BMCR 2017.09.25

Popular Medicine in Graeco-Roman Antiquity: Explorations. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, 42

, Popular Medicine in Graeco-Roman Antiquity: Explorations. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, 42. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. xv, 319. ISBN 9789004325586. $138.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

It frequently happened to me on my journeys that when I myself or my family were ill, I made the acquaintance of various frauds of doctors ( medici): Some sold very inferior remedies at tremendous prices, others dared to profit from diseases they were unable to heal. I have also seen that some were anxious to treat ailments, which they could remedy in just a few days or even hours, over a long time so that they could enrich themselves by their patients. Therefore the doctors were worse than the diseases themselves!

The author of this outburst, who refers to himself as “Plinius Iunior”, then presents his readers a handy compilation of more than a thousand easily available and mainly natural healing agents and methods, thus providing them, the book’s late antique and medieval copyists, and modern scholars with first-hand evidence for popular medicine in the Roman world.

Yet texts like the Medicina Plinii, which starts with the quotation above, have remained under researched, probably because of the fact that the work is “derivative” and mainly based on extant parts of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, with the addition of some “folk” medicine, some magic, and some items of what German-speaking researchers like to refer to as “Dreckapotheke” (dirt pharmacy). However, books like this provide us with valuable evidence for the practices and social settings of ancient healthcare, and explorations of popular medicine in Graeco-Roman antiquity are timely and most welcome. The present volume—inspired, and edited, by W. V. Harris—may be said to emulate “Plinius Iunior” in taking the study of ancient healthcare away from the professionals (in Harris’s case, the historians of learned and temple medicines) and making the evidence, and methods, for its understanding more widely available.

This collection combines a substantial introduction by the editor and twelve essays of varying length and depth by experts in ancient medicine who were invited to a conference in Columbia University in 2014. The book focuses on popular medicine which the editor defines as “those practices aimed at averting or remedying illness that are followed by people who do not claim expertise in learned medicine (Gk. iatrike) and do not surrender their entire physical health to professional physicians (Gk. iatroi).” The book argues that our knowledge about ancient healthcare is “severely unbalanced” as there are “large bodies of evidence that concern elite/learned/rationalistic medicine on the one hand and temple medicine on the other”, while “the evidence about popular medicine … is scattered, refractory and elusive” (vii). The book aims to redress the balance, and certainly succeeds in making classicists and ancient historians more aware of the evidence, and the models used to interpret it, and thus to further our understanding of classical medicine in a wider sense.

In this reader’s view the essays which are especially successful in widening the perception are Rebecca Flemming’s study of anatomical votives in Republican Italy, which uses archaeological evidence often overlooked in studies of classical medicine, Isabella Andorlini’s short but substantial piece on “crossing the borders between Egyptian and Greek medical practice” as shown in papyri, Catherine Hezser’s essay on representations of the physician in Jewish literature from Hellenistic and Roman times, and Ido Israelowich’s paper on medical care in the Roman army during the High Empire. All four succeed in adducing what may fairly be called “scattered, refractory and elusive” evidence to the main topic and thus strengthen the foundation of a model which argues for classical healthcare beyond professional and temple medicine. Other essays use the writings of professional physicians to show that they were aware of “popular” medicine and may have considered it as a competition (witness the evidence discussed by Laurence M.V. Totelin in her re-evaluation of the sources for the Pharmakopolai).

Oddly, however, a major body of evidence which is not really “scattered, refractory and elusive”, is almost completely relegated to footnote 8 of the introduction: the so-called Euporista literature which enabled Graeco-Roman (and, as the many medieval copies of these books show, later) users of “popular medicine” to make use of “well accessible” ( euporista) healing substances and methods without recourse to professional medics. The Medicina Plinii is indeed referred to in that footnote, as is Quintus Serenus (though classifying his work as “mainly a learned compilation” seems to me to put too much weight on form and too little on content), while other works, like Damigeron’s—and, indeed, other— Lapidaria on the healing powers of stones are not even mentioned, and the Herbarius transmitted under the name of “Apuleius Platonicus” is only once referred to in passing when lunatics are discussed (269). Yet these, and similar, extant books from the Graeco-Roman world would strongly support the editor’s, and many of the contributors’, conviction that popular medicine represents a substantial, and often successful, mode of healthcare, especially outside the urban centres.1

The book is well produced (and expensive), and the editor as well as Caroline Wazer (whose contributions are acknowledged, and evident beyond her own paper and translation of Danielle Gourevitch’s) are to be congratulated on making an important point regarding the evidence, and models, for studying ancient medicine. It is to be hoped that the editor’s prediction that “a much more detailed and nuanced account of these matters will certainly be written in the future” (p. 64) will become reality before long, and that such an account will include the body of evidence we have in the Euporista literature.

In sum the volume makes a cogent case for further explorations in the emerging field of popular medicine in the classical world, and for entrusting such studies not only to professional historians of “learned” medicine, but also to experts in other bodies of evidence, and other methods, including especially social historians like W. V. Harris himself. Then Ps.-Apuleius, echoing the quotation from the Medicina Plinii, with which we began, will not have written the preface to his Herbarius in vain: “From many public documents we have truthfully handed down some powers of herbs and treatments for the body, because of the verbose stupidity of professionals ( ob stupiditatem verbosam professionis). … What do they do? Nothing! They wait for the opportunity and make a profit as they prolong the time for the treatment—indeed, I believe them to be more dangerous than the diseases themselves! As a way out, we shall present the names of the diseases which are now the most prevalent, and let our fellow-citizens, both our countrymen and foreigners, who suffer some physical ailment, find healing thanks to our written-down science ( nostra litterata scientia) even against the will of the medici.”

Table of Contents

Preface, List of Figures, Abbreviations, Notes on the Contributors
1. W.V. Harris: Popular Medicine in the Classical World
2. Laurence M.V. Totelin: Pharmakopolai. A Re-Evaluation of the Sources
3. Olympia Panagiotidou: Asclepius. A Divine Doctor, A Popular Healer
4. Rebecca Flemming: Anatomical Votives. Popular Medicine in Republican Italy?
5. Caroline Wazer: Between Public Health and Popular Medicine. Senatorial and Popular Responses to Epidemic Disease in the Roman Republic
6. Julia Laskaris: Metals in Medicine. From Telephus to Galen
7. Isabella Andorlini: Crossing the Borders Between Egyptian and Greek Medical Practice
8. Catherine Hezser: Representations of the Physician in Jewish Literature from Hellenistic and Roman Times
9. Chiara Thumiger: Fear, Hope and the Definition of Hippocratic Medicine
10. Ido Israelowich: Medical Care in the Roman Army during the High Empire
11. David Leith: How Popular Were the Medical Sects?
12. Danielle Gourevitch: Popular Medicines and Practices in Galen
13. Vivian Nutton: Folk Medicine in the Galenic Corpus
Bibliography, Index


1. Cf., e. g., the excellent survey (not mentioned in the volume) by Klaus-Dietrich Fischer, “Wenn kein Arzt erreichbar ist. Medizinische Literatur für Laien in der Spätantike”, in: Medicina nei Secoli: Arte e Scienza n. s. 24, 2012, pp. 379- 401. ​