Monday, January 18, 2016


Brooke Holmes, Klaus-Dietrich Fischer (ed.), The Frontiers of Ancient Science: Essays in Honor of Heinrich von Staden. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 338. Berlin; München; Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. Pp. xxi, 754. ISBN 9783110333923. €129.95.

Reviewed by John Wilkins, University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site


This stimulating volume does justice to von Staden's influence and inspiration. More important, it is a fabulous book. The list of his works shows that his influential 'Experiment and Experience in Hellenistic Medicine' was his first, followed by 'Greek Art and Literature in Marx's Aesthetics' and 'A medical note on a Greek Codex' in Philologus. Not a bad range for a tyro. Many of the chapters note a period at the Institute for Advanced Study, during which the author benefitted from the honorand's scientific understanding.

I congratulate the editors, two medical historians, on a wide-ranging selection of topics and authors encompassing the interests of the honorand. Holmes offers an adjunct to her related monograph, writing here on the term symptom in Greek medical writing, a term (not normally to be translated as 'symptom', or added to the text as in many translations of Hippocratic authors) that postdates all but the latest parts of the Hippocratic corpus, though the cognate verb sumpipto does not. It normally means 'a chance event', often a bad one. It may not be a technical term until Erasistratus, and even then the range of meanings is broad, often appearing to be analogous to pathos or nosos. Galen tries to stabilize the terms of reference, identifying a symptom as a change of state contrary to nature, or as what supervenes on a nosos. A final, intriguing, section explores the notion of a symptom as a shadow, a trace of another development, in the doctor's view, but a 'misfortune' in the patient's perspective (a sense that returns to its 5th century meaning in Thucydides), the causes of which the doctor can turn into an interpretative narrative as Galen does in On the Affected Parts. Symptomata echo a forthcoming volume on the patient in ancient medicine.[1] Fischer reviews an interesting genre of health advice for lay people, surviving in Medieval manuscripts of the ninth/tenth and twelfth centuries. The ancient Hygieina of Galen and others, based on the seasons, are transformed into monthly prescriptions for staying healthy, from March (the beginning of the year) onwards. The prescriptions are full of interesting adaptations of foods and drinks, and methods for balancing the body, such as the reduction of phlegm and black bile in February (Bethesda medical collection E 8).

The frontiers turn out to be modern science, religion and 'rationalism', and the Atlantic, Egypt, and points further East. The range of approaches is great. Vivian Nutton re-examines the identity of Galen's father — do we follow the inscriptional evidence or the manuscript tradition? This is a splendid essay by a scholar who has read and reread the Galenic corpus, and knows the reception of Galen backwards. D. Potts places the archaeological evidence for trepanation in the Greek world beside the evidence of the Hippocratic texts: how does one explain the mismatch between Hippocratic practice and the absence of evidence from graves of the Classical period? Ian Moyer addresses the dating of Thessalos, De virtutibus herbarum: the scholarship on the content (2nd AD to 1400) is set beside the astronomical dating (not a new idea, it seems), to confirm Moyer's published date of 2nd century AD. This chapter brings disciplines together in thrilling writing. The present reviewer lacks the skills to work in all these disciplines and passes on the word to the experts in archaeology, astronomy, mathematics, etc. …

The volume opens with three comparative studies. A fine opening chapter by Isabella Andorlini on the medical uses of papyrus echoes the wide cultural interests of the honorand. References to medical uses of the plant are almost exclusively confined to medical texts, not even appearing in 300 references to papyrus in Greek documentary papyri. This is then a technical use of the widely-used plant, even though, according to Theophrastus, it was eaten raw, boiled or roasted in the chora, and so conceivably imaginable as a food or drug like silphium and other African plants. One Hippocratic attestation alone predates Dioscorides' incorporation of papyrus into the food and drug materials of medicine. The fibrous layers of papyrus are strikingly compared with the layers of the tunics of the womb by Soranus, an analogy probably derived from Soranus' studies in Alexandria and possibly from the Hellenistic anatomists. Markus Asper in another cross- cultural approach reappraises the debate over Greek exceptionalism and Near-Eastern influences on Greek medicine, and argues, I think persuasively, for groups rather than isolated individuals influencing Greek medicine to such an extent that few loan words remain in the Hippocratic corpus; furthermore, this is the body of thought and practice against which some Hippocratic polemic is directed. Han Baltussen compares equivalents of the Hippocratic Oath in Indian and Chinese medicine. While this is a healthy reminder that the Western tradition is only one of numerous medical systems, claims to universal principles bearing on medical practitioners remain somehow less impressive than the culturally specific matrix within which each set of prescriptions is formulated.

Alan Bowen's chapter is provisional, exploring Thomas Aquinas' reading of Simplicius on Aristotle on the cosmos, based on two thirteenth-century translations of Simplicius into Latin and available to Aquinas. In an interesting study, Andrea Falcon explores the place of plants within Aristotle's biology (whatever the fate of his work on plants), their place before or after animals in the enquiry and shared criteria in the Parva Naturalia, such as nutrition, with the plant roots being the equivalent of the animal mouth, and plant food being concocted by the earth in the way that body heat digests food for animals. The late Allan Gotthelf teases out the aims of Aristotle in Generation of Animals 2.6, some of them unclear because of ambiguities in the flow of the argument. Gotthelf's argument is complex: the honorand is asked to adjudicate on the relationship between 'mechanistic sequences' and teleological causation. Danielle Gourevitch and Philippe Charlier analyse an ex-voto representing the eyes from Southern France in the context of similar finds and collyrium stamps found in France and elsewhere. The inscription ARITO is examined in the context of the fears of the patient and the practice of ancient ophthalmology. Christopher Faraone offers a rich paper on two Greek amulets based on the 'eye of Horus', which seem to have transferred the power of the Egyptian god more specifically to the regenerative power of the eye as exemplified in lizard eyes, in the context of Greek and Jewish belief. The cultural transfer is interesting, but even more so are the responses in the magical papyri and in medicine, Julius Africanus in particular. Pliny too is interested, of course.

