Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.17


Hippocrates, Pseudepigraphic Writings: Letters, Embassy, Speech from the Altar, Decree. Edited and Translated with an Introduction by Wesley D. Smith. Studies in Ancient Medicine, 2. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990. Pp. x, 133. ISBN 90-04-09290-0.

Owsei Temkin, Hippocrates in a World of Pagans and Christians. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. Pp. xvi, 315. ISBN 0-8018-4090-2.


Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy.

Behind every text, we tend to suppose, stands an author. Under some circumstances, however, texts precede their authors, and the authors stand as products of their texts, not creators but themselves complex fictions capable of provoking further, problematic readings. Homer is one such fictive author; Hippocrates, students of ancient medicine have long known, is another. Around the irritant grain of their names grew nacreous accretions of anecdote, forgery, and attribution, until we can see only the shimmering globe of the Homeric or Hippocratic question.

Now we have two books on different but overlapping aspects of this Hippocratic question. Smith's title promises us a philological parergon to his important study of the development of the Hippocratic Corpus (The Hippocratic Question, 1979). Temkin, at first glance, offers a general study of the reputation of Hippocrates in late antiquity, a companion to his Galenism: Rise and Decline of a Medical Philosophy (1973) and a development of his "Geschichte des Hippokratismus im ausgehenden Altertum" (Kyklos 4:1932, 1-80). Both these first impressions are somewhat misleading.

S. does, to be sure, offer a new edition of the Hippocratic pseudepigrapha. These consist of 24 letters and three documents (a "Decree of the Athenians" granting Hippocrates citizenship and other privileges, a "Speech at the Altar" or Epibomios in which Hippocrates asks the Thessalians to free Cos from Athenian domination, and an "Ambassadorial Speech" or Presbeutikos of Thessalos, son of Hippocrates, to the Athenians.) S. is the first since Littré (1861) and Putzger (1914) to conduct a fresh examination of the manuscript tradition of these writings. To previously used evidence for the text he adds three manuscripts, Vaticani Graeci 1309, 1353, and 1354, which, he argues, represent an older, less corrupted stage than seven Renaissance manuscripts used by Littré. S. provides a full apparatus and a translation which, as good translations may, often serves to explain and justify his choice of readings. He emends rarely but with a sure hand; as an example of his deft touch, consider his SU\N OI(=SIN E)N H(/BH| (Letter 23, p. 104, l. 8) for the manuscripts' EU)=NOI H(/BH or EU)NOI/HS H(/BH. S. has produced the best text and the only English translation now available of the Letters, Epibomios, and Presbeutikos. Classicists and historians of medicine are in his debt; Greekless students of English literature now can assess Burton's paraphrase of Letter 17 in Anatomy of Melancholy's "Democritus Junior to the Reader."

S.'s book, however, does more than improving these odd and interesting texts for those who read them in Greek and making them accessible to those who prefer to read them in English. His Introduction, even as it lays out and analyzes what little evidence there is for the date of these works and the circumstances of their composition, demonstrates a new way of reading them. These writings, S.'s Preface declares, "are not what they pretend to be, and the mentality they express is different from a modern one." The Introduction succeeds in shifting the focus of our reading from Hippocrates, for whose life and work such texts as these cannot be evidence, to the claims and mind-sets implied by the Hippocratic pseudepigrapha. If there is truth to be found in these false documents, it is not what they say about Hippocrates, but what they hint about the people who created them as "literary interpretations of medicine's history and status" (p. 2).

Because the Hippocratic pseudepigrapha are a mixed bag, these interpretations vary. S. wisely avoids imposing a single reading on the collection. He sees the Presbeutikos and Epibomios, for example, as glorifications of Cos and responses to an Athenian view of Coan history, and he suggests that these two speeches may have been responsible for the creation of the Hippocratic Corpus. Their picture of the authoritative Coan physician caused the name of Hippocrates to be attached to an Alexandrian collection of anonymous medical literature. Like much in the Introduction, this suggestion is bound to be controversial. S. has a rare ability to combine careful philology with subtle, demanding, and often audacious interpretations, and many readers will find his Introduction more helpful after their first look at the text than before. The entire book will show them a new and enlightening way to approach medical pseudepigrapha.

Temkin, in contrast, presents a straightforward, in some ways old-fashioned account of the reputation of Hippocrates and its transformations under the influence of Christianity. Few readers will disagree with many specific points in what he says. Few will find his book as interesting as S.'s.

