Wednesday, March 23, 2016


M. Hirt, D. Leith, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXXX. Graeco-Roman memoirs, 101. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2014. Pp. xiv, 176; 14 p. of plates. ISBN 9780856982224. $170.00.

Reviewed by W. Andrew Smith, Shepherds Theological Seminary (

Version at BMCR home site

The eightieth volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, which introduces items 5219–5257 of the collection, was prepared by Marguerite Hirt (University of Cambridge), David Leith (University of Exeter), and W. Benjamin Henry (University College London). Additional contributions were made by Daniela Colomo (Research Associate and Curator of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri), Nick Gonis (University College London), and Livia Tagliapietra (PhD student in Classics, University of Cambridge). While most volumes in this series group texts in categories of theological, literary, and documentary papyri, this one presents a collection of medical texts (perhaps following the themed approach of volume 79's Games, Competitors, and Performers in Roman Egypt), making it the "largest single collection of medical papyri to be published" (vi).1

Following a forward by Vivian Nutton (v–vi) and a preface by Gonis (vii), the body of this volume is divided into three major sections: Extant Medical Texts, New Medical Texts, and Doctors' Reports. Nutton comments that these manuscripts confirm "the prevalence of eye diseases, fevers, ulcers, and haemorrhoids at Oxyrhynchus" as well as the absence of patients from medical documents apart from the doctors' reports (v).

Leith edited the eleven extant medical texts (5219–5229), which include five papyri of Hippocrates, three of Dioscorides, and three of Galen. The works of Hippocrates include Aphorismi 5.35–7, 6.5–7 (3rd/4th c.), De alimento 48–51 and De liquidorum usu 1 on the recto and verso respectively (2nd/3rd c.), De mulierum affectibus I 1.8–14 (3rd c.), Epidemiae I (Case II; 2nd/3rd c.), and Prognosticum 7.10–11 (late 1st c.). The two fragments of 5220 (De alimento and De liquidorum usu) are particularly interesting since they appear on a roll rather than a codex, and because they appear so close together in a collection of short texts. While the text of De liquidorum usu is unremarkable, that of Alimento is a "superior text" devoid of insertions found in other copies; before this, no papyrus fragments of these works had been published. Regarding the Prognosticum fragment (5223), this first century papyrus is remarkable in that the only other ancient copy of this work published to date is from a fifth-century parchment codex; this copy offers several new readings. The three papyri of Dioscorides' De materia medica (now doubling the number of published ancient copies) include 1.61, 63–64 (4th c.), 3.17–18 (3rd c.), and 3.71–74 (3rd c.). Of these three, the last is textually the most interesting, as it may solve a text-critical problem at Finally, the texts of Galen include De Locis Affectis 1.1 (5th/6th c.), De Sanitate Tuenda 5.3, 7, 9 (6th c.), and In Hippocratis Epidemiarum Librum III 2.8–9 (6th c.). The second item (5228) preserves an excerpted text, though different from any currently known summary; Henry suggests that it may represent a collection of extracts similar to that of Aëtius (30). The first and third items (5227 and 5229) contain some textually interesting variant readings.