Carl Huffman takes up the debate in Plato's Republic, on whether mathematics assist the guardians' search for knowledge or in fact constitute that knowledge. In Huffman's account, mathematics are almost as important as dialectics, falling short only in not giving an account of their starting points. Christine Proust reviews the use of lists in cuneiform in Mesopotamian mathematics, noting that while lists are characteristic of the culture (as of many others, following Jack Goody), Mesopotamian lists are multiform ('la diversité des formes et des usages des listes est extrême' 495). The benefit of mathematics over other areas of knowledge such as divination is that structure and relationship can be traced. Sometimes a scribe might have a desire to record a 'réflexion théorique'. Stephen Menn tries to show how Archytas doubled the cube.

The simplest and best title is 'Aristotle's Badger' by Joshua Katz. This animal, controversial in Devon UK, a county beset by bovine TB and all the scientific and farming discourses surrounding badgers, is said by some to be unknown to the ancient Greeks. Katz challenges this view, repeated in the Neue Pauly. In an entertaining written style, and embracing, in the manner of the honorand, philology and the histories of biology and sexuality, he claims that the trochos, unidentified by LSJ, is the badger.

Amneris Roselli addresses the fascinating issue of Galen's commentary on the Hippocratic text, Prorrhetic I. This is the only commentary that Galen wrote on a text that he, contrary to many contemporaries, considered spurious. Roselli shows that (a) his methods to prove his case; and (b) the theoretical position of the possible author, whose understanding of the Hippocratic Epidemics appears to belong to the rival Empiricist approach to medicine. Philip van der Eijk offers a fascinating review of Galen on mixtures, or kraseis, of hot cold wet and dry, those biological elements of the body which he often prefers to humours. Van der Eijk focuses once again on Kraseis, and this, while very revealing also raises some questions. On 676 n 2 (cf. 678) more clarification is needed: van der Eijk claims that Galen normally speaks of mixtures of hot, cold, etc., rather than mixtures of humours, quite rightly. But in the treatise on nutrition with which I am particularly familiar (and in numerous others), interest is on mixtures as well as humours when looking at the physiological impact of foods on the body, sometimes on the same page: beef tends to more black bile in its mixture 333.3, pork has phlegmy flesh (334.4), brains produce phlegm 342.8, and pickled fish has a phlegm-like hygrotes, 383.25-30, while the ox is dryer in krasis 333.14, and animals which are wetter in nature are good for eukrasia 333.17-9. Honey at 212.6-11 is among foods with a dry and hot krasis, but at 219.22-3, with a reference back to the previous passage, Galen says honey is of a phlegmatic nature: how are these systems working side by side? Some of the humour-based terms are comparative: if a food is more generative of phlegm, is not some kind of blending being envisaged? If we add in Galen's epithets kakochumos and euchumos, how is he conceptualising these terms? Is he thinking of properties or humours? Both, surely. What of De sanitate? Euchumia and kakochumia and relatives are less common in the CMG index than eukrasis and duskrasia and relatives, but Galen IS running both side by side. Jacques Jouanna focuses on Erotian's gloss Φ 2, phakon eregmata, on a passage in the Hippocratic Prognostic that no longer survives. In an accomplished and masterly discussion, drawing in part on the later tradition, Jouanna demonstrates that there is a lacuna in the received text. Thomas Rütten presents the wonderful subject of Hippocratic commentaries from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, exemplified by Peter Memm (1531-1589). Heinrich Schlange-Schöningen addresses the excellent subject of Galen on rulers, not only emperors but also historical figures, the majority of whom failed fully to honour the philosopher-physician.

Roberto Lo Presti discusses the reception of Aristotle's De somno and the link made there between sleep and epilepsy, a link that continues to have some traction in neurological research. Katerina Ierodiakonou revisits the Stoic and Epicurean debates about colour-change, concluding that, while much ingenuity is shown, numerous issues remain unresolved. In an excellent discussion, Helen Lang challenges the idea that Plato discusses body in three dimensions. Rather, his divine artist incorporates proper measure, hence order. In 'Conceiving the History of Science Forward', Francesca Rochberg offers a study of cuneiform astronomical texts. W.R. Laird discusses principles of mechanics in Heron of Alexandria. Mark Schiefsky places the Belopoeica of Philo of Byzantium into the philosophical and medical understanding of techne. Arnaldo Marcone explores the meaning of numen Augusti as applied diversely to the living Augustus.

For the present reviewer, interested in medical history, the volume is rich and stimulating, ranging over many authors and insights. For other historians of science there are equally rich pickings in this wonderful, challenging volume, entirely befitting the honorand. The reviewer has run out of space, not of praise.


1.   Petridou, G. and Thumiger, C. (eds), Homo Patiens: Approaches to the Patient in the Ancient World (Leiden, in press).

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