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O Of 

* s 


General Editor CHARLES SINGER 









Oxford University Press 

London Edinburgh Glasgow Copenhagen 
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Humphrey Milford Publisher to the University 


pointed in England. 


This little book is an attempt to compress into a few 
pages an account of the general evolution of Greek 
biological and medical knowledge. The section on 
Aristotle appears here for the first time. The remaining 
sections are reprinted from articles contributed to 
a volume The Legacy of Greece edited by Mr. R. W. 
Livingstone, the only changes being the correction of 
a few errors and the addition of some further references 
to the literature. 

In quoting from the great Aristotelian biological 
treatises, the History of Animals , the Parts of Animals , 
and the Generation of Animals , I have usually availed 
myself of the text of the Oxford translation edited by 
Mr. W. D. Ross. For the De anima I have Vised the 
version of Mr. R. D. Hicks. 

I have to thank my friends Mr. R. W. Livingstone, 
Dr. E. T. Withington, and Mr. J. D. Beazley for a 
number of suggestions. To my colleague Professor 
Arthur Platt I have to record my gratitude not only 
for much help in the writing of these chapters but also 
for his kindness and patience in reading and rereading 
the work both in manuscript and proof. I am specially 
indebted, moreover, to the notes appended to his trans¬ 
lation of the Generation of Animals. 


University College, London. 
March 1922. 

c. s. 




1. Lioness and young, from an Ionian vase of the sixth century b. c. . 7 

2. a, Jaw bones of lion ; b, head of lioness from Caere vase . . 7 

3. Paintings of fish on plates : Italo-Greek work of the fourth cen¬ 

tury b. c. . . . . 

4. Head and talons' of the Sea-eagle, Haliaetus albicilla : a, from 

an Ionic vase of the sixth century b. c. ; b, drawn from the 
object .......... 9 

5. Minoan gold cup, sixteenth century b. c. . . . . facing 12 

6. Horse’s head, from Parthenon. 440 b. c. . . ,, 12 

7. Aristotle. From Herculaneum ; probably work of fourth 

century b. c. . . . . . . ,, 18 

7 a. The Order of Living Things according to Aristotle . . 30 

jb. The Four Elements and the Four Qualities ... 39 

8. Theophrastus. From Villa Albani ; copy (second century 

a. d. ?) of earlier work ...... facing 60 

9, 10. Fifth-century drawings from Juliana Anicia MS., copied 

from originals of the first century b. c. (?) : 9, Sd-yncn? 

Tf>v(fcpos — Crepis paludosa, Moen. ; 10, Tepduo' = 

Erodium malachoides , L. ,,64 

11. Illustrating Galen’s physiological teaching ... 67 


1. Hippocrates. British Museum, second or third century b. c. facing 90 

2. Asclepius. British Museum, fourth century b. c. . . ,, 90 

3,4. From MS. of Apollonius of Kitium, of ninth century 

(copied from a pre-Christian original) : 3, reducing dislo¬ 
cated shoulder; 4, reducing dislocated jaw . . . ,, 104 

5. A Greek clinic of about 400 b. c. : from a vase-painting . 106 

6. A kylix, from the Berlin Museum, of about 490 b. c. . . 107 

7. Athenian funerary monument. British Museum, second 

century a. d. . . . . . . . facing 114 

8. Votive tablet, representing cupping and bleeding instru¬ 

ments, from Temple of Asclepius at Athens . 


§ i. Before Aristotle 

What is science? It is a question that cannot be an¬ 
swered easily, nor perhaps answered at all. None of the defini¬ 
tions seem to cover the field exactly ; they are either too 
wide or too narrow. But we can see science in its growth and 
we can say that being a process it can exist only as growth. 
Where does the science of biology begin? Again we cannot 
say, but we can watch its evolution and its progress. Among 
the Greeks the accurate observation of living forms, which is 
at least one of the essentials of biological science, goes back 
very far. The word Biology, used in our sense, w.ould, it is 
true, have been an impossibility among them, for bios refers to 
the life of man and could not be applied, except in a strained 
or metaphorical sense, to that of other living things. 1 But the 
ideas we associate with the word are clearly developed in Greek 
philosophy and the foundations of biology are of great antiquity. 

The Greek people had many roots, racial, cultural, and 
spiritual, and from them all they, inherited various powers and 
qualities and derived various ideas and traditions. The most 
suggestive source for our purpose is that of the Minoan race 
whom they dispossessed and whose lands they occupied. That 
highly gifted people exhibited in all stages of its development 
a marvellous power of graphically representing animal forms, 
of which the famous Cretan friezes, Vaphio cups (Fig. 5), and 

1 The word Biology was introduced by Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus 
(1776-1837) in his Biologie oder die Philosophic der lebenden Natur , 6 vols., 
Gottingen, 1802-22, and was adopted by J.-B. de Lamarck (1744-1829) in 
his Hydrogeologie , Paris, 1802. It is probable that the first English use of 
the word in its modern sense is by Sir William Lawrence (1783-1867) in his 
work On the Physiology, Zoology, and Natural History of Man, London, 1819; 
there are earlier English uses of the word, however, contrasted with biography. 

6 Greek Biology 

Mycenean lions provide well-known examples. It is difficult 
not to believe that the Minoan element, entering into the 
mosaic of peoples that we call the Greeks, was in part at 
least responsible for the like graphic power developed in the 
Hellenic world, though little contact has yet been demon¬ 
strated between Minoan and archaic Greek Art. 

For the earliest biological achievements of Greek peoples we 
have to rely largely on information gleaned from artistic 
remains. It is true that we have a few fragments of the works 
of both Ionian and Italo-Sicilian philosophers, and in them 
we read of theoretical speculation as to the nature of life and 
of the soul, and we can thus form some idea of the first 
attempts of such workers as Alcmaeon of Croton (c. 500 b.c.) 
to lay bare the structure of animals by dissection. 1 The 
pharmacopoeia also of some of the earliest works of the Hippo¬ 
cratic collection betrays considerable knowledge of both native 
and foreign plants. 2 Moreover, scattered through the pages 
of Herodotus and other early writers is a good deal of casual 
information concerning animals and plants, though such 
material is second-hand and gives us little information con¬ 
cerning the habit of exact observation that is the necessary 
basis of science. 

Something more is, however, revealed by early Greek Art. 
We are in possession of a series of vases of the seventh and sixth 
centuries before the Christian era showing a closeness of observa¬ 
tion of animal forms that tells of a people awake to the study of 
nature. We have thus portrayed for us a number of animals— 
plants seldom or never appear—and among the best rendered 
are wild creatures: we see antelopes quietly feeding or startled at 
a sound, birds flying or picking worms from the ground, fallow 

1 The remains of Alcmaeon are given in H. Diels’ Die Fragmente der 
Vorsokratiker , Berlin, 1903, p. 103. Alcmaeon is considered in the com¬ 
panion chapter on Greek Medicine. 

2 Especially the ntpl yvvaiKdrjs <fivcnos, On the nature oj woman , and the 
nep'i ywaucdav, On (the diseases oj) women. 


Before Aristotle 

deer forcing their way through thickets, browsing peacefully, 
or galloping away, boars facing the hounds and dogs chasing 
hares, wild cattle forming their defensive circle, hawks seizing 

Fig. i. Lioness and young from an Ionian vase of the sixth century b.c. 
found at Caere in Southern Etruria (Louvre, Salle E, No. 298), from Le 
Dessin des Animaux en Grece d’apres les vases peints , by J. Morin, Paris 
(Renouard), 1911. The animal is drawing itself up to attack its hunters. 
The scanty mane, the form of the paws, the udders, and the dentition are 
all heavily though accurately represented. 

Fig. 2. a, Jaw bones of lion; b, head of lioness from Caere vase 
(Fig. 1), after Morin. Note the careful way in which the artist has dis¬ 
tinguished the molar from the cutting teeth. 

their prey. Many of these exhibit minutely accurate observa¬ 
tion. The very direction of the hairs on the animals’ coats has 
sometimes been closely studied, and often the muscles are well 
rendered. In some cases even the dentition has been found 

8 Greek Biology 

accurately portrayed, as in a sixth-century representation on 
an Ionian vase of a lioness—an animal then very rare on the 
Eastern Mediterranean littoral, though still well known in 
Babylonia, Syria, and Asia Minor. The details of the work 

show that the artist must 
have examined the animal 
in captivity (Figs, i and 2). 

Animal paintings of this 
order are found scattered 
over the Greek world with 
special centres or schools 
in such places as Cyprus, 
Boeotia, or Chalcis. The 
very name for a painter in 
Greek, zoographos, recalls 
the attention paid to living 
forms. By the fifth cen¬ 
tury, in representing them 
as in other departments of 
Art, the supremacy of Attica 
had asserted itself, and there 
are many beautiful Attic 
vase-paintings of animals to 
place by the side of the 
magnificent horses’ heads of 

Attica, too, was early de¬ 
veloped a characteristic and closely accurate type of repre¬ 
sentation of marine forms, and this attained a wider vogue 
in Southern Italy in the fourth century. From the latter period 
a number of dishes and vases have come down to us bearing 
a large variety of fish forms, portrayed with an exactness that 
is interesting in view of the attention to marine creatures in 
the surviving literature of Aristotelian origin (Fig. 3). 

These artistic products are more than a mere reflex of the 

the Parthenon (Fig. 6). In 

Fig. 3. Paintings of fish on plates. 
Italo-Greek work of the fourth century 
b.c. From Morin. 

a. Sargus vulgaris. 

b. Crenilabrus mediterraneus. 

c. Uranoscopus scaber ? 


Before Aristotle 

daily life of the people. The habits and positions of animals 
are observed by the hunter, as are the forms and colours of 
fish by the fisherman ; but the methods of huntsman and 
fisher do not account for the accurate portrayal of a lion’s 
dentition, the correct numbering of a fish’s scales or the close 
study of the lie of the feathers on the head, and the pads on 
the feet, of a bird of prey (Fig. 4). With observations such as 
these we are in the presence of something worthy of the name 
Biology. Though but little literature on that topic earlier 


0 >- 


Fig. 4. Head and talons of the Sea-eagle. Haliaetus albicilla: 

a, From an Ionic vase of the sixth century b. c. 

b, Drawn from the object. 

From Morin. 

than the writings of Aristotle has come down to us, yet both 
the character of his writings and such paintings and pictures 
as these, suggest the existence of a strong interest and a wide 
literature, biological in the modern sense, antecedent to the 
fourth century. 

Greek science, however, exhibits throughout its history 
a peculiar characteristic differentiating it from the modern 
scientific standpoint. Most of the work of the Greek scientist 
was done in relation to man. Nature interested him mainly 
in relation to himself. The Greek scientific and philosophic 
world was an anthropocentric world, and this comes out in 

io Greek Biology 

the overwhelming mass of medical as distinct from biological 
writings that have come down to us. Such, too, is the senti¬ 
ment expressed by the poets in their descriptions of the animal 
creation : 

Many wonders there be, but naught more wondrous than man : 
• ••••••••• 

The light-witted birds of the air, the beasts of the weald and 
the wood 

He traps with his woven snare, and the brood of the briny flood. 
Master of cunning he : the savage bull, and the hart 
Who roams the mountain free, are tamed by his infinite art. 
And the shaggy rough-maned steed is broken to bear the bit. 

Sophocles, Antigone , verses 342 ff. 

(Translation of F. Storr.) 

It is thus not surprising that our first systematic treatment 
of animals is in a practical medical work, the 7repi Stair?;?, 
On regimen , of the Hippocratic Collection. This very peculiar 
treatise dates from the later part of the fifth century. It is 
strongly under the influence of Heracleitus (c. 540-475) and 
contains many points of view which reappear in later philo¬ 
sophy. All animals, according to it, are formed of fire and 
water, nothing is born and nothing dies, but there is a per¬ 
petual and eternal revolution of things, so that change itself 
is the only reality. Man’s nature is but a parallel to that of 
the universal nature, and the arts of man are but an imitation 
or reflex of the natural arts or, again, of the bodily functions. 
The soul, a mixture of water and fire, consumes itself in infancy 
and old age, and increases during adult life. Here, too, we 
meet with that singular doctrine, not without bearing on the 
course of later biological thought, that in the foetus all parts 
are formed simultaneously. On the proportion of fire and 
water in the body all depends, sex, temper, temperament, 
intellect. Such speculative ideas separate this book from the 
sober method of the more typical Hippocratic medical works 
with which indeed it has little in common. 


