BMCR 1998.11.24

Greek Medicine From the Heroic to the Hellenistic Age: A Source Book


As recently as ten years ago, it was difficult to put ancient medical texts in the hands of Greekless undergraduates in a classical civilization course. Teachers could send them to the expensive, incomplete Loeb Hippocrates and the single work by Galen in that series, or else to Geoffrey Lloyd’s Hippocratic Writings (1978)—but that admirable volume flickered in and out of print. Lloyd is, I believe, currently available once more; Oxford has just published a generous selection of Galen, translated by P. N. Singer, in its “World’s Classics” series; and now we have Longrigg’s source book—to say nothing of the recent reprinting by Johns Hopkins of the Edelsteins’ Asclepius in a single, reasonably priced paperback volume. These are good times for anyone who wants to bring medical texts into the mainstream of classical teaching, where they belong.

Longrigg’s source book supports his earlier volume, Greek Rational Medicine (London, 1993), and, like that volume, argues that the rational and theoretical nature of Greek medical thought sets it apart from other medical systems. This view is surely correct, although a complete picture of ancient Greek medicine would have to include other kinds of thought, as well as information about social and practical aspects of Greek healing. Ancient medical thought, as Longrigg knows, blends seamlessly into the texture of Greek culture.

This is, then, a source book with an agenda, which it carries out in a clear, organized fashion. The book’s 16 sections fall into two nearly equal parts. The first seven move in roughly chronological order from “Pre-rational and irrational medicine in ancient Greece and neighboring cultures” to “Early Alexandrian medical science.” The selections in this part seek to document the way in which Presocratic and later philosophy interacted with the Hippocratic Corpus on the one hand, and on the other with a “Sicilian medicine” represented by Democedes and Alcmaeon of Croton, Philistion of Locri, and other western Greek medical thinkers. The resulting scheme may be too dogmatic. It probably makes sense to speak of some distinctive characteristics that set western Greek medical thought apart from its Ionian counterpart, but the existence of a section subtitled “‘Sicilian’ medicine and its influence” may lead unwary readers to conclude that there was a “Sicilian school of medicine,” despite Longrigg’s cautionary words on p. 79.

The last nine sections take up in turn different aspects of the medical art: physiology, diseases, prognosis and diagnosis, regimen, drugs, anatomy, surgery, and diseases of women. It makes a difference, I think, whether we choose to talk about ancient Greek “Pharmacology” and “Gynaecology,” as Longrigg titles his Sections XIII and XVI, or whether we talk, as ancient physicians did, about drugs and their uses, and about diseases of women. In the former case we will emphasize the similarities between ancient Greek medicine and modern, scientific medicine; in the latter, we will acknowledge the strangeness of ancient medical thought and the difficulty of fitting it to our categories. Longrigg has chosen to direct his readers toward the similarities, not the differences.

Each section is followed by a “Synopsis,” which reviews and interprets the selections in it, with cross-references to other sections. These synopses add greatly to the value of the book, and any student coming to Greek medicine through this source book will need to give them careful attention. In them Longrigg gives a nuanced interpretion of his central thesis, shades and modifies the dogmatism of his chapter headings, and places his Tendenz in the context of current scholarship. A Chronological Table of physicians, Glossary of Technical Terms, 20-page Bibliography, Concordance of Quoted Passages, and Index conclude the book and greatly increase its usefulness. The concordance is especially welcome. It will encourage students to look up the selections quoted and so to overcome one drawback inherent in the source-book genre: a lack of context for the selections.