The twenty-four new medical texts (5230–5253) are edited by Leith (5230–5239, 5242–5243), Hirt (5240–5241, 5244–5249, 5251), Henry (5250), Tagliapietra (5252), and Colomo (5253). The first new text (5230) is dated to the early second century and consists of three fragments: one that overlaps Galen's De Compositione Medicamentorum per Genera 5.2 where he cites Heras of Cappadocia's Narthex (with this fragment preserving some new/superior readings); one that contains a previously unknown recipe for a drug to soothe colic; and one that contains some incomprehensible text. Item 5231 (1st/2nd c.) is a commentary on Hippocrates' Epidemiae I, expressing criticism toward Asclepiades of Bithynia's methodology in the commentary of the case history, possibly representing the voice of an Empiricist or Methodist medical scholar. Item 5232 (2nd/3rd c.) discusses surgery for hemorrhoids, with a quotation from Hippocrates' Aphorismi 6.12. Items 5233 and 5234 (2nd/3rd and 2nd c., respectively), which share substantial textual overlap, deal with lethargy that is likely associated with phrenitis; with its gentle methods of rousing the patient and dietetic therapy, this probably represents the work of a Methodist sect physician. Leith suggests that Soranus was aware of the work preserved in these two items (62). Item 5235 (early 4th c.) is another work on acute diseases, this time as a question-and-answer format medical treatise which provides definitions, causes, signs, and therapies for various diseases; most interesting is the possible mention of Thessalus of Tralles. Item 5236 (2nd/3rd c.) is a treatise on gangrene and its causes. While it was previously unknown (though not improbable) that Asclepiades had discussed gangrene, this manuscript appears to cite him regarding the etiology of the disease. Item 5237 (2nd c.) is a medical treatise regarding the use of hot and cold agents in pathology/therapeutics and conditions affecting the esophagus; an interesting feature of this manuscript is the repeated colocation of the terms σφήνωσις ("impaction") and ἀπόθλιψις ("squeezing out"). Item 5240 (1st c.), which may represent a student manual or lecture notes, is concerned with treating eye conditions, including surgery for pterygium, encanthis, an everted eyelid, and cataracts. Eye surgery was fairly common in this period, and exciting here is the appearance of the new term περιϊάδιον, which (given the diminutive forms used for surgical tools) possibly refers to a scalpel with a curved blade to be used in eye surgery. Item 5241 (2nd/3rd c.) joins the roughly 20 extant papyri that contain medical questionnaire texts, in this case defining eye conditions in the question-and-answer format; Hirt provides a wonderfully detailed analysis of this three-fragment manuscript, drawing on a wealth of related resources. Item 5242 (2nd c.) contains three sets of instructions for the thickening of oils, the first step in manufacturing perfumed oils (the back of the papyrus contains an account with units of arouras and artabas). While these instructions show minor parallels with Dioscorides, most interesting is the use of μήτια and ἄσαρα as previously unknown units of weight. Items 5243–5251 preserve a variety of medical recipes, primarily from the second or third century, including: eye salves (Leith performs a particularly in-depth analysis of this item); a tooth powder; six short iatromagical recipes dealing with head or eye ailments; a remedy for hot gout (ποδάγρα); a collection of short miscellaneous recipes (including a possible reference to lycanthropy); two plaster recipes (a plaster for suppurative inflammation and a black plaster for fistulous ulcers and fractures); remedies for skin and eye ailments; treatment for spreading ulcers; and treatment for fistulous ulcers and tumors. The last of the recipes is dated to the third or fourth century and is the first parchment medical text with a provenance of Oxyrhynchus. Items 5252 (5th c.) and 5253 (6th c.) are lists of ingredients. The first, on the back of a wine account, contains a list of products typically used in medicine and the items are measured primarily in carats. Tagliapeitra provides a careful reconstruction of the text, drawing on numerous sources to propose the final form. Particularly interesting in this piece is the unattested term ἀντικασάμου, a perhaps fragrant ingredient listed between cassamum (fruit of the Mecca balsam, which contains fragrant oil) and oil of myrrh. Five of the six ingredients listed in 5253 are measured in grams, the sixth measured in carats, and all are used in the production of perfumes.

The final four manuscripts are doctors' reports (5254–5257), edited by Gonis and Hirt. Items of this sort typically describe the condition of a victim of violence or the symptoms of one overcome by illness and are presented as a report to the local authorities; as such, it is quite unusual to find any treatment involved (159). Item 5254 (c. 89–94) is the earliest medical report published to date, containing examination results sent from two doctors to the strategus (Tiberius Claudius Arius) regarding an interpreter named Nilus (though the results are not extant). Item 5255 (c. 118–121 or 166–168) is the report from a doctor and assistant to the strategus Demetrius regarding an injured man; the dating of the report is difficult given a conflict between the palaeographical evidence and the appellation of the strategus. Produced after an assault, item 5256 (25 September, 190) is a doctor's report on the injuries sustained by two (or more) persons. Finally, item 5257 (dated to 312) is a public doctor's report to the curator civitatis regarding the head injury (and perhaps hearing loss) of a man named Serapion.

The volume ends with the usual indices and fourteen pages of plates. While grayscale images of most of the papyri edited in this volume are provided in the accompanying plates, three images (of items 5226–5228) are curiously missing from the collection. High resolution color images of papyri from past volumes have been made available at the Oxyrhynchus Online site (, but currently no images of these missing papyri are available. While financial constraints prohibit unrestrained production of manuscript images, it remains surprising for the Egypt Exploration Society to reproduce all but three of this volume's papyri.

Research in the area of Greco-Roman medicine continues to blossom, and this volume from the Oxyrhynchus series is not only a boon to that endeavor but also for historical and manuscript studies in general. As with the other volumes in the series, this themed volume is produced with remarkable quality of scholarship and attention to detail. The analyses of these papyri demonstrate both the expertise of the editors and their love for the subject matter.


1.   The material from volume LXXX was the product, in part, of the "New Medical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus" research project funded by the Wellcome Trust (vii).
2.   Based on the present fragments, Leith and Henry reconstruct the text as εὐώδη τούτου ὁ καρπός, with the plausible explanation that a corruption of this reconstructed reading may have given rise to the two later readings of ἔστι(ν) δὲ τούτο ὁ καρπός and ἐν δὲ τούτοις ὁ καρπός which stand in the current editions (24).

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