Before Aristotle 


After having discussed these theoretical matters the work 
turns to its own practical concerns, and in the course of setting 
out the natures of foods gives in effect a rough classification 
of animals. These are set forth in groups, and from among 
the larger groups only the reptiles and insects are missing. 
The list has been described, perhaps hardly with justification, 
as the Coan classificatory system. We have here, indeed, no 
system in the sense in which that word is now applied to the 
animal kingdom, but we have yet some sort of definite arrange¬ 
ment of animals according to their supposed natures. The 
passage opens with mammals, which are divided into domesti¬ 
cated and wild, the latter being mentioned in order according to 
size, next follow the land-birds, then the water-fowl, and then 
the fishes. These fish are divided into (i) the haunters of the 
shore, (2) the free-swimming forms, (3) the cartilaginous fishes or 
Selachii, which are not so named but are placed together, (4) the 
mud-loving forms, and (5) the fresh-water fish. Finally come 
invertebrates arranged in some sort of order according to their 
structure. The characteristic feature of the ‘ classification ’ is 
the separation of the fish from the remaining vertebrates and 

of the invertebrates from both. Of the fifty animals named no 


less than twenty are fish, about a fifth of the number studied 
by Aristotle, but we must remember that here only edible 
species are mentioned. The existence of the work shows at 
least that in the fifth century there was already a close and 
accurate study of animal forms, a study that may justly be 
called scientific. The predominance of fish and their classi¬ 
fication in greater detail than the other groups is not an unex¬ 
pected feature. The Mediterranean is especially rich in these 
forms, the Greeks were a maritime people, and Greek litera¬ 
ture is full of imagery drawn from the fisher’s craft. From 
Minoan to Byzantine times the variety, beauty, and colour of 
fish made a deep impression on Greek minds as reflected in 
their art. 

Much more important however for subsequent biological 

i2 Greek Biology 

development, than such observations on the nature and habits 
of animals, is the service that the Hippocratic physicians 
rendered to Anatomy and to Physiology, departments in which 
the structure of man and of the domesticated animals stands 
apart from that of the rest of the animal kingdom. It is with 
the nature and constitution of man that most of the surviving 
early biological writings are concerned, and in these depart¬ 
ments are unmistakable tendencies towards systematic arrange¬ 
ment of the material. Thus we have division and description 
of the body in sevens from the periphery to the centre and from 
the vertex to the sole of the foot, 1 or a division into four regions 
or zones. 2 The teaching concerning the four elements and four 
humours too became of great importance and some of it was 
later adopted by Aristotle. We also meet numerous mechanical 
explanations of bodily structures, comparisons between ana¬ 
tomical conditions encountered in related animals, experiments 
on living creatures, 3 systematic incubation of hen’s eggs for the 
study of their development, parallels drawn between the develop¬ 
ment of plants and of human and animal embryos, theories of 
generation, among which is that which was afterwards called 
£ pangenesis ’—discussion of the survival of the stronger over 
the weaker—almost our survival of the fittest—and a theory 
of inheritance of acquired characters. 4 All these things show 
not only extensive knowledge but also an attempt to apply 
such knowledge to human needs. When we consider how even 
in later centuries biology was linked with medicine, and how 
powerful and fundamental was the influence of the Hippocratic 
writings, not only on their immediate successors in antiquity, but 
also on the Middle Ages and right into the nineteenth century, 
we shall recognize the significance of these developments. 

1 nep'i e( 38 opu 8 cav. The Greek text is lost. We have, however, an early 
and barbarous Latin translation, and there has recently been printed an 
Arabic commentary. G. Bergstrasser, Pseudogaleni in Hippocratis de septi- 
manis commentarium ab Hunaino 0 . F. arabice versum, Leipzig, 1914. 

2 nepl vovaoni 8 . 3 nepi mipbirji. 4 Especially in the nfpi yovi]S. 



14 Greek Biology 

An abler work than any of these, but exhibiting less power 
of observation is a treatise, itepl yovrjs , On generation , that may 
perhaps be dated about 380 b. c . 1 It exhibits a writer of much 
philosophic power, very anxious for physiological explanations, 
but hampered by ignorance of physics. He has, in fact, the 
weaknesses and in a minor degree the strength of his successor 
Aristotle, of whose great work on generation he gives us a fore¬ 
taste. He sets forth in considerable detail a doctrine of pan¬ 
genesis, not wholly unlike that of Darwin. In order to explain 
the phenomena of inheritance he supposes that vessels reach the 
seed, carrying with them samples from all parts of the body. 
He believes that channels pass from all the organs to the brain 
and then to the spinal marrow (or to the marrow direct), 
thence to the kidneys and on to the genital organs ; he 
believes, too, that he knows the actual location of one such 
channel, for he observes, wrongly, that incision behind the 
ears, by interrupting the passage, leads to impotence. As an 
outcome of this theory he is prepared to accept inheritance of 
acquired characters. The embryo develops and breathes by 
material transmitted from the mother through the umbilical 
cord. We encounter here also a very detailed description of 
a specimen of exfoliated membrana mucosa uteri which our 
author mistakes for an embryo, but his remarks at least exhibit 
the most eager curiosity. 2 

The author of this work on generation is thus a ‘ biologist ’ 
in the modern sense, and among the passages exhibiting him 
in this light is his comparison of the human embryo with the 
chick. ‘ The embryo is in a membrane in the centre of which 
is the navel through which it draws and gives its breath, and the 

1 The three works nep'i yovrjs, nep'i (fivtnos naibiov, nep'i vovircov 8', 
On generation, on the nature of the embryo, on diseases, book IV, form 
really one treatise on generation. 

2 nep'i cf)v(Tios naihiov, On the nature of the embryo, § 13. The same 
experience is described in the nep'i aapKeov, On the muscles. 


Before Aristotle 

membranes arise from the umbilical cord. . . . The structure of 
the child you will find from first to last as I have already de¬ 
scribed. ... If you wish, try this experiment: take twenty or 
more eggs and let them be incubated by two or more hens. Then 
each day from the second to that of hatching remove an egg, 
break it, and examine it. You will find exactly as I say, for 
the nature of the bird can be likened to that of man. The 
membranes [you will see] proceed from the umbilical cord, and 
all that I have said on the subject of the infant you will find in 
a bird’s egg, and one who has made these observations will be 
surprised to find an umbilical cord in a bird’s egg.’ 1 

The same interest that he exhibits for the development of 
man and animals he shows also for plants. 

‘ A seed laid in the ground fills itself with the juices there 
contained, for the soil contains in itself juices of every nature 
for the nourishment of plants. Thus filled with juice the seed 
is distended and swells, and thereby the power ( = faculty ?/ diffused in the seed is compressed by living principle 
(pneuma) and juice, and bursting the seed becomes the first 
leaves. But a time comes when these leaves can no longer get 
nourished from the juices in the seed. Then the seed and the 
leaves erupt, for urged by the leaves the seed sends down that 
part of its power which is yet concentrated within it and so 
the roots are produced as an extension of the leaves. When 
at last the plant is well rooted below and is drawing its nutri¬ 
ment from the earth, then the whole grain disappears, being 
absorbed, save for the husk, which is the most solid part; and 
even that, decomposing in the earth, ultimately becomes 
invisible. In time some of the leaves put forth branches. 
The plant being thus produced by humidity from the seed is 
still soft and moist. Growing actively both above and below, 
it cannot as yet bear fruit, for it has not the quality of force 
and reserve (bvvafjus lo-^upr/ /cal mapa) from which a seed 
can be precipitated. But when, with time, the plant becomes 
firmer and better rooted, it develops veins as passages both 

1 7rept <fiv<nos naihlov, On the nature of the embryo , § 29. 

16 Greek Biology 

upwards and downwards, and it draws from the soil not only 
water but more abundantly also substances that are denser and 
fatter. Warmed, too, by the sun, these act as a ferment to the 
extremities and give rise to fruit after its kind. The fruit thus 
develops much from little, for every plant draws from the earth 
a power more abundant than that with which it started, and 
the fermentation takes place not at one place but at many.’ 1 

Nor does our author hesitate to draw an analogy between 
the plant and the mammalian embryo. ‘ In the same way the 
infant lives within its mother’s womb and in a state corre¬ 
sponding to the health of the mother . . . and you will find 
a complete similitude between the products of the soil and the 
products of the womb.’ 

The early Greek literature is so scantily provided with 
illustrations drawn from botanical study, that it is worth con¬ 
sidering the remarkable comparison of generation of plants 
from cuttings with that from seeds in the same work. 

£ As regards plants generated from cuttings . . . that part 
of a branch where it was cut from a tree is placed in the earth 
and there rootlets are sent out. This is how it happens : The 
part of the plant within the soil draws up juices, swells, and 
develops a pneuma (tt v^v^a t (rxzi), but not so the part with¬ 
out. The pneuma and the juice concentrate the power of the 
plant below so that it becomes denser. Then the lower end 
erupts and gives forth tender roots. Then the plant, taking 
from below, draws juices from the roots and transmits them 
to the part above the soil which thus also swells and develops 
pneuma ; thus the power from being diffused in the plant 
becomes concentrated and budding, gives forth leaves. . . . 
Cuttings, then, differ from seeds. With a seed the leaves are 
borne first, then the roots are sent down; with a cutting the 
roots form first and then the leaves.’ 2 

But with these works of the early part of the fourth century 
the first stage of Greek biology reaches its finest development. 

1 nffj'i pvaios naibiov, On the nature of the embryo, § 22. 

2 Ibid. § 23. 


Before Aristotle 

Later Hippocratic treatises which deal with physiological topics 
are on a lower plane, and we must seek some external cause 
for the failure. Nor have we far to seek. This period saw 
the rise of a movement that had the most profound influence 
on every department of thought. We see the advent into the 
Greek world of a great intellectual movement as a result of 
which the department of philosophy that dealt with nature 
receded before Ethics. Of that intellectual revolution— 
perhaps the greatest the world has seen—Athens was the site 
and Socrates (470-399) the protagonist. With the movement 
itself and its characteristic fruit we are not concerned. But 
the great successor and pupil of its founder gives us in the 
Timaeus a picture of the depth to which natural science can 
be degraded in the effort to give a specific teleological meaning 
to all parts of the visible Universe. The book and the picture 
which it draws, dark and repulsive to the mind trained in modern 
scientific method, enthralled the imagination of a large part of 
mankind for wellnigh two thousand years. Organic nature 
appears in this work of Plato (427-347) as the degeneration 
of man whom the Creator has made most perfect. The school 
that held this view ultimately decayed as a result of its failure 
to advance positive knowledge. As the centuries went by its 
views became further and further divorced from phenomena, 
and the bizarre developments of later Neoplatonism stand to 
this day as a warning against any system which shall neglect 
the investigation of nature. But in its decay Platonism dragged 
science down and destroyed by neglect nearly all earlier bio¬ 
logical material. Mathematics, not being a phenomenal study, 
suited better the Neoplatonic mood and continued to advance, 
carrying astronomy with it for a while—astronomy that affected 
the life of man and that soon became the handmaid of astrology; 
medicine, too, that determined the.conditions of man’s life, was 
also cherished, though often mistakenly, but pure science was 



18 Greek Biology 

But though the ethical view of nature overwhelmed science 
in the end, the advent of the mighty figure of Aristotle (384-322) 
stayed the tide for a time. Yet the writer on Greek Biology 
remains at a disadvantage in contrast with the Historian of 
Greek Mathematics, of Greek Astronomy, or of Greek Medi¬ 
cine, in the scantiness of the materials for presenting an account 
of the development of his studies before Aristotle. The huge 
form of that magnificent naturalist completely overshadows 
* Greek as it does much of later Biology. 

§ 2 . Aristotle 

With Aristotle we come in sight of the first clearly defined 
personality in the course of the development of Greek biological 
thought—for the attribution of the authorship of the earlier 
Hippocratic writings is more than doubtful, while the person¬ 
ality of the great man by whose name they are called cannot 
be provided with those clear outlines that historical treatment 

Aristotle was born in 384 b. c. at Stagira, a Greek colony in 
the Chalcidice a few miles from the northern limit of the 
present monastic settlement of Mount Athos. His father, 
Nicomachus, was physician to Amyntas III of Macedonia and 
a member of the guild or family of the Asclepiadae. From 
Nicomachus he may have inherited his taste for biological 
investigation and acquired some of his methods. At seventeen 
Aristotle became a pupil of Plato at Athens. After Plato’s 
death in 347 Aristotle crossed the Aegean to reside at the court 
of Hermias, despot of Atarneus in Mysia, whose niece, Pythias, 
he married. It is not improbable that the first draft of Aris¬ 
totle’s biological works and the mass of his own observations 
were made during his stay in this region, for in his biological 
writings much attention is concentrated on the natural history 
of the Island of Lesbos, or Mytilene, that lies close opposite to 


Probably work of fourth century B. c. 



Atarneus. Investigation has shown that in the History of 
Anivials there are frequent references to places on the northern 
and eastern littoral of the Aegean, and especially to localities 
in the Island of Lesbos; on the other hand places in Greece 
proper are but seldom mentioned. 1 Thus his biological 
investigations, in outline at least, are probably the earliest of 
his extant works and preceded the philosophical writings which 
almost certainly date from his second sojourn in Athens. 

