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According to Morris Kline, author of Mathematics for the Nonmathematician (1967):

Roman jurists ruled, under the Code of Mathematicians and Evil-Doers, that "to learn the art of geometry and to take part in public exercises, an art as damnable as mathematics, are forbidden."

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3 Answers 3

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No. They used a sentence that includes "mathematica" and condemns and forbids it, but they were not using a modern definition of "mathematician", which gives the sentence a very different interpretation.

A Latin Dictionary defines "mathematicus" as:

măthēmătĭcus […]
A. Măthēmătĭcus

  1. A mathematician
  2. An astrologer (post-Aug.)

Also compare Wikipedia:Mathematics#Etymology.

As we read in another work of Kline himself:

[…] astrologers were called mathematicii and astrology was condemned by the Roman emperors. The emperor Diocletian (AD 245–316) distinguished between geometry and mathematics. The former was to be learned and applied in the public service; but the "art of mathematics"—that is, astrology—was damnable and forbidden in its entirety.
The "code of mathematics and evil deeds;" the Roman law forbidding astrology, was also applied in Europe during the Middle Ages.

— Morris Kline: "Mathematical Thought From Ancient to Modern Times", Vol1, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 1990. (p179 in 1972 edition, gBooks)

As can be seen in:

The most important provisions of the two codes are found in the title: De maleficis et mathematicis et ceteris similibus, "concerning magicians, astrologers, and all such like.
— Cod. Just. IX, 18: Cod Theod. IX, 16.
— via Clyde Pharr: "The Interdiction of Magic in Roman Law", Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 63 (1932), pp. 269-295.

For a full Latin version, go here:
Wikisource: XVI de maleficis et mathematicis et ceteris similibus

For a close translation of the question title:

CJ 9.18.2 (AD 294)
Artem geometriae discere atque exerceri publice intersit. Ars autem mathematica damnabilis interdicta est.

A more appropriate and well known translation of this snippet reads:

Concerning Poisoners, Diviners, and Other Criminals of the same Description

It is a matter of public interest to learn and practice the science of geometry, but the art of divination is damnable, and is strictly prohibited.

While artem is translated above as 'science' and 'art', it could also be translated as 'fraud' (trick, wile). So to better capture the spirit of this juxtaposition, one might even phrase it as

To learn and practice the science of geometry is in the public interest. But the damnable fraud of astrology is forbidden.

If the subfield of geometria is then seen as pars pro toto for mathematics, then we have a very Skeptics:SE fitting formula:

Exact science is good, superstitious practices not so much.

A recent comprehensive translation with annotations renders the passage in context as:

Eighteenth Title Sorcerers, Astrologers, and Others Like Them

[1] Emperor Antoninus Augustus, It is worse to kill someone with poison than with a sword. Posted without day or year,

[2] Emperors Diocletian and Maximian August! and the Caesars to Tiberius. Learning and practicing the skill of surveyor (ars geomeiriae) shall be (deemed to be) in the public interest* But the despicable skill of astrology (ars mathematica) Is forbidden. Written August 20, at Sirmium, in the consulship of the Caesars (294).

[3] Emperor Constantine Augustus to Maximus, pr. No diviner (haruspex), no priest, no one who customarily performs rituals of this kind shah cross the threshold of another, not even for another reason (than divination), but friendship with such persons, even when of long standing, shall be renounced. Any diviner who visits someone else’s house shall be burned alive, and that person who summons him through persuasion or material inducements shall be exiled to an island after his or her property is confiscated, i* We consider, however, the prosecutor of this offense not as an informer (delator) but as someone instead deserving of a reward.
Posted February 1, at Rome, in the consulship of Constantine Augustus, for the fifth time, and Licinius Caesar (319).

[4] The same Augustus and Licinius Caesar to Bassus, Praetorian Prefect. pr* There shall be punishment and vengeance deservedly inflicted by the most severe laws upon the expertise of those who are discovered to be equipped with magic skills, to have meddled with people's health or to have turned chaste minds toward lust. 1. But criminal accusations shall not impede remedies devised for human bodies and nostrums, innocently applied in rural districts, to check concern for heavy downpours of rain falling upon grape-vintages ripe for harvest or their being damaged by the impact of falling hail By such means no one’s safety or reputation is harmed, but their actions bring it about that divine gifts and human efforts are not brought to naught. Given May 23, at Aquileia, in the consulship of Crispus and Constantine Caesars (321).

