BMCR 2004.01.26

Die pharmazeutische Fachliteratur in der Antike. Eine Einführung. Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft – Beiheft, 10

, Die pharmazeutische Fachliteratur in der Antike : eine Einführung. Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft. Beihefte ; Bd. 10. Göttingen: Duehrkohp & Radicke, 2002. 133 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3897441837 EUR 21.00 (pb).

1 Responses

According to its subtitle ( Eine Einführung = An Introduction) and its Preface (p. [5]), this small-size and short volume (133 pp.) is a small introduction ( kleine Einführung) arisen from a seminar on Smoke and smoking methods in Antiquity ( Rausch und Rauschmittel in der Antike) presented by the author (henceforth CS) in 2001 in the Classics and History of Medicine programs of Bochum University (Germany). It deals with specialized pharmaceutical literature in antiquity from Mycenae (1400-1180 B.C.) to Paul of Egina (7th century A.D.). According to the short text on the back cover, it presents the main streams of ancient pharmaceutical literature, with not only the major works and their authors, but also the contents of these works, their form, and their constant association of science and superstition and, during the transition to the Middle Ages, paganism and Christianity. Simultaneously, the work widens the very definition of specialized literature, by introducing into the analysis non-technical sources.

The text of the work (pp. 11-116), which contains 306 notes sequentially numbered throughout the different chapters, starts with general considerations on specialized technical literature (pp. 11-13) and the field of pharmaceuticals (pp. 13-16). It is divided in five chapters, corresponding to the periods introduced into the history of pharmaceuticals by CS: Archaic and Classical Periods; Hellenism; Rome; Late Antiquity; and Transition to the Middle Ages. Here is a summary of the data provided by the author.

The analysis of the Archaic and Classical Periods (pp. 17-35) deals mainly with 6 authors, groups of texts, or historical facts:

1. the tablets in Linear B, with an attestation of the word FARMAKON and the mention of some aromatic plants (pp. 17-18);

2. Homeric literature, where the concept of FARMAKON is better defined and some medicines are mentioned. CS briefly analyzes the most famous, the NHPENQES, which he identifies without doubt as an opium-compound (pp. 18-21);

3. the natural philosophers and the Hippocratic corpus. This period is characterized by a shift from magic and a theurgical concept of disease to a materialistic and rational system (the four humors). About the Hippocratic corpus, CS focuses on the drugs (270 according to him), the forms of administration and the categories of medicinals (pp. 21-27);

4. Socrates’ death, described by Plato in a non-technical, but nevertheless exact way (pp. 27-29);

5. Aristotle and Theophrastus. CS traces physiological data in Aristotle’s treatises (including plant physiology) and characterizes Theophrastus’ scientific enterprise (pp. 29-34);

6. Diocles of Carystius, of the 4th century according to CS, is credited with the writing of a treatise on venoms and poisons and a far-reaching influence (until Dioscorides, 1st cent. A.D.; see below) (pp. 34-35).

In the second period, Hellenism (pp. 36-51), CS distinguishes 5 main groups of works or authors, each of which corresponds to a step in the progress — or an aspect — of pharmaceutical literature and knowledge:

1. the Alexandrian physicians (16 are listed pp. 38-42), who, according to CS, were not primarily interested in pharmaceuticals (p. 37);

2. Mithridates VI King of Pontos, particularly known for his work on compound medicines and his experiments on addiction (and, conversely, drug immunity) (pp. 42-43);

3. Nicander, dated here 3rd-2nd century B.C.: his poems (QHRIAKA on venoms and ALEXIFARMAKA on poisons) pose the problem of the relationship of didactic poetry with technical literature (pp. 43-47);

4. Heracleides of Tarent, an empiric, who devoted several works to pharmaceuticals (pp. 47-49);

5. Krateuas, author of 3 works on the topic, one of which contained only illustrations (plants and animals). His plant representations were reproduced in the Vienna Dioscorides manuscript (in fact, National Library of Austria, medicus graecus 1, dated to ca. 512 A.D.) and is the most ancient illustrated herbal of antiquity that has been preserved (pp. 49-51).

