BMCR 2000.11.20

Medical Latin in the Roman Empire

, Medical Latin in the Roman Empire. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xv, 517 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0198152795. $110.00.

This work describes itself, rather disarmingly, as a ‘pilot study’ for a full description of the Latin medical language, and in some ways that characterization is not unjustified: the scope of the work is largely restricted to the writings of four authors, and for some aspects of language only two of those authors are systematically considered. Yet at the same time it is clear that L.’s work will be the definitive treatment of this subject for some time to come, for his painstaking and exhaustive approach has set a standard in the handling of this material which few scholars will want to try to exceed.

The time has certainly come for a study of medical Latin: interest in ancient medicine has increased greatly in recent years together with an interest in technical languages for their own sake. J.N. Adams’ work on the language of Latin veterinary writers1 has shown what can be done with this type of Latin and made the lack of a work on medical Latin all the more noticeable, and now L.’s long-awaited work (a heavily revised version of his 1991 Oxford doctoral dissertation) has appeared to fill that gap.

The work is based on a thorough analysis of four writers: Aulus Cornelius Celsus (first century AD Scribonius Largus (first century AD Theodorus Priscianus (fourth-fifth century AD and Cassius Felix (fifth century AD). The combined works of these four authors fill c. 900 pages of Teubner text, making a corpus of data large enough to be taken very seriously. The choice of sources is also nicely balanced to allow tentative generalizations to be drawn about differences among the authors which could be characteristic of their respective periods, and, while the use of more sources would in theory have been eminently desirable, it is clear that the kind of detailed analysis L. performs could only have been conducted on a limited quantity of text.

In his introductory chapter, L. covers a number of intriguing questions about the nature of technical language and the problems involved in defining medical Latin as well as giving full background information on the authors involved. This long chapter (75 pages) provides some of the most interesting reading in the entire work, not only because the questions posed are of much larger significance than the usage of four writers, but also because L. is prepared to commit himself to answers and provides convincing evidence to back those answers up. Here is a theoretical discussion with which one can engage fully without being frustrated by the author’s wriggling out of confronting the real problems and without a smokescreen of obfuscatory language.

The core of the work consists of an examination of the elements which go to make up medical Latin, classified by the means employed to create them. The first section, on borrowing, explores the use of Greek terminology in medical Latin; readers whose preconceptions have been directly or indirectly influenced by Pliny’s view that medicine was a Greek art even in Rome (Nat. Hist. 29.17) will be startled to find that Greek borrowings account for less than half of the medical terminology of even the most Hellenizing Latin authors. It is also surprising to find that Greek vocabulary is much more common in the two later authors than in the two early ones; one might have expected the field to lean more heavily upon the Greeks at the beginning of the empire and then diverge as Latin practitioners developed more of their own terminology (and as the two halves of the Roman empire began to diverge), but the reverse seems to have been the case. L. also reveals that even in the fifth century Latin medical writers could still make substantial terminological innovations, a conclusion which contradicts previous findings.

The second section, on semantic extension, contains more unexpected information: different subdivisions of medicine (anatomy, pathology, and therapeutics) seem to prefer different types of semantic extension. Thus, for example, terms formed by the application of an abstract word to a concrete referent (as ‘abscessus,’ which originally referred to the act of withdrawing and then came to mean ‘abscess’) are more common in pathology than in anatomy or therapeutics, while euphemistic creations are most common in anatomy. The latter finding has an obvious cause, but the former is less easily explained; the differences certainly have nothing to do with variation among the different authors since each author discusses all three subdivisions and since the same differences between them can be found in all the authors.

The third section discusses phrasal terms, those consisting not of single words but of noun phrases. L. examines with care the fine gradations between fully lexicalized phrases such as ‘ignis sacer’ (which is neither fire nor sacred, but a type of skin disease) and completely non-lexicalized descriptions used on only one occasion. He finds in the first century use of phrasal terms for one-word Greek expressions a conscious attempt to forge a Latin medical vocabulary and notes that later authors made more sparing use of this system of term-formation. An examination of the order of words within lexicalized phrases leads to the conclusion that each phrase has a standard, unmarked order and that deviation from that order, when it occurs, is motivated by various special factors.

