Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.03


Tamsyn S. Barton, Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine under the Roman Empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. xiv + 254. $44.50. ISBN 0-472-10425-X.


Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy (LTPearcy@aol.com).

Tamsyn Barton has written a book worthy of her mentor, Geoffrey Lloyd, although its title evokes an association of ideas central to the work of Michel Foucault. By examining the ways in which knowledge and power constructed and reinforced one another in the astrology, physiognomics, and medicine of the high empire, Barton intends to cast doubt on what she calls "the rationalizing program," which draws a firm, definitive line between science and pseudo-science and appraises ancient thought according to how consistently it stays on the scientific side of the line. That program is less entrenched than she thinks, at least among American and British historians of ancient medicine, but it is good to have this cogent, clearly written illustration of its short-comings.

For each of the three modes of inquiry into nature that she has chosen, Barton explores a different aspect of the intersection of knowledge and power. In each case she is concerned to show that knowledge took as its goal not the creation of valid theories about the world, but the development of productive rhetorical strategies of persuasion and domination. The votaries of astrology, physiognomics, and medicine were not seeking truth. They were seeking power, and they sought it through the ancient world's only genuine intellectual technology: rhetoric.

Through this insight Barton is able to account for features of ancient technical literature that are difficult to understand for a reader working on the rationalist assumption that a handbook or protreptic treatise ought to make the knowledge in question accessible to inquirers by providing a clear explanation of its principles, methods, and techniques. Yet many ancient manuals refuse to do this. Instead they mount a defense of the art in question, attack rival practitioners, or declare that mastery of the art depends on devotion to radical discipline and practice, as well as on acceptance of their author's authority. (There are certainly implications here for didactic literature in general, although Barton does not explore them.)

Astrology presents the clearest example of this nexus of power, knowledge, and rhetorical intent. Its practitioners enjoyed a close relationship with imperial power, and its doctrines and imagery, as Barton demonstrates in her pages on the significance of capricorn in imperial iconography, became part of the symbolic currency of empire. (In this connection she might have cited Zanker's The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus.) The fact that casting the emperor's nativity was a capital offense merely confirms this intimacy between perceptions of the stars and perceptions of power. In these conditions, Barton demonstrates, astrological writers preened and strutted in agonistic competition for pupils, influence, and credibility. Clarity was not a goal; intellectual power attached itself to those who could demonstrate that a rival's system was too simple or too clear before capping it with a more complex, more difficult system of their own.

Clarity may not have been a desideratum of ancient astrologers, but it is a great merit of Barton's presentation of their work. In particular, pages 71-79 deserve praise; they are the clearest explanation that I have ever seen of what it means to cast a nativity and how a horoscope works. Astrologers behave like sophists. Physiognomists sometimes were, as the case of Antonius Polemo shows. Physiognomy, in fact, has affinities with rhetorical theory, and in particular the doctrine of ethos or presentation of character. Physical description, whether in praise or blame, formed part of the sophist's stock-in-trade. Barton's chief contribution, and it is an exciting one, is to show that both the rhetorician's ethos and the physiognomist's dogma depended upon using antiquity's fundamental cultural categories and oppositions: male, not female; citizen, not stranger; man, not animal. The woman, the foreigner, and the beast are, as Levi-Strauss put it, "bonnes à penser," good to think with (p. 115). Against them rhetoricians could define themselves and their largely male, citizen audience, and in their undesirable image they could shape their enemies. Medicine, finally, presents the most complex example, both conceptually and in richness of documentation. (Browsing in the TLG Canon and pondering the hundreds of medical writers set against mere dozens of poets will cure anyone of the naive belief that the intellectual landscape of the ancient world was dominated by imaginative literature.) Barton chooses to concentrate on Galen, who more than any other ancient physician gives us an explicit account of his epistemological and rhetorical program. The best-known physician of the empire, however, may embarrass with an over-richness of evidence; in making any judgement about Galen, a scholar inevitably searches for ways to limit inquiry to known and knowable texts chosen from Galenic abundance. Wisely, Barton confines her analysis to Galen's treatment of two prognostic signs, the pulse and the urine.

Galen, as Barton observes, often resembles Sherlock Holmes in his arrogant delight in mystifying observers through his interpretations of pulses and urines; indeed, the Case of the Sicilian Physician at On the Affected Parts 5.8 = Kuhn 8.361 (pp. 140-143), which turns on Galen's chance observation of a chamber-pot, would not be out of place in Baker Street. In the game of boundary-drawing that physicians played with one another in their striving for status, prognosis was an important move. The successful physician confounded his rivals by offering a prognosis that was not only more accurate than theirs, but also more impressively stated, more subtle in its differentiation of similar symptoms, and more persuasive. Like astrology and physiognomics, medical knowledge drew power from its promise to explain and control a process that to the uninitiated might seem like magic.

Galen's Watsons do not often represent either the intellectually naive or the politically powerful. Like the audiences for many of Galen's famous demonstrations, Glaucon at On the Affected Parts 5.8 was a philosopher, a man qualified to judge the physician's claims to knowledge on their own terms. Galen supports his claims to superior knowledge by presenting himself as practicing before an audience that will confirm his distance from a society which he sees as intellectually and morally corrupt and from the physicians who pandered to its tastes. No less than their counterparts in astrology and physiognomics, physicians under the high empire had access to political and social power through their claims to knowledge. Galen does not, however, choose to emphasize this access. Following his lead, Barton does not spend much time on the connections between medicine and the external power of empire. Instead she focuses on the ways in which physicians staked out and defended their claims against those of other physicians. This focus has been to some extent determined by the necessary limitations she imposes on her inquiry when she turns from astrology and physiognomics to the more abundantly documented field of medicine. If Galen is taken to represent ancient physicians and prognosis to stand for medicine, then the internal politics of knowledge will take precedence, as they do in Barton's inquiry, over the external power relations of physicians. Barton's insights are not, however, weakened by the inevitable restrictions of her inquiry. Her readings of ancient technical literature have a clarity and rightness that invite further inquiry into the Foucauldian nexus of knowledge and power; in particular, the way she situates physiognomy amid rhetoric, medicine, and divination promises to change forever the way we look at this neglected aspect of the ancient inquiry into nature.

Postscript: misprints are few in this well-produced volume, but for "Pearce" on p. 218 n. 17 and p. 240 read "Pearcy."