BMCR 2020.04.48

Hippocratic oratory: the poetics of early Greek medical prose

, Hippocratic oratory: the poetics of early Greek medical prose. Medicine and the body in antiquity . London; New York: Routledge, 2018. viii, 159 p.. ISBN 9781472474155 $150.00.

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

Published by Routledge as part of their Medicine and the Body in Antiquity series, Hippocratic Oratory is based on the author’s PhD thesis. It examines the poetics and persuasive function of five selected fifth century BC Hippocratic texts, which, according to the author, ‘show signs of being composed for […] oral dissemination’ (1).[1]Through an analysis of recurring patterns in language (e.g. antithesis, repetition, rhyme), the main objective of the book is to show that the Hippocratic writers played a vital part in the development of prose writing in fifth century BC Greece. Since much of earlier scholarly work predominantly focuses on the transmission and development of medical knowledge,[2] Cross’s approach represents a refreshing and novel contribution to the study of Hippocratic texts as well as to the study of ancient expository prose more broadly. Not to mention the huge potential for further output offered by reading other Hippocratic treatises in similar way.

The book contains five main chapters and a brief Conclusion summarizing the main points. Chapter 1 reviews previous scholarship and introduces the reader both to the development of the different performative contexts of early Greek intellectual prose and to the models of Hippocratic medical oratory. In this chapter, Cross also introduces the five Hippocratic treatises that underpin his analysis in the following chapters, and contextualizes them within the broader Hippocratic tradition. He justifies his selection of case studies by close similarities ‘in style and tone to other philosophical and sophist writing of the period’ (2) though he also rightly acknowledges that other Hippocratic texts might fit in this category and expresses hopes that they will become the subjects of further study (2; 134).

Chapter 2 addresses the connection between thought processes and expression. Through a detailed discussion of examples from Parmenides, Heraclitus and Herodotus, Cross seeks to expose any potential models of cogent explanation that would have been available to the Hippocratic writers to argue their cases. He finds parallels in phrase patterning and expression between the three texts and On Breaths. Chapters 3 to 5 then form the main part of Cross’s analysis, and assess the use of Hippocratic language as a means for affirming authority. Below I summarize some of the highlights of these chapters.

Chapter 3 examines the selected texts for evidence of epideixis, understood here as a signposting technique that implies persuasive function. Cross shows that announcements or promises to the audience that something will be demonstrated occur to a lesser or greater extent in all his case studies. They are, however, used more explicitly in some texts than in others, which leads to some interesting conclusions. Namely, Cross argues that each author had different preferences about how they wished to approach and communicate with the audience. This in turn suggests that a broader range of performative contexts, for which the Hippocratic authors wrote their treatises, existed.

Chapter 4 focuses on On Breaths as the main case study and demonstrates that its sound and structural patterns are similar to those found in earlier expository prose (viz. Encomium of Helen by Gorgias and fragments of Heraclitus). The focal resemblance can be seen in the interplay between form and content: rhythm appears employed by the three authors to reiterate and emphasize important arguments and ideas. Cross is right, however, in pointing out that each of the three texts has been written for a different purpose. Determining the degree of influence Gorgias and Heraclitus may have had on the author of Breaths is therefore problematic. On the other hand, Cross also makes and excellent point that not all Hippocratic texts use sound and rhythm to the same effect (e.g. the Sacred Disease), suggesting once again the Hippocratic authors adopted multiple persuasive techniques in a wider variety of contexts.

Chapter 5 addresses the prominence and purpose of antithesis in the selected treatises. Cross notices that antithetical statements appear most frequently near the opening lines of the five texts under study, but this is hardly surprising. Such composition allows the authors to attract attention of the audience and establish the context or framework for their arguments. More interesting, however, is Cross’ detailed discussion of the use of antithesis in On Ancient Medicine. Binary oppositions between correct and incorrect medical methods appear to be employed in the treatise as a means for undermining the author’s opponents’ theories, enhancing thus his own authority.

Overall, the book is well presented. All excerpts from the ancient sources that Cross analyzes in detail are meticulously translated with careful referencing throughout. Each chapter closes with full bibliographic notes, and a generous bibliography along with a brief index are added at end of the book. Additionally, there is also a useful Appendix consisting of brief summaries of, and introductory notes to, the five Hippocratic treatises that are the subjects of the main analysis. This is a welcome addition that not only allows for closer reading of the evidence and further research, but also suggests that, though the subject matter of the book is largely technical, the expected audience might be spread more widely than the ranks of expert classicists.

Errors are kept to minimum, although few minor typos occur in the text (e.g. 41; 113; 133). It is perhaps also worth mentioning that Cross occasionally uses unusually long sentences when making his points.[3] While this does not strictly detract from his overall meaning, some readers might find it necessary to re-read parts of the text. This, however, is only a small criticism of what is otherwise an excellent and approachable piece of research—the book clearly encompasses an important contribution to the study of Hippocratic texts and their place within the literary tradition of fifth century BC Greece. With its methodological advances Hippocratic Oratory will surely appeal both to students and academics, and it would be good to see it facilitate further study in the future.

Table of Contents

1 Hippocratic Expository Prose
2 Models of Logos and Medical Oratory
3 Hippocratic epideixis and the Orality of Medical Oratory
4 Gorgias, Heraclitus and the Persuasive Functions of Sound in On Breaths
5 In the Agon: The Persuasive Function of Antithesis in Hippocratic Oratory


[1] The treatises focused on in the book are: (1) On Ancient Medicine (περὶ ἀρχαίης ἰατρικῆς, de vetere medicina), (2) On the Art (περὶ τέχνης, de arte), (3) On Breaths (περὶ φυσῶν, de flatibus), (4) On the Sacred Disease (περὶ ἱερῆς νούσου, de morbo sacro), and (5) On the Nature of Human Beings (περὶ φύσιος ἀνθρώπου, de natura hominis).

[2] E.g. Dean-Jones, L. 2003, “Literacy and the Charlatan in Ancient Greek Medicine,” in Yunis, H. (ed.) Written Texts and the Rise of Literary Culture in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 97-121; King, H. 1998, Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge; Lonie, I. M. 1983, “Literacy and the Development of Hippocratic Medicine,” in Lassere, F. and Mudry, Ph. (eds.) Formes de pensée dans la collection hippocratique: actes du IVe Colloque international hippocratique. Genève: Droz. 145-161; Totelin, L. 2009, Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece. Leiden: Brill.

[3] Some of these take full paragraphs (e.g. 73; 100; 131).