BMCR 2004.09.05

Medicina Antiqua

ALSO SEEN: Jason Davies, Medicina Antiqua. London: Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine, 2004.

The web site Medicina Antiqua is in its ‘second incarnation’ to quote the web page coordinator, Jason Davies. It was originally set-up and designed by Dr. Lee Pearcy of the Episcopal Academy, Pennsylvania and has now moved to the Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine at University College London. It is intended to be a scholarly introduction to classical medicine and a resource linking to other web pages related to medical history, especially classical medicine. As a web page it is nicely designed, easy to navigate and provides basic information for readers unfamiliar with the subject of classical medicine.

The site is divided into a number of sections including a basic home page, a page providing information about the history of the site, a section on essays, links to on-line texts, announcements for upcoming events and newly published material and a discussion group. The section that will possibly be most useful to students/newcomers is the essay section. At the moment the section is rather insubstantial, with seven contributions that touch on a variety of topics with little cohesion or theme linking them. They are intended to be basic introductions to topics related to ancient medicine, so there should be no expectation that insights into detailed academic debates on the topics will be provided. As this is the most academic section of the web page, it is the one upon which I will focus the review.

Francois P. Retief and Louise Cilliers wrote on ‘Poisons, Poisoning, and Poisoners in Rome’. Here the reader is introduced to the historical evidence of poisoning. It is an engaging paper making reference to some interesting stories of poisoning in Roman history. Perhaps a paragraph could have been provided explaining the link between medicine and the use of poisons, since the two, as implied in the paper, were frequently interconnected in traditional or folk-remedies. In some instances direct references are provided and not in others, and I think the reader would benefit from precise referencing in order to check the information for one’s self.

There are three essays with discussions medicinal plants: Rue (Ruta Graveaolens), Hellebore and Hemlock (Conium maculatum L.). Each entry, written by W. Jeffrey Hurst with assistance by Deborah Hurst, offers information about the particular plant’s medical use, its chemical composition and some general information about where it is mentioned in classical medical literature. For this to be of greater use to the reader many more medicinal herbs should be described.

Two essays introduce the reader to the works of the Hippocratic writers and Galen. One ‘Hippocrates: The “Greek Miracle” in Medicine’, by Ann Ellis Hanson is a concise introduction to Hippocratic Medicine. Hanson examines the historical context in which the corpus was written and the formation and problems with studying the various works. Moreover, she describes the more ‘rational’ elements of medicine in the Hippocratic texts, but perhaps too emphatically in this section, as one must be aware that there are academic debates concerning ideas of rationality in the ancient medicine.1 She concludes with a discussion of the reception of Hippocratic medicine in the Renaissance and its influence on medical education. In Lee Pearcy’s ‘Galen: a Biographical Sketch’, Galen’s life is described, along with material about how his work has survived and come down to us through Greek, Arabic and Medieval Latin.

The final essay, also by Pearcy, is a discussion of dreams in ancient medical treatment related to the healing deity Asculapius. He points out the different medical sects’ views on dreams and their relation to the healing process. This essay demonstrates that there were many ways for the ill to be healed in the ancient world that combined elements of both the sacred and profane.

Besides the essays, useful links to online translations of the ‘Hippocratic Corpus’ and a few of the works of Galen are also provided. The section entitled Links, which provides access to other sites related to medical history, enhances this. These links are in English and French and have translations and texts in original languages of ancient medical works as well as announcements on publications and events.

My initial impression of the web page is that it is thin on material, and that which is provided varies greatly in the quality of the information given. Yet, it must be stated that the web page is under construction and not a finished project. To provide more information on the variety of topics related to ancient medicine, Davies has asked for more contributions, especially for the section on essays, so in time the site has the potential to grow to a very useful resource for students or newcomers to the subject. As medicine is generally not an area that receives much attention in classical studies, this web page, being easily accessible, could allow for more people to become familiar with such a rich and diverse sphere of the classical world that includes areas such as philosophy, archaeology, philology and history. At the moment the site is most useful for its links to other web sites, each providing different information that can be of use to the reader.


1. E.g. Lloyd, G. E. R. 1983. Science Folklore and Ideology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.