In 342 b. c., at the request of Philip of Macedon, Aristotle 
became tutor to Philip’s son, Alexander. He remained in 
Macedonia for seven years and about 336, when Alexander 
departed for the invasion of Asia, returned to Athens where 
he taught at the Lyceum and established his famous school 
afterwards called the Peripatetic. Most of his works were 
produced during this the closing period of his life between 335 
and 323 b. c. After Alexander’s death in 323 and the break up 
of his empire, Aristotle, who was regarded as friendly to the 
Macedonian power, was placed in a difficult position. Regarded 
with enmity by the anti-Macedonian party, he withdrew from 
Athens and died soon after in 322 b. c. at Chalcis in Euboea at 
about sixty-two years of age. 

The scientific works to which Aristotle’s name is attached 
may be divided into three groups, physical, biological, and 
psychological. In size they vary from such a large treatise as 
the History of Animals to the tiny tracts which go to make up 
the Parva naturalia. So far as the scientific writings can be 
distinguished as separate works they may be set forth as follows : 


(pvaiKTj a.Kpoa<Tis. Physics. 

irepi yeveae cos kcu (bdopas On coming into being and 
passing away. 

1 See a valuable note by D’Arcy W. Thompson prefixed to his translation 
of the Historia Animalium , Oxford, 1910. 

20 Greek Biology 

nepl ovpavov. On the heavens. 
pLerecopoXoyLKa. Meteorology. 

[tfept Koapiov. On the universe .] 

[fxrjxcmKa. Mechanics .] 

['nepl ard/Aiov ypap.p.(ov. On indivisible lines .] 

[avepLwv decreis Kal npoaqyoplai. Positions and descriptions 
of winds .] 

Biology in the restricted sense. 

(a) Natural History. 

"rep'. to. larroplai. Inquiry about animals = Historia 

nepl (ipcov piopioiv. On parts of animals, 

nepl C 4 mv ytveaetos. On generation of animals. 

[nepl (f)vr(av. On plants .] 

(b) Physiology. 

nepl (iposv nopeias. On progressive motion of animals, 
nepl p.aKpo( 3 i 6 Ti)TO‘i Kal f 3 paxv( 3 ioTriTO<s. On length and 
shortness of life. 

nepl avani’oijs. On respiration. 

nepl veoTqros kcu y?/pa>?. On youth and age. 

[nepl £(pa)v KLvijaeo)?. On motion of animals .] 

[ <fiv(Tioyr 10peon ik a. . On physiognomy .] 

[nepl nuevpLaros. On innate spirit .] 

Psychology and Philosophy with biological bearing, 
nepl xl/vyfs. On soul. 

nepl al<rdri<Teo)s Kal aladrjTuir. On sense and objects of sense, 
nepl (/oT/s' Kal Oavdrov. On life and death, 
nepl pLVi]iJ.q$ Kal dvap.vr\creu><i. On memory and reminiscence, 
nepl vnvov Kal eypiiyopcreoo's. On sleep and waking, 
nepl evvnvLoov. On dreams. 

[npoftXiijpLaTa. Problems .] 



[nepl yjHti\xa.Ton'. On colours .] 

[■7re/H (xkoxxtt u>v. On sounds .] 

[77epi rr/s Kad’ vttvov \xavTiK.ri s. On prophecy in sleepi] 

Of these works some, the names of which are placed here in 
brackets, are clearly spurious in that they were neither written 
by Aristotle nor are they in any form approaching that in 
which they were cast by him. Yet all are of very considerable 
antiquity and contain fragments of his tradition in a state of 
greater or less corruption. In addition to works here enumerated 
there are many others which are spurious in a yet further sense 
in that they are merely fathered on Aristotle and contain no 
trace of his spirit or method. Such, for example, is the famous 
mediaeval work of oriental origin known as the Epistle of Aristotle 
to Alexander. 

In a general way it may be stated that the physical works, 
with which we are not here directly concerned, while they show 
ingenuity, learning, and philosophical power, yet betray very 
little direct and original observation. They have exerted 
enormous influence in the past and for at least two thousand 
years provided the usual physical conceptions of the civilized 
world both East and West. After the Galilean revolution in 
physics, however, they became less regarded and they are not 
now highly esteemed by men of science. The biological works of 
Aristotle, on the other hand, excited comparatively little interest 
during the Middle Ages, but from the sixteenth century on they 
have been very closely studied by naturalists. From the 
beginning of the nineteenth century, and especially as a result 
of the work of Cuvier, Richard Owen, and Johannes Muller, 
Aristotle’s reputation as a naturalist has risen steadily, and he is 
now universally admitted to have been one of the very greatest 
investigators of living nature. 

The philosophical bases of Aristotle’s biology are mainly to 
be found in the treatise On soul and in that On the generation 

22 Greek Biology 

of animals. His actual observations are contained in this latter 
work—which is in many ways his finest scientific production—- 
in the great collection on the History of animals, and in the 
remarkable treatise On parts of animals. Certain of his deduc¬ 
tions concerning the nature and mechanism of life can be 
found in his two works which deal with the movements of 
animals (one of which is very doubtfully genuine) and in his 
tracts On respiration. On sleep, &c. The treatise On plants 
and the Problems in their present form are late and spurious, 
but they are based on works of members of his school. They 
were, however, perhaps originally prepared at the other end 
of the Greek world in Magna Graecia. 

Aristotle was a most voluminous author and his biological 
writings form but a small fraction of those to which his name 
is attached. Yet these. biological works contain a prodigious 
number of first-hand observations and it has always been 
difficult to understand how one investigator could collect all 
these facts, however rapid his work and skilful his methods. 
The explanations that have reached us from antiquity are, 
indeed, picturesque, but they are neither credible in themselves 
nor are they consistent with each other. Thus Pliny writing 
about a. d. 77 says 4 Alexander the Great, fired by desire to 
learn of the natures of animals, entrusted the prosecution of 
this design to Aristotle. ... For this end he placed at his 
disposal some thousands of men in every part of Asia and Greece, 
and among them hunters, fowlers, fishers, park-keepers, herds¬ 
men, bee-wards, as well as keepers of fish-ponds and aviaries in 
order that no creature might escape his notice. Through the 
information thus collected he was able to compose some fifty 
volumes.’ 1 Athenaeus, who lived in the early part of the third 
century a. d., assures us that ‘ Aristotle the Stagirite received 
eight hundred talents [i.e. equal to about ^200,000 of our 
money] from Alexander as his contribution towards perfecting 
1 Pliny, Naturalis hisloria , viii. lj. 


2 3 

his History of Animals ’. 1 Aelian, on the other hand, who lived 
at a period a little anterior to Athenaeus, tells us that it was 
‘ Philip of Macedon who so esteemed learning that he supplied 
Aristotle with ample funds ’ adding that he similarly honoured 
both Plato and Theophrastus. 2 

Now in all Aristotle’s works there is not a single sentence in 
praise of Alexander and there is some evidence that the two 
had become estranged. In support of this we may quote 
Plutarch (c. a. d. ioo) who gives a detailed description of 
a conspiracy in 327 b. c. against Alexander by Callisthenes, 
a pupil of Aristotle who appears to have kept up a correspon¬ 
dence with his master. 3 Alexander himself wrote of Callisthenes, 
according to Plutarch : ‘ I will punish this sophist, together 
with those who sent him to me and those who harbour in their 
cities men who conspire against my life ’ and Plutarch adds that 
Alexander ‘ directly reveals in these words a hostility to 
Aristotle in whose house Callisthenes . . . had been reared, 
being a son of Piero who was a niece of Aristotle ’. 4 Yet 
the Alexandrian conquests, bringing Greece into closer con¬ 
tact with a wider world and extending Greek knowledge of the 
Orient, must have had their influence in stimulating interest 
in rare and curious creatures and in a general extension of 
natural knowledge. That the interest in these topics extended 
beyond the circle of the Peripatetics is shown by the fact that 
Speusippus, the pupil of Plato and his successor as leader of 
his school, occupied himself with natural history and wrote 
works on biological topics and especially on fish. 

Nevertheless, remarkable as is Aristotle’s acquaintance with 

1 Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae , ix. 58. 

2 Aelian, Variae historiae, iv. 19. 

3 The statement of the relation of Callisthenes to Aristotle rests on the 
somewhat unsatisfactory evidence of Simplicius (sixth century) who states 
that Callisthenes sent Aristotle certain astronomical observations from 
Babylon. Simplicius, Commentarii (Karsten), p. 226. 

4 Plutarch, Alexander , lv. 

24 Greek Biology 

animal forms, investigation shows that he is reliable only when 
treating of creatures native to the Aegean basin. As soon as he 
gets outside that area his statements are almost always founded 
on hearsay or even on fable. 1 Whatever assistance Aristotle 
may have received in the preparation of his biological works 
came, therefore, probably from no such picturesque and 
distant source as the gossip of Pliny or Aelian would suggest. 
We can conjecture that he received aid from the powerful 
relatives of his wife at Atarneus and in Lesbos, and we may 
most reasonably suppose that after his return to Athens 
much help would have been given him by his pupils within 
the Lyceum. To them may probably be ascribed many 
passages in the biological writings; for it seems" hardly 
possible that Aristotle himself would have had time for detailed 
biological research after he had settled as a teacher in Athens. 
Of the work of these members of his school a fine monument 
has survived in two complete botanical treatises and fragments 
of others on zoological and psychological subjects by Theo¬ 
phrastus of Eresus, his pupil and successor in the leadership of 
the Lyceum and perhaps his literary legatee. 

When we turn to the Aristotelian biological works them¬ 
selves we naturally inquire first into the question of genuineness, 
and here a difficulty arises in that all his extant works have 
come down to us in a state that is not comparable to those of 
any other great writer. Among the ancients admiration was 
expressed for Aristotle’s eloquence and literary powers, but, in 
the material that we have here to consider, very little trace of 
these qualities can be detected by even the most lenient judge. 
The arrangement of the subject-matter is far from perfect even 
if we allow for the gaps and disturbances caused by their 
passage through many hands. Moreover, there is much 
repetition and often irrelevant digression, while the language 

1 The subject is well discussed by W. Ogle in the introduction to his 
Aristotle on the Parts of Animals , London, 1882. 



is usually plain to baldness and very frequently obscure. We 
find sometimes the lightening touch of humour, but the style 
hardly ever rises to beauty. Furthermore, even in matters 
of fact, while many observations exhibit wonderful insight and, 
forestalling modern discovery, betray a most searching and care¬ 
ful application of scientific methods, yet elsewhere we find errors 
that are childish and could have been avoided by the merest tyro. 

This curious state of the Aristotelian writings has given rise 
to much discussion among scholars and to explain it there has 
been developed what is known as the ‘ notebook theory ’. 
It is supposed that the bases of the material that we possess were 
notebooks put together by Aristotle himself for his own use, 
probably while lecturing. These passed, it is believed, into 
the hands of certain of his pupils and were perhaps in places 
incomprehensible as they stood. Such pupils, after the master’s 
death, filled out the notebooks either from the memory of his 
teaching or from their own knowledge—or ignorance. Thus 
modified, however, they were still not prepared for publication, 
even in the limited sense in which works may be said to have 
been published in those days, but they formed again the fuller 
bases of notes for lectures delivered by his successors. In this 
form they have finally survived to our time, suffering, how¬ 
ever, from certain further losses and displacements on a larger 
scale. Some of the ‘ Aristotelian’ works are undoubtedly more 
deeply spurious, but the works that are regarded as ‘ genuine ’ 
do not seem to have been seriously tampered with, except by 
mere scribal or bookbinders’ blunders, at any date later than 
a generation or two following Aristotle’s own time. These 
notebooks as they stand are in fact probably in much the 
state in which we should find them were we able to retrieve a 
copy dating from the first or second century b. c. 1 

1 The problem of genuineness is discussed in detail by R. Shute, On the 
history of the process by which the Aristotelian writings arrived at their present 
form , Oxford, 1888. 

26 Greek Biology 

In the opening chapter of one of his great biological works 
Aristotle sets forth in detail his motives for the study of living 
things. The passage is in itself noteworthy as one of the few 
instances in which he rises to real eloquence. 

‘ Of things constituted by nature some are ungenerated, 
imperishable, and eternal, while others are subject to generation 
and decay. The former are excellent beyond compare and 
divine, but less accessible to knowledge. The evidence that 
might throw light on them, and on the problems which we 
long to solve respecting them, is furnished but scantily by 
sensation ; whereas respecting perishable plants and animals we 
have abundant information, living as we do in their midst, and 
ample data may be collected concerning all their various kinds, 
if only we are willing to take sufficient pains. Both depart¬ 
ments, however, have their special charm. The scanty con¬ 
ceptions to which we can attain of celestial things give us, from 
their excellence, more pleasure than all our knowledge of the 
world in which we live ; just as a half glimpse of persons we 
love is more delightful than a leisurely view of other things, 
whatever their number and dimensions. On the other hand, 
in certitude and in completeness our knowledge of terrestrial 
things has the advantage. Moreover, their greater nearness and 
affinity to us balances somewhat the loftier interest of the 
heavenly things that are the objects of the higher philosophy.... 
For if some [creatures] have no graces to charm the sense, yet 
even these, by disclosing to intellectual perception the artistic 
spirit that designed them, give immense pleasure to all who can 
trace links of causation, and are inclined to philosophy. We 
therefore must not recoil with childish aversion from the 
examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is 
marvellous. It is told of Heraclitus that when strangers found 
him warming himself at the kitchen fire and hesitated to go in, 
he bade them enter since even in the kitchen divinities were 
present. So should we venture on the study of every kind 



of animal without distaste, for each and all will reveal to 
us something natural and something beautiful. 1 Absence of 
haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to 
be found in Nature’s works in the highest degree, and the 
resultant end of her generations and combinations is a form of 
the beautiful. 