[5] Emperor Constantius Augustus to the People. No one shall consult a diviner (hampex) or astrologer, nor shall anyone (consult) a soothsayer (hariolus). The depraved profession of augurs and seers shall fell silent, Chaldeans, magicians (magi), and the others, whom the common people call sorcerers (malefici) on account of the enormity of their misdeeds, shall not contrive anything of this sort. Everyone's interest in foretelling the future shall forever cease. For whoever refuses obedience to these commands will endure the death penalty (supplicium capitis), laid low by an avenging sword.
Given January 25, at Milan, in the consulship of Constantius Augustus, for the ninth time, and Julian Caesar, for the second time (357).

— Bruce W. Frier (ed): "The Codex of Justinian. A New Annotated Translation, with Parallel Latin and Greek Text", Volume 3, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, 2016. pp2335–2337.


Other StackExchange posts on Skeptics, History of Science and Mathematics, Latin and Math, related to this question and confirming the above, but offering different angles to look at the problem over time and languages used:

Did Augustine of Hippo warn Christians to beware mathematicians?

Question on "What St. Augustine didn't say about mathematicians"

When and why were mathematics and magic considered synonymous in England

Greek astronomy vs astrology

Did Galileo Galilei believe in astrology?

What was Copernicus trying to mean with 'Mathematics is Written for Mathematicians'?

Development of mathematics in Europe between 550-1050 A.D

Why does Aristotle write 'astrology' when Plato writes 'astronomy'?

Did ars mathematica mean mathematics in classical (and late) Latin?

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    Seems like a more precise answer is "they used a word that is a cognate for 'mathematics', but the word didn't have the same meaning as the English word". Clearly, they didn't actually say the English sentence, so the question should be interpreted as "Did they say something that can be accurately be translated to this English sentence", and the answer to that is "no". Mar 29, 2020 at 21:59
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    "the art of geometry" is a mistranslation of "Artem geometrieae", and "public exercises" is a mistranslation of "exerceri publice". "Artem" should be translated by "science", and "publice" belongs to "publice intersit" -> "public interest", not exerceri. Mar 30, 2020 at 2:26
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    Amusingly enough, astrologus was used (at least in medieval Latin) to mean "astronomer", in applications without subtexts of divination, e.g., by Thomas Aquinas. Mar 30, 2020 at 8:15
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    the damnable fraud of astrology It's nice to see that this was the public opinion 2000 years ago as well.
    – Graham
    Mar 30, 2020 at 9:58
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    @Graham Caution. An 'official decree' condemning it often signals that it was exactly the opposite: the general public falling way too often for it. Mar 30, 2020 at 10:10
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Kline appears to be misquoting a famous clause from the Code of Justinian, dating to 534 AD:

Artem geometriae discere atque exerceri publice intersit. Ars autem mathematica damnabilis interdicta est.

from online copy hosted by the University of Grenoble

A rough partial translation would be:

To learn and apply artem geometriae is in the public interest. But the damnable ars mathematica is forbidden.

Note that unlike in Kline's quote, the geometriae is not "as damnable as" mathematica, but placed in contrast to it, and actively encouraged.

A naive translation would use "geometry" for "geometriae" and "mathematics" for "mathematica"; but in a modern context, we would see geometry as a branch of mathematics, so encouraging geometry while banning mathematics doesn't make a lot of sense. So, what would a reader of the time have understood by the two terms?

The English translation by Fred H. Blume has this translation:

To learn and apply the science of geometry is in the public interest. But the damnable magician's art is forbidden.

While S. P. Scott translated it as:

It is a matter of public interest to learn and practice the science of geometry, but the art of divination is damnable, and is strictly prohibited.

A later section in the same Code lists "mathematicus" among various kinds of soothsayers and seers:

… aut haruspex aut hariolus aut certe augur vel etiam mathematicus aut narrandis somniis occultans artem aliquam divinandi …

A "haruspex" practised divination by the inspection of the entrails of animals, and "hariolus" appears to be a related term that should be translated as 'soothsayer' or 'fortuneteller'; an "augur" interpreted the flight of birds; and "narrandis somniis" means roughly "interpreting dreams".

