Thursday, June 3, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Miriam Ewers, Marcellus Empiricus: "De medicamentis." Christliche Abhandlung über Barmherzigkeit oder abergläubische Rezeptsammlung?. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2009. Pp. 185. ISBN 9783868211931. €20.00.
Reviewed by Anthony Corbeill, University of Kansas

The fifth-century world of Marcellus's De medicamentis, with its approximately 2,500 pharmaceutical recipes, frustrates and tantalizes in equal doses. Although most of the pharmacy derives from plants, the fairy-tale ingredients appear as well, with curative properties attributed to eagle bile (8.86), watercress seed mixed with goose fat (4.16), and the tips of lizard tails (29.13).1 A random selection provides a taste of the variety offered. The encyclopedist lists among his recommended half-dozen remedies for nosebleed the following three possibilities (10.65-66, 70): "Dip a feather in a mixture of crushed rue and sharp vinegar; if stuck in the nostrils it will check effectively the flow of blood. The dry manure of a she-ass rubbed on the nostrils quickly stops blood when it is flowing unchecked. ... Write on a fresh sheet of paper ψ α ψ ε ψ η ψ ε ψ η ψ α ψ ε and hang it, bound with three knots in unprocessed linen, from the neck of the one suffering from flow of blood." As awkward as may seem the acquisition of ingredients and the subsequent application of results, the preparation of the recipe could also offer significant challenges: a particularly ambitious healer will need seventy-three separate elements to concoct the antidotus Cosmiana, a miracle potion "for all that ails you" (29.11: prodest omni adversae valetudini).

Amidst this often bewildering celebration of the curative properties of nature, there appears on two occasions in Marcellus's text an unambiguous and unexpected reference to Jesus Christ. As the subtitle of this lightly revised 2009 dissertation advertises, Miriam Ewers aims to analyze these passages from De medicamentis alongside others not normally considered in a Christian context in order to reassess the tangled relationship between Marcellus's apparent Christianity and his use of pagan healing traditions. While Ewers does bring out a few new points worthy of consideration, her overall analysis suffers in a number of crucial ways, particularly from a neglect of Marcellus's sources and from not providing his treatise with a contextual grounding in ancient Mediterranean healing and magical practices.

An introduction reviews the well-known facts customarily used to reconstruct Marcellus's career (11-26). The header to the tract's introductory epistle and sections of the Codex Theodosianus prompt most scholars to identify the writer as a high-ranking official (magister officiorum) in the court of Theodosius I charged with rooting out heretics in the imperial service from c. A.D. 394-395. Both the nature of the office and the purview of these affiliated duties would seem to necessitate that Marcellus openly professed Christianity. The treatise's dedicatory epistle also refers to three men as cives ac maiores nostri, one of whom, a certain Ausonius, is presumed to be the father of the poet of Bordeaux. This aside, combined with the frequent inclusion throughout the treatise of Celtic synonyms alongside Greek and Latin plant names, points to Gaul as Marcellus's original home. After his (perhaps forced) retirement, he seems to have removed to his native Gaul to compose and publish during the reign of Theodosius II his only known work, De medicamentis. There is no strong evidence to support--and no compelling reason to assume--that he ever served as a professional physician.

Ewers's subsequent presentation is clear and methodical: a review of allegedly Christian aspects of the text (27-85) precedes a list of pagan elements (86-142); she then attempts to reconcile the coexistence of the two in a brief closing section (142-156). It is upon the identification and separation of Christian and pagan elements that her argument rests; unfortunately, this also represents the weakest aspect of the monograph. In the following remarks I isolate a selection of instances that would have profited from further thought and research. To begin with the two explicit mentions of Christ. In relating the use of white thorn to alleviate problems of the spleen, Marcellus identifies this plant as the one with which Christ was crowned (23.29: qua Christus coronatus est). Although the text provides no grounds for considering this relative clause as anything more than an aside, or at most as a supplemental aid for allowing the reader to find the correct plant, Ewers presumes that the association with Jesus explains the white thorn's healing power. In doing so, however, she ignores the frequent apotropaic use of spina alba in earlier, non-Christian texts.2 Ewers offers a similar interpretation for the insertion of the phrase "in the name of Christ" into a traditional herb-gathering incantation (25.13: in nomine Christi). This addendum, while seeming prima facie Christian, can be explained just as readily--and even more appropriately, given the context of an otherwise pagan incantation--as simply allowing the healer to ensure the efficacy of his prayer by adding a previously proven "magical name." The use of divine names in incantations outside their original and expected religious context is abundantly attested, and the practice likely accounts for an analogous phrase that Ewers also associates with Marcellus's Christianity, in nomine dei Iacob, in nomine dei Sabaoth (21.2). Brashear's characterization of one of these names, Sabaoth, in his discussion of the Greek Magical Papyri should give pause before attributing its occurrence to a particular faith: "except for Helios no other deities appear so frequently [in PMG] and are invoked so often as Iao .., Sabaoth, and Adonai" (3427).3 Such a cultural context also makes the reader hesitant to agree with Ewers that the two appearances of deus in the singular (8.29-30) indicate a monotheistic confidence in the charity of the Christian God (36). Another claim raises similar objections. On seven occasions Marcellus prescribes that either the patient or the healer should face east during preparation or application of the medication. In positing that this position could indicate a uniquely Christian rite (37-41), Ewers minimizes evidence for sun-worship throughout Italy and for the dating of sun salutations back to Indo-European practice.4 Similarly, the claim that simple mention of a purple cloth evokes Christ's garment in the Passion (42-43, citing Mark 15:17, John 19:2) becomes less convincing when one considers analogous use of purple fabric recommended by Pliny (nat. 32.77; cf. Marc. med. 9.37, 73). Finally, Jesus Christ is hardly the first figure in antiquity to realize the curative properties of human saliva, rendering highly unlikely the possibility that Marcellus's recommendations for the use of spit derive from his Christian background.5

One particular area in which paying attention to a wider cultural context could have produced a more compelling study involves Marcellus's acknowledged borrowing from numerous sources, both written and oral (med. praef. 2). In the section on persons suffering from seemingly incurable illnesses (56-66), for instance, Ewers posits a dichotomy between an alleged unwillingness for Christians to abandon such a patient (based largely on the gospel accounts of Christ's miracles at Mark 5:25-34 and Luke 13:10-13, including the raising of the dead!) and a pagan tendency to refuse treatment to hopeless cases (texts cited include Plato R. 3.407 C-E; Hp. de Arte 3 and 8; Cels. 5.26.1C). In her attempt to identify Marcellus here with a Christian attitude, Ewers cites a number of instances where the author adopts an allegedly progressive stance toward treating the apparently incurable. Of the several examples offered, however, she disregards that a previous, non-Christian, source exists for several of these, or that these pagan sources often use language nearly identical with that which Ewers posits as indicating Christian ideals (desperatus: 27.134, but cf. Plin. nat. 26.141; 14.17 ~ Plin. med. 1.15 p. 29 Rose; ex magno periculo: 16.1 ~ Scrib. Larg. 90; vitae periculum: 20.4 ~ Scrib. Larg. 100; insanabiles: 20.7 ~ Scrib. Larg. 102).

Historical context vitiates a number of other essentializing assumptions that Ewers has concerning what a Christian of this period practiced. By her view, for example, Christians have a monopoly on caritas (47-54, but for similar notions compare among many examples Cic. fin. 5.65 or, to cite a pagan author intimately familiar to Marcellus, Scrib. Larg. praef. 3) and preparations designed to enhance sexual potency violate accepted Christian doctrine (138-142). Ewers's discussion of the non-Christian elements that dominate De medicamentis is, by contrast, the most interesting and persuasive part of the book. She helpfully provides a taxonomy of the different types of sympathetic cures that Marcellus employs (86-95), followed by preparations for which an underlying logic is irrecoverable or perhaps nonexistent (95-105); also included is a discussion of magical words and numbers (99-105), the evocation of diseases from the afflicted (105-109), and astrological considerations that Marcellus recommends his healer to take into account (113-128). Her inescapable conclusion throughout this section is that, if Marcellus is indeed Christian, he has chosen to preserve for a variety of reasons a wide set of pagan beliefs and practices (128).

Despite the many problems I have with assumptions and method, I wholeheartedly agree with Ewers's ultimate conclusion that the overwhelming presence of pagan ritual in De medicamentis need not indicate that the author is not a Christian. And yet I remain unconvinced that there exists any convincing indication of Marcellus's Christianity outside of the already well-known external evidence concerning his role in the court of Theodosius I. To conclude on the basis of Marcellus's text, as Ewers does, that Marcellus must be a kind of "partial Christian" (Halbchrist), agrees with much recent scholarship that demonstrates how most professed Christians of the period cling to pagan views in some of the same ways as Marcellus would seem to have.6 As a result of the commonness of such hybrid views among Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries, however, the term Halbchrist tends to lose any explanatory force for a particular case such as the text of De medicamentis. If it is indeed possible to reconstruct in any detail the impact that Christian notions may have had on Marcellus's transmission of pagan ideas about healing, it will require an analysis with a keener awareness of the pharmaceutical tradition and a more nuanced approach to early Christianity than is presented in this monograph.


1.   I wonder if plant names may hide behind the seemingly more exotic terms; at Papyri Graecae Magicae XII.401-444 we learn, for example, that "lion's hairs" represent the leaves of a turnip.
2.   E.g., Ov. fast. 6.129-130 with J. G. Frazer, Publii Ovidii Nasonis Fastorum libri sex (London 1929) 4: 142-143.
3.   W. Brashear, "The Greek Magical Papyri: 'Voces Magicae'," ANRW II, 18.5 (1995) 3426-3428, and cf. 3435.
4.   C. Koch, Gestirnverehrung im alten Italien (Frankfurt am Main 1933); M. L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford 2007) 215-216. It is intriguing to note, however, as Ewers does not, that Marcellus adds versus orientem at 29.10 to his source Scrib. Larg. 122.
5.   F. Nicolson, "The Saliva Superstition in Classical Literature," HSCP 8 (1897) 23-40.
6.   For a concise overview of the issue, see R. A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge 1990) 27-43, 206-211, and for Marcellus's own acknowledgment of this semi-paganism see Marc. med. carm. 1-6, 19-23 with P. Brown, The cult of the saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity (Chicago 1981) 114-118.

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