When, around AD 70, the Elder Pliny surveyed the development of medicine in his Natural History, he composed a devastating indictment of his fellow Romans and their Greek doctors. As we have seen, he saw the transplantation of Greek medicine to Rome as an index of moral decline, the triumph of luxury over old Roman virtues. 1 Now, blown along by every passing fancy, his fellow citizens put their faith in healers who offered novelty rather than sound prospects of health. Cold-water cures were succeeded by astrological dietetics as the fashionable therapy of the day, and this in turn by cold baths. 2 Each healer put forward his own pet theory in order to gain patients. Most notorious of all in Pliny's eyes was Thessalus of Tralles, the Methodist whose memorial among the select graves on the Appian Way bore the epithet iatronikes, 'champion physician'. Whether in public or at the bedside, confrontation took over from co-operation, disagreement from shared diagnosis, and public morality collapsed along with private health. 3

Pliny's rhetoric had a basis in reality: the expanding population of the capital allowed a ready market for any and all medical theories and practices. Democriteans, Asclepiadeans, Pneumatists, Hippocratics and Empiricists vied for attention with Tiberius Claudius Menecrates, who proclaimed his own creation of a 'clear and logical sect', and with Leonides of Alexandria, whose soubriquet, the 'Episynthetic', implied that he was bringing together all that was best in others' teaching. 4

But by concentrating on individuals and their failings, and by implying a constant instability, Pliny's account obscures the rise to prominence of widespread medical groupings, or sects, with long-lasting traditions, especially the Methodists. 5 His denunciation of Thessalus, allied to the disdain of others for various features of Methodism and its practitioners, has had a lasting effect. By contrast with Hippocratism, and its claim to go back to the great age of Greece, Methodism is often viewed as an upstart, a Roman parvenu, born in a society that knew little and cared less about proper medicine.

This chapter's reassessment of the most important Roman contribution to medicine will take the arguments of the Methodists themselves seriously. It will suggest that their major theories were the result of a reasoned response to


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Ancient Medicine


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