11

ROME AND THE TRANSPLANTATION OF GREEK MEDICINE

The assimilation of Greek medicine into the Latin-speaking world of central Italy, and thence over time into Western Europe, is one of the most momentous developments in the history of medicine. A system (or a collection of systems) of medicine in one society was transplanted into another with a different language, culture and political structure, and was enabled thereby to become the basis of the Western medical tradition. Without this development it is possible that Greek medicine would have remained on the same level of importance to us as that of the Babylonians or Egyptians, an interesting, if somewhat tangential, object of historical study. In Latin dress, Greek medical theories continued to be studied, applied, challenged and defended in Western Europe well into the nineteenth century. Mediaeval Western Europe knew of Hippocrates and Galen only in Latin, and even when bilingual editions of Greek texts were produced from the sixteenth century onwards it was largely the Latin version that was read and commented upon, not the Greek. Indeed, some Greek medical authors, although familiar to learned doctors in Western Europe from the sixteenth century on, were never printed fully in their original language until the twentieth century, and were studied almost entirely in Latin translation. 1

Some aspects of this original process of assimilation cannot be placed in any secure historical context, but they cannot be overlooked simply because of that. The development of a Latin technical vocabulary, so crucial for the spread of ideas, has been well described by many recent historians, who have pointed to the variety of ways in which Greek terms were taken over into Latin - by transcription, by translation to an existing equivalent, or by a new creation on the model of an existing Latin term of similar form or meaning. They have studied how Latin authors depicted and classified diseases and their treatments or expressed the complex nuances of a Greek medical style in a somewhat less flexible grammar and syntax. They have examined the different registers of the usage of terms, in both medical and non-medical treatises, in prose and in verse, in order to gauge the extent to which this technical language was used in Latin society at various dates from the third century BC until the sixth century AD. 2

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