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The birth of modern science?

The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300BC and Why It Had To Be Reborn

(transl. Silvio Levy) Springer: 2004. 487 pp. $99, £69, €89.95 3540200681 | ISBN: 3-540-20068-1
Just a regular floor? Hellenistic design often drew on geometry. Credit: E. STEINER/DEUTSCHES ARCHÄOL. INST, ISTANBUL

The Forgotten Revolution is a work of passionate advocacy, defending the excellence of science in Greece in the 200 years after the beginning of the Hellenistic period in 320 BC. The author, Lucio Russo, a professor of mathematics at the University of Rome, has an appetite for classical works of science in their original Greek and Latin, and is on a spirited crusade against two groups. His first target are those “moderns” who (apparently) lump everyone from the Greek philosopher Thales in the sixth century BC to Ptolemy, an Egyptian astronomer of the second century AD, into an undifferentiated mass called the Ancients, and then disparage their intellects and scientific achievements. The second group are the classicists, who are accused of treating everything that came after Athens in the fourth-century BC, and the Hellenistic world in particular, as a technically proficient but intellectually uninteresting successor to the classical world.

If this is a fair portrayal of these groups then Russo is right to take up the cudgels, for the Hellenistic period is a brilliant episode in the history of science, and our own mathematical and physical sciences are built on its foundations. The connections between Russo's “forgotten revolution” and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century are immediate and direct. The surviving treatises of Hellenistic mathematics, translated from Byzantine codices in the late sixteenth century, were essential to Descartes, Galileo, Kepler and Newton.

Russo presents an enticing vision of a Hellenistic world with a highly organized scientific effort that lasted for centuries. He sees government support for science, libraries and institutes. He sees science with technological applications, if not an industrial scale. He views the Hellenistic development of geometrical proof into a hypothetico-deductive method as the revolutionary birth of true science. If there is anything you like in modern science and mathematics (or art, linguistics, architecture, technology or medicine), he is glad to show you that the Hellenistic Greeks had already been there and done that. He is even pretty sure they had the inverse-square law of gravitation.

Is this vision true to the facts? A great deal of it is, yes, but not all, and certainly not the bit about the inverse-square law. Yet the effort to spin out the “what if...?” is well worth it. We have access to only 1–2% of these ancient texts for which we know the titles, the rest being lost, which leaves a good deal of room for Russo to imagine a Hellenistic science much more ample and more modern than previously thought. There is a corresponding tendency to downplay the quality and quantity of science before the fourth century BC, and to find much after the second century BC decadent. The argument is nonetheless stimulating.

Fortunately for the reader (although more or less in contravention of the book's central premise), Russo no sooner limits science to hypothetico-deductive reasoning than he drops that stricture. This lets in lots of wonderful science, technology and medicine, achieved in the Hellenistic period by observation, description, approximation and induction. If we were stuck with his stricter definition of science, then almost everything in the Hellenistic world, and certainly everything in this issue of Nature, would not count as real science.

Russo is entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts. There are some errors and bold exaggerations: caveat lector. His attempt to suggest that Ptolemy's Almagest “presents a system for predicting the motions of the planets but no explanation of how the system was obtained” is both untrue and unfair, although Russo's thesis that Ptolemy belonged to a decadent age requires it. Ptolemy actually provided a beautiful, original, rationally organized description of all the key parameters, including how to derive them from observation, and how to obtain these observations under minutely specified conditions. The interested reader is referred to James Evans' The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy (Oxford University Press, 1998).

Indeed, much of the history of science referred to by Russo resides in standard works published over the past 50 or so years. It seems he has not recently renewed his acquaintance with the subject through the technical literature, although he has read widely among the popular works. This does not undo the worth and verve of his presentation, but the sheer volume of recent work does undo his ‘conspiracy of silence’ thesis. Try using Google to track down a Greek name — Aristarchus of Samos, say — and you'll see what I mean.

Russo's book left me feeling that I would have loved to live (and might well have found a good job) in third-century Alexandria. The copious, informative and useful illustrations in this beautifully produced volume intensify the sense of what was lost when this great civilization went into decline and perished. They also inspire a sense of where we might be, had that “lost revolution” continued unchecked from 2,000 years ago to today. Would we be travelling to the stars? “One may imagine...”

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Greene, M. The birth of modern science?. Nature 430, 614 (2004).

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