The value of T.'s work lies in its comprehensive mapping of the evidence for Christian readers and readings of the Hippocratic Corpus in late antiquity and the early Byzantine centuries. Despite the burgeoning of interest in these periods, modern scholarship has only recently begun to see Oribasius, Aetius of Amida, and other medical authors as part of the literary and intellectual culture of their times and to evaluate the role of medical ideas in the thought of Plotinus, Origen, and other non-medical figures. T. has searched the literature of the first centuries of the Christian era and gathered an enormous store of reference. His book fills a long-standing need for an introduction to the place of medical thought, and especially of the Hippocratic writings, in the philosophy and religion of the first six centuries of our era. For students of early Christian thought, he has opened a rich vein of material.

On details, then, and in his coverage and presentation of the evidence, T. is meticulous, exact, and helpful. His general approach to and reading of that evidence, however, are open to criticism on three counts.

First, he has organized his analysis around the old antithesis of Christian against pagan. This dichotomy makes sense as long as T. is talking about Christians. Their shared beliefs make them easy to recognize, and T. makes it easier by limiting himself to representatives of "the orthodox faith of the churches of Constantinople and Rome" (xii). But what is a pagan? For T., paganism "includes all religious forms whose followers do not submit to a single, all-powerful God." (Jews, in T.'s scheme, seem to count as honorary Christians or as precursors of Christianity. They are represented by Joshua ben Sirach and Philo.) Although T.'s definition of pagan ought to embrace Galen and the semi-literate rootcutter grubbing for healing herbs, he is in fact only interested in literate intellectuals of the governing class. In talking about this group, "Christian" is a useful category. "Pagan," which represents nothing except the negation of "Christian," is not. Pagan Galen would have found it easier to talk to his Christian contemporaries Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus than to an illiterate pagan midwife.

The antithesis between pagan and Christian, never very helpful, becomes nearly useless when applied to medical literature. From its beginnings, as T. demonstrates, ancient medical writing says little about religion. In the Hippocratic Corpus, the gods get no more than their due; they ordered the nature of all things, as the author of Regimen I says, but in the art and practice of medicine they played only a small part. A similar neutrality emerges when T. sifts the writings of Christian physicians. Apart from a few pious subscriptions, nothing in the writings of Stephanus, Paul of Aegina, or Alexander of Tralles can be used to prove that they were Christian. Christian belief or the lack of it could have a perceptible effect on the philosophical work of a late antique philosopher; for a physician's medical thinking, it hardly mattered.

Second, T. works with a definition of "Hippocratic medicine" so loose that it threatens to turn his book into a study of ancient medicine in general and its relation to Christianity. The variety of authors and medical theories represented in the Hippocratic Corpus and the willingness of later writers to see in the Corpus foreshadowings of their own ideas make precise definition impossible; even so, when we read on p. 124 that Stoicism "left a strong mark on the so-called Pneumatists, a subdivision of the Hippocratic Dogmatists," or on p. 219 that the archiaters commanded by an edict of Valentinian I to treat poor patients equally with rich ones "could be expected to have been well-educated Hippocratic physicians," we may suspect that "Hippocratic" has come to mean no more than "philosophical" or "well-educated."

Third, T. seems hardly aware of the complex textuality of his sources. As a result, his picture of ancient medicine lacks nuance, and he misses the strangeness of the ancient healer's mental world. His treatment of the Hippocratic pseudepigrapha may stand as an example. Although he distinguishes three main strands of narrative in the Pseudepigrapha and acknowledges the problematic status of these works, he proceeds (pp. 57-75) to take them at nearly face value. "Paetus wrote" that Hippocrates was the descendant of gods (p. 71); "the story does not tell" what happened after Hippocrates met Democritus (p. 69); in the Democritus letters "two themes have been fused together," and this fusion is "documented by" a second interchange of letters (p. 70). We are back in the world of scholarship on the Historia Augusta before Syme or Dessau. T.'s reading seems not merely old-fashioned, but almost naive next to S.'s reflective and subtle account.

T. reveres Hippocratic medicine as the predecessor of modern medicine. Because he evaluates ancient medicine with reference to the present, he constricts his view of the world, so different from ours, in which ancient medicine made sense. He can write with admiration of the author of Precepts that "feelings apart, his behavior does not compare unfavorably with that of a decent modern doctor" (p. 33). But feelings, the humanity of the ancient author and its coordinates in relation to ours, are what is important in our journey through ancient texts. T. has not done for the early Christians and medicine what Peter Brown in The Body and Society did for early Christians and sexuality; he has not, that is, given us a sense of a world-view both coherent and strange. He has, however, laid a foundation on which other scholars, no matter what their approach to late antique medicine, may build.