Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.05.16

Jennifer Clarke Kosak, Heroic Measures: Hippocratic Medicine in the Making of Euripidean Tragedy. Studies in Ancient Medicine, 30.   Leiden:  Brill, 2004.  Pp. x, 229.  ISBN 90-04-13993-1.  €90.00.  

Reviewed by Matthew Wright, University of Exeter (
Word count: 1680 words

At one time, medicine and tragedy might have seemed unlikely bedfellows; but the study of classical literature is changing constantly. Nowadays we realize that if we want to understand Greek literature and drama, traditional literary-critical approaches by themselves are not enough. We have to attempt to see the works through Greek eyes, which means reconstructing the world of the playwrights and their audiences: their religion, their ritual, their performance culture, their politics, their economy -- and their technology. The relationships between different authors are no longer conceptualized simply in terms of the 'influence' of one writer on another, but rather in terms of the broader intellectual and cultural environment inhabited by the different writers and their audiences. Juxtaposing writers and perspectives not usually considered together can have surprising and eye-opening results -- as seen in the case of several recent books. For example, 2004 saw the publication of, among others, Richard Seaford's Money and the Early Greek Mind, Simon Hornblower's Thucydides and Pindar, and now Kosak's book on Euripides and Hippocratic medicine -- all of which, in very different ways, show what rewards can be gained from creative interdisciplinary approaches.

As K states in her Introduction, her project is 'an exploration of Greek beliefs about suffering and the technology of healing in the fifth century' (p. 6). According to K, it is not the case that 'medical thinking' constituted a distinct or isolated category of intellectual activity in antiquity: in fact, professional physicians as well as other types of intellectuals shared certain ways of looking at the world which were deeply embedded in their culture. And so connections can be traced between medical texts and various other contemporary works of literature, including drama. As K shows, tragedy and medicine can illuminate each other. Despite their differences, they share a number of characteristics: in particular, they are both concerned above all with the problem of human suffering and its causes.

After the Introduction, the book is divided into two parts. The first ('Healers and the Heroics of Medical Techne', pp. 19-92) is concerned with the figure of the healer as it is presented in the Hippocratic corpus and as it appears in a range of other classical Greek texts, including several tragedies. K is concerned not just with literal descriptions of illness and treatment but also with the use of the doctor-figure as an image or metaphor in a wide range of texts: such metaphorical usage is seen to grow in complexity along with the development of medical science. In Chapter 1 ('The Figure of the Healer', pp. 19-42), K shows that ideas of the healing art are intimately connected with ideas of techne, i.e. intelligence, skill, or science, in a wider sense. K argues that the healer acquired the function of a 'model' of the achievements -- and the limitations -- of human techne (p. 36). In Chapter 2 ('Healers in Greek Tragedy', pp. 43-92) K examines a number of tragic figures who can be seen as 'healers', including Aeschylus' Prometheus and characters from Euripides' Hippolytus, Medea, Ion and Orestes. In particular, K is interested in the shifting dynamics of the relationships between healers and patients. In all the cases studied, the role of the healer is seen as problematic, a long way from that of straightforwardly making the 'patients' (or society as a whole) 'better'.

The second part ('From Cause to Cure', pp. 93-197) deals with a variety of diseases, and remedies for diseases, as they appear in medical writings and in tragedy. Three chapters are devoted to a survey of the Hippocratic writers and, in particular, their attempts to pinpoint the causes of illnesses. Chapter 3 ('The Story of Disease', pp. 93-100) returns to the observation that tragedy and medicine are connected by their preoccupation with cause and effect and with finding explanations for suffering. K notes in particular the variety of contrasting explanations offered by the different writers: unlike tragedians, medical writers offer no reason (moral, religious, or other) why diseases exist. Chapter 4 ('Causes of Disease in the Hippocratic Corpus', pp. 101-8) further explores ideas of medical causation, including factors of diet, environment, meteorology, and so on. The chapter ends (p. 107) by posing the important question: 'How much can we assume that the public (including the tragedians) knew about the theories debated among the medical thinkers?' But, rather curiously, the question is almost immediately abandoned: after a cursory discussion of a short passage in Xenophon's Cyropaedia, the chapter abruptly breaks off, leaving one wondering whether a portion of text has accidentally been omitted. Chapter 5 ('Remedy in the Hippocratic Corpus', pp. 109-29) offers a detailed survey of different types of treatment offered by Hippocratic doctors, which reveals that there was a lack of consensus and consistency among healers, as well as gaps between general theory and specific practice in individual cases.

