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Courtney Roby

Cornell University

Curriculum Vitae


Hero of Alexandria made vast contributions to ancient science, mathematics, and engineering. His remarkable and lasting impact on pneumatics, military technology, automata, surveying, geometry, and arithmetic yielded numerous copies, compilations, revisions, and other transformations of his works over the following centuries. Throughout this process, the Heronian corpus proved exceptionally fertile ground for textual corruption. While any ancient author might of course be subject to such interpolations, the practical appeal of the devices and techniques Hero describes, the discrete structure of many of his texts, and Hero’s own hospitality to information from past authors conspire to render his corpus unusually open to later interpolation.

Hero’s ambitious attempts to dissolve disciplinary boundaries and expose methodological commonalities create a space where breakdown becomes productive, where frangible boundaries and lossy transmission processes encourage a multi-authored process of textual “homesteading” and cross-pollination between different texts, authors, and disciplines. My project regards that complex process of reintegration and reshaping as a productive process of corruption, itself crucial to creating the Heronian corpus. Viewed from this perspective, a complex “distributed object” like the Heronian corpus can also fruitfully participate in efforts to grapple with new kinds of texts in new media, including variants in computer software. Though superficially code and corpus might seem like very different objects, in fact the challenges they present to simplistic textual categorization and analysis have much in common. The accidental variants and deliberate alterations that yield the swarm of texts in Hero’s corpus, like the documented versions and creative modifications that characterize software created by both corporations and communities, challenge models of texts as having a single author or authentic form.


Courtney Roby is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Cornell University. Her research focuses on the literary aspects of scientific and technical texts from the ancient world. Her first book (Technical Ekphrasis in Ancient Science: The Written Machine between Alexandria and Rome, Cambridge University Press 2016) traced the literary techniques used in the textual representation of technological artifacts from Hellenistic Greece to late-ancient Rome. Her current interests include the construction of scientific models in antiquity, ancient approaches to what we now call “distributed cognition,” and the troubled textual tradition of Hero of Alexandria.

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