The largest part of the work is devoted to Rome, in fact the Republican and Imperial periods (pp. 52-96). After a short overview of the transfer of Greek medicine to Rome (p. 52), the references to pharmaceuticals in early Latin literature (Plautus, Cato) (pp. 52-54) and in the 1st-century B.C. non-technical works (Varro, Horatius and Virgil) (pp. 54-55), and the pharmaceutical treatises of the early imperial period (Valgius Rugus, Aemilius Macer, Kleophantos, Heras of Cappadocia and Antonius Musa) (pp. 55-57), CS analyzes, in some detail, the largest or most significant treatises for the topic, stressing their contribution:

1. Celsus (considered here a physician) and his De medicina, where pharmaceuticals are described by kinds and by diseases (pp. 57-62);

2. the Compositiones of Scribonius Largus. The matter is arranged by recipes, which include a total of 242 different plants, 36 minerals and 27 animal substances (pp. 62-65);

3. Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, which evidences the absorption of pharmacy into encyclopedic literature, but does not bring new material to light (pp. 65-69);

4. Sextius Niger (pp. 69-70);

5. Dioscorides, whose De materia medica (dated here 65-75 A.D.) represents the highest achievement of pharmacy in antiquity. Considered a military physician, Dioscorides is credited with the description of ca. 800 plants and 100 animal and mineral drugs in 1,000 recipes. The arrangement of the matter within the work is unclear according to CS. Nevertheless, De materia medica had an extraordinary fortuna: it was translated into Latin and Arabic, and, within the Greek-speaking world, its matter was re-arranged by the alphabetical order of chapter headings and the text was illustrated with plant representations. The most ancient illustrated copy is the Vienna codex already mentioned (pp. 70-74);

6. Ailios Promotos, DUNAMERON (a collection of recipes), FUSIKA KAI ANTIPAQHTIKA, and the treatise on venoms and poisons attributed to him and dated here to the period 2nd-6th century A.D. (pp. 74-75);

7. a group of 1st-2nd century A.D. physicians who contributed to the Golden Century of pharmaceutical literature and knowledge (p. 82). Among them: Pamphilos, Iulius (or Tullius) Bassus, Tiberius Claudius Menekrates, Xenokrates of Aphrodisia, Philon of Tarsus, Servilius Damokrates, Areios of Tarsos, Agathinos, Archigenes of Apameia, and Antyllos (pp. 75-83);

8. Galen. CS first summarizes his biography and medical thought then briefly presents his pharmaceutical system based on the four qualities. Validation of drug’s activity should rely on experience and reasoning. His pharmaceutical works rely on the compilation of a vast spectrum of sources. Furthermore, Galen significantly developed compound medicines and was particularly interested in toxicology (pp. 83-91);

9. Gargilius Martialis’ work, of a more agronomic nature (pp. 91-93);

10. Philoumenos and his treatise on venomous animals. The work is illustrated with snake representations in its unique manuscript and it was used by such later physicians as Oreibasios and Alexandrer of Tralles (pp. 93-94);

11. Quintus Serenus Sammonicus’ poem on medicine poses again the question of the nature of didactic poetry. On the other hand, it evidences both a social engagement (recipes for poor people) and an opening to popular traditions, with the inclusion of superstition, magical formulas and the so-called Dreckapotheke (dung-medicines) (pp. 94-96).

The chapter on Late Antiquity (pp. 97-108) deals with 8 authors or works:

1.Oreibasios, who recycled (sic) material from Galen and different authors whose works are now lost (pp. 97-98);

2. De medicina Plinii, associating excerpts from previous literature and made for self-medication (pp. 98-100);

3. Caelius Aurelianus, who followed Soranos and methodism (pp. 100-101);

4. Theodorus Priscianus confirms the Euporista genre, built on an a capite ad calcem model (pp. 101-103);

5. Marcellus Empericus, whose 2,500 remedia heavily rely on magic and Dreckapotheke; his mentions of plants are a disaster as to plant identification and nomenclature (pp. 103-104);

6. Pseudo-Apuleius, Herbarius, with 130 chapters on plants that include illustrations (pp. 104-106);

7. Sextus Placitus and his book on Medicinals from animals (pp. 106-107);

8. Cassius Felix, who discussed all pathologies a capite ad calcem in 84 chapters and relied among others on magic (pp. 107-108).

To close the work, CS shortly characterizes the Transition to the Middle Ages (pp. 109-116), dividing his presentation in West (with Isidor of Seville, pp. 109-111) and East (with Aetios of Amida, p. 112; Alexander of Tralles, pp. 112-113; and Paul of Egina, pp. 113-114).

For all authors and works, CS proceeds according to a uniform pattern: biographical data of the authors (with some bibliography), presentation of the works (with references to the editions and, when appropriate, to German translations) and analysis of their pharmaceutical contents (including some references to secondary literature). Information is always succinct, so as to constitute a sort of handbook.

In the conclusion (pp. 115-116), CS stresses the lacunas of the documentation, its heterogeneity, the different kinds of works (the genres), their purpose(s), the wide spectrum of aspects they include (from Pliny’s ingenuity to Galen’s exhaustive system), the attitude toward magic and, last but not least, the difference in the drugs themselves and their uses.

The discursive presentation is followed by a short lexicon of technical terms (pp. 117-122), a selected and commented bibliography (pp. 123-127) and an index (pp. 128-133).