‘ If any person thinks the examination of the rest of the 
animal kingdom an unworthy task, he must hold in like dis- 
esteem the study of man. For no one can look at the primordia 
of the human frame—blood, flesh, bones, vessels, and the like— 
without much repugnance. Moreover, when any one of the 
parts or structures, be it which it may, is under discussion, it 
must not be supposed that it is its material composition to 
which attention is being directed or which is the object of the 
discussion, but the relation of such part to the total form. . . . 

‘ As every instrument and every bodily member subserves 
some partial end, that is to say, some special action, so the 
whole body must be destined to minister to some plenary 
sphere of action. Thus the saw is made for sawing, since sawing 
is a function, and not sawing for the saw. Similarly, the body 
too must somehow or other be made for the soul, and each part 
of it for some subordinate function to which it is adapted.’ 2 

Aristotle is, in the fullest sense a ‘ vitalist ’. He believes 
that the presence of a certain peculiar principle of a non¬ 
material character is essential for the exhibition of any of the 
phenomena of life. This principle we may call soul , translating 
his word v/n>x?/. Living things, like all else in nature, have, accord¬ 
ing to Aristotle, an end or object. ‘ Everything that Nature 
makes,’ he says, ‘ is means to an end. For just as human creations 
are the products of art, so living objects are manifestly the pro¬ 
ducts of an analogous cause or principle. ... And that the heaven, 
if it had an origin, was evolved and is maintained by such a cause, 

1 I have somewhat abbreviated this and the previous sentence. 

2 De partibus animalium , i. 5; 644^ 21. 

28 Greek Biology 

there is, therefore, even more reason to believe, than that 
mortal animals so originated. For order and definiteness are 
much more manifest in the celestial bodies than in our own 
frame.’ 1 It was a misinterpretation of this view that especially 
endeared him to the mediaeval Church and made it possible to 
absorb Aristotelian philosophy into Christian theology. It 
must be remembered that the cause or principle that leads to 
the development of living things is in Aristotle’s view, not 
external but internal. 

While putting his own view Aristotle does not fail to tell 
us of the standpoint of his opponents. ‘ Why, however, it must 
be asked, should we look on the operations of Nature as dictated 
by a final cause, and intended to realize some desirable end ? 
Why may they not be merely the results of necessity, just as 
the rain falls of necessity, and not that the corn may grow ? 
For though the rain makes the corn grow, it no more occurs in 
order to cause that growth, than a shower which spoils the 
farmer’s crop at harvest-time occurs in order to do that mischief. 
Now, why may not this, which is true of the rain, be true also 
of the parts of the body ? Why, for instance, may not the 
teeth grow to be such as they are merely of necessity, and the 
fitness of the front ones with their sharp edge for the comminu¬ 
tion of the food, and of the hind ones with their flat surface 
for its mastication, be no more than an accidental coincidence, 
and not the cause that has determined their development ? ’ 2 

The answers to these questions form a considerable part of 
Aristotle’s philosophy where we are unable to follow him. For 
the limited field of biology, however, the question is on some¬ 
what narrower lines. ‘ What,’ he asks, ‘ are the forces by which 
the hand or the body was fashioned into shape ? The wood 
carver will perhaps say, by the axe or the auger. .. . But it is not 

1 De partibus animalium , i. i ; 641b 12. 

2 Physics, ii. 8, 3 5 198b 6. This passage is considerably abbreviated and 
slightly paraphrased. 



enough for him to say that by the stroke of his tool this part 
was formed into a concavity, that into a flat surface ; but he 
must state the reasons why he struck his blow in such a way 
as to effect this and what his final object was . . . [similarly] the 
true method [of biological science] is to state what the definite 
characters are that distinguish the animal as a whole ; to 
explain what it is both in substance and in form, and to deal 
after the same fashion with its several organs. ... If now this 
something, that constitutes the form of the living being, be the 
soul, or part of the soul, or something that, without the soul, 
cannot exist, (as would seem to be the case, seeing at any rate 
that when the soul departs, what is left is no longer a living 
animal, and that none of the parts remain what they were 
before, excepting in mere configuration, like the animals that 
in the fable are turned into stone;) . . . then it will come 
within the province of the natural philosopher to inform 
himself concerning the soul, and to treat of it, either in its 
entirety, or, at any rate, of that part of it which constitutes 
the essential character of an animal; and it will be his duty to 
say what this soul or this part of a soul is.’ 1 Thus in the 
Aristotelian writings the discussion of the nature and orders 
of ‘ soul ’ is almost inseparable from the subjects now included 
under the term Biology. 

There can be no doubt that through much of the Aristotelian 
writings runs a belief in a kinetic as distinct from a static view 
of existence. It cannot be claimed that he regarded the 
different kinds of living things as actually passing one into 
another, but there can be no doubt that he fully realized that 
the different kinds can be arranged in a series in which the 
gradations are easy. His scheme would be something like that 
represented on p. 30 (Fig. 7 a). 

‘ Nature,’ he says, ‘ proceeds little by little from things 
lifeless to animal life in such a way that it is impossible to 
1 De partibus antmalium, i. 1 ; 64 i a 7. 


Greek Biology 

determine the exact line of demarcation, nor on which side 
thereof an intermediate form should lie. Thus, next after life¬ 
less things in the upward scale comes the plant, and of plants 
one will differ from another as to its amount of apparent 
vitality; and, in a word, the whole genus of plants, whilst it 
is devoid of life as compared with an animal, is endowed with 
life as compared with other corporeal entities. Indeed, there' 





- Cctaccanr 

= RcpttW, Birds, Amphibians 

- Cephalopoda 
= Crustaceans 

- Other Arthropods’ 

- Other Molluscs - 



= Ascuiiansetc. 

* Holothurians - ’etc. 
- Sponges 

/,v 7ATE M ^ 

Fig. 7 a. The Order of Living Things according to Aristotle. 

is observed in plants a continuous scale of ascent towards the 
animal. So, in the sea, there are certain objects concerning 
which one would be at a loss to determine whether they be 
animal or vegetable.’ 1 

‘ A sponge, in these respects completely resembles a plant, 
in that ... it is attached to a rock, and that when separated 
from this it dies. Slightly different from the sponges are the 
so-called Holothurias ... as also sundry other sea-animals that 
resemble them. For these are free and unattached, yet they 
have no feeling, and their life is simply that of a plant separated 
1 Historia animalium , viii. i ; 588 b 4. 


3 i 

from the ground. For even among land-plants there are some 
that are independent of the soil—or even entirely free. Such, 
for example, is the plant which is found on Parnassus, and 
which some call the Epipetrum [probably Sempervivum tec- 
torum , the common houseleek]. This you may hang up on 
a peg and it will yet live for a considerable time. Sometimes 
it is a matter of doubt whether a given organism should be 
classed with plants or with animals. The Tethya, for instance, 
and the like, so far resemble plants as that they never live free 
and unattached, but, on the other hand, inasmuch as they have 
a certain flesh-like substance, they must be supposed to possess 
some degree of sensibility.’ 1 

4 The Acalephae or Sea-nettles, ... lie outside the recognized 
groups. Their constitution, like that of the Tethya, approxi¬ 
mates them on the one side to plants, on the other side to 
animals. For seeing that some of them can detach themselves 
and can fasten on their food, and that they are sensible of 
objects which come in contact with them, they must be 
considered to have an animal nature. . . . On the other hand, 
they are closely allied to plants, firstly by the imperfection of 
their structures, secondly by their being able to attach them¬ 
selves to the rocks, which they do with great rapidity, and 
lastly by their having no visible residuum notwithstanding that 
they possess a mouth.’ 2 

Thus 4 Nature passes from lifeless objects to animals in such 
unbroken sequence, interposing between them beings which 
live and yet are not animals, that scarcely any difference seems 
to exist between two neighbouring groups owing to their 
close proximity.’ 3 

Some approach to evolutionary doctrine is also foreshadowed 
by Aristotle in his theories of the development of the individual. 

1 De partibus animalium , iv. 5 ; 68 i a 15. 

2 De partibus animalium , iv. 5 ; 68i a 36. 

3 De partibus animalium , iv. 5 ; 68i a 10. 

32 Greek Biology 

This is obscured, however, by his peculiar view of the nature of 
procreation. On this topic his general conclusion is that the 
material substance of the embryo is contributed by the female, 
but that this is mere passive formable material, almost as though 
it were the soil in which the embryo grows. The male by 
giving the principle of life, the soul, contributes the essential 
generative agency. But this soul is not material and it is, there¬ 
fore, not theoretically necessary for anything material to pass 
from male to female. The material which does in fact so pass 
with the seed of the male is an accident, not an essential, for 
the essential contribution of the male is not matter but form 
and principle. The female provides the material , the male the 
soul , the form, the principle , that which makes life. Aristotle 
was thus prepared to accept instances of fertilization without 
material contact. 

‘ The female does not contribute semen to generation but 
does contribute something . . . for there must needs be that 
which generates and that from which it generates ... If, then, 
the male stands for the effective and active, and the female, 
considered as female, for the passive, it follows that what the 
female would contribute to the semen of the male would not 
be semen but material for the semen to work upon . . . 

‘ How is it that the male contributes to generation, and how is 
it that the semen from the male is the cause of the offspring ? 
Does [the semen] exist in the body of the embryo as a part of it 
from the first, mingling with the material which comes from the 
female ? Or does the semen contribute nothing to the material 
body of the embryo but only to the power and movement 
in it ? . . . The latter alternative appears to be the right one 
both a priori and in view of the facts.’ 1 

This discussion leads to the question of the natural process of 
generation itself. It is a topic that we have seen discussed by an 
earlier writer who had set forth a sort of doctrine of pangenesis 
1 De generatione animalium , i. 21 ; 729® 21. 



(see p. 14). His view Aristotle declines to share. ‘ We must he 
says, ‘ say the opposite of what the ancients said. For whereas 
they said that semen is that which conies from all the body, we 
shall say that it is that whose nature is to go to all of it, and what 
they thought a waste-product seems rather to be a secretion.’ 
According to Aristotle semen is derived from the same nutritive 
material in the blood-vessels that is distributed to the rest of 
the body. The semen, however, is strained or secreted off 
from this nutritive material—as being its most essential and 
representative portion—before the distribution actually takes 
place. 1 But why, it may be asked, if the semen does not come 
from the various parts of the body, is it yet able to reproduce 
those various parts ? The answer, on the Aristotelian view, 
seems to be that the semen contains special and peculiar 
fractions of the nutritive fluid which have been so modified 
and adapted that, if not secreted off as semen, they would be 
distributed to the different parts of the body to nourish each 
of these various parts. These substances have been elaborated 
by the soul or vital principle in a manner that is specifically 
suited for each organ, hand, liver, face, heart, See., and from 
each of these specific substances a specific essence is separated 
off into the semen corresponding to hand, liver, face, heart, &c., 
of the offspring. 

The next question that arises is the mechanism by which the 
offspring come to resemble their parents. The mechanism in the 
case of inheritance from the father is comprehensible when we 
consider the origin and nature of the semen, but the inheritance 
from the mother requires further explanation. The view of 
Aristotle is based upon the nature of the catamenia and their 
disappearance during gestation. ‘ The catamenia ’, in his view, 

‘ are a secretion as the semen is.’ 2 The female contributes the 
material by which the embryo grows and she does this through 

1 De generatione animalium , i. 18 ; 725 a 22. 

2 De generatione animalium, i. 19; 727 a 31. 



34 Greek Biology 

the catamenia which are suspended during gestation for this 
very purpose. The matter is thus summed up by Aristotle. 