The fourth section, on compounding and affixal derivation, considers terms formed by standard Latin derivational processes such as the addition of suffixes, the creation of compounds, and the substantivization of adjectives. Here again there are sharp distinctions among the different fields of anatomy, pathology, and therapeutics: for example, although the suffixes -tio and -tus seem in general to be similar in their function of producing new nouns, nouns in the domain of anatomy are more likely to be formed with -tus (e.g. in ‘pulsus,’ the pulse) than with -tio, while in therapeutics -tio (e.g. in ‘detractio,’ bleeding or purging) is much more common than -tus. (An English parallel would be the suffix -itis, which is much more likely to be used to form the names of diseases than of parts of the body.) L. argues that the connection between certain suffixes and the lexical fields to which they relate was one of which Latin speakers were probably aware, as we are aware of the meaning of -itis. He also argues for a remarkable diachronic stability in this type of word-formation in medical Latin while noting that in the later writers a blurring of the distinction between Greek and Latin morphology can be seen: when Greek suffixes such as -ikos are added to Latin roots to produce words like ‘lunaticus’ (moon-struck, epileptic), the blending of languages so common in our own medical terminology has begun.

Finally, L. discusses the relationship among terminology, syntax, and style in medical Latin: when do authors use a technical term, and when do they use a longer paraphrase? Each author has his own stylistic preferences in this respect, with Celsus preferring to avoid jargon even at the cost of using periphrases and Cassius Felix opting for a more compact, unvaried style by using more technical terms; this difference is partly a reflection of the dominant medical styles of their respective periods but also a matter of individual choice and of the general pressures of technical writing (which L. examines from both an ancient and a modern perspective).

In an epilogue, L. draws attention to those of his conclusions which have a broader application for other areas of Latin and for other languages. Readers interested more in linguistics than in medical terminology may wish to begin here and use this section to help them find the most valuable chapters for their purposes. There is no question that L.’s conclusions do have the wider applications he claims for them; they are clearly important for our understanding of the growth and change of any type of Latin and therefore for theories of language development in general. At the same time, L.’s words of caution on the amount of work remaining to be done on medical Latin are fully justified, and it is to be hoped that his suggestions for further research will be followed up soon, although he has set an example that will be daunting to imitate.

This work is clearly not intended for the educated layman, nor even for most Classicists, but for readers with prior knowledge of both linguistics and Latin. L.’s own use of technical language resembles that of Cassius Felix more than that of Celsus: while he never uses jargon as a means of impressing the reader with his command of obscure words, out of an inability to master good English prose, or in order to conceal lapses of logic, he does not feel bound to avoid useful terms simply because many of his readers will not know what they mean. This uncompromising approach to the subject will make the work hard to follow for those without background in linguistics — though those with such background will find the writing remarkably clear and straightforward, and those familiar with linguistic writing will appreciate that the jargon could have been much, much worse. Another potential difficulty is presented by the numerous Latin quotations, almost none of which are accompanied by translations (though the individual words discussed are usually translated) and many of which are written in a type of Latin unfamiliar to most Classicists. Translations of the Latin passages quoted and a glossary of L.’s own technical terms would have made this work much more generally accessible, but at the same time they would have increased the length and cost of a book which is already long and expensive.

The book is generally well produced, with few typographical errors, although in places it is hard to tell where the text ends at the bottom of a page and the footnotes begin. A long and very up-to-date bibliography will be of great value to anyone taking up any of L.’s suggestions for further research, and three substantial indices (one of topics, one of Latin terminology, and one an index and glossary of Greek terms discussed) make consultation of this work on a specific point very easy. A detailed table of contents is also helpful in this direction. It is obvious that L. has taken great care to ensure that this book will be easily usable as a reference work, a fact which is fortunate given the prospects of its being the definitive work on the subject for years to come.


1. Adams, J. N., Pelagonius and Latin Veterinary Terminology in the Roman Empire (Leiden 1995).