Clearly, in these passages, the "ars mathematica" is being considered of a kind with various forms of fortune-telling.

The title of the section, "De maleficiis et mathematicis et ceteris similibus", is taken directly from the Codex Theodisianus, from around 100 years earlier, available online from the same source. It does not contain any mention of "geometry", but again links "mathematicus" clearly with fortune-telling:

Nemo haruspicem consulat aut mathematicum, nemo hariolum.

That being said, it would be a mistake to assume that "ars mathematicus" is completely distinct from modern "mathematics", as discussed on this answer on the Latin Stack Exchange which quotes the entry in Lewis and Short's Latin dictionary as listing both "mathematics"/"mathematician" and "astrology"/"astrologer". The two terms seem to have overlapped, perhaps because the main purpose of complex mathematics was to map and interpret the movements of heavenly bodies.

The meaning of "geometria" seems to be in less doubt; Lewis and Short translate it quite simply as "geometry", as does every other source I've seen.

So, the laws in question appear to be forbidding the types of mathematics used by astrologers and soothsayers, as contrasted to the more practical learning of geometry.

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  • I'd love to find sources discussing the prevailing view of science and philosophy in Rome at this point in history, to understand if someone developing, say, algebra would have been persecuted as a "mathematicus" even if they weren't using it for fortune-telling. The edict was apparently "Subscribed at Sirmium" in 294 AD, but I'm not clear if that means the wording dates from then, or if the compilers two centuries later are summarising an older text in their own words.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 10 at 9:07
  • You're welcome to ask on two sites specialising in this stuff, HSM:SE as well as H:SE ;), for the apparent euphemism treadmill, polysemes & word usage changes for this complex topic of course Latin:SE (nicely explained in compact form in MacMullen Enemies of the Roman Order 1966, p 110) Feb 10 at 11:28
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Yes.

First things first: this edict did exist in Roman law, in the Code of Justinian: Corpus Juris Civilis CJ9.18.2.

Artem geometriae discere atque exerceri publice intersit. Ars autem mathematica damnabilis interdicta est.

The quotation in the question is a traditional, and in my opinion perfectly reasonable (if a bit misleading), translation of the edict.

However, translating this as "geometry good, mathematics bad" would be rather confusing to a modern reader, as the field of modern mathematics is quite different from how it existed in the first centuries A.D.

The popular way of tackling this quotation is to reduce it to "no, mathematics wasn't prohibited, just astrology".

I believe answering your question properly requires better understanding the attitudes towards mathematics of the time period. No simple translation will provide you with the proper context to understand the edict and what the jurists were forbidding.

The contemporary mathematicians of the time, people like Ptolemy were the ancestors of astronomy, astrology, mathematics, geography, and even music theory. The type of "astrology" they did was simply concerned with divining what influence mathematical truths might have on the course of human events.

This was not similar at all to the New Age practice of astrology. It was rather a much more rational approach to trying to find out, through logic and mathematical reasoning, what possible effects mathematical truths might or could have on human events, keeping in mind the very limited development of scientific technology at the time.

The way Morris Kline uses this quote is actually, in my opinion, far better at capturing the attitude of the Roman jurists at the time. They very much did have contempt for what we would recognize today as "higher mathematics" or "pure mathematics".

By "ars geometriae", they were referring to basic counting and measuring, things that you would learn in the home and that could be put to immediate practical use in counting armies or constructing stone buildings. The edict was directed at mathematical teachers, people like Ptolemy, and it was not just saying "science good, superstition bad", it was more saying "counting and measuring and all that basic stuff that we can see real practical uses for is fine, but quit all that theorizing about higher mathematics and leave philosophizing to the orators".


All of the relevant citations are in the other answer, including now after the latest edit the citation for the edict (that I first provided but, not to my surprise at all: this answer has been flagged as unsourced whereas the other hasn't).

Morris Kline very clearly describes exactly what he intends by quoting this edict in the context of his books, and you can easily read them and get much more context there.

As much as I would like to, I cannot take credit for this basic, fundamental understanding of Roman attitude toward speculative mathematics being just my own opinion. It is rather the opinion expressed in every major work on the culture, including the later contemporary Roman ones. It is extremely well documented, and there is even a name for it: Romanticism.