This is a highly problematic work. I will not discuss here such formal aspects as graphic errors, inconsistencies in the bibliographic references, the many shortcomings of the bibliography, cryptic abbreviations or errors in the references to the text in the index. I shall focus here on the contents. As the summary above makes it clear, this introduction is mainly a list of names and works with some analytical remarks and not a specific and original analysis of ancient pharmaceutical literature. Even though such basic information could certainly be useful, it remains that the information provided here is often superficial and incomplete, relies much on secondary literature (mainly the entries to Pauly’s Realencyclopaedie, the Kleine Pauly and the recently published Neue Pauly), and repeats (and will probably confirm) data constantly reproduced in 20th-century scholarly tradition (and even sometimes earlier).

It was possible to summarize current knowledge, and, at the same time, to suggest new analyses and open new paths for further research, or, at least, to better investigate the sources and to analyze their contents in a more specific way. Here are some examples of the shortcomings of the work, together with suggestions for a renewed analysis of the material. It is inexact to state that exotic drugs can be traced for the first time in the Hippocratic corpus (p. 25). A detailed analysis of the materia medica Hippocratica suggests that oriental drugs were traded to Greece in an earlier period, a fact that throws a new light on the origins of Greek therapeutic practices. The analysis of Aristotle (p. 32) does not take into consideration the notebooks of his school (the προβληματἀ, where the authors discuss such questions as pharmaco-cinetics and the specificity of drug activity. Diocles of Caristius does not seem to have written a treatise on venoms and poisons (p. 35), but probably dealt with this topic on his work On hygiene, where he analyzed theoretical matters (including the etiology of poisoning and venomous pathologies). Contrary to what CS affirms (p. 37), Alexandrian physicians were strongly concerned with pharmaceuticals: they are likely to have systematized traditional knowledge on the model of Theophrastus, so that the Alexandrian period is a milestone in the history of pharmaceuticals. In the discussion on Dioscorides and De materia medica, no reference is made to the two treatises on venoms and poisons attributed to him, while these two works witness a strong interest in toxicology used as a special field to better understand the action of pharmaceuticals (see pp. 70-74). Toxicology was a heuristic tool to build a paradigm further transferred to therapeutics. Similarly, the EUPORISTA ascribed to Dioscorides (briefly dealt with p. 71) should have been discussed at length as they evidence an important transformation of pharmaceutical literature or, at least, the development (not to say the creation) of a new technical genre. In the list of 1st and 2nd century physicians (p. 80), the mention of Areios of Tarsos should have included at least a reference to (not to say a discussion of) the school of Tarsos hypothesized by John Scarborough and Vivian Nutton. At the end of this section, the development — if not the fashion — of compound medicines should have been mentioned, all the more because this kind of pharmaceuticals deeply transformed the practice of therapeutic medicine. Galen’s contribution was not limited to apply to therapeutic the theory of the four humors, but also included a translation of the properties of drugs in material terms (particles), the size and shape of which determined the action of the drugs on the body and their assimilation into the organism (pp. 83-91). The representations of snakes in Philoumenos’ unique manuscript (see p. 93) is an addition of the 14th century and does not indicate anything about 2nd century medical literature and research. In the study of the transition to the Middle Ages, the Christianisation of therapeutics should have been mentioned, with the appearance and progressive development of the cult rendered to the twin healers Kosmas and Damianos. The ANARGUROI held their knowledge (and hence their therapeutic power) directly from God and not from any human science. This removed any speculation on the origin of drug properties out of the field of pharmaceuticals, and could help explain why the mere descriptions of Dioscorides’ De materia medica eclipsed Galen’s theoretical system.

I do not contest that a succinct introduction is necessary (given the lacuna of bibliography and, beyond, of research) and would certainly be useful for a wide audience. It is, indeed, highly desirable. However, it should not be limited to a synthesis of data that readers could find themselves by browsing encyclopedias and good bibliographies. Instead, it should offer new insights, stimulate original research and, at least, alert readers to disputed questions, stress the insufficiencies of current secondary literature, lead to a critical reading and analysis of previous literature, and, particularly, encourage readers to a personal contact with primary sources and a specific analysis. And, last but not least, it should avoid bibliographical inconsistencies, erratic references, mistaken data and insufficient information, so as to invite readers — whoever they are, undergraduate students, PhD candidates, junior research assistants, or just dilettantes — to the precision, exactness, careful analysis and, preferably, originality and creativity that are expected of any scientific work. Not to speak of specificity.

All in all, this short plaquette seems to be a sort of draft to be commented on for a lecture, including the approximations that personal notes can contain when they are not written for publication.

[[For an addendum to this review by Alain Touwaide, please see BMCR 2004.02.08.]]