Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.22


Mark Grant, Dieting for an Emperor: A Translation of Books 1 and 4 of Oribasius' Medical Compilations with an Introduction and Commentary. Studies in Ancient Medicine, 15. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997. Pp. xii, 388. $117.50. ISBN 90-04-10790-8.


Reviewed by Rebecca Flemming, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, r.flemming@wellcome.ac.uk.

Oribasius, as Grant points out in his preface, has been unfairly neglected by classical scholars. Physician to the emperor Julian, he and his works occupy a pivotal position in the development of the literary medical tradition in antiquity. With the Medical Compilations, Oribasius founds an important new genre of medical writing: the encyclopaedia, a single work purporting to encompass all the knowledge most useful for the goal of medicine, as selected from the treatises of the best physicians. Foremost amongst these is Galen, who provides both the theoretical framework for the collection and the bulk of the material collected. This foundation, therefore, marks a key stage in the triumph of Galenism in the Greek East of the Roman Empire.

Grant is, however, less interested in Oribasius' place in the classical medical tradition as a whole than in his place in the narrower tradition of ancient dietetics, and its strictly dietary component in particular. He is interested in Oribasius mainly as a food writer: in what he has to say about what people in the ancient world ate, or thought about eating, about their culinary practices and attitudes, and in the possible reasons behind their various recommendations and rejections. Hence, out of the twenty-five completely surviving books of the seventy which originally comprised the Medical Compilations, he has chosen to concentrate on books one and four, which deal with cakes, breads, fruits and vegetables. These interests are also reflected in Grant's introduction. This includes a brief biographical sketch of Oribasius, then some rather confused remarks on the medical theories informing classical dietetics (in which he quotes extensively from Galen On Humours, seemingly unaware that this has been generally taken as a pseudonymous text) and some rather clearer comments on ancient diet and cuisine, and lastly a few points about Oribasius' methods of composition and the manuscript tradition.

The real focus, however, is on the text, translation, and, most especially, the commentary that follows. The text used is basically that of J. Raeder, produced for the Oribasius volumes in the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum series in the 1920s and 30s (CMG VI 1,1-VI 3: 1928-1933), reprinted without its apparatus except in the cases of editorial amendments, either by Grant or his predecessors. These problems are then discussed more fully in the commentary. The difficulties encountered, however, are few and most of the changes made are slight; what survives of Oribasius' works has been transmitted relatively smoothly.

The translation is intended to be accurate and useful rather than elegant. It largely achieves this aim, though there is a certain degree of slippage along the way, both generally and in some specific instances. The only specific instance I want to draw attention to here is rendering of TO\ TE/LOS TH=S I)ATRIKH=S in the opening paragraph of book one as "the completeness of the art of medicine", rather than its goal; thus missing out on an important point about the way the medical art was constituted in antiquity. The more general phenomenon of slippage in translation requires rather more discussion. This is concentrated in the rendering of terms which track particularly closely concepts of the human body and the way it works that are now abandoned, replaced by different ideas and interpretations and a concomitantly different vocabulary. Thus, for instance, to translate EU)DIA/PNEUSTON and DUSDIA/PNEUSTON (qualities of types of wheat) as "freely" and "not freely perspired" is perhaps misleading. DIAPNOH/ and its cognates refers to the general movement of substances through the skin in both directions, of which sweating is only a subset. This ongoing cutaneous traffic in vapours, liquids and solids plays, moreover, a crucial part in the maintenance of bodily balance and health, hence the point in describing foodstuffs as EU)- or DUSDIA/PNEUSTON, that is as conducive to or disruptive of the somatic economy. Similarly, I worry that translating PE/TTEIN, PE/PSIS, and all their terminological relatives as "to digest", "digestion", and so forth, may not alert the reader to the fact that the ancient understandings of what happened to food in the stomach were rather different from those of today. PE/PSIS speaks of an understanding of this process as one of coction, like the cooking and ripening the word also refers to, governed by the innate heat of the body. Indeed, Grant sometimes has to translate these terms in this stricter sense. It may, ultimately, be impossible to provide an English rendering of Oribasius' Greek that is both readable and respects the integrity of the conceptual world in which he is working, but greater efforts could be made in this direction, I feel, or, at the least, these issues need discussing at the outset, and commenting on more fully than they are.

What does dominate the commentary is detailed discussion of all the foodstuffs mentioned, their identities, qualities, modes of acquisition and preparation; a discussion that draws both on other classical writers and a range of more modern authors, from Laurens van der Post to Elizabeth David. This elucidation of ancient diet and cuisine is Grant's real strength, but he certainly does not neglect other matters. This is a medical text and it stands in a certain set of relations with other medical texts, most directly those sources from which Oribasius selects his material, but also a number of others. Oribasius' main source here is Galen's On the Powers of Foods, which is extant and when compared with these books of the Medical Compilations provides interesting insights into Oribasius' methods of composition.

Grant also helpfully draws attention to other textual parallels, and areas of doctrinal convergence and divergence more broadly; but he is less good on the background to some of this writing. He makes only patchy reference to the more recent scholarly work on authors like Asclepiades of Bithynia, Rufus and Soranus of Ephesus, Antyllus and Athenaeus of Attaleia, sometimes only providing Pauly articles as bibliography. Views have often changed, however, in the intervening years. The publication of the Arabic translation of Galen On Containing Causes, for instance, which states even more clearly than the Latin version that Athenaeus of Attaleia was a pupil of Posidonius, seems to have tipped the balance against the previous arguments about his dating.

This then is a book that has both strengths and weaknesses. It will be of greater use to those more interested (like the author, but not the reviewer) in ancient food and diet than classical medicine. However, I do hope, with Grant, that Oribasius receives more attention as a result; he certainly deserves it.