Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.01.46

Anne McCabe, A Byzantine Encyclopaedia of Horse Medicine: The Sources, Compilation, and Transmission of the Hippiatrica.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. 347; pls. 24.  ISBN 978-0-19-927755-1.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Decker, University of South Florida (
Word count: 1200 words

A Byzantine Encyclopaedia of Horse Medicine by Anne McCabe deals with a little known work called the Hippiatrica, a handbook for veterinarians and horse keepers. The book grew out of McCabe's doctoral thesis, and she shows full command of the material and a rare combination of textual facility, technical knowledge (of both manuscripts and their subjects) and the ability to use these in contextualizing historical documents.

The study begins with an overview of the Hippiatrica and immediately stresses that it, like the the Geoponica, the agricultural manual with which it is often compared, is the product of two movements. The first of these is the development of specialized disciplinary knowledge in the technical arts that we detect over the third through sixth centuries AD. The second is the trend of scribal excerpting that occurred in the tenth century, when technical literature was revived in intellectual circles in Constantinople. Although they were produced in the rather rarified environment of elite circles in the imperial center, these books had an utterly practical function. This fact would be easy to forget, but McCabe does a good job of foregrounding the various mixtures of real-world needs and literary choices that yield the text that we have.

The first section, "Manuscripts of the Hippiatrica" is a discussion of the twenty-five copies of the twenty-two known manuscripts from five principal recensions produced from the tenth through the sixteenth centuries, with edition and English translation of the Hippiatrica, both of which are sorely needed.

Following a short discussion of the printed editions and translation of the text in from the early modern period until today, McCabe devotes a brief chapter, "The Form of the Hippiatrica" to the question of why and how late antique and medieval texts were assembled. The late antique habit of producing excerpt collections offered the advantage of ease of use and made a range of material more accessible to users; the arrangement of such books by subject or alphabetically by author allowed for ready reference. Those who called for, and often made, such books were men like Oribasius, who produced a dietary work for the emperor Julian, or Tribonian, who oversaw the collection of the Pandects of Justinian two centuries later. McCabe sees such works as essentially arising out of need: professionals wanted easily usable reference works. These books were furthermore natural products of a culture in which learned men deferred to the weight of past authority while leaving their own marks on the work via selection, arrangement, and commentary.

Next, the seven major sources of the Hippiatrica are treated in turn. Anatolius of Berytus, a fourth- century writer who produced a farming handbook, is the first of these considered. Anatolius was of primary importance as a bridge for technical knowledge from antiquity to the medieval world, living as he did in a pivotal era, and producing a highly esteemed and widely copied work. His work on farming forms a large portion of the Geoponica, and his veterinary material was included not only in the Hippiatrica, but also in the work of the fifth-century Latin agronomist Palladius. McCabe outlines the work of Anatolius and its transmission, then discusses his sources, including Pseudo-Democritus, Julius Africanus, Pamphilus, the Quintilii, Tarentinus, Florentinus, and Apuleius. Here McCabe grapples with the difficulty of disentangling the various strands of information that have flowed into the handbook, many of them from a common source or group of sources, and often via more than one primary author. We know so little about many of the ancient authors and their treatises underlying these technical excerpt-compilations that reconstruction of specific source traditions is exceedingly complicated. Nevertheless here, as elsewhere, the reader appreciates McCabe's clear prose and focus.

The sections that follow fit within the comparative framework established in the Anatolius chapter. Excerpts of the authors under consideration are provided in parallel presentation of original and translation. This permits McCabe to compare the subject author with other writers contained in the Hippiatric corpus as well as with other ancient agricultural authorities, particularly Columella and Varro. The importance of Columella as a nexus of ancient agricultural knowledge is interesting: he is the major Latin transmitter of the Punic knowledge of the shadowy Carthaginian Mago, whose huge agricultural handbook was translated into Latin, then into Greek and continually epitomized and reworked over the centuries. Recently, Angelo Alvares Carrara has argued that Mago provides the material not only for the Geoponica, but the Arabic agronomic handbook, the Nabataean Agriculture.1 While this claim cannot be accepted without further work, the prominence of Mago within the Hippiatric tradition shows that this body of tradition possesses considerable promise in the Quellenstudien of agronomic literature.

Chapters on Eumelus, Apsyrtus, Pelagonius, Theomnestus, Hierocles, and Hippocrates follow. McCabe provides data on each author from ancient and medieval notices of them and their work. To these she adds considerable color through discussion of the distinct manner in which these men worked, their style, and their respective place within the veterinary tradition. Internal evidence provides a few clues of authorship and expertise. From these we learn that the dominant source of the Hippiatrica Apsyrtus, was a military man familiar with the Danubian lands. In his letters excerpted in the collection, we find Apsyrtus corresponding with men from around the Mediterranean world, including men of high rank. We learn further the sorts of works to which he had access and parallel pursuits that informed his veterinary practices, such as human medicine and magic.

In these passages we glimpse something of the richness of information contained in the Hippiatrica. The text offers nuggets of precious information on a range of subjects, especially the materia medica that veterinary writers presumed available to the horse doctor, among them saffron, myrrh, and cassia. Such exotic substances were put to common uses. They were used to treat wounds or to fumigate stalls. These practices are echoed in the Geoponica and suggest that the available range of exotic substances and experimental nature of treatments were varied and rich. McCabe has a keen eye for the enlightening, often humorous anecdotes which frequently reveal precious glimpses of medical thought, theory, and practice.

In "The Compilation and Evolution of the Hippiatrica" McCabe tackles the difficult question of dating the corpus. Scholars have generally placed the compilation of the Hippiatrica in the tenth century, specifically the reign of the emperor Constantine VII (913-959). However, via meticulous study of the major recensions, McCabe argues cogently for a late antique date of compilation and a tenth-century revision of the text.

Like the intriguing text she chose as her subject, McCabe's work touches on many different subjects and will be useful across a range of scholarly interests. Despite the technical nature of her subject and the complicated strands of her sources, McCabe handles the project with aplomb and leads the reader seamlessly through this labyrinth with clear prose and fine, extensively supported argument. Along the way she continually displays her depth of learning and love of her subject. A Byzantine Encyclopaedia of Horse Medicine establishes a new standard work that will be consulted by those interested in the Hippiatric corpus as well as those undertaking broader research in the communication of scientific knowledge and its transmission through the centuries.


1.   Angelo Alvares Carrara, "Geoponica and Nabataean Agriculture: A New Approach Into Their Sources and Authorship", Arabic Science and Philosophy vol.16 (2006) 103-132.

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