Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.47

Aurélien Gautherie, Rhétorique et thérapeutique dans le 'De medicina' de Celse. Collection dirigée par Gérard Freyburger et Laurent Pernot, 25​.   Turnhout:  Brepols, 2017.  Pp. 492.  ISBN 9782503569192.  €85,00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Caroline Petit, University of Warwick (c.c.l.petit@warwick.ac.uk)

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This book is the revised version of the author’s doctoral thesis, conducted under the supervision of Professor Y. Lehmann in Strasbourg, with the help of Philip van der Eijk. A substantial monograph of just under five hundred pages, this is one of very few books dedicated to the medical treatise De medicina written by Roman encyclopaedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus. While dutifully acknowledging all the existing studies in his introduction and paying homage to the likes of Philippe Mudry for their lifelong interest in the text, Gautherie must have often felt lonely in his quest for a better understanding of the De medicina. If a number of studies do exist, most deal with specific aspects of the text or limited parts of it (for example Mudry’s excellent book on the preface (1985), or Innocenzo Mazzini’s translation of books VII-VIII on surgery). Addressing the shape, contents and purposes of the entire treatise is thus no small feat, and Gautherie should at the very least be commended for opening up this work to a wider readership of students of ancient medicine.

Unlike many ancient medical texts (especially in the Galenic corpus), Celsus’ De medicina has been carefully edited and translated (Marx’s edition, and Spencer’s text and translation in the Loeb series being the most used texts). This forms the solid basis of Gautherie’s work. His approach is analytical and attempts to illuminate the different facets of the work: the title of the book, ‘Rhétorique et thérapeutique’ perhaps reflects as much his own pragmatism in the face of this work, as Celsus’ own ambivalence. In fact, although he writes in clear, elegant Latin (a style that will later help Renaissance physicians find their own medical language), Celsus is no rhetor, and his De medicina follows the textbooks of ancient stylists, sticking to the simple style required from ‘technical’ works in most parts of his treatise. Speaking of rhetoric, then, Gautherie is led to present Celsus’ writing in the rather simple terms of composition, borrowing, adaptation and clarity. In so doing, he succeeds in providing an excellent introduction to Celsus’ De medicina in the first part of his book (pp. 31-177): this section discusses a number of important issues about Celsus’ methods, purposes and readership, and attempts a detailed analysis of the contents of the text, providing a table of contents which, although in French, will be useful to those willing to navigate Celsus’ eight ample books. A more pressing issue, however, as stressed by the author himself, is the need for extensive indices to help readers use Celsus more easily (Spencer’s index being generally incomplete and inadequate). Satisfying this need is however postponed by the author, and deferred to the publication of Brigitte Maire’s long-planned edition of books III-VIII, which will complete Guy Serbat’s edition of books I-II (Les Belles Lettres, 1995). Admittedly, attempting to create such an index could have been one of the major benefits of the book under review – its postponement should thus be deeply lamented.

In the second part of the book (pp. 181-391), Gautherie sets out to analyse De medicina from another angle, that of medical history. He examines with careful detail the more remarkable aspects of medical practice in the treatise, emphasising Celsus’ caring approach to the patient through listening, dialogue and pain management. The sheer diversity and the breadth of Celsus’ work no doubt prevented Gautherie from providing a comprehensive analysis here. In terms of detail, historians of medicine may at times regret the lack of more extensive discussion of the Greek background: for example, in the chapter about death, Gautherie attempts to (briefly) situate Celsus’ statements in the Roman cultural context; but then why not explore in some detail Celsus’ engagement with the Hippocratic Prognostic, where the signs of imminent death are famously described?

It is the author’s contention that Celsus deserves a better place in the history of medicine than he currently enjoys; according to Gautherie, Celsus is not the mere adaptor of Greek medical knowledge in Rome but a truly original and caring promoter of medical ideas in 1st-century Rome. In the author’s own words, ‘l’encyclopédiste n’est pas un simple relais besogneux des pratiques antérieures et contemporaines’(p. 390). Celsus is definitely, however, an encyclopaedist, and as such he is subjected to many a literary constraint. He is not writing an original monograph, but a general medical treatise for a wide readership of educated Romans (called philiatroi in the Greek tradition). In so doing, he is certainly achieving a tour de force. Beyond his prefatory statements, however, Celsus’ voice is rather discrete (unlike, of course, Galen’s voice). It might thus be profitable, in the future, to compare him with other great medical compilers (without attaching any stigma to this word!) of antiquity: although much later, Paul of Aegina is a promising candidate. Like Celsus, the art of late antique Greek compilers of medical knowledge is subtle, and lies in the detail of their reworking of ancient material. Often, only very close reading of such texts allows for their originality to come through. Indeed, students of compilers and encyclopaedists such as Celsus have good reasons to feel frustration at the common prejudice still hampering research into this type of writing. As for Celsus, his dedicated craft is much more likely to shine through in this sort of encyclopaedist framework, with close analysis of Celsus’ written sources as core methodology.

Meanwhile, Gautherie’s book is a very useful addition to Celsian studies and the history of medicine generally. It may not be the most “rhetorical” of the volumes of this series dedicated to rhetoric, but it provides welcome attention to the very fabric of a complex, relatively neglected Latin text. As the foundation and inspiration of many Renaissance medical works, this introduction to the De medicina will be helpful beyond the small circle of Classicists interested in medical Latin.

The book is supplemented by an appendix (table of internal references in the De medicina), a bibliography, indices (ancient authors, body parts and index locorum) and a table of contents; it is carefully edited and produced, and only a few typos are apparent. ​

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