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Medicine and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean World

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

Medicine and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Edited by Demetrios Michaelides. Pp. xix + 354, figs. 153, tables 29. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2014. $99. ISBN 978-1-78297-235-8 (cloth).

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This book represents a synthesis of papers from two international conferences: the First International CAPP Symposium, New Approaches to Archaeological Human Remains in Cyprus, and a conference with the same title as the volume. The book is divided into nine parts: “Medicine and Archaeology,” “Media,” “The Aegean,” “Medical Authors/Schools of Medicine,” “Surgery,” “Medicaments and Cures,” “Skeletal Remains,” “Asklepios and Incubation,” and “Byzantine, Arab and Medieval Sources.” The organization of the volume follows the organization of the Medicine and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean World conference, with papers from the Cyprus Ancient Population Project (CAPP) symposium focusing on human remains in Cyprus included in the section on skeletal remains. This presentation of topics from the two conferences makes the volume less than fully cohesive and thus detracts from its overall impact.

Most of the volume is written in English; two chapters are in French; and six chapters, which were reviewed based on their English summaries, are in Greek. The opening article by Diamandopoulous calls for a greater collaboration between historians of medicine and archaeologists and highlights the important role of archaeology in elucidating evidence for medical practices in prehistory without relying on texts that were written many centuries later. A brief list of archaeological material that is useful to historians of medicine is provided; it includes votive statues, inscribed dedications, ancient DNA and other biological remains, architectural remains connected to the practice of medicine, figurines with specific ailments or diseases indicated, representations of internal organs, and medical texts.

The rest of part 1 is equally important in delineating key issues on the topic of ancient medicine. Karamitrou-Mendesidi and Moschakis (ch. 2) provide a list of material indicators of the practice of medicine in Upper Macedonia, which include symbols of deities associated with medicine and healing, inscriptions referring to doctors, representations of medical instruments, and votives of body parts. These last are also discussed in Michaelides’ chapter 4 on ex-votos from Cyprus, where they were offerings of prayer or thanks for healing. Geroulanos (ch. 3) provides an in-depth analysis of the diseases, ailments, and other conditions that are represented in votives and stelae. While the author’s medical knowledge is clear, some identifications raise questions. For instance, phocomelia, a deformity in which the hands or feet are in close proximity to the body, is identified in a figurine from Sicily (24–5). However, the author, stating that the condition is known from the historical use of the drug thalidomide, provides no explanation as to what would have caused it in antiquity. Similarly, in part 4, van der Eijk (ch. 15) critically analyzes W.H.S. Jones’ theory, which was based only on textual evidence, that malaria was likely the main cause of societal decline in ancient Greece. Both illustrate that in attempts to identify disease or any other phenomenon in ancient history, we must not rely heavily on a single source of evidence and should be conservative in our interpretations.

Part 2 discusses two open-access digital initiatives, Medic@ and the Electronic Corpus of Ancient Physicians, a medical library dedicated to ancient medicine and a corpus of digitized literary works from a number of ancient authors, respectively. Part 3 considers literary references to medical knowledge, recurring concerns with health in context of sanctuary offerings, epigraphic evidence that indicates the socioeconomic positions of healers or physicians, knowledge of medicinal plants (Arnott [ch. 6]), and the role of midwives at the intersection of medicine, birth, and magical ritual (Morris and Peatfield [ch. 7]).

Part 4 deals with the Corpus Hippocraticum as it pertains to the origins of the Hippocratic Oath, the recursive influences between the emerging discipline of medicine—which Kalokairinou (ch. 11) characterizes as art, science, and practice (79)—and the philosophical and literary works of classical Greece. Especially interesting was Kalospyros’ (ch. 12) discussion of pain and how it relates to the Hippocratic understanding of human anatomy, as well as its role in new approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of disease in antiquity. In a similar vein, Bacalexi (ch. 13) discusses Galen’s treatise on the pulse in the second century C.E., while Gautherie (ch. 16) highlights how the philosophical differences between Hippocrates and Celsus in their approaches to medicine manifest in the patient-doctor relationship, which is further highlighted in Jackson’s discussion of surgeon’s knives in part 5 (ch. 18).

In part 6, Touwaide (ch. 23) examines a significant change in approach to therapeutic medicines in the first century C.E., which shifts from medicines with one active ingredient and further additions attempting to compensate for negative effects or an unpleasant taste to medicines with multiple active ingredients. As with Zanchin’s (ch. 22) discussion of headache remedies, Touwaide addresses the efficacy of each ingredient in these medical formulas.

Chapters that focus on material culture associated with either the practice of medicine or its social context, such as votive offerings and representations of disease (pt. 1), medical instruments (pt. 5), the role of baths and spas in Roman medicine (pt. 6), and the explication of skeletal trauma (pt. 7), include useful and necessary illustrations.

Though perhaps not directly addressing questions of medicine and healing, chapters from the CAPP symposium in part 7 summarize the goals of the Cyprus project and describe the physical characteristics and range of pathologies of Cypriot populations from prehistory to late antiquity, which have important implications for understanding the overall state of health, genetic traits, and the movement of people. Part 8, on the other hand, deals with the connections between medicinal and religious practice, such as in the role of dreams and their interpretation in healing, particularly as it relates to Asklepios (chs. 34, 35).

This book achieves the overall goal of the initial conference and the subsequent proceedings to examine a wide range of topics related to ancient medicine in the Mediterranean from prehistory to late antiquity and to encourage greater collaboration between archaeologists and historians of medicine.

Zuzana Chovanec

Book Review of Medicine and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean World, edited by Demetrios Michaelides

Reviewed by Zuzana Chovanec

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Chovanec

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