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date: 18 October 2018


The belief in matter as a constituent of experience and reality was strongly rooted in Greek and Roman thought, but it was also highly contested. Matter was first named by the Presocratics. Prior to then, materiality existed, but intuitively. Homer's world is densely material, crowded with things, and his art is marked by a pleasure in materials. Bodies, objects, things, and their properties furnish a sense of materiality (of what is hard, resistant, or malleable; subject to agency, alteration, and destruction). Notably lacking is any sense of the immaterial and the incorporeal (gods are fleshly; souls are bits of breath). Homer is therefore arguably the first materialist in the West, albeit an intuitive one.

Over the next centuries, a new sense of materiality gradually emerged, in tandem with a growing sense of the immaterial (the rare [araios]; the incorporeal [asōmatos]; the empty [kenos]), and eventually of form as an immutable substance or essence (eukuklos sphaira: Parmenides; eidos: Plato(1), Aristotle). The earliest philosophers sought to explain the natural, sensible world in terms of its physical constituents or principles (archai), often reductively so (water, the unlimited, air, fire, infinitely divisible stuff, indivisible atoms, and other archai). Just as their theories clashed, so did their vocabularies: no consensus term for matter emerged until after Aristotle (hulē; Latin: materia). Stoics and Epicureans perpetuated the earlier Presocratic materialist traditions, while Peripatetics and Neoplatonics refined Aristotle and Plato's essentialism.

Materialist tendencies continued to flourish elsewhere, especially in art and aesthetics, given the powerful roles allotted to experience and the senses in the arts, and possibly given the native sensualism of Greek and Roman aesthetics since Homer. Conditioned by Winckelmann's idealization of ancient art, which is founded on a disavowal of matter à la Plato and Aristotle, modern scholarship is often ill-equipped to confront ancient art and its vocabulary. As R. Gordon has pointed out, Pliny(1)'s famous chapters on art history (NH 34-6), the source of so much of our own, are part of a taxonomy of stones and metals—very unlike our own. Works of art are for Pliny in fact composed of natural elements, virtually in Presocratic fashion. How might inherited views of matter have influenced ancient experiences of material objects (ruins, topographies, collections, artifacts, cult objects)? Xenophanes may have paved the way with his inquiries into fossils and geology (DK 21A33), though Homer puzzles over physical ruins to poetic effect too (Il. 2.811-14; Il. 23.331-2). The question remains an open one, and with it a whole area of study. Contemporary approaches (‘thing theory’, phenomenologies of materiality), some of it derived from antiquity and much of it flourishing outside of classics (in anthropology, archaeology, and cultural studies), could lead the way to a better grasp of the classical past today.


R. Renehan, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 1, no. 2 (1980), 105–38.Find this resource:

D. Miller (ed.), Materiality (2005).Find this resource:

B. Holmes, The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece (2010).Find this resource:

J. I. Porter, Matter, Sensation, and Experience: The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece (2010).Find this resource:

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