Comparative Guts

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500 BCE – 200 CE

Greco-Roman medical cultures

Chiara Thumiger

Cluster of Excellence Roots, CAU University, Kiel
The first documented beginnings of Greco-Roman medicine are identified traditionally with the dawn of Hippocratic medicine, owing its name to Hippocrates, the fifth-century legendary physician said to have come from the island of Cos, in the south-eastern Aegean. The work and movements of the professional doctors can be located from Asia Minor and the Aegean to mainland Greece, southern Italy and Sicily; later, the elaborations of this medical tradition will flourish in Hellenistic Egypt, and then extend to the borders of the Roman empire in the imperial age, enabling the Syriac and Arabic receptions and translations of the Greek texts which will preserve them for medieval and early modern readers. The authority of these medical doctrines – even more, their terminological and conceptual backbones – would remain in place through the centuries, despite changing medical trends and scientific models.

It would be naive, of course, to think that medicine was born in the classical era, and in a specific location: medical doctrines, therapeutics, patient observations and interventions on the body existed around the Mediterranean for centuries long before this time, notably in the millennial traditions of Egypt and among the Babylonians (but surely not only there). The first systematised texts of learned Western medicine to reach us, however, are those of the Greeks and their Roman heirs, a body of knowledge that exerted immense influence and which is still visible, in many ways, in the rhetoric, terminology, ethics and scientific frame of Western ‘official’ medicine.
Graeco-Roman medicine and natural sciences did not show great interest in reaching under the skin and into the human body to explore and map its contents from the start. The first surviving detailed anatomical works are those by Aristotle, who worked only on non-human animals; and it is only in the Hellenistic era (4th–2nd centuries BCE), in the exceptional context of Alexandrian, palace-sponsored, research, that for a short period of time the dissection of human cadavers (and, if we are to believe controversial evidence, even vivisection of condemned criminals) appears to have been openly allowed. So begins the history of ‘anatomy’ in the tradition of Western medicine in its etymological sense of ana-tomia, the ‘orderly cutting into parts’ of the animal body and the careful distinction of components, tissues, substances, to which Galen’s writings on the vivisections he practiced on a vast range of animals, small and big, left to us evidence as wonderful as it is ghastly. This learning itinerary and these scientific programmes, unfortunately, left behind no pictures of the body ‘imagined’ by these thinkers for us to look at; while writers, poets, and artists, on the other hand, offer us complementary, if indirect evidence of this growing curiosity in what lies under the skin, inviting the eye to turn towards the inside of the human body and reach underneath its surface. The figurative material available to the historian is fundamentally of two types: artistic, and votive in purpose (especially Etruscan and Roman, rather than Greek); both, then, for a public very general and largely unspecified. In the first, artistic evidence, the inside is preserved intact (as Osborne shows) and communicates to the outside through modest lesions.

The medical fascination with the inside of the body as preserving powerful mechanisms and vital matters, however, cannot have left artists indifferent, although the conventions of public art were identical with highly stylised, solid and healthy forms; Apollo’s belly (fig. 3) could be read in this sense – and certainly the comical bellies of the grotesque terracottas (fig. 2). The votives aimed at focusing the healing powers of the divinity by displaying the body part (ill, then healed) constitute a legitimate exception; and while the classical Greeks shied away from including inner parts among the depictable objects to be displayed in gratitude, in the Etruscan and Roman workshops polyvisceral plaques of the individual stomach, womb or intestine are relatively common (fig. 4, fig. 5).