BMCR 2013.07.40

Society, Medicine and Religion in the Sacred Tales of Aelius Aristides. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 341

, Society, Medicine and Religion in the Sacred Tales of Aelius Aristides. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 341. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012. ix, 206. ISBN 9789004229082 $140.00.


While the surviving orations of Aelius Aristides (117 – after 180 CE) illustrate the main tendencies of the Second Sophistic, they also present a strong religious dimension. This characteristic is largely explained by the orator’s biography. He fell ill in late 143 CE (cf. 48, 60; 50, 1-2), just when he had planned to go to Rome. He then suffered from various diseases and never completely recovered. Thus he regularly went to the Pergamene Asclepieion to find remedies for his pains, which the god delivered via dreams and omens. Asclepius not only prescribed treatments to Aristides, but also gave him helpful advice about his rhetorical career (which was often hindered by health problems). Aristides describes these communications in the Sacred Tales, whose autobiographical approach have made them famous, while Aristides’ other orations still remain largely unknown.

Ido Israelowich’s elegant book, the result of an Oxford doctoral thesis in history, has an introduction, three chapters and a conclusion, as well as a bibliography and a brief index of nouns and notions. Dedicated to the study of society, medicine, and religion in the Sacred Tales, the book focuses on the medical dimension, demonstrating that the Sacred Tales, particularly when compared with the medical literature and the votive inscriptions from the sanctuaries of Asclepius, represent a mine of valuable information about medical practices and the conception of illness in the 2 nd century CE.

The first chapter presents the corpus and explains when, how and why, the Sacred Tales were written. They were written in the early 170s CE, based on Aristides’ memories along with precise notes he took about his dreams and the ensuing prescriptions. Covering two main periods (143-155 and 165-171), the narrative is not chronologic and does not display any narrative suspense. Describing his illness and how the god cured him, Aristides is adamant about the protection he received (and still receives) from Asclepius. While composing the Sacred Tales to praise and thank the god, but also to recount a specific experience (parallels of which can be found in aretalogical inscriptions), he follows his friends’ advice and demonstrates his ethos as a superior orator (because he has been saved by the god). Aristides’ redemption narrative has not always been well regarded, especially during the Byzantine period. This disrepute lasted at least until the beginning of the 20 th century.1

The second chapter analyses in detail the relation Aelius Aristides has with illness and with those who can cure him. Ido Israelowich studies Aristides’ treatments and the health-care providers he consulted, as well as the role dreams play in the recovery process. He also recounts the Sophist’s medical biography, and sheds light on how patients, disease and physicians are conceptualized in the Sacred Tales. This kind of research is particularly interesting because it brings to the fore the point of view of a patient who is familiar with medicine, albeit not a specialist. Drawing his inspiration from the work of Arthur Kleinman, Thomas Kuhn, and Tamsyn Barton, the author reconstructs the “Health-Care System” wherein Aristides evolves (a system where religion, philosophy and tradition are fundamental and in which the medical profession is quite well respected), to show that the orator shares the views of the people around him on medicine, and that the treatments he follows are not odd. It was normal to consult physicians, gymnastic trainers, and the Asclepieia’s staff, and also take into account the dreams sent by the divinity. As for the orator himself, he conceives of his condition as a collection of symptoms rather than the consequence of a particular ailment. And it appears that Aristides’ rhetorical career and his illness follow a very similar path.

The third chapter is more specifically devoted to the religious dimension of Aristides’ medical experiences. Comparing the theological ideas Aristides expresses in the Sacred Tales and in his other discourses (particularly in the hymn Regarding Zeus), Ido Israelowich has to concede that Aristides’ religiosity (acknowledging Zeus’ supremacy in the pantheon while at the same time preferring to turn to Asclepius for healing) is not eccentric for the period, and that it has literary precedents (Homer, Pindar, Plato, etc.). Evoking once more the role of dreams and oracles, the author finally analyses the importance of cults, celebrations and images, both in the universe of the Sacred Tales and in the 2 nd century Graeco-Roman world. Indeed, while his contemporaries share Aristides’ medical discourse, the religious experience described in the Sacred Tales turns out to be equally representative of the period. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing new or original in Aristides’ literary and rhetorical approach.

Sticking precisely to the historical framework, Ido Israelowich rightly shows that the Sacred Tales are not the work of an egocentric and neurotic person: it is a salvation tale that attests to an authentic experience, which is both unique and typical of the elite’s religiosity in the second century CE. Despite a perhaps over-rigid general framework and a few repetitions, Israelowich offers wise thoughts on the situation of Graeco-Roman medicine during Aristides’ period, on key notions in the medical domain ( katharsis, pharmakon, etc.), on the apprehension of illness and the absence of a clear distinction between scientific and temple medicine.

