a compass... Are you
Peisetairos: Er, no. You’ve lost me.
Meton: ... and lay a straight ruler alongside, then I’ll take a
measure, so that you will get a circle squared, with a market-place
in the middle, and so that there will be straight streets running into
it and meeting at the very centre, so that just like from a star,
which is itself round, rays will beam out straight in every direction.
Peisetairos: The man’s a regular Thales!
There is a (brief) discussion in Plato’s Laws (739e-741b) about the
division of land in the new city of Magnesia.
In the textbook, note (in addition to chapter 14 on archaeology), chapter
23 on Science and Technology – in the current context especially pages
299-300 on Mathematics and Geometry, and 305-310 on Geography,
Technology and Civil Engineering. Technological developments and
innovation have been the focus of slightly more attention recently than
Schaps implies, though the impetus has come from archaeologists
interested in economic matters. See especially now the Oxford Handbook
of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World he mentions on page
314. To the section on resources for Technology you may also wish to add
Lewis’ Surveying Instruments of Greece and Rome (Cambridge, 2001). On the practicalities of laying out regular grids (whether for farming
land or urban street grids), there are obviously two things to take into
1. Establishing right angles. This was relatively straightforward, as
the properties of the 3, 4, 5 triangle were known long before
Pythagoras (active in the late 6 century BC). Alternatively, a pair
of compasses can be used (this is what Meton is talking about at
Clouds 1003): a triangle contained by a semi-circle will be right-
angled; or two circles can be drawn so that they overlap: the lines
drawn between the centres of the circles and between the points
where their arcs overlap will cross at right angles. Any of these
techniques can be used in the field, or a set square can be laid
down. The lines can be extended using poles and cords. Measuring
the diagonals of the quadrilaterals formed will check whether they