Project: Pre- and Non-Hippocratic Medicine

The epistemological debate of the fifth and forth century was among the most important contributions of Greek thought to the development of science. Often, however, the epistemological treatises that became canonical after having been included in the so-called Hippocratic collection have little or nothing to do with medicine as the actual treatment of disease. One should indeed reject the idea of an unambiguous identity of medicine. Its forms may appear as uniform and intertwined, but they were also continuously developing and had different destinations. These different forms developed their own linguistic, stylistic and operational codes, also under the influence of a changing social structure at the end of the Archaic age, with new political and economic models, and a changing audience. Medicine grew with facts, situations and people.

What is known to us as the Corpus Hippocraticum is an anomalous and unintelligible object which should be deconstructed, with its internal disproportion, its evolving language, which can be sophisticated one moment and rudimentary the next, highly conceptual or informative, going from the linguistic and semantic sophistication of Gorgias to the elementary note on the wooden tablet of the travelling doctor. The more sophisticated works make use of successful modules and standardized units, and use a language as well as syntagmatic and stylistic structures which have been tried and tested elsewhere (e.g. by the sophistic movement and in philosophical debate), and these structures and language are used as instruments adequate to the new historical, social, political and intellectual state of affairs, illuministic as it pretends to be. The “other” medicine is instead rooted in a popular milieu; not so fashionable perhaps, it abandons the ambitions and the strict determination of the “science-form”, gives up hypotactic structures and resorts to serialism, which corresponds to a way of thinking and conceiving and not only of expressing thought.

This “other” medicine obtains its identity from being bound to operate empirically and to formulate its contents in written form for immediate consultation and with practical purposes. This is the medicine of the inscriptions, of recipes, of magico-medical papyri and of the technical treatises of the Corpus Hippocraticum which show an additive structure.

Greek medicine was a manifold activity indeed, which in the fifth century underwent on the one hand a transformation based on “a revolution of concepts” ending in an awareness of its paradigms but with limited practical consequences, and on the other hand admitted material from other fields of activity whose roots were more in the established crafts and whose progress was dependent on practice, that is to say experimentation, which craftsmen had introduced and continued to foster.

While a detailed investigation of these topics would be unattainable for a single scholar, and requires cooperation and a broader perspective, focusing on some of the ‘losers’ in Greek medicine can be a useful first step, as opposed to the history of the winners which has often been privileged. Those who appear to be the winners, analogously to what happened for instance with Greek tragedy and comedy, are those authors who, based on different and for us not always comprehensible reasons, have been deemed to be the main representatives of a discipline, and whose works have been therefore selected for preservation and canonisation; almost all the others were bound to disappear, and it is a fortunate coincidence that in some cases we have enough fragments and testimonies to allow us to get a picture of what happened outside the “inner circle”.

Concerning the written evidence outside this “inner circle”, which in our case can be identified with the Corpus Hippocraticum, some of the main authors of Archaic and Classical Greece, whose texts should be collected, edited, and interpreted within a more general and common framework, will thus be:

  1. among other authors are Alcmeon of Croton, Democedes of Croton, Acron of Agrigentum, Philistion of Locri, Hippo of Samos, Philolaus of Croton; Empedocles, Diogenes of Apollonia, Archelaus, Democritus; to these some minor authors should be added, such as for instance Ninia the Egyptian, Euriphon of Cnidos, Erodicus of Cnidos, Siennesis of Cyprus, and Others;
  2. Homer, Hesiod, Lyric Poetry;
  3. selected inscriptions with healings, both from sanctuaries (in particular those of Asclepius) and from other sites, and a limited amount of other inscriptions of medical argument.

Such a collection of the fragments of pre- and non-Hippocratic ‘physicians’ (or authors with a special interest in medical topics) is intended to fill a gap in the field of ancient medicine and classical studies. Max Wellmann’s Die Fragmente der sikelischen Ärzte Akron, Philistion und des Diokles von Karystos, Berlin 1901, is out of date (only the post-Hippocratic section on Diocles has been replaced), and the second volume of his planned Fragmentsammlung der griechischen Ärzte, which would have contained “the fragments of the oldest physicians, from different schools”, was never published.