‘ The male does not emit semen at all in some animals, and 
where he does, this is no part of the resulting embryo ; just 
so no material part comes from the carpenter to the material, 
i.e. to the wood in which he works, nor does any part of the 
carpenter’s art exist within what he makes, but the shape and 
the form are imparted from him to the material by means of 
the motion he sets up. It is his hands that move his tools, his 
tools that move the material; it is his knowledge of his art, 
and his soul , in which is the form, that move his hands or any 
other part of him with a motion of some definite kind, a motion 
varying with the varying nature of the object made. In like 
manner, in the male of those animals which emit semen, Nature 
uses the semen as a tool and as possessing motion in actuality, 
just as tools are used in the products of any art, for in them lies 
in a certain sense the motion of the art.’ 1 

‘ For the same reason the development of the embryo takes 
place in the female ; neither the male himself nor the female 
emits semen into the female, but the female receives within 
herself the share contributed by both, because in the female 
is the material from which is made the resulting product. Not 
only must the mass of material from which the embryo is in 
the first instance formed exist there, but further material must 
constantly be added so that the embryo may increase in size. 
Therefore the birth must take place in the female. For the 
carpenter must keep in close connexion with his timber and 
the potter with his clay, and generally all workmanship and the 
ultimate movement imparted to matter must be connected 
with the material concerned, as, for instance, architecture is 
in the buildings it makes.’ 2 

The problem of the nature of generation is one in which 

1 De generatione animalium, i. 22 ; 730^ 10. 

2 De generatione animalium , i. 22 5 73o a 34. 



Aristotle never ceased to take an interest, and among the 
methods by which he sought to solve it was embryological 
investigation. In his ideas on the methods of reproduction 
we must seek also the main bases of such classification of 
animals as he exhibits. His most important embryological 
researches were made upon the chick. He asserts that the first 
signs of development are noticeable on the third day, the heart 
being visible as a palpitating blood-spot whence, as it develops, 
two meandering blood-vessels extend to the surrounding tunics. 

‘ Generation from the egg ’, he says, ‘ proceeds in an identical 
manner with all birds. . . . With the common hen after three 
days and nights there is the first indication of the embryo. . . . 
The heart appears like a speck of blood in the white of the egg. 
This point beats and moves as though endowed with life, and 
from it two vessels with blood in them trend in a convoluted 
course . . . and a membrane carrying bloody fibres now envelops 
the yolk, leading off from the vessels.’ 1 

Aristotle lays considerable stress on the early appearance of 
the heart in the embryo. Corresponding to the general 
gradational view that he had formed of Nature, he held that 
the most primitive and fundamentally important organs make 
their appearance before the others. Among the organs all 
give place to the heart, which he considered ‘ the first to live 
and the last to die ’. 2 

A little later he observed that the body had become dis¬ 
tinguishable, and was at first very small and white. 

‘ The head is clearly distinguished and in it the eyes, swollen 
out to a great extent. ... At the outset the under portion of the 
body appears insignificant in comparison with the upper 
portion. . . . 

‘ When an egg is ten days old the chick and all its parts are 

1 Historia animalium , vi. 3 ; 56i a 4. 

2 Cor primiim movens ultimum moriens. This famous sentence is the 
sense though not the phrasing of De generatione animalium , ii. 1 and 4. 

36 Greek Biology 

distinctly visible. The head still is larger than the rest of the 
body and the eyes larger than the head. At this time also the 
larger internal organs are visible, as also the stomach and 
the arrangement of the viscera ; and the vessels that seem to 
proceed from the heart are now close to the navel. From the 
navel there stretch a pair of vessels, one [vitelline vein] towards 
the membrane that envelops the yolk, and the other [allantoic 
vein] towards that membrane which envelops collectively the 
membrane wherein the chick lies, the membrane of the yolk 
and the intervening liquid. . . . About the twentieth day, if 
you open the egg and touch the chick, it moves inside and 
chirps; and it is already coming to be covered with down 
when, after the twentieth day, the chick begins to break the 

* Aristotle recognized a distinction in the mode of develop¬ 
ment of mammals from that of all other viviparous creatures. 
Having divided the apparently viviparous animals into two 
groups, one of which is truly and internally and the other only 
externally viviparous, he pointed out that in the mammalia, 
the group regarded by him as internally viviparous, the foetus 
is connected until birth with the wall of the mother’s womb by 
the navel string. These animals, in his view, produce their 
young without the intervention of an ovum, the embryo being 
‘ living from the first ’. Such non-mammals, on the other 
hand, as are viviparous are so in the external sense only, that 
is, the young which he considered to arise in this group from 
ova may indeed develop within the mother’s womb and be 
born alive, but they go through their development without 
organic connexion with the mother’s body, so that her womb 
acts but as a nursery or incubator for her eggs. It was indeed 
a sort of accident among the ovipara whether in any particular 
species the ovum went through its development inside or out¬ 
side the mother’s body. ‘ Some of the ovipara ’, he says, 

1 Htstoria animalium , vi. 3 ; 56i a 18. 



‘ produce the egg in a perfect, others in an imperfect state, 
but it is perfected outside the body as has been stated of fish.’ 1 

Yet though Aristotle regarded fish as an oviparous group, 
he knew also of kinds of fish that were externally viviparous. 
It is most interesting to observe, moreover, that he was 
acquainted with one particular instance among fish in which 
matters were less simple and in which the development bore 
an analogy to that of the mammalia, his true internal vivipara. 
‘ Some animals ’, he says, ‘ are viviparous, others oviparous, others 
vermiparous. Some are viviparous, such as man, the horse, the 
seal and all other animals that are hair-coated, and, of marine 
animals, the Cetaceans, as the dolphin, and the so-called 
Selachia.’ 2 

Aristotle tells us elsewhere that a species of these Selachia 
which he calls galeos —a name still used for the dog-fish by 
Greek fishermen—‘ has its eggs in betwixt the [two horns of 
the] womb ; these eggs shift into each of the two horns of the 
womb and descend, and the young develop with the navel- 
string attached to the womb, so that, as the egg-substance gets 
used up, the embryo is sustained to all appearances just as in 
quadrupeds. The navel-string is . . . attached as it were by a 
sucker, and also to the centre of the embryo in the place where 
the liver is situated. . . . Each embryo, as in the case of quadru¬ 
peds, is provided with a chorion and separate membranes.’ 3 

The remarkable anatomical relationship of the embryo of 
Galeus (Mustelus) laevis to its mother’s womb was little noticed 
by naturalists until the whole matter was taken up by 
Johannes Muller about 1840. 4 That great observer demon¬ 
strated the complete accuracy of Aristotle’s description and the 

1 De generatione animalium, iii. 9 ; 758 a 37. 

2 Historia animalium , i. 5 ; 489® 35. 

3 Historia animalium , vi. 10 ; 565b 2. 

4 The history of this discovery is given by Charles Singer, Studies in the 
History and Method of Science , vol. ii, Oxford, 1921, pp. 32 ff. 

38 Greek Biology 

justice of his comparison to and contrast with the mammalian 
mode of development. 1 The work of Johannes Muller at once 
had the effect of drawing the attention of naturalists to the 
importance and value of the Aristotelian biological observations. 

Aristotle attempts to explain the viviparous character of the 
Selachians. His explanation has perhaps little meaning for the 
modern biologist, just as many of our scientific explanations 
will seem meaningless to our successors. But such explanations 
are often worth consideration not only as stages in the historical 
development of scientific thought, but also as illustrating the 
fact that while the ultimate object of science is a description of 
nature, the immediate motive of the best scientific work is 
usually an explanation of nature. Yet it is usually the descrip¬ 
tive, not the explanatory element that bears the test of time. 

‘ Birds and scaly reptiles ’, says Aristotle, ‘ because of their 
heat produce a perfect egg, but because of their dryness it is 
only an egg. The cartilaginous fishes have less heat than these 
but more moisture, so that they are intermediate, for they are 
both oviparous and viviparous within themselves, the former 
because they are cold, the latter because of their moisture ; for 
moisture is vivifying, whereas dryness is farthest removed from 
what has life. Since they have neither feathers nor scales such 
as either reptiles or other fishes have, all of which are signs 
rather of a dry and earthy nature, the egg they produce is soft; 
for the earthy matter does not come to the surface in their eggs 
any more than in themselves. That is why they lay eggs in 
themselves, for if the egg were laid externally it would be 
destroyed, having no protection.’ 2 

This explanation is based on Aristotle’s fundamental doctrine 
of the opposite qualities , heat, cold, wetness, and dryness, 
that are found combined in pairs in the four elements , earth, 
air, fire, and water. The theory was of the utmost importance 

1 Johannes Muller, Ueber den glalten Hai des Aristoteles, Berlin, 1842. 

2 De generatione animalium , ii. 1 ; 733 s1 6. 



for the whole subsequent development of science and was not 
displaced until quite modern times. It was not an original con¬ 
ception of Aristotle, for something resembling it had been set 
forth long before his time in figurative language by Empedocles 
(c. 500-r. 430 b.c.), as Aristotle himself tells us. 1 The same 
view had been foreshadowed by Pythagoras ( c . 580-c. 490 b.c.) 
at an even earlier date and was perhaps of much greater anti¬ 
quity. But Aristotle developed the doctrine and was the main 
channel for its conveyance to later ages, so that his name will 
always be associated with it. Matter in general and living 


Fig. 7 b. The Four Elements and the Four Qualities. 

matter in particular was held by him to be composed of these 
four essential so-called elements (aroL^eia), each of which 
is in turn compounded from two of the primary qualities 
(dwdfxeLs) which Aristotle brought into relation with the 
elements. Thus earth was cold and dry, water cold and wet, 
air hot and wet, and fire hot and dry (Fig. 7 b). 

The theory of the elements and qualities is applicable to all 
matter and not specially to living things. The distinction 
between the living and not-living is to be sought not so much 
in its material constitution, but in the presence or absence of 
‘ soul ’, and his teaching on that topic is to be found in his 
great work irepl x/zuyf/s-, On Soul. He does not think of matter 
1 Metaphysics , i. 4. De generatione et corruptione , ii. 1. 

40 Greek Biology 

as organic or inorganic—that is a distinction of the seven- 
teenth-century physiologists—nor does he think of things 
as divided into animal, vegetable, and mineral—that is a dis¬ 
tinction of the mediaeval alchemists,—but he thinks of things 
as either with soul or without soul >ya or ay\rv\a). 

His belief as to the relationship of this soul to material things 
is a difficult and complicated subject which would take us far 
beyond the topics included in biological writings to-day, but 
he tells us that ‘ there is a class of existent things which we call 
substance, including under that term, firstly, matter, which 
in itself is not this nor that; secondly, shape or form, in virtue 
of which the term this or that is at once applied ; thirdly, the 
whole made up of matter and form. • Matter is identical with 
potentiality, form with actuality,’ the soul being, in living 
things, that which gives the form or actuality. ‘ Of natural 
bodies ’, he continues, ‘ some possess life and some do not : 
where by life we mean the power of self-nourishment and of 
independent growth and decay’. 1 It should here be noted 
that in the Aristotelian sense the ovum is not at first a living 
thing, for in its earliest stage and before fertilization it does 
not possess soul even in its most elementary form. 

‘ The term life is used in various senses, and, if life is 
present in but a single one of these senses, we speak of a 
thing as living. Thus there is intellect, sensation, motion 
from place to place and rest, the motion concerned with 
nutrition, and, further, [there are the processes of] decay and 
growth,’ all various meanings or at least exhibitions of some 
form of life. Hence even ‘ plants are supposed to have life, for 
they have within themselves a faculty and principle whereby 
they grow and decay. . . . They grow and continue to live so 
long as they are capable of absorbing nutriment. This form 
of life can be separated from the others . . . and plants 
have no other faculty of soul at all,’ but only this lowest 

1 Dejmima > ii. i, ii. 



vegetative soul. ‘ It is then in virtue of this principle that all 
living things live, whether animals or plants. But it is sensation 
which primarily constitutes the animal. For, provided they 
have sensation, even those creatures that are devoid of move¬ 
ment and do not change their place are called animals. . . . 
As the nutritive faculty may exist without touch or any form 
of sensation, so also touch may exist apart from other senses.’ 1 
Apart from these two lower forms of soul, the vegetative 
or nutritive and reproductive and the animal or sensitive, 
stands the rational or intellectual soul peculiar to man, a 
form of soul with which we shall here hardly concern our¬ 
selves. 2 

The possession of one or more of the three types of soul, 
vegetative, sensitive, and rational, provides in itself a basis for 
an elementary form of arrangement of living things in an 
ascending scale. We have already seen that Aristotle certainly 
describes something resembling a ‘ Scala Naturae ’ and that 
such a scheme can easily be drawn up from passages in his works. 
It may, however, be doubted whether his phraseology is capable 
of extension so as to include a true classification of animals in 
any modern sense. It is true that he repeatedly divides 
animals into classes, Sanguineous and Nonsanguineous , Oviparous 
and Viviparous , Terrestrial and Aquatic , &c., but his divisions 
are for the most part simply dichotomic. He certainly defines 
a few groups of animals as the Lophura ( Equidae ), the Cete 
(Cetacea ), and the Selache ( Elasmobranchiae together with the 
Lophiidae) in a way that fairly corresponds to similar groups 
in later systems. In most cases, however, his definitions are not 
exact enough for modern needs, for the same animal may fall 
into more than one of his classes and widely different animals 

1 De anima, ii. 2, ii; 413 a 22. 

2 The question of Aristotle’s meaning in connexion with this topic, of 
primary importance for all thought, has a vast literature. An authoritative 
work is R. D. Hicks, Aristotle , De anima , Cambridge, 1907. 