The central, sixth chapter (pp. 131-192) is devoted to detailed readings of four Euripidean plays (Orestes, Heracles, Phoenician Women and Bacchae). This chapter, packed with interesting and illuminating insights, demonstrates convincingly that a medical perspective adds significantly to one's interpretation of the plays. For instance (to choose from many examples): in Orestes, sickness is seen to be one among numerous hereditary strands which link the troubled younger generation to their disastrous ancestors, and the murder of Helen emerges as a type of 'homoeopathy'; the disease-theme helps one to appreciate the unity (which has often eluded critics) between the 'two halves' of Heracles; the question of phusis, understood in a medical as well as an ethical sense, emerges as central to Phoen..

K's readings of the individual plays add much detail and nuance to earlier discussions. In addition, certain broad conclusions emerge. Medical writers show more confidence in the power of medicine, and indeed human techne in general, than do tragedians. In tragedies one tends to find a wider range of explanations for the 'symptoms' of suffering -- including, notably, fate, chance and the gods. All of this is, perhaps, rather predictable. What is less so, however, is the extent to which tragedy teems with medical language, images and assumptions. Although, as K acknowledges, nothing can be proved about Euripides' (or his audience's) technical knowledge, nor about specific (as opposed to general) influences, it is clear that a 'medical' way of looking at the world pervades the tragedies (and no doubt characterized the responses of many audience members).

These general conclusions are attractive, and K's readings of the texts are invariably clear, subtle and challenging. But some readers may feel that this short book would have been even better if it had pursued its central subject at a little more length. K states (p. 11) that her approach differs from certain others who have written on this subject (Craik, Jouanna, Padel, Guardasole et al.) in that she is concerned not primarily with matters of vocabulary, or specific medical details, but rather with 'broader patterns of engagement' and 'patterns of thinking shared by Greeks'. But in this case, one is bound to feel slightly unsatisfied. If K's concern is with broad conceptual issues, her decision to focus (almost) exclusively on Euripides, rather than the genre of tragedy in its entirety, seems odd (and it is not fully explained, despite K's methodological remarks on pp. 6-12). It is often frustrating to see Sophoclean or Aeschylean parallels relegated to footnotes rather than discussed at length. The important question which remains unanswered at the end of the book is: how distinctive was Euripides? One is left to infer that Euripides engaged with medical ideas significantly more than the other tragedians, but this is nowhere spelled out (and is not self-evidently true in any case). Given K's approach, then, a study of 'medicine and tragedy' would perhaps have been more appropriate than 'medicine and Euripides'. Even if this is not the book that K wanted to write, it is still disappointing that she does not even discuss all of Euripidean tragedy, but only seven plays.

Another suggestive claim which might have been explored further concerns the social function of tragedy. K begins and ends her book by stating that tragic drama and medicine 'both treat forms of human suffering' (p. 1). A fragment of the comic playwright Philippides (fr. 18 K-A, incorrectly numbered on p. 4) is quoted twice in support of the view that tragedy itself constitutes a form of 'medicine' for its audience: that is, after watching a tragedy, one somehow feels better. This view may have some connection with Aristotle's often-discussed theory of katharsis; but the exact connection, and its meaning, needs more explanation. And while K successfully demonstrates that the content of tragic plays resembles that of medical writings, it is another matter altogether to argue that the form or function of tragedy itself resembles medical treatment. Also, one is bound to ask how literally one can take the evidence of this comic fragment; and, even more to the point, why it is Euripidean tragedy in particular that is seen as being such good 'medicine'. Comedy tends (for whatever reason) to make jokes about Euripides more than the other tragedians, but it would be significant if Philippides (like K) perceived Euripides as an unusually 'medical' or 'medicinal' sort of tragedian.

In any case, the supposedly 'medicinal' effect of tragedy may seem inconsistent with its 'problematic' or 'pessimistic' presentation of medical techne. 'Although Euripidean tragedy tells stories of human failure, the Athenians felt that such tragedy bestowed on them positive benefits,' writes K in the Conclusion (p. 193). Perhaps so; but K does not exactly convince us that this paradoxical-seeming situation is true.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and attractive book. That is to say, its contents are attractive, its physical presentation rather less so. The book's lurid, pink-and-magnolia livery (shared by other members of the 'Studies in Ancient Medicine' series) is quite horrible, and while its dustwrapper-less, 'wipe-clean' format makes it convenient for reading in the kitchen (or operating theatre), not many will want to pay such a high price for their own copy, especially as it also contains a relatively large number of typographical errors.

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