To devote a chapter to the history of medicine in the Hellenistic Greek world, apart from anatomy and the coming of Greek medicine to Rome, might be thought unduly quixotic. Few original treatises survive, a situation characteristic of Greek literature of this period in general. The very success of Hellenistic scholars in commending as models the writings of earlier Greek historians, poets and orators militated against their own survival. What followed the Golden Age came to be seen as degenerate, lacking in originality or serious purpose, produced by ivory-towered pedants, akin to twittering birds in a cage and about as useful. 1 In philosophy, the later triumphs of Aristotelianism and (neo-)Platonism left little space for their opponents, the Epicureans and Stoics. 2 In medicine, Galenism emphasised the link with Hippocrates at the expense of other theoretical developments in the Hellenistic world, and, since what later writers thought the most significant results of the work of Hellenistic pharmacologists and surgeons could be easily incorporated into more up-to-date treatises, there was little reason to preserve the original books themselves. The literary remains of Hellenistic medicine have thus to be reconstructed almost entirely from the fragments preserved by others, with the constant dangers of deformation and misunderstanding. The traditional skills of the philologist, the precise decipherment and interpretation of an ancient text, must be exercised on material that rarely allows certainty.
Yet from a different perspective this historical enterprise takes on a less gloomy aspect. Although many details are inevitably gone beyond recovery, new trends, new developments and new opportunities can be discerned, without which the history of later Graeco-Roman medicine cannot properly be understood. New types of evidence begin to appear in abundance, notably the Egyptian papyri and the inscriptions set up in cities around the Greek world, especially in Asia Minor. If for the fifth and fourth centuries we are largely dependent for our information on medical treatises, speeches, histories and plays, the balance shifts in the Hellenistic period towards the non-literary evidence. No one city dominates; even Alexandrian medicine takes on a different appearance when viewed from a town several hundreds of miles up the Nile valley. Nor is there a block of contemporary material, like the
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Publication information: Book title: Ancient Medicine. Contributors: Vivian Nutton - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 2004. Page number: 140.
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