Edith Hall

An Epidemic of Sense

The Invention of Medicine: From Homer to Hippocrates


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The timing of Robin Lane Fox’s lively reappraisal of the evidence for the earliest Greek ‘rational’ medicine could not be better. Interest in contagious diseases has rarely been so high. But The Invention of Medicine, although covering such famous outbreaks of plague as that which blighted Athens early in the Peloponnesian War, described in such detail by the historian Thucydides (to whom we shall return), offers precious few parallels for the present. Even the ancient name of the group of medical treatises on which Lane Fox focuses, the Epidemics, turns out to be misleading: the term simply referred to diseases present in communities, rather than to diseases that spread like wildfire between communities, affecting large proportions of their populations. But Lane Fox’s admiration for the early Hippocratics, the first doctors in history known to have practised medicine conscientiously – and sometimes pro bono – without recourse to supernatural explanations or treatments involving religious ritual, echoes the praise rightly bestowed in recent months on the medical profession. And one continuous strand in the Hippocratic treatises speaks loudly to the mental health issues that have accompanied lockdown: their authors attributed great significance to the psychological states of the patients they described, whether they were experiencing melancholia, suicidal thoughts, panic attacks or delusions, and recorded these as telling symptoms, to be observed alongside physical indicators.

Despite the often arcane and refractory nature of the sources, Lane Fox has made ancient history and society thrillingly accessible in previous books, from the riveting Pagans and Christians (1986) to the prizewinning Augustine: Conversions and Confessions (2015). He does likewise in this new work, an exploration of medicine in ancient Greece and the group of treatises that have been transmitted in manuscripts from antiquity under the name ‘Hippocrates’. With his customary eye for telling detail and the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people more than two millennia ago, he introduces his reader to dozens of real medical case histories, involving illnesses ranging from hangovers and post-parturient women’s fevers to psychotic episodes, malaria, a disease that looks suspiciously like tuberculosis, tumours, fractures and various congenital afflictions including club foot. Sometimes we know the name and occupation of the sufferer; often we know exactly where they lived, which is usually the island of Thasos.

For Lane Fox has shifted the centre of gravity in the narrative of ancient medicine away from the eastern Aegean island of Kos (Hippocrates’s homeland) and the coastal town Knidos, where clans or castes of medical practitioners calling themselves the descendants of Asclepius operated for much of antiquity. He leads us on a detective trail, instead, to Thasos. This large northern Aegean island was the residence of the patients documented in Books I and III of the Epidemics, the texts that Lane Fox is convinced are the earliest of all those attributed to Hippocrates. He argues that they may even have been written personally by the great doctor himself, during a period of a few years between the late 470s and the early 460s BC, when he practised on the island.

This hypothesis reworks the Hippocratic chronology radically. No fewer than fifty-nine treatises, preserved in manuscript, ended up being printed in Venice in 1526 under the title All the Works of Hippocrates. They were written between the fifth century BC and late antiquity. Scholars, starting with the pioneering Emile Littré in the mid-19th century, have used stylistic and other criteria to distinguish between different putative doctor-authors and sort the treatises into some form of chronological order. It has long been recognised that the writing in Epidemics I and III is in important respects different even from that in the other five books constituting the Epidemics, and that they must be among the earliest of all Hippocratic treatises to be written. But few scholars will have expected Lane Fox to shift the date of their authorship back more than half a century, to less than a decade after the end of the Persian Wars, making it possible that we are reading case studies penned by no less a figure than Hippocrates himself.

Besides its contribution to Hippocratic studies, there are two reasons why this argument is important. One is that documentation of ‘everyday’ ancient life, as well as of intellectual developments in the first half of the fifth century BC, is frustratingly thin on the ground. If Epidemics I and III were written in Thasos around 470 BC, then our understanding of the shift from ‘archaic’ to ‘classical’ Greek thought is massively enriched. Secondly, it makes much more intelligible the huge impact that advances in medicine – especially the eschewal of supernatural explanations – made on the nonpareil historian Thucydides, by no means exclusively in his famous description of the Athenian plague. Lane Fox’s claim will need to be taken as seriously inside the academy as beyond it.

Highlights of this book include an enthralling discussion of injuries and healing in Homer and descriptions of medicinal plants, enhanced by Lane Fox’s expertise in horticulture. His life and personality shine through on every page – his love of horses, his friendship with the actress Rosario Dawson (whom he met when academic consultant on Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander), his long career at New College, Oxford, and the grim medical ordeals undergone by his daughter and grandson.

This is not to say that The Invention of Medicine is without its problems. The new date (which is plausible enough) requires a long exegesis of the non-medical inscriptions on Thasos, which the lay person may well want to skip. Lane Fox’s imagination leads to some rather wild speculations, especially about fifth-century theatre performances in Thasos and Thucydides’s personal encounters there. Some classicists will question his sometimes unsubtle distinctions between ‘rational’ Greek medicine and the richly documented medical knowledge possessed by the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians. Others may be irritated by his enthusiasm for the beauty-obsessed ancient Greek males who competed in heroic nakedness at athletics competitions, not to mention his lack of interest in recent scholarship on disabilities and attitudes to them in antiquity. But Lane Fox brings the ancient Greeks to life as few other public-facing scholars can. Anyone interested in medicine, science, philosophy or classics will enjoy (almost) every page and admire Lane Fox’s panache and erudite mastery of sources, even while sometimes doubting his conclusions.

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