Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.08.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.08.13

Jochen Althoff, Sabine Föllinger, Georg Wöhrle (ed.), AKAN – Antike Naturwissenschaft und ihre Rezeption. AKAN, 26.   Trier:  WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2016.  Pp. 208.  ISBN 9783868216592.  €26.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by John Nicols, University of Oregon (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This modestly priced volume (€26,00, but recently $53.11 at an online bookseller) is the latest in a series of volumes on ancient science and its reception. The volume comprises a very brief opening statement in which the editor, Jochen Althof, notes that the volume includes a set of seven articles, all but one of which (Kazmierski's) were first delivered at the Arbeitskreis antike Naturwissenschaft und ihre Rezeption (AKAN) conference in Mainz in 2015.

Overview: Though six of the seven contributions deal with subjects that that may be described as biology, there is no compelling or underlying unity to this collection as one may find in other similar series (admittedly, this has been a pattern in earlier volumes in this series as well).

This book will not be an easy read for most non-native German readers. It is not simply that all the articles are written in academic German but some also have lengthy footnotes covering a third or more of a printed page. Nonetheless, most, but not all the articles, include a very useful preliminary statement summarizing their argument and conclusions. Each of these articles concludes with an extensive bibliography and most offer a formal section (Fazit) summarizing the conclusions. There is, however, no general bibliography, nor is there an index.

I focus here on some of the more interesting contributions of each article.

Chapter One, by Steffi Grundsmann, on ‘Skin and Hair in the Hippocratic Corpus’ will interest many readers, and deservedly so. The skin functions not only as the outer surface of the body, but also the means by which one may diagnose the status of the interior and develop methods for treatment. Hair and sweat, elasticity, porosity, viscosity all are indicators, though not perfect ones, of the interior conditions. Scholars trying to understand the dynamics of the interaction between the exterior and interior as mediated by the skin, for example in the plays of Aristophanes, may find this chapter especially useful.

Sergiusz Kazmierski treats the meaning of ‘zoology’ in Aristotle and in current usage. Some of the long footnotes might have been successfully integrated into the text, and in others case left out altogether. Kazmierski argues that Aristotle makes a sharp distinction between ‘Naturforschung’ and ‘Heilkunde’; the former belongs to episteme / philosophy while the latter is techne. He argues that Aristotle's zoology is not only a collection of knowledge and method, but also serves as a ‘Zeugnis der denkerisch-wissenschaftlichen und forscherlichen Haltung in der Geschichte des Lebens.’

Boris Dunsch considers the ancient topos of whether one can learn from books alone how to pilot a ship and whether the existing literature provides such complete knowledge. Formulated this way there is only one answer. Dunsch understands the controversy as part of the debates between Platonic and Isocratic authors and schools of the fourth century B.C., and traces the topos through a variety of authors including Polybios, Plutarch, Celsus, Ephoros, and Theopompos. This survey is a succinct and very useful compilation and analysis of the basic perceptions of the value of ‘book’ learning, and one that will be of interest to many readers. The role of Galen and especially his emphasis on the value of autopsy and practice is central to his argument. Consider in this respect Galen’s treatment of the flow of urine [de fac. nat. 1.13].

Gregor Schneider turns to the “understated” excellence (my sense of what ‘versteckt’ means in the title, ‘die verteckte Exzellenz…’) of Euclid’s basic axioms. This article is refreshing primer on Euclidian geometry at the fundamental level of defining points and lines, circles and angular objects. Schneider’s analysis provides the reader a guide to the simplicity and elegance of the basics of Euclid’s Elements. While there is little that is ‘new’ in the chapter, the explication de texte component is well done and does much to explain the enduring value of the Elements.

Olga Chemyakhovskaya analyses Nikander’s story in the Theriaca of how the ichneumon (mongoose) has the foresight to protect itself from the cobra by rolling itself in mud to create a crust that provides a protective shield from the venom (for which there is no evidence). Chemyakhovskaya dissects the story carefully and points out how the term ichneumon can refer to both the mongoose and a wasp, and suggests that the use of mud by the wasp might have been transferred to the mongoose. Her analysis is compelling, so too the conclusion that the point of the story is to illustrate to reader the value and significance of knowledge as a means of protection.

Bernhard Herzhoff considers in a substantial and well-footnoted chapter the proper identities of Nikolaos of Damascus and of Nikolaos of Laodikeia and whether the author of the compendium of philosophy of Aristotle is the same person who compiled de Plantiis. He provides a wealth of information on the history of these texts and on their survival in the ancient, Islamic and Arabic, and medieval worlds. Herzhoff makes a compelling case that what survives under the name of Nikolaos of Laodikeia is very close to what Aristotle himself wrote, and that future work needs to begin from this perspective.

Maximilian Haars considers the four elementary qualities of pharmacology in Galen's ‘On the Powers (and Mixtures) of Simple Remedies (i.e. Drugs),’ De Simp. Medicament. Facultatibus, namely how (warm, cold, dry, moist) and how the qualities are assigned to drugs. Haars argues that a careful analysis reveals that Galen’s system succeeds in forming, I paraphrase here from the German, groups of similar-acting drugs that have in some respects an amazing proximity to classification schemes of modern plant chemistry (189). He shows how these elementary qualities align with taste sensations (sour, astringent, sharp, sweet, bitter, salty). For example, oleander is poisonous, but, depending on how it is mixed and prepared, may be used as a ‘warming’ or ‘drying’ drug. So too, is zinc oxide useful for absorbing water and as an antiseptic, and corresponds to the elementary quality of being ‘dry’. Haar notes that modern chemists apply similar explanations to the classic question of how apples transition from ‘sour’ to ‘sweet’. The role of monosaccharides and polysaccharides, he suggests, is functionally similar to what Galen describes.

These comments cannot do full justice to the arguments presented in each contribution. Some of these papers, e.g., the sections on ‘skin and hair’, on Euclid’s eloquent language, on Galen’s pharmacology, will interest the more general reader of treatises on ancient science. Other chapters, like those on Nikander and on Nikolaos are more technical and will appeal, I believe, to a more limited audience.

More generally, all these chapters serve to refresh one’s perspective on how striking the Greek achievement was in science. Indeed there are the luminaries like Galen and Aristotle, but behind them we find a lively consortium of commentators who actively engaged with the serious questions and did so at a remarkably high level. One should also not forget to mention that implicit in these chapters is also an ancient audience that encouraged and valued the treatises and preserved them for posterity.


Vorwort 7
1. Steffi Grundmann (Wuppertal), "Haut und Haar im Corpus Hippocraticum" 9
2. Sergiusz Kazmierski (Regensburg), "Der Titel, 'Zoologie' und die zoologischen Untersuchungen des Aristoteles" 35
3. Boris Dunsch (Marburg), "ἐκ βιβλίου κυβερνᾶν? ein Topos in antiker Medizin, Philosophie und Historiographie und die Existenz verschrifteter κυβερνητικαὶ τέχναι" 67
4. Gregor Schneider (München), "Die versteckte Exzellenz der Axiomatik Euklids" 97
5. Olga Chernyakhovskaya (Bamberg), "Nikander über den schlammigen Panzer des Ichneumons" 121
6. Bernhard Herzhoff (Trier), "Wer war der Peripatetiker Nikolaos, der Verfasser des Kompendiums der Philosophie des Aristoteles und Bearbeiter seiner Schrift über die Pflanzen?" 135
7. Maximilian Haars (Marburg), Die Elementarqualitäten in der speziellen Pharmakologie Galens" 189
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