I'll point to Grenier's classic "The Roman Spirit in Religion and Thought", but the same viewpoint will be described in absolutely any thorough study on Roman culture, and it will present the exact same understanding on how Romans constrained mathematical studies:

From the primitive character of Roman religion it is evident that knowledge did not interest the Romans for its own sake. They cultivated neither philosophy nor science spontaneously. Not only were they indifferent "to the purely disinterested speculative virtue which Pythagoreans and Platonists exalted in mathematical research," but they "despised" pure science, and Cicero praises them because, "by the grace of the gods, they are not as the Greeks, and are able to confine the study of mathematics to the domain of useful applications."

Grenier here quotes Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, who explicitly references the edict in how the Romans "confined mathematical study to the domain of useful applications."

A more lighthearted reference to confer: look at the anecdote regarding the flexible glass invention as discussed by both Pliny the Elder and Petronius (Naturalis Historia XXXVI and Satyricon 51). They describe an artisan who had discovered a method to create an unbreakable glass cup. He presented his scientific breakthrough to Caesar, who asked him if anyone else knew his methods, and when the artisan responded no, had him promptly beheaded. The point of the story being that Caesar was worried the invention of an unbreakable glass cup would devalue gold cups and upset the status-quo. The story of course seems apocryphal, but the understanding of Roman culture and jurisprudence that Pliny and Petronius portray by the story is one ruthlessly practical, interested in maintaining the status quo, and hostile to purely scientific discovery or achievement.

The most famous anecdote on this point of course is the death of Archimedes. As described in An Introduction to Mathematics by A.N. Whitehead:

The death of Archimedes by the hands of a Roman soldier is symbolical of a world-change of the first magnitude: the Greeks, with their love of abstract science, were superseded in the leadership of the European world by the practical Romans. Lord Beaconsfield, in one of his novels, has defined a practical man as a man who practises the errors of his forefathers. The Romans were a great race, but they were cursed with the sterility which waits upon practicality. They did not improve upon the knowledge of their forefathers, and all their advances were confined to the minor technical details of engineering. They were not dreamers enough to arrive at new points of view, which could give a more fundamental control over the forces of nature. No Roman lost his life because he was absorbed in the contemplation of a mathematical diagram.

There is of course more complexity to the story of Roman hatred for pure science and their edicts against higher mathematics, including economic analysis of how mathematical research was funded in the Hellenistic world versus the Roman Empire, all of which are fascinating to discuss and explore. But the short answer is: yes, the Romans absolutely did confine the teaching of mathematics to the brutally practical parts of it, and suppressed higher mathematical pursuits.

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  • you should add reference beyond your own opinion in your answer if you want to explain the one above is wrong Feb 8 at 16:36
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    I think there is the germ of a good answer here, but you need to strip down the opinion and discussion of other people's interpretations, and concentrate on finding good references for what you believe is the correct interpretation.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 8 at 16:55
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    As on other sites on this network, answers here are expected to stand alone, not reference and build on other answers. Pretend you're the first person answering this question, put aside your feelings about what everyone else is saying, and write an answer that makes a good, well-referenced case for the truth as you understand it. Start by re-reading the quote in the question, which as I say, doesn't match your preferred translation at all, seeming to be equating geometry and mathematics rather than contrasting them.
    – IMSoP
    Feb 9 at 7:48
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    Welcome to Skeptics! I recommend you read that welcome. Calling other people superficial, claiming you don't care about how you are received (and then complaining about how you are received) and most importantly, dismissing legitimate criticisms of your answer, will not fly here.
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 9 at 9:44
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    You complain the other A wouldn't have ref'd CJ 9.18.2? To my eyes, it did very well so? Could you please show a link to the definition you used here for "romanticism"? It looks like a rather unusual definition compared to this one? Or explain that to me here in a comment? All else: plz edit! // (I guess this take has the translation problem correct but offers a backwards solution? Whitehead 1911 and Grenier 1925 seem not 'incorrect' but a bit dated & moreover 'too radical' in their outlook for 'generalised Roman attitudes' on such subjects?) Feb 9 at 14:48

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