42 Greek Biology 

into the same class. Thus he invents a category Carcharodonta 
for animals with sharp interlocking teeth and includes in it 
carnivors, reptiles, and fish ; again, the horse kind must be 
included both among his Anepallacta or animals having flat 
crowned teeth as well as among the Amphodonta or animals 
with front teeth in both jaws. Such words as these are really 
terms of description , not of classification in the modern biological 
sense of that word. 

There are, however, scattered through the biological works, 
certain terms which are applied to animal groups and organs and 
are defined in such a way as to suggest that they might ulti¬ 
mately have been developed for classificatory purposes. Thus 
his lowest group is the species. ‘ The individuals comprised 
within a single species (eTSos) . . . are the real existences ; 
but inasmuch as these individuals possess one common specific 
form, it will suffice to state the universal attributes of the 
species, that is, the attributes common to all its individuals, 
once and for all.’ 1 This is surely not very far removed from 
the modern biological conception of a species. 

‘ But as regards the larger groups—such as birds—which 
comprehend many species, there may be a question. For on 
the one hand it may be urged that as the ultimate species 
represent the real existences, it will be well, if practicable, to 
examine these ultimate species separately, just as we examine 
the species Man separately; to examine, that is, not the 
whole class Birds collectively, but the Ostrich, the Crane, 
and the other indivisible groups or species belonging to the 

‘ On the other hand, this course would involve repeated 
mention of the same attibute, as the same attibute is common 
to many species, arid so far would be somewhat irrational 
and tedious. Perhaps, then, it will be best to treat generically 
the universal attributes of the groups that have a common 
1 De partibus animaliwn , i. 4 ; 644 a 22. 



nature and contain closely allied subordinate forms, whether 
they are groups recognized by a true instinct of mankind, 
such as Birds and Fishes, or groups not popularly known 
by a common appellation, but withal composed of closely 
allied subordinate groups; and only to deal individually with 
the attributes of a single species, when such species—man, for 
instance, and any other such, if such there be—stands apart 
from others, and does not constitute with them a larger natural 

‘ It is generally similarity in the shape of particular organs, 
or of the whole body, that has determined the formation of the 
larger groups. It is in virtue of such a similarity that Birds, 
Fishes, Cephalopoda, and Testacea have been made to form 
each a separate genus {yivos). For within the limits of each 
such genus , the parts do not differ in that they have no 
nearer resemblance than that of analogy—such as exists 
between the bone of man and the spine of fish—but they 
differ merely in respect of such corporeal conditions as 
largeness smallness, softness hardness, smoothness roughness, 
and other similar oppositions, or, in one word, in respect of 
degree.’ 1 

The Aristotelian genus thus differs widely from the term as 
used in modern biology. In another passage he comes nearer 
to defining it and the analogy of parts which extends from 
genus to genus. 

‘ Groups that differ only in the degree, and in the more or 
less of an identical element that they possess are aggregated 
together under a single genus ; groups whose attributes are not 
identical but analogous are separated. For instance, bird differs 
from bird by gradation, or by excess and defect; some birds 
have long feathers, others short ones, but all are feathered. 
Bird and Fish are more remote and only agree in having 
analogous organs; for what in the bird is feather, in the 
1 De partibus animalium , i. 4 ; 644 a 27. 

44 Greek Biology 

fish is scale. Such analogies can scarcely, however, serve 
universally as indications for the formation of groups, for 
almost all animals present analogies in their corresponding 
parts.’ 1 

Aristotle nowhere gives to his term genus a rigid application 
that can be applied throughout the animal kingdom. He uses 
the word in fact much as we should use the conveniently 
flexible term group , now for a larger and less definite, now for 
a smaller and more definite collection of species. This varying 
use of a technical word makes it impossible to draw up a 
classification based on his genera or indeed with any consistent 
use of the terms which he actually employs. 

The difficulty or impossibility of drawing up a satisfactory 
classificatory system from the Aristotelian writings has not, 
however, deterred numerous naturalists and scholars from 
making the attempt, and the subject has in itself a considerable 
history and literature 2 extending from the days of Edward 
Wotton (1492-1555) downward. 3 The more recent efforts at 
drawing up an Aristotelian classificatory system have been 
based on the methods of reproduction to which he certainly 
attached very great importance. 4 Provided that it be remem¬ 
bered that Aristotle does not himself detail any such system 
there can be no harm in constructing one from his works. At 
worst it will serve as a memoria technica for the extent and 
character of his knowledge of natural history, and at best it 
may represent a scheme to which he was tending. 

1 Dc partibus animalium , i. 4 ; 644 a 16. 

2 The classificatory system of Aristotle and its history are discussed in 
great detail by J. B.Meyer, Aristoteles' Thierkunde: ein Beitragzur Geschichte 
der Zoologie, Physiologie und alten Philosophic, Berlin, 1855. 

3 The work by which Wotton is known is his Dc differentiis animalium, 
Paris, 1552. 

4 There is a valuable chapter on the subject of the Aristotelian classifi¬ 
catory system as based on the method of reproduction in W. Ogle, Aristotle 
on the Parts oj Animals, London, 1882. 



ENAIMA (Sanguineous and either viviparous or oviparous ) 
= vertebrates . 

Viviparous in the in- . 
ternal sense. 

1. avOpcoiros. Man. 

2. ktjttj. Cetaceans. 

3. Cy a TtTpCVTtoha (ipOTOKCl Zv CIVTOLS. 

Viviparous quadrupeds. 

(a) pi] ap(f)(6dovTa. Non-amphodonts 
= Ruminants with incisor in 
lower jaw only and with cloven 

(b) p(ow\a. Solid-hoofed animals, 
i. A osjiovpa. Equidae, 
ii. pdsvvya €Tepa. Other solid- 
hoofed animals. 

4. dpvides. Birds. 

(a) yap\\r<avvya. Birds of prey with 









With [ 



5 - 

6 . 

7 - 

(b) (rreyavonobes. Swimmers with 
webbed feet. 

(c) Trepiorepoeibrj . Pigeons, doves, &c. 

(d) anobes. Swifts, martins, &c. 

(e) opvidts erepoL. Other birds. 

rerpairoba wordfca. Oviparous 
quadrupeds = Amphibians and most 

dcf)Lo')bT]. Serpents. 
iX0ve9. Fishes. 

(a) rreAd^v- Selachians. Cartilaginous 

fishes and, doubtfully, the fishing- 


(b) 1 -gOves (TtpoL. Other fishes. 

AN AIM A (Non-sanguineous and either viviparous , vermiparous 
or budding) = Invertebrates. 

With perfect ovum. 
With ‘ scolex 

8. pa\A.Kia. Cephalopods. 

9. paXaKoirrpaKa. Crustaceans. 

10. ZvTopa. Insects, spiders, scorpions, 



Greek Biology 

With generative 
slime, buds or spon¬ 
taneous generation. 

With spontaneous ji2. (uo^vra. Sponges, Coelenterates, 
generation only. &c. 

Some of the elements in this classification are fundamentally 
unsatisfactory in that they are based on negative characters. 
Such is the group of Anaima which is parallelled by our own 
equally convenient and negative though morphologically 
meaningless equivalent Invertebrata. Others, such as the sub¬ 
divisions of the viviparous quadrupeds, can only be forcibly 
extracted out of Aristotle’s text. But there are yet others, 
such as the separation of the cartilaginous from the bony fishes, 
that exhibit true genius and betray a knowledge that can only 
have been reached by careful investigation. Remarkably 
brilliant too is his treatment of Molluscs. There can be no doubt 
that he dissected the bodies and carefully watched the habits of 
octopuses and squids, Malaria as he calls them. He separates 
them too far from the other Molluscs, grouped by him as 
Ostracoderma, but his actual descriptions of the structure and 
sexual process of the cephalopods are exceedingly remarkable, 
and after being long disregarded or misunderstood were 
verified and repeated in the course of the nineteenth 
century. 1 

Passing from his general ideas on the nature and division of 
living creatures we may turn to some of the most noteworthy 
of his actual observations. In the realm of comparative anatomy 
proper we may instance that of the stomach of ruminants. He 
must have dissected these animals, for he gives a clear and 
correct account of the four chambers. ‘ Animals he says, 

1 The rediscovery and verification of this and other Aristotelian observa¬ 
tions is detailed by C. Singer, ‘ Greek Biology and the Rise of Modern 
Biology,’ Studies in the History and Method of Science , vol. ii, Oxford, 

I II. oarpaKobepiia. Molluscs (except Ce¬ 
phalopods), Echinoderms, &c. 



‘ present diversities in the structure of their stomachs. Of the 
viviparous quadrupeds, such of the horned animals as are not 
equally furnished with teeth in both jaws are furnished with 
four such chambers. These animals are those that are said to 
chew the cud. In these animals the oesophagus extends from 
the mouth downwards along the lung, from the midriff to the 
big stomach [rumen, or paunch], and this stomach is rough 
inside and semi-partitional. And connected with it near to the 
entry of the oesophagus is what is called the kekryphalos 
[reticulum, or honeycomb bag] ; for outside it is like the 
stomach, but inside it resembles a netted cap ; and the kekry- 
phalos is a good deal smaller than the big stomach .’ The 
term kekryphalos was applied to the net that women wore over 
their hair to keep it in order. ‘ Connected with this kekry¬ 
phalos,’ he continues, ‘ is the echinos [_ psalterium, or many plies], 
rough inside and laminated, and of about the same size as the 
kekryphalos. Next after this comes what is called the enystron 
[abomasum], larger and longer than the echinos, furnished 
inside with numerous folds or ridges, large and smooth. After 
all this comes the gut. . . .’ 1 ‘ All animals that have horns, the 
sheep for instance, the ox, the goat, the deer and the like, have 
these several stomachs. . . . The several cavities receive the 
food one from the other in succession : the first taking the 
unreduced substances, the second the same when somewhat 
reduced, the third when reduction is complete, and the fourth 
when the whole has become a smooth pulp. . . .’ 2 ‘ Such is the 
stomach of those quadrupeds that are horned and have an un- 
symmetrical dentition (uij apputbovra) ; and these animals differ 
one from another in the shape and size of the parts, and 
in the fact of the oesophagus reaching the stomach central- 
wise in some cases and sideways in others. Animals that are 
furnished equally with teeth in both jaws (appuibovra) have 

1 Historia animalium, ii. 17; 507 a 33. 

2 De partibus animalium, ii. 17; 5o7 b 12. 

48 Greek Biology 

one stomach ; as man, the pig, the dog, the bear, the lion, the 
wolf.’ 1 

A very famous example in the Aristotelian works anticipating 
modern biological knowledge is afforded by his reference to the 
mode of reproduction of the cephalopods. ‘ The Malacia such 
as the octopus, the sepia, and the calamary, have sexual inter¬ 
course all in the same way ; that is to say, they unite at the 
mouth by an interlacing of their tentacles. When, then, the 
octopus rests its so-called head against the ground and spreads 
abroad its tentacles, the other sex fits into the outspreading 
of these tentacles, and the two sexes then bring their suckers 
into mutual connexion. Some assert that the male has a kind 
of penis in one of his tentacles, the one in which are the largest 
suckers; and they further assert that the organ is tendinous 
in character growing attached right up to the middle of the 
tentacle, and that the latter enables it to enter the nostril or 
funnel of the female.’ 2 # 

The reproductive processes of the Cephalopods were un¬ 
known to modern naturalists until the middle of the nineteenth 
century. Before that time several observers had noted the 
occasional presence of a peculiar parasite in the mantle cavity 
of female cephalopods and had described its supposed structure 
without tracing any relationship to the process of generation. 
In 1851 it was first shown that this supposed parasite was the 
arm of the male animal specially modified for reproductive 

1 Historia animalium , ii. 17 ; 5c>7 b 12. 

2 Historia animalium , v. 6 ; 541^ 1. The hectocotylization of the cepha- 
lopod arm which is here recorded as an element in the reproductive process 
of these animals is denied in the De generattone animalium , i. 15 ; 72o b 32, 
where we read that ‘ the insertion of the arm of the male into the funnel of 
the female ... is only for the sake of attachment, and it is not an organ 
useful for generation, for it is outside the passage in the male and indeed 
outside the body of the male altogether.’ Yet even here Aristotle knows 
of the physical relationship of the arm. See note on this point in the trans¬ 
lation of the passage by A. Platt, Oxford, 1910. 



purposes and broken off on insertion into the mantle cavity of 
the female. 1 The actual process of reproduction does not seem 
to have been observed until 1894. 2 

Aristotle is perhaps at his best and happiest when describing 
the habits of living animals that he has himself observed. 
Among his most pleasing accounts are those of the fishing-frog 
and torpedo. In these creatures he did not fail to notice the 
displacement of the fins associated with the depressed form of 
the body. 

‘In marine creatures’, he says, ‘one may observe many 
ingenious devices adapted to the circumstances of their lives. 
For the account commonly given of the frog-fish or angler is 
quite true ; as is also that of the torpedo. . . . 

‘ In the Torpedo and the Fishing-frog the breadth of the 
anterior part of the body is not so great as to render 
locomotion by fins impossible, but in consequence of it the 
upper pair [pectorals ] are placed further back and the under 
pair [yentrals] are placed close to the head, while to compensate 
for this advancement they are reduced in size so as to be smaller 
than the upper ones. 