This book would have benefitted from a better knowledge of the non-English language bibliography devoted to Aelius Aristides. To cite some examples: Salvatore Nicosia has published (among other things) a very valuable essay on the social and literary context of the Asclepieion of Pergamum: Elio Aristide nell’Asclepieo di Pergamo e la retorica recuperata (Palermo, 1979); the hymn to Zeus has been analysed in particular by Julius Amann in his book Die Zeusrede des Ailios Aristeides (Stuttgart, 1931); the narrative options of the Sacred Tales have been studied by Carla Castelli (“Intenzionalità espressiva e ordine della narrazione nei Discorsi Sacri di Elio Aristide”, Acme, 52, 1999, p 197-211 and “Dominante spaziale e struttura argomentativa nel V Discorso Sacro di Elio Aristide”, Rhetorica, 27, 2009, p 404-419) and Martin Korenjak (“Unbelievable confusion. Weshalb sind die Hieroi Logoi des Aelius Aristides so wirr?”, Hermes, 133, 2005, p. 215-34); the theme of the plague has been tackled by Marie-Henriette Quet in her lengthy article “Éloge par Aelius Aristide des co-empereurs Marc Aurèle et Lucius Verus, à l’issue de la guerre contre les Parthes”, Journal des savants, janvier-juin 2002, p. 75-150; fundamental pages for understanding Aristides have been written by Laurent Pernot in his books La rhétorique de l’éloge dans le monde gréco-romain (Paris, 1993) and La rhétorique dans l’Antiquité (Paris, 2000, translated by W. E. Higgins: Rhetoric in Antiquity, 2005) and in his article “Les Discours sacrés d’Aelius Aristide entre médecine, religion et rhétorique”, Atti Accademia Pontaniana, vol. LI, 2002, p. 369-383. All these works (and others, a regularly updated list of which can be consulted on the website Classicalsace) give a better understanding of the religious specificity of Aristides’ work and the fact that rhetoric does not block the expression of religious feelings. It is a bit hasty to simply say “this work ( sc. the Sacred Tales) was intended to be read” (p. 128), because the Sacred Tales were initially composed to be spoken. Likewise, it is strange to claim that “Aristides’ lectures on theology in his epideictic orations and in his prose hymns were not written or delivered as ‘academic’ lectures, but as public displays of rhetorical skill” (p. 138), because epideictic eloquence does not preclude the expression of religious feelings. Consequently, it is risky to state that “their content should, therefore, not be taken as Aristides’ genuine thoughts or beliefs” ( ibid.). In order to be credible, the orator must express ideas his audience may adhere to; rhetoric expresses religious ideas that are shared (at least in part) by the listeners, whether in a formal eulogy or in a hieros logos with more intimate content.

Generally speaking, it is wise to be wary of some of the datings presented by Charles A. Behr in his book Aelius Aristides and the Sacred Tales (Amsterdam, 1968) and in his full translation P. Aelius Aristides. The Complete Works (Translated into English. Leiden, 1981-1986). For example, it is not sure (as Ido Israelowich acknowledges) that the hymn to Sarapis ( or. 45) and the Lalia in honour of Asclepius ( or. 42) were pronounced on 25 April 142 and 6 January 177 respectively; similarly, the circumstances of the composition of the hymn to Zeus cannot be established as precisely as Behr would have wished, and the Isthmian Oration ( or. 46) definitely does not date from 166.

In detail, it is still preferable to refer to Aristides’ text as published by Bruno Keil (Berlin, 1898) and to use the translation provided by Behr with care. For example, in 43, 25 (quoted p. 142) one cannot read καὶ Ἀσκληπιὸς ἰᾶται and translate it as “And Asclepius heals assisting Zeus”. “Assisting Zeus” was added by Behr, who proposes the reading: ἰᾶται <συλλαμβάνων Διί>. The text is problematic: Keil suggests correcting the lesson from manuscript C to read καὶ Ἀσκληπιὸς ἰᾶται οὓς ἰᾶσθαι Διὶ φίλτερον (which can be translated as “Asclepius heals those whom it is more dear to Zeus to heal”). Similarly, in 43, 29 (quoted p. 143), it is impossible to read Ζεὺς πάντων πατὴρ καὶ οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς καὶ θεῶν καὶ ἀνθρώπων καὶ ποταμῶν καὶ φυτῶν and translate it as “Zeus is the father of all, rivers, heaven, earth, gods, mankind, animals, and plants” (“rivers” should come after “mankind”, but where does “animals” come from?). Indeed, it is preferable to read Ζεὺς πάντων πατὴρ καὶ ποταμῶν καὶ οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς καὶ θεῶν καὶ ἀνθρώπων καὶ φυτῶν, in other words by reading, with the manuscripts, the group καὶ ποταμῶν athetised by Keil after πατήρ, without the conjecture <καὶ ζῴων> proposed by Schwartz in front of καὶ φυτῶν. The passage therefore means: “Zeus is the father of all, rivers, heaven, earth, gods, mankind, and plants”.

Despite these reservations, one can only rejoice at the publication of a book devoted to Aelius Aristides. Ido Israelowich’s book is both an informative read and a useful contribution to the history of medicine and the sick, while providing a welcome tool for specialists of Aristides and the Second Sophistic.


1. Cf. for instance A. Boulanger, Aelius Aristide et la sophistique dans la province d’Asie mineure au II e siècle de notre ère, Paris, 1923.