1

SOURCES AND SCOPE

History is an art of forgetting as well as of remembrance. Many of the voices of the past, especially of the losers in any conflict, can be heard faintly at best, and the further back in time we go the larger the gaps in our understanding. The two millennia or more separating us from the ancient Greeks and Romans mean that any comprehensive reconstruction of their ideas on health and healing is fraught with problems. The vicissitudes of the written word over the centuries have drastically narrowed the range of material to a mere fraction of what once existed. As a result, the fact of survival has given prominence to certain documents and has imposed a way of thinking about them that at times distorts the historical reality. By looking back in this chapter at this process of destruction, and by setting out in general some of the consequences for our understanding of the past, I hope to stress both the fragility of our historical information and the need to be open to alternative interpretations of what does survive. 1

Yet to begin by talking of written records is to risk forgetting that much of Greek and Roman medicine never made it into writing at all, for in a society where literacy was restricted on the whole to the higher echelons of male society oral communication predominated. The 'little old woman' from whom Scribonius Largus bought a remedy for stomach ache around AD40 and the peasants in Tuscany and on Corcyra from whom, five hundred years later, Alexander of Tralles gained information about their drugs were almost certainly illiterate. 2 Many details of craft skills in particular - how to set a bone or remove a whitlow, how to recognise and cull healing herbs from the woods and fields, even how to diagnose a range of illnesses - were handed down by word of mouth and practical example alone, and were rarely committed to writing. 3 We can no longer know what precisely the botanist Theophrastus learned from talking to rootcutters around 330 BC, nor how, and more importantly why, trepanation, the removal of small circles of bone from the skull, was performed in prehistoric Greece. 4 We can only guess at many of the words uttered to repel illness by ancient exorcists, whose ministrations are derided by the author of Sacred Disease in the fifth century BC and refused legal acknowledgment ('although some have gained benefit thereby') by a Roman lawyer around AD

-1-

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Ancient Medicine
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Note to the Reader ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Abbreviations xiii
  • 1 - Sources and Scope 1
  • 2 - Patterns of Disease 19
  • 3 - Before Hippocrates 37
  • 4 - Hippocrates, the Hippocratic Corpus and the Defining of Medicine 53
  • 5 - Hippocratic Theories 72
  • 6 - Hippocratic Practices 87
  • 7 - Religion and Medicine in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece 103
  • 8 - From Plato to Praxagoras 115
  • 9 - Alexandria, Anatomy and Experimentation 128
  • 10 - Hellenistic Medicine 140
  • 11 - Rome and the Transplantation of Greek Medicine 157
  • 12 - The Consequences of Empire: Pharmacology, Surgery and the Roman Army 171
  • 13 - The Rise of Methodism 187
  • 14 - Humoral Alternatives 202
  • 15 - The Life and Career of Galen 216
  • 16 - Galenic Medicine 230
  • 17 - All Sorts and Conditions of (Mainly) Men 248
  • 18 - Medicine and the Religions of the Roman Empire 273
  • 19 - Medicine in the Later Roman Empire 292
  • 20 - Conclusion 310
  • Notes 317
  • Bibliography 419
  • Index of Names 465
  • Index of Topics 478
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