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Pappus of Alexandria and the Mathematics of Late Antiquity

by Serafina Cuomo, P. E. Easterling, M. K. Hopkins, etc.

Buy the book: Serafina Cuomo. Pappus of Alexandria and the Mathematics of Late Antiquity

Release Date: 09 March, 2000

Edition: Hardcover

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Buy the book: Serafina Cuomo. Pappus of Alexandria and the Mathematics of Late Antiquity


Interesting project

Cuomo starts this book by suggesting we don't understand the late-classical era, that great confusing muddle which starts around 300 AD when Constantine transferred the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople and legalized Christianity. It ends with the Muslim conquest of Alexandria. In crude terms, it is what Gibbon called the 'fall of the Roman Empire.' Cuomo uses the 'Arch of Constantine' as a metaphoric reference. For most contemporary art historians, the arch is a pastiche of scavenged sculptures from earlier and finer artistic efforts. Scavenged is the key word here. The late-antiquity (according to Gibbon) was the moral equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah.

I don't know how many people still take "Rome's Fall' as a moral litmus test, but I suspect the story still holds a lot of weight. It's this icon that Cuomo targets.

In general terms, I couldn't be more pleased with the project. Unfortunately, it doesn't really get off the ground. Cuomo isn't very forth coming on what she makes of the era. It seems she simply likes pastiche.

She starts her iconoclastic journey well, suggesting the subject of her book might never have existed. It is hard to argue the point. We know almost nothing about Pappus, the man. Unfortunately, the fictional Pappus concept seems to have been mentioned for shock value, and not pursued seriously. I would have been interested in hearing details on the process of putting mathematic lectures on scrolls for academic, social or bureaucratic purposes. Maybe ghost writing was a common practice. This emphasis on the 'media' itself seems critical to Cuomo's case (a role the Arch of Constantine served), but it is entirely ignored.

Cuomo then takes us down an entertaining bunny hole involving legal torture and highly paid astrologers. By taking this route, she hopes to convince us that mathematics was about as important to our late-classical delinquents as, well, ourselves. The legal discussion shows mathematical knowledge put one socially above those who could expect torture during any legal cross-examination. The astrological references show desperate young parents prayed for their off-spring to become mathematicians.

So far, so good, but Cuomo then launches into a book by book deconstruction of the works ascribed to Pappus (whoever he was), and in this the reader starts to wonder just what she wants to say. The less than stunning conclusion is that Pappus had careerist interests and said different things to target groups in hopes of enhancing his authority.

I was less than impressed.

One might surmise Cuomo has a bigger goal, but if it exists, it is very subtle. Of these subtle arguments, the chief seems to be that the standard historiography associates the development of Greek mathematics exclusively with Plato's philosophy (the Proclus (411-485) perspective). Cuomo points out contradictions in this line of reasoning made by Pappus (? 320 ?) and Iamblichus (250?-330?). In this, Cuomo hints at disputing the role of the Neo-Platonic synthesis. Proclus, as the heir to Plato's academy, plays a pivotal role in this. Cuomo seeks to uncover the real mathematician hidden by Proclus and later Neo-Platonic Christians.

If this is really what she hints at, I would be surprised. I am just grasping at straws... The unfortunate fate of the interested reader.

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