The Sound of Technology in Ancient Greece

What exactly is ‘technology’? If we look at the word itself, we will see that its origins lie in Ancient Greece, where it had a slightly different meaning from the way we use the word today. In this article Stephan Nitu looks at some of the surprising ways in which the Greeks used ‘technology’ and the effects that this had on some of the ancient world’s most enduring legacies.

What comes to mind when we think about technology? Railways and steam machines, 200 years ago; the TV, the Internet, using fingerprints to unlock phones, now; perhaps nanorobots in the future. Modern uses of the word technology are tied to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, and somewhat also to the Digital Revolution of the last 30 years. Yet ‘technology’ is a 2,500-year old word, coined in Ancient Greece. Many words that we use today come from Greek, and have slightly different meanings today. Originally, μαθηματικός (‘mathēmatikos’) referred to someone who studies any subject, but the meaning then contracted to just maths. So how did technology differ from ours in Ancient Greece, both lexically and in practice?

Perhaps surprisingly, the Greeks looked at medicine and music as technologies, rather than machinery. That’s because τέχνη (‘technē’), the operative part of ‘techno-logy’, meant a craft or an applied knowledge. When someone knows how to do something, such as manipulating the body or an instrument, they possess technology. This understanding of technology persisted until the German word Technik took τέχνη, and just like with μαθηματικός, restricted its meaning to procedures and skills applied in an industry. Therefore, many things can be thought of as technologies, and a particularly important applied knowledge in Greece had to do with sound. Sound is a medium of communication; we can write things down, but the alphabet itself was a new technology in c.800 BC, and long after its invention Greek society remained predominantly oral. For example, people read not silently, but aloud. As you may know from reading an assignment aloud to check for mistakes before submitting it, reading out loud is different from silent reading. There is the added dimension of sound, which modifies how the brain encodes information. In Japan nowadays, train drivers and other marshals always verbalize – and point at – the tasks they are performing (“Doors opening!” “All set!” “Lift-off!”) because the extra sound leads to better blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain and an 85% reduction in mistakes compared to just doing the task! So by manipulating the body, applied sound can make things better, which is another common understanding of technology; technology is supposed to make things better.

The application of sound in Ancient Greece improved what is supposedly its greatest legacy: democracy. In ancient Athens, every male citizen was directly involved in ruling the city, and could attend regular Assembly meetings on the Pnyx, the local hill. There, anyone could speak on any issue, and persuade his fellow citizens. Unfortunately, in the 5th century BC the Pnyx’s acoustical properties – and constant heckling – meant that about half the Assembly could not hear the speaker, severely impacting the ideal of discussion and deliberation. Greek was a heavily inflected language, meaning that small changes in pitch which would convey meaning were particularly hard to hear. Then, in the 4th century, the entire orientation of the Pnyx amphitheater was rotated 180 degrees, all of a sudden now shielding the audience from the prevailing wind. This second configuration was no larger than the first, leading scholars to believe that the Athenians were aware of how badly the northeast wind would have affected the backbenches. It’s not a coincidence that the 4th century then saw the rise of celebrated orators like Demosthenes, in a time that Athenian democracy was cemented.

Other cornerstones of democracy were comedy and tragedy. The city paid for people to attend performances that on the one hand could poke fun at leading citizens, and on the other unite Athenians in collective catharsis. Both of them depended on theatre acoustics and the actors’ manipulation of sound to work. In tragedies, characters frequently broke into non-verbal laments – howling and ululating noises – that changed the vocal structure of the words following them, the unusual sound then extracting feelings from the audience. Masks were used by actors not just visually, but to mute or direct sound, and theatres such as the one at Epidaurus were constructed with near-perfect acoustics. Spectators in the back row, 60 metres away from the stage, were able to easily hear the performance due to the slope at which the rows were constructed, and the way in which the steps were able to cushion low sound frequencies, thus preventing spectator movement or wind from interacting with the main sounds.

The ways in which sound mediated ancient Greek experience were not limited to these examples: the caves in which the god Pan was worshipped were chosen due to specific echoes and acoustic properties, and ‘barbarians’ were categorized by the Greeks as such based on their inability to speak Greek (making unintelligible ‘bar-bar’ sounds!) Because sound comes to us, it can be modified and manipulated on its way, and it is not a stretch to see the applied knowledge of sound as a technology. In terms of improvements in machinery or mechanical innovation, Ancient Greece seems to be underwhelming. Yet what constitutes technology can vary: sound was used to great effect to improve the political, social, and religious life at the time, and we are fortunate to be able to use our technology – called archaeoacoustics – to become aware of how sound would have been heard in the past.

Stephan Nitu is studying for a DPhil in Ancient History at Lincoln College, Oxford

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