BMCR 2017.04.05

A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome

, A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiv, 268. ISBN 9780190610432. $18.95.


J. C. McKeown, an Ovidian scholar and author of several Latin textbooks, has compiled this volume, the third in his Cabinet series of classical lore intended for popular audiences. It follows A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire from 2010 and A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Cradle of Western Civilization from 2013. Like his previous Cabinet books, this is not a scholarly work and makes no claims to be: McKeown’s goal is to provide “entertainment rather than enlightenment” (x). In this review I will briefly address the easier question of whether this book is entertaining, and the more difficult question of whether a bedside table book like this does more harm than good in avoiding “enlightenment”.

If you are seeking entertainment, McKeown delivers: he has selected some eight hundred short quotations (usually only a sentence or two long, up to a page at most) from Greek and Roman works, which portray the most absurd, amusing, and nauseating aspects of ancient medicine. Most of the translations are apparently new (he never says explicitly they are his own) and presented in engaging and colloquial English. They are organized into fourteen thematic chapters on topics such as the doctor in society, anatomy, sex, prognosis and diagnosis, and various treatments, culminating with ruminations on death. (Some of the quotations are recycled from a chapter on medicine in his Roman volume of 2010.) McKeown makes light of his own book and its organization by using ancient and modern medical language: he recommends reading only two chapters of the book each day, lest an excess of this literary medicine “cause drowsiness and, in rare cases, nausea” (xiv); and concerning the passages on “General Medicine” in Chapter XIII, he says “it seemed better to isolate them together here rather than to insert them ectopically somewhere else or excise them entirely” (229). Likewise, the blurbs on the back cover, which seem to be describing this book, are actually quotes from ancient authors about ancient books: Theophilus Protospatharius, for example, says, “Elegantly composed, but of little practical use.” While many individual passages are of a serious nature, the tone of the entire book is mocking, as McKeown skewers the credulity of ancient doctors and gullibility of their patients as well as the foibles of doctors to this day. Galen, in particular, is attacked repeatedly (and not undeservedly) for his arrogance and verbosity.

McKeown quotes abundantly from the usual suspects—the Hippocratic Corpus, Galen, Pliny the Elder, Celsus, Dioscorides —but also provides lesser known material such as inscriptions from Epidaurus and other temple complexes, the fourth- century CE Greek Cyranides, Firmicus Maternus, and medico-magical papyri from Egypt. One of McKeown’s strengths lies in bringing non-medical materials to bear on the subject of medicine and healing, including philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle, the plays of Aristophanes and Euripides, legal texts compiled under Theodosius and Justinian, histories by Polybius and Diodorus Siculus, and satirical observations from Martial, Lucian, and Menander. The inclusion of several quotes from Saint Augustine and the story of Cosmas and Damian is disconcerting, as McKeown does not otherwise engage with the rise of Christianity and its relationship with medicine.

The book is handsomely designed and visually pleasing. Each chapter begins with a Greek or Roman coin, most of which portray Asclepius, and which are explained at the back of the volume. A tiny silhouette of an ancient medical tool such as a mortar and pestle, forceps, or scalpel separates each passage. Most chapters include a small selection of images, often of ancient sculptures and votives, though some are of modern paintings and photographs, or are drawn from medieval Latin, Greek, and Arabic manuscripts. McKeown provides short commentary to just a handful of texts and images, usually humorous and anachronistic: to give a few examples, a Scythian warrior in a sculptural frieze is not “anxious about his capabilities, sexual or otherwise” (85); Seneca is “punching well above his philosophical weight” (125) when juxtaposed with Socrates; an image of Medea is “a very bad advertisement for foreign medicine” (202); and slaves or criminals are served as “meals on wheels” to wild beasts (215).

If you are seeking enlightenment about ancient medicine, however, then you should avoid this volume or handle it with extreme caution. McKeown disclaims any scholarly pretensions on the subject of ancient medicine and rather than being merely non-enlightening, he goes so far as to be anti-enlightening. He flaunts his ignorance of the topic of his book, and admits, “my modus operandi unabashedly makes no attempt to give a fair and balanced account of Greek and Roman medicine” (x). The reader in search of information about ancient medicine is guided only to “the odd, the bizarre, and the downright weird” and away from “the more rational and scientific aspects of ancient medical thought” (x). The structure of the book makes this agenda clear: he begins the book with a chapter on “Medicine, Religion, and Magic”, highlighting the most superstitious elements of ancient healing, but does not explain the ancient elements and humoral theory until nearly the end of the book (229-230), apparently as an afterthought, even though many quotations up to that point depend on understanding that medical framework.

Granted, no scholar is bound to serve as an apologist for premodern medicine and to make unrealistic claims for its rationality or efficacy, but McKeown has done a greater disservice by doing the very opposite in cherry-picking the most embarrassing passages from often lengthy sources. Nor is he obliged to write the sort of book that a professional historian of medicine would, but he should at least follow the Hippocratic standard that he often quotes: “at least do no harm”. What sort of harm does he do? McKeown intentionally, and quite happily, perpetuates popular misconceptions about ancient medicine and a Whiggish focus only on medical “progress” that has disappeared in the last half century except in the most salacious books written only to make money on horror stories masquerading as history. That attitude is made explicit in his brief comment on humoral theory: “Not many other beliefs so wholly lacking in any proper scientific foundation have impeded progress for so long.” (230) Furthermore, no quotations are given a date, nor are the works from which they come ever explained. There are no notes or bibliography, a policy McKeown chose to avoid “distraction” (xiii). References are not provided for any of the hundreds of texts for readers interested in pursuing a passage’s meaning and source. Even if McKeown imagines that his intended audience might consider such a list of references a “distraction”, many readers, this reviewer included, would appreciate its inclusion. Even though McKeown does provide an author and title for most quotations, he presents a millennium or more of ancient Mediterranean medicine as such a homogeneous and static mass of nonsense that “it very often does not greatly matter when or by whom something was said” (xiii). This is not simplified history for a popular audience; it is patently anti-historical.

Does A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities have any value, apart from providing a chuckle for modern practitioners who want to feel superior? McKeown has translated a wide variety of ancient sources on medicine and compiled them in an accessible and affordable book, which could benefit a student of ancient medicine who is not fluent in Greek or Latin. The only comparable collection of ancient medical sources in translation is James Longrigg’s more limited and significantly more sober Greek Medicine from the Heroic to the Hellenistic Age: A Source Book (1998), and it seems there is room for more such anthologies with the proliferation of university courses on the history of medicine. If used with care (by avoiding the preface and random comments), McKeown’s book presents a stimulating snapshot of the many visual and written sources available to the historian of medicine. It is all the more regrettable that McKeown, despite the scope of sources and quality of the new translations and images in his book, has so little respect for the history of medicine that he feels he can take those sources out of context solely for entertainment purposes. There is plenty of room for humor in the study of history, and there is much that is genuinely amusing in ancient literature, but the humor in this book is of a vicious sort, unmoored from the Greek and Roman cultures that produced these “curiosities”. Entertainment does not have to come at the expense of enlightenment.