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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

History of the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology

What is the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology?

The Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology is an interactive museum of ancient technology based upon the private collection of Kostas Kotsanas.

Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology

Kotsanas Museum History

It’s a tremendous cliché to say that a museum brings history to life. Yet, in the case of the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, this isn’t hyperbole but a statement of fact: the museum is packed with fully functional scale- and life-size replicas of ingenious ancient machines and musical instruments, complemented by a team of energetic, enthusiastic and informative staff, on hand to demonstrate how each gadget works and answer any questions you might have.

The museum is the culmination of one man’s life-long mission to study, understand and champion ancient Greek technology. Born in 1963 in the small village of Seliana in the Peloponnese, Kostas Kotsanas studied Engineering at the University of Patras. He was fascinated by how many of the modern technologies we use in our everyday lives have their roots in innovations made by the ancient Greeks: everything from wind- and hydro-power to communication and navigation technologies, even robotics and computing. In the course of writing six books on ancient Greek technology and musical instruments, Kotsanas has sought to expand our pool of knowledge but also to explain why ancient Greece provided such fertile ground for technological innovation.

Kotsanas argues that, contrary to popular belief, progress does not follow a steady, linear evolution. Instead, innovation ebbs and flows – with an unprecedented scientific and technological revolution flowering towards the end of the 4th century BC. Kotsanas credits this to the hunger for knowledge and scientific inquiry shared by Alexander the Great and other students of Aristotle’s teachings. Greek thinkers and leaders came to believe in the potential of technology to confer a competitive advantage upon their society, not just in wartime, but also in times of peace.

Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BC, the Ptolemaic Kings established a Hellenistic state in 305 BC. They ruled in an enlightened manner, helping to foster the accumulation and development of scholarship and the sciences, with Alexandria emerging as an ancient ‘knowledge hub’. Greek scholars furnished the Museum and Library of Alexandria with everything useful they could learn from the societies that had preceded them, such as the ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Sumerians, Chaldeans and Hittites.

The economy of Athens and much of the Greek-speaking world at the time was dependent on slavery, yet not so in Alexandria. Kotsanas argues that the ancient Alexandrians began to develop labour-saving technologies such as water-, wind- or steam-powered machines, as alternatives to slave labour.

Unlike the Egyptians who only educated their elite, all Greek citizens were educated (although citizenship was not extended to women). Kotsanas credits the ‘high-level cultural needs of society’ for inventions such as automata. But for some, it was clearly just about wanting to demonstrate their own ingenuity: as in the case of Philon’s Automatic Servant. Created in the 3rd century BC, this humanoid was the first operating robot and served Philon’s dinner guests with wine and water, using an ingenious system of hydraulics.

Kotsanas argues this technological flowering was relatively short-lived, peaking in the 3rd century BC and then tapering off. The decline of Alexandria, the arrival of the Romans, political power struggles, the persecution of scientists, the restoration of slavery and the rise of religious fanaticism, all combined to bring the era of ancient Greek scientific innovation to a close. In Kotsanas’ estimation, it took until the 13th century AD before the world returned to the same level of technological mastery it had reached at the end of the 2nd century BC. If Kotsanas is correct, it puts today’s political, environmental and economic challenges in sobering context.

As you’re leaving, cast your eyes back to appreciate the museum building: one of the few examples of Art Nouveau in Athens. Built at the dawn of the 20th century, it once belonged to the family of Aspasia Manou, wife of King Alexander I, and later became the head office of the Athens News Agency.

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