‘ In the Torpedo the two upper fins [pectorals] are placed 
in the tail, and the fish uses the broad expansion of its body 
to supply their place, each lateral half of its circumference 
serving the office of a fin. . . . The torpedo narcotizes the 
creatures that it wants to catch, overpowering them by 
the force of shock that is resident in its body, and feeds upon 
them ; it also hides in the sand and mud, and catches all the 
creatures that swim in its way and come under its narcotizing 
influence. This phenomenon has been actually observed in 

operation.The torpedo-fish is known to cause a numbness 

even in human beings. 

‘ The frog-fish has a set of filaments that project in front of its 

1 J. B. Vcrany, Mollusques mediterraneens , Genoa, 1851. 

2 E. Racovitza, Archives de zoologie experinientale , Paris, 1894. 

2540-1 D 

50 Greek Biology 

eyes; they are long and thin, like hairs, and are round at the 
tips; they lie on either side, and are used as baits. . . . The 
little creatures on which this fish feeds swim up to the filaments, 
taking them for bits of seaweed such as they feed upon. 
Accordingly, when the frog-fish stirs himself up a place where 
there is plenty of sand and mud and conceals himself therein, 
it raises the filaments, and when the little fish strike against 
them the frog-fish draws them in underneath into its mouth. 
. . . That the creatures get their living by this means is 
obvious from the fact that, whereas they are peculiarly 
inactive, they are often caught with mullets, the swiftest of 
fishes, in their interior. Furthermore, the frog-fish is usually 
thin when he is caught after losing the tips of his fila¬ 
ments.’ 1 

The modification of the musculature of the torpedo-fish for 
electric purposes and the fishing habits of the fishing frog or 
Lophius are now well known, but it was many centuries before 
naturalists had confirmed the observations of the father of 

When we turn from Aristotle’s observations in the depart¬ 
ment of natural history to his discussion of the actual mechan¬ 
ism of the living body, the subject now contained under the 
heading Experimental Physiology , we are in the presence of much 
less satisfactory material. Aristotle here exhibits his weakness 
in physics and not being endowed with any experimental 
knowledge of that subject his physiological development is 
very greatly handicapped. He seems often to accept fancies 
of his own in place of generalizations from collated observations. 
This tendency of his was conveyed to his successors and delayed 
physiological advance for many centuries. It forms a striking 
contrast to the method of certain of the Hippocratic works such 

1 The paragraphs concerning the fishing-frog and torpedo are made up 
of sentences rearranged from the De partibus animalium , iv, 13 ; 6 () 6 & 26, 
and the Historia animalium , ix. 37 ; 62Q b 15. 



as the Epidemics and the Aphorisms which exhibit an investi¬ 
gator intent on recording actual observations and on deducing 
general laws therefrom. Had the Hippocratic method been 
extended by Aristotle beyond the field of natural history, where 
he freely follows it, to that of physiology, the succeeding 
generations might have established medicine far more firmly 
as a science. 

An important factor in Aristotle’s physical and physiological 
teaching is the doctrine that matter is continuous and not made 
up of indivisible parts. He thus rejected the atomic views of 
his predecessors Leucippus and Democritus which have been 
preserved for us by the poem of Lucretius. The different kinds 
of matter existing merely in their state of simple mixture 
formed various uniform or homogeneous substances, homoeomeria , 
of which the tissues of living bodies provided one type. We now 
consider tissues as having structure made up of living cells or 
their products, but to Aristotle their structure was an essential 
fact following on their particular elemental constitution. The 
structure of muscle or flesh was perhaps comparable to that 
of a crystalline substance, for, as we have seen, Aristotle made 
no fundamental distinction between organic and inorganic 
substances , which are in his view alike subject to the processes 
of generation and corruption. The difference between them 
lies not in their structure but in their potential relation to the 
various degrees of soul, the vegetative, the animal, and the 

‘ There are ’, says Aristotle, ‘ three degrees of composition, 
and of these the first in order is composition out of what some 
call the elements , earth, air, water, and fire. . . . 

‘ The second degree of composition is that by which the 
homogeneous parts of animals (o/aoio/aepr}), such as bone, flesh, 
and the like, are constituted out of [these] primary sub¬ 

‘ The third and last stage is the composition which forms the 

D 2 

52 Greek Biology 

heterogeneous parts (auo/xoiojuep?)) such as face, hand, and the 
rest.’ 1 

The distinctions are not altogether clear but may perhaps 
be explained along such lines as the following. The division 
into homogeneous and heterogeneous corresponds in a general 
way to the later division into Tissues and Organs, the former, 
however, including much that we should not call tissue. 
The homogeneous parts were again of two kinds : (a) simple 
tissues or stuffs without any notion of size or shape, that 
is, mere substance capable of endowment with life or soul, 
e.g. cartilaginous or osseous tissues; and (b) simple structure, 
that is actual structure made of such a single tissue but with 
definite form and size, matter to which form had been 
added and which either was actually or had been endowed with 
soul, e.g. a cartilage or a bone. 

As a physiologist Aristotle is, in fact, in much the same 
position as he is as a physicist. He never dissected the human 
body, he had only the roughest idea of the course of the vessels, 
and his description of the vascular system is so difficult and 
confused that a considerable literature has been written on 
its interpretation. He regarded the heart as the central organ 
of the body and the seat of sensation and he probably believed 
that the arteries contained air as well as blood. He made 
no adequate distinction between veins and arteries. He tells 
us that two great vessels arise from the heart and that the 
heart is, as it were, a part of these vessels. The two vessels 
are apparently the aorta and the vena cava, and a very 
elementary and not very accurate description is given of 
the branches of these vessels. He believed that the heart 
had three chambers or cavities and that it took in air direct 
from the lung. 

The brain was for him mainly an organ by which were 
secreted certain cold humours which prevented any overheating 
. * 1 Dc partibus animalium , ii. i ; 646 11 12. 



of the body by the furnace of the heart under the action of the 
bellows of the lung. He formally rejected the older views of 
Diogenes of Apollonia, of Alcmaeon of Croton, and of the 
Hippocratic writings, that placed the seat of sensation in the 
brain. 1 He failed to trace any adequate relation of sense 
organs and nerves to brain. He considered that the spinal 
marrow served to hold the vertebrae together. 

In general we may say that his physiology is on a much 
lower plane than his natural history, since in dealing with 
physiological questions he always seems to have in mind 
the body as a whole and seldom pauses for any detailed 
investigation of a particular part. The physiological views of 
Aristotle were far from being fully accepted even by the 
generation which followed him. There was already growing 
up a school of physiologists whose work culminated five 
centuries later in that of Galen, where we find quite other 
views of the bodily functions. It is these views which we 
may take as more typical of the bases of Greek physiology 
(see p. 66). 

In much of the Aristotelian material that we have discussed 
we have seen the development of a class of interests very foreign 
to those of the modern biologist, in whose work the general 
discussion of the ultimate nature and origin of life seldom plays 
a large part. The business of the modern biologist is mainly 
with vital phenomena as he encounters them and he is not 
concerned with the deeper philosophical problems. The man 
of science considers a part of the Universe where the philo¬ 
sopher makes it his business to regard the whole. With 
Aristotle this modern scientific process of taking a part of 
the sensible Universe, such as a particular group of animals 
or the particular action of a particular organ, and considering 
it in and by and for itself without reference to other things, 
had not yet fully emerged. Philosophy and science are still 
1 De partibus animalium , ii. io. 

54 Greek Biology 

inextricably linked and there is no clear demarcation between 

This is at least his theoretical view. But besides being 
a philosopher by choice he was a supreme naturalist by his 
natural endowments and he cannot suppress his love for nature 
and his capacity for observation. We see Aristotle the naturalist 
at his greatest as a direct observer or when reasoning directly 
about the observations that he has made. When he disregards 
his own observations and begins to erect theories on the observa¬ 
tions or the views of others, he becomes weaker and less 

§ 3 . After Aristotle 

All Aristotle’s surviving biological works refer primarily to 
the animal creation. His work on plants is lost or rather has 
survived as the merest corrupted fragment. We are fortunate, 
however, in the possession of a couple of complete works by 
his pupil and successor Theophrastus (372-287), which may not 
only be taken to represent the Aristotelian attitude towards the 
plant world, but also give us an inkling of the general state of 
biological science in the generation which succeeded the master. 

These treatises of Theophrastus are in many respects the 
most complete and orderly of all ancient biological works that 
have reached our time. They give an idea of the kind of 
interest that the working scientist of that day could develop 
when inspired rather by the genius of a great teacher than by 
the power of his own thoughts. Theophrastus is a pedestrian 
where Aristotle is a creature of wings, he is in a relation to 
the master of the same order that the morphologists of the 
second half of the nineteenth century were to Darwin. For 
a couple of generations after the appearance of the Origin of 
Species in 1859 t ^ ie industry and ability of naturalists all over 
the .world were occupied in working out in detail the structure 


After A ristotle 

and mode of life of living things on the basis of the Evolu¬ 
tionary philosophy. Nearly all the work on morphology and 
much of that on physiology since his time might be treated 
as a commentary on the works of Darwin. These volumes of 
Theophrastus give the same impression. They represent the 
remains—alas, almost the only biological remains—of a school 
working under the impulse of a great idea and spurred by the 
memory of a great teacher. As such they afford a parallel to 
much scientific work of our own day, produced by men without 
genius save that provided by a vision and a hope and an ideal. 
Of such men it is impossible to write as of Aristotle. Their 
lives are summed up by their actual achievement, and since 
Theophrastus is an orderly writer whose works have descended 
to us in good state, he is a very suitable instance of the actual 
standard of achievement of ancient biology. ‘ Without vision 
the people perish ’ and the very breath of life of science is 
drawn, and can only be drawn, from that very small band of 
prophets who from time to time, during the ages, have pro¬ 
vided the. great generalizations and the great ideals. In this 
light let us examine the work of Theophrastus. 

In the absence of any adequate system of classification, 
almost all botany until the seventeenth century consisted 
mainly of descriptions of species. To describe accurately a leaf 
or a root in the language in ordinary use would often take 
pages. Modern botanists have invented an elaborate termino¬ 
logy which, however hideous to eye and ear, has the crowning 
merit of helping to abbreviate scientific literature. Botanical 
writers previous to the seventeenth century were substantially 
without this special mode of expression. It is partly to this 
lack that we owe the persistent attempts throughout the 
centuries to represent plants pictorially in herbals, manuscript 
and printed, and thus the possibility of an adequate history 
of plant illustration. 

Theophrastus seems to have felt acutely the need of botanical 

56 Greek Biology 

terms, and there are cases in which he seeks to give a special 
technical meaning to words in more or less current use. Among 
such words are carpos = fruit, pericarpion = seed vessel =peri- 
carp, and metra, the word used by him for the central core 
of any stem whether formed of wood, pith, or other substance. 
It is from the usage of Theophrastus that the exact definition 
of fruit and pericarp has come down to us. 1 We may easily 
discern also the purpose for which he introduces into botany 
the term metra , a word meaning primarily the womb , and the 
vacancy in the Greek language which it was made to fill. 

‘ Metra ,’ he says, ‘ is that which is in the middle of the wood, 
being third in order from the bark and [thus] like to the 
marrow in bones. Some call it the heart (Kapbiav), others the 
inside (evrepubviiv), yet others call only the innermost part 
of the metra itself the heart, while others again call this 
marrow.'’ 2 He is thus inventing a word to cover all the 
different kinds of core and importing it from another study. 
This is the method of modern scientific nomenclature which 
hardly existed for botanists even as late as the sixteenth century 
of our. era. The real foundations of our modern nomenclature 
were laid in the later sixteenth and in the seventeenth century 
by Cesalpino and Joachim Jung. 

Theophrastus understood the value of developmental study, 
a conception derived from his master. ‘ A plant ’, he says, 

‘ has power of germination in all its parts, for it has life in 
them all, wherefore we should regard them not for what they 
are but for what they are becoming.’ 3 The various modes of 
plant reproduction are correctly distinguished in a way that 
passes beyond the only surviving earlier treatise that deals in 

1 It is possible that Theophrastus derived the word pericarp from Aris¬ 
totle. Cp. De anima, ii. i, 412 b 2. In the passage to </n i\'Kov nepiKapninv 
crKenaafia, to de neptKapmov Knpirov, in the De anima the word does not, 
however, seem to have the full technical force that Theophrastus gives to it. 

2 Historia plantarum,i. 2, vi. 3 Ibid. i. 1, iv. 


After Aristotle 

detail with the subject, the Hippocratic work On genera¬ 
tion. ‘ The manner of generation of trees and plants are these : 
spontaneous, from a seed, from a root, from a piece torn off, 
from a branch or twig, from the trunk itself, or from pieces 
of the wood cut up small.’ 1 The marvel of generation must 
have awakened admiration from a very early date. We have 
already seen it occupying a more ancient author, and it 
had also been one of the chief preoccupations of Aristotle. 
It is thus not remarkable that the process should impress 
Theophrastus, who has left on record his views on the forma¬ 
tion of the plant from the seed. 

‘ Some germinate, root and leaves, from the same point, 
some separately from either end of the seed. Thus wheat, 
barley, spelt, and all such cereals [germinate] from either end, 
corresponding to the position [of the seed] in the ear, the root 
from the stout lower part, the shoot from the upper ; but the 
two, root and stem, form a single continuous whole. The 
bean and other leguminous plants are not so, but in them 
root and stem are from the same point, namely, their place 
of attachment to the pod, where, it is plain, they have 
their origin. In some cases there is a process, as in beans, 
chick peas, and especially lupines, from which the root grows 
downward, the leaf and stem upward. ... In certain trees 
the bud first germinates within the seed, and, as it increases 
in size, the seeds split—all such seeds are, as it were, in two 
halves; again, all those of leguminous plants have plainly two 
lobes and are double—and then the root is immediately thrust 
out. But in cereals, the seeds being in one piece, this does 
not happen, but the root grows a little before [the shoot]. 

‘ Barley and wheat come up monophyllous, but peas, beans, 
and chick peas polyphyllous. All leguminous plants have a 
single woody root, from which grow slender side roots . . , 
but wheat, barley, and the other cereals have numerous slender 
roots by which they are matted together. . . . There is a con¬ 
trast between these two kinds; the leguminous plants have 

1 Historia plantarum , ii. i, i. 

58 Greek Biology 

a single root and have many side-growths above from the 
[single] stem . . . while the cereals have many roots and send 
up many shoots, but these have no side-shoots.’ 1 

There can be no doubt that here is a piece of minute 
observation on the behaviour of germinating seeds. The dis¬ 
tinction between dicotyledons and monocotyledons is accurately 
set forth, though the stress is laid not so much on the coty- 
ledonous character of the seed as on the relation of root and 
shoot. In the dicotyledons root and shoot are represented as 
springing from the same point, and in monocotyledons from 
opposite poles in the seed. 

No further effective work was done on the germinating seed 
until the invention of the microscope, and the appearance of 
the work of Highmore (1613-85), 2 3 and the much more searching 
investigations of Malpighi (1628-94) 3 anc * Grew (1641-1712) 4 
after the middle of the seventeenth century. The observations 
of Theophrastus are, however, so accurate, so lucid, and so 
complete that they might well be used as legends for the plates 
of these writers two thousand years after him. 

Much has been written as to the knowledge of the sex of 
plants among the ancients. It may be stated that of the sexual 
elements of the flower no ancient writer had any clear idea. 
Nevertheless, sex is often attributed to plants, and the simile 
of the Loves of Plants enters into works of the poets. Plants 
are frequently described as male and female in ancient bio¬ 
logical writings also, and Pliny goes so far as to say that some 
students considered that all herbs and trees were sexual. 5 Yet 
when such passages can be tested it will be found that these 
so-called males and females are usually different species. In 

1 Historia plantarum , viii. 1, i. 

2 Nathaniel Highmore, A History of Generation , London, 1651. 

3 Marcello Malpighi, Anatome plantarum, London, 1675. 

4 Nehemiah Grew, Anatomy oj Vegetables begun , London, 1672, 

5 Pliny, Naturalis historia , xiii. 4. 


After Aristotle 

a few cases a sterile variety is described as the male and a fertile 
as the female. In a small residuum of cases dioecious plants 
or flowers are regarded as male and female, but with no real 
comprehension of the sexual nature of the flowers. There 
remain the palms, in which the knowledge of plant sex had 
advanced a trifle farther. ‘ With dates ’, says ‘Theophrastus, 
‘ the males should be brought to the females ; for the males 
make the fruit persist and ripen, and this some call by analogy 
to use the wild fig (oXvvOa&iv ). 1 The process is thus : when 
the male is in flower they at once cut off the spathe with 
the flower and shake the bloom, with its flower and dust, over 
the fruit of the female, and, if it is thus treated, it retains the 
fruit and does not shed it.’ 2 The fertilizing character of the 
spathe of the male date palm was familiar in Babylon from 
a very early date. It is recorded by Herodotus 3 and is repre¬ 
sented by a frequent symbol on the Assyrian monuments. 

The comparison of the fertilization of the date palm to the 
use of the wild fig refers to the practice of Caprification. 
Theophrastus tells us that there are certain trees, the fig 
among them, which are apt to shed their fruit prematurely. 
To remedy this ‘ the device adopted is caprification. Gall 
insects come out of the wild figs which are hanging there, eat 
the tops of the cultivated figs, and so make them swell ’. 4 
These gall-insects ‘ are engendered from the seeds ’. 5 Theo¬ 
phrastus distinguished between the process as applied to the 
fig and the date, observing that ‘ in both [fig and date] the 

1 The curious word 6\w0d£eiv, here translated to use the wild fig , is from 
dXvvdos, a kind of wild fig which seldom ripens. The special meaning here 
given to the word is explained in another work of Theophrastus, Decausis 
plantarum , ii. 9, xv. After describing caprification in figs, he says to be eVi 
T<i> v (f)oiviKo)U crvfx\3idvou oil ravrov pA, e\ei be t ivn ofuitirijra to{ito> bt 
o kuXovo-id b\vvdu£eiv nvrovs ‘ The same thing is not done with dates, but 
something analogous to it, whence this is called <>\vv6d(eiv ’. 

2 Historia plantarum , ii. 8, iv. 3 Herodotus i. 193. 

4 Historia plantarum , ii. 8, i. 5 Ibid. ii. 8, ii. 

6 o Greek Biology 

male aids the female—for they call the fruit-bearing [palm] 
female —but whilst in the one there is a union of the two 
sexes, in the other things are different h 1 

Theophrastus was not very successful in distinguishing the 
nature of the primary elements of plants, though he was able 
to separate root, stem, leaf, stipule, and flower on morpho¬ 
logical as well as to a limited extent on physiological grounds. 
For the root he adopts the familiar definition, the only one 
possible before the rise of chemistry, that it ‘ is that by which 
the plant draws up nourishment ’, 2 a description that applies 
to the account given by the pre-Aristotelian author of the 
work 7rep! yovrj s, On generation. But Theophrastus shows 
by many examples that he is capable of following out 
morphological homologies. Thus he knows that the ivy regularly 
puts forth roots from the shoots between the leaves, by means 
of which it gets hold of trees and walls, 3 that the mistletoe 
will not sprout except on the bark of living trees into which 
it strikes its roots, and that the very peculiar formation of the 
mangrove tree is to be explained by the fact that ‘ this plant 
sends out roots from the shoots till it has hold on the ground 
and roots again : and so there comes to be a continuous circle 
of roots round the tree, not connected with the main stem, 
but at a distance from it ’. 4 He does not succeed, however, in 
distinguishing the real nature of such structures as bulbs, 
rhizomes, and tubers, but regards them all as roots. Nor is 
he more successful in his discussion of the nature of stems. 
As to leaves, he is more definite and satisfactory, though wholly 
in the dark as to their function ; he is quite clear that the 
pinnate leaf of the rowan tree, for instance, is a leaf and not 
a branch. 

Notwithstanding his lack of insight as to the nature of sex 
in flowers, he attains to an approximately correct idea of the 

1 Historia plantarum, ii. 8 , iv. 2 Ibid. i. i, ix. 

2 Ibid. iii. 18, x. 4 De causis plantarum , ii. 23. 


Copy (second century a. d. ?) of earlier work 

6 i 

After Aristotle 

relation of flower and fruit. Some plants, he says, ‘ have 
[the flower] around the fruit itself as vine and olive ; [the 
flowers] of the latter, when they drop, look as though they 
had a hole through them, and this is taken for a sign that it 
has blossomed well; for if [the flower] is burnt up or sodden, 
the fruit falls with it, and so it does not become pierced. Most 
flowers have the fruit case in the middle, or it may be the 
flower is on the top of the pericarp as in pomegranate, apple, 
pear, plum, and myrtle . . . for these have their seeds below 
the flower. ... In some cases again the flower is on top of the 
seeds themselves as in . . . all thistle-like plants h 1 Thus 
Theophrastus has succeeded in distinguishing between the 
hypogynous, perigynous, and epigynous types of flower, and 
has almost come to regard its relation to the fruit as the 
essential floral element. 

Theophrastus has a perfectly clear idea of plant distribution 
as dependent on soil and climate, and at times seems to be on 
the point of passing from a statement of climatic distribution 
into one of real geographical regions. The general question 
of plant distribution long remained at, if it did not recede 
from, the position where he left it. The usefulness of the 
manuscript and early printed herbals in the West was for 
centuries marred by the retention of plant descriptions pre¬ 
pared for the Greek East and Latin South, and these works 
were saved from complete ineffectiveness only by an occasional 
appeal to nature. 

With the death of Theophrastus about 287 b.c. pure biological 
science substantially disappears from the Greek world, and we get 
the same type of deterioration that is later encountered in other 
scientific departments. Science ceases to have the motive of 
the desire to know, and becomes an applied study, subservient 
to the practical arts. It is an attitude from which in the end 
applied science itself must suffer also. Yet the centuries that 
1 Historia plantarum, i. 13, iii. 


Greek Biology 

follow were not without biological writers of very great ability. 
In the medical school of Alexandria anatomy and physiology 
became placed on a firm basis from about 300 b.c., but always 
in the position subordinate to medicine that they have since 
occupied. Two great names of that school, Herophilus and 
Erasistratus, we must consider elsewhere. 1 Their works have 
disappeared and we have the merest fragments of them. 
In the last pre-Christian and the first two post-Christian 
centuries, however, there were several writers, portions of 
whose works have survived and are of great biological impor¬ 
tance. Among them we include Crateuas, a botanical writer 
and illustrator, who greatly developed, if he did not actually 
introduce, the method of representing plants systematically by 
illustration rather than by description. This method, important 
still, was even more important when there was no proper system 
of botanical nomenclature. Crateuas by his paintings of plants, 
copies of which have not improbably descended to our time, 
began a tradition which, fixed about the fifth century, remained 
almost rigid until the re-discovery of nature in the sixteenth. 
He was physician to Mithridates VI Eupator (120-63 b.c.), 
but his work was well known and appreciated at Rome, which 
became the place of resort for Greek talent. 2 

Celsus, who floitrished about 20 b.c., wrote an excellent work 
on medicine, but gives all too little glimpse of anatomy and 
physiology. Rufus of Ephesus, however, in the next century 
practised dissection of apes and other animals. He described 
the decussation of the optic nerves and the capsule of the 
crystalline lens, and gave the first clear description that has 
survived of the structure of the eye. He regarded the nerves 

1 See the companion chapter on Greek Medicine. 

2 The works of Crateuas have recently been printed by M. Wellmann as 
an appendix to the text of Dioscorides, Dere niedica , 3 vols., Berlin, 1906—17. 
The source and fate of his plant drawings are discussed in the same 
author’s Krateuas, Berlin, 1S97. 


After Aristotle 

as originating from the brain, and distinguished between nerves 
of motion and of sensation. He described the oviduct of the 
sheep and rightly held that life was possible without the spleen. 

The second Christian century brings us two writers who, 
while scientifically inconsiderable, acted as the main carriers 
of such tradition of Greek biology as reached the Middle Ages, 
Pliny and Dioscorides. Pliny (a. d. 23-79), though a Latin, 
owes almost everything of value in his encyclopaedia to Greek 
writings. In his Natural History we have a collection of 
current views on the nature, origin, and uses of plants and 
animals such as we might expect from an intelligent, industrious, 
and honest member of the landed class who was devoid of critical 
or special scientific skill. Scientifically the work is contemptible, 
but it demands mention in any study of the legacy of Greece, 
since it was, for centuries, a main conduit of the ancient 
teaching and observations on natural history. Read throughout 
the ages, alike in the darkest as in the more enlightened periods, 
copied and recopied, translated, commented on, extracted and 
abridged, a large part of Pliny’s work has gradually passed into 
folk-keeping, so that through its agency the gipsy fortune-teller 
of to-day is still reciting garbled versions of the formulae of 
Aristotle and Hippocrates of two and a half millennia ago. 

The fate of Dioscorides (flourished a. d. 60) has been not 
dissimilar. His work On Materia Medica consists of a series 
of short accounts of plants, arranged almost without reference 
to the nature of the plants themselves, but quite invaluable 
for its terse and striking descriptions which often include habits 
and habitats. Its history has shown it to be one of the most 
influential botanical treatises ever penned. It provided most of 
the little botanical knowledge that reached the Middle Ages. 
It furnished the chief stimulus to botanical research at the 
time of the Renaissance. It has decided the general form of 
every modern pharmacopoeia. It has practically determined 
modern plant nomenclature both popular and scientific. 

64 Greek Biology 

Translated into nearly every language from Anglo-Saxon and 
Provencal to Persian and Hebrew, appearing both abstracted 
and in full in innumerable beautifully illuminated manuscripts, 
some