Archytas’ dove in context: an investigation of the non-human agency between paradoxography, encyclopedism, and mechanics in the ancient world


I think that these marvellous and false stories written by Pliny the Elder are not worthy of the name of Democritus; the same is true of what the same Pliny, in his tenth book, asserts that Democritus wrote; namely, that there were certain birds with a language of their own, and that by mixing the blood of those birds a serpent was produced; that whoso ate it would understand the language of birds and their conversation. Many fictions of this kind seem to have been attached to the name of Democritus by ignorant men, who sheltered themselves under his reputation and authority. But that which Archytas the Pythagorean is said to have devised and accomplished ought to seem no less marvellous, but yet not wholly absurd. For not only many eminent Greeks, but also the philosopher Favorinus, a most diligent searcher of ancient records, have stated most positively that Archytas made a wooden model of a dove with such mechanical ingenuity and art that it flew; so nicely balanced was it, you see, with weights and moved by a current of air enclosed and hidden within it. About so improbable a story I prefer to give Favorinus’ own words: “Archytas the Tarentine, being in other lines also a mechanician, made a flying dove out of wood. Whenever it lit, it did not rise again.

The famous invention of a flying dove, a self-propelled automaton, by the philosopher Archytas of Tarentum is very often mentioned and commented on as an indisputable acquisition, almost a news story. There has been much discussion about the technical aspects and the possibility that such an artifact could actually work and how. Less attention was instead given to cultural and literary issues which are nevertheless of primary importance for understanding the history of Archytas’ dove. As a matter of fact, only one text informs about the dove, that is the Noctes Atticae (10, 12, 8-10) by the Roman author Aulus Gellius, moreover through a citational enunciative mode, a fragment of Favorinus.

Our presentation aims to provide a more in-depth investigation of Archytas’ dove starting from a pragmatic perspective in which particular attention is paid to the contexts. First of all, the context of Favorinus’ quotation in Gellius’ paragraph, then the context of this paragraph in the miscellaneous work conceived by the Latin author and the latter’s relationship with ancient paradoxography and with other traditions of knowledge (literary or not), from zoology to mechanics. An attempt will be made to investigate the different cultural and ideological representations around the important questions of the agency of inanimate objects, animals and divine interventions in order to better understand the network of texts and meanings within which the isolated mention of Archytas’ dove is placed.

A. Gellius, Attic Nights 10.12 (transl. J. C. Rolfe)

Marco Vespa (University of Fribourg/ ERC AdG Locus Ludi #741520)

Marco Vespa is PhD in Classics at the University of Pisa (joint PhD with the University of Nice, France). For more than two years he has been a post-doc research fellow in the European research project Locus ludidealing with play and game culture of ancient Greek and Roman world. Mainly focusing on analysis and retranslation of written sources he is working on the publication of a new commented anthology of play in Greek and Roman texts.In addition to publishing several articles about play and games in the ancient world, he is also a specialist in the transmission of scientific knowledge in Antiquity (especially zoology and medicine) and he is also interested in the Second Sophistic (Aelian in particular), with a strong interest in the rhetorical construction of genealogical and foundation stories in a cultural memory perspective. Brepols will soon publish his doctoral thesis, which consists of a philological and anthropological analysis of the cultural representation of the monkey in ancient Greek and Graeco-Roman texts.

Respondent: Isabel Ruffell (University of Glasgow) 

27 November 2020, 16:00 p.m. (UK time) 

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