Saturday, December 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Liba Chaia Taub, Aude Doody (ed.), Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2009. Pp. 170. ISBN 9783868211818. €19.50.

Reviewed by David Paniagua, Università del Piemonte Orientale "Amedeo Avogadro"

A new monograph of the Bamberg study group of Ancient Science and its Reception (AKAN. Antike Naturwissenschaft und ihre Rezeption), the seventh in the series, collects the papers presented at the Workshop on Greco-Roman Scientific and Medical Writing, organised by the editors, Liba Taub and Audrey Doody, at the Humanities Institute of Ireland on 24 March 2007.

A "Vorwort" by Jochen Althoff and an Introduction by the editors preface the eight papers gathered in the volume.

The title chosen for the monograph, Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing, focuses on the distinctive qualities and features of the Greco-Roman technical writers' voices as they can be traced in the attentive reading of their works, through the examination of particular case studies. The unavoidable risks of nomenclature are in the air. In a volume promising Greco-Roman Technical Writing, the opening contribution deals with "Latin Scientific and Technical Literature", reflecting the difficult task of establishing the boundaries between both concepts applied to Classical Literature.

Harry Hine, a well-known authority on Latin scientific and technical literature, raises the reader's expectation with a very suggestive title: "Subjectivity and Objectivity in Latin Scientific and Technical Literature". A priori, objectivity, understood as capturing the nature of the object studied in a way that does not depend on any features of the particular subject who studies it, is not likely to be found in the Greco-Roman literary system, which is deeply based upon authority and personal experience. Hine considers the problem from an interesting perspective: he explores the presence or absence of the first person (singular and plural), the uses of the second person, and the employ of the third person or impersonal forms as the key to understanding the explicit self-presentational strategy of the author. The method, with von Staden's milestone study of the uses of the first person in the medical work of Celsus as point of reference,1 offers good results. But subjectivity and objectivity are not always the sole motivation for choosing one expressive form or another: argumentative strategy, fictional construction of the author, metaliterary statements, even metrical or rhythmical motivations, among others, can also be part of the game. As Hine himself recognizes the method deserves further exploration and each case must be thoroughly studied.

Alice König continues to offer rich contributions to the study of Latin Technical Literature. After her study on the relationship between Author and Emperor in Frontinus' De aquaeductu Vrbis Romae,2 she now centers upon Vitruvius in "From Architect to Imperator: Vitruvius and his Addressee in the De Architectura". The idea that Vitruvius in his treatise, like many other authors in this period, is engaged in a creative and somehow experimental dialogue with the Emperor and his propaganda works perfectly. Vitruvius plays with the parallels between himself, self-presented as an intellectual expert, and the Emperor, the political and military authority of Rome, just as Frontinus does in the preface of his De aquaeductu Vrbis Romae. Such a valuable contribution to the outline of Vitruvius' literary and intellectual project might have benefited from Moatti's reflections on the intellectual and cultural reforms by Augustus,3 and from Elisa Romano's valuable study on Vitruvius' project.4

The central part of the volume is shaped by three contributions focused on Galen's literary production. Vivian Nutton examines Galen's self-representation in Niccolo da Reggio's Latin translation of the treatise De motibus dubiis. Nutton outlines the status quaestionis concerning the work, one of the least familiar of all those written by the Greek doctor and condemned for centuries as spurious. Nutton puts into practice Hine's method to examine Galen's self-representation in the work. The valuable results are compared with the author's self-representation in other works by Galen and in medical treatises not by him, to confirm Galen's egocentricity.

In "Didactic and Rhetorical Strategies in Galen's De pulsibus ad tirones" Todd Curtis sheds some light on Galen as a teacher of medicine by looking at his isagogic work on the pulse. The treatise, intended for beginners (though not for complete novices), is an abridged version of his four treatises on the pulse (De pulsuum differentiis, De pulsuum causis, De dignoscendis pulsibus, De praesagitione ex pulsibus). The author approaches his audience not as reporter of doctrine but rather as a teacher and he dismisses any deep discussion and any extensive theoretical demonstration since they can be found by the reader in his major treatises on the pulse.

Laurence Totelin faces Galen's attitude towards multiple versions of one and the same work in "Galen's Use of Multiple Manuscript Copies in his Pharmacological Treatises". The kind of manuscript discrepancies mentioned by Galen ranges from minimal linguistic variants to outstanding divergences in the ingredients and the quantities used in recipes. As a matter of fact, pharmacological recipes found in medical treatises were particularly liable to distortion when numerical signs were used to express quantities and measures. This is the reason why Galen praises Menecrates for writing the quantities out in full, and Andromachus the Elder and Damocrates for casting their recipes into verse, because the rigid metrical scheme makes the quantities harder to corrupt. Therefore, Galen must play the role of the expert physician but also the role of the meticulous researcher in order to expose the different versions of a single recipe and, whenever possible, to pronounce himself in favour of one or another. It is an accomplished demonstration of "the marriage between the physician and philology", as Gourevitch has recently called it.5

In "Authority and Authorship in the Medicina Plinii" Aude Doody offers a very interesting reflection about authorial voice in rearranged versions of a work by a different (and often anonymous) author. As Doody points out, a book of extracts, such as the Medicina Plinii, faces particular problems of authority in a time when authority was a basic factor in the practice of medicine and in the legitimation of a technical treatise. Primarily, the Medicina Plinii depends on the authority of the main source, Pliny's Natural History, but the excerptor has modified and reframed the source-text to create a new independent treatise. Probably, the new treatise does not aim to supplant the authority of the source-text as Doody suggests; it rather aims at a different kind of audience, uninterested in Pliny's enormous and multifarious work but enthusiastic about a shorter and a more accessible composition focused on medicine. The work, a sort of brief guide for travel, is set in the Roman tradition of self medication and mistrust in professional physicians. Doody shows how the persona adopted by the excerptor-author and the rhetorical gibes and attacks on doctors provide a unifying thread which consolidates the textual unity of the new composition.

David Leith analyses the methodological and structural patterns of a set of Greek medical papyri sharing an "erotapocritical format" in "Question-Types in Medical Catechisms on Papyrus". More specifically, Leith focuses on eleven papyri concerning individual diseases. The structural pattern found in them (definition, cause, signs, characteristic features and therapy) is the same as we find in the works of Soranus and Caelius Aurelianus. Therefore, such an articulation of the contents can be plausibly regarded a widespread expositional method for the description of diseases in the Roman period. As Leith suggests, the parallel use of this expositional method in the Aëtian Placita seems to derive from Aristotle's dialectical method, and even if the medical papyri cannot be related directly to the Aristotelian method, the question-types articulating their structure are congruent with it. Since this expositional method is absent from the Hippocratic corpus, it is not unlikely that Aristotle's dialectics could have provided a theoretical framework for this methodology, to be applied to the field of medicine. Unfortunately, the loss of significant medical literature written in the Hellenistic period does not allow us to check the presence/absence of this method in it. Therefore, the missing link hinders a complete diachronical approach to the problem.

After her valuable monograph on the Aetna,6 Liba Taub in "Explaining a Volcano Naturally: Aetna and the Choice of Poetry" attempts to answer why the author chose a poetic form to convey a scientific explanation of volcanic activity. Taub reads perhaps too literally the author's statements about the mythological explanations of volcanic activity. It is true that the poet criticises and condemns the fictions told by other poets. The persona created by the author refuses mythology, reclaiming a serious approach to the subject. In doing so he legitimates the seriousness of the scientific explanations exposed in his poem. This persona also claims that his project is absolutely new (no matter if Lucretius had already done it before); he stresses that "the most important task for humans is 'to know the earth and mark all the many wonders nature has yielded there'", while there is no amentia maior than astronomy ("to wander and explore in Jove's domain"). All these statements are literary conventions, not to be taken too seriously. In fact, when we notice that vv. 4-94 contain nothing but myths and gods (including a conventional invocation of Apollo and the Muses) and that, after the scientific and non-mythologised descriptions and explanations of the volcano, vv. 568-645 focus again on different fabulae, we wonder why we find so much mythology in the poem if the poet really refuses it. After all, under the excuse of heavy criticism, he dedicates a sizeable proportion of his poem to reproducing these fabulae. Obviously, in the Aetna the mythological element plays an important role, as the scientific element also does. The combination of both approaches in the work, even when the persona created by the poet expresses his preference for the scientific way, puts together a number of scattered references to the volcano, some of them mythological and some of them scientific. The result is the Aetna as we read it, full of myths and science, probably as it was for any Roman of the time.

The books closes with a solid bibliography. The useful index of authors, works, subjects and scholars provides an easy way to access information quickly on any point the reader might want to check.


Jochen Althoff, "Vorwort", pp. 5-6

Aude Doody-Liba Taub, "Introduction", pp. 7-11

Harry M. Hine, "Subjectivity and Objectivity in Latin Scientific and Technical Literature", pp. 13-30

Alice König, "From Architect to Imperator: Vitruvius and his Addressee in the De Architectura", pp. 31-52

Vivian Nutton, "Galen's Authorial Voice: a Preliminary Enquiry", pp. 53-62

Todd Curtis, "Didactic and Rhetorical Strategies in Galen's De pulsibus ad tirones", pp. 63-79

Laurence M. V. Totelin, "Galen's Use of Multiple Manuscript Copies in his Pharmacological Treatises", pp. 81-92

Aude Doody, "Authority and Authorship in the Medicina Plinii", pp. 93-105.

David Leith, "Question-Types in Medical Catechisms on Papyrus", pp. 107-123

Liba Taub, "Explaining a Volcano Naturally: Aetna and the Choice of Poetry", pp. 125-141


1.  . H. von Staden, "Author and authority. Celsus and the Construction of a Scientific Self", in M. E. Vázquez Buján (ed.), Tradición e innovación de la medicina latina de la Antigüedad y de la Alta Edad Media, Actas del IV Coloquio Internacional sobre los Textos Médicos Latinos Antiguos. Santiago de Compostela: Universidade de Santiago de Compostela. 1994, pp. 103, 117.
2.  . A. König, "Knowledge and power in Frontinus' On Aqueducts", in J König, T Whitmarsh (eds.), Ordering Knowledge in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2007, pp. 177-205.
3.  . Cl. Moatti, La raison de Rome. Naissance de l'esprit critique à la fin de la République. Paris: Seuil. 1997.
4.  . E. Romano, La capanna e il tempio. Vitruvio o dell'architettura. Palermo: Palumbo. 1987.
5.  . D. Gourevitch, "Le nozze del medico e di Filologia", Medicina nei secoli 10.2, 1998, pp. 227-239.
6.  . Liba Taub, Aetna and the Moon: Explaining Nature in Ancient Greece and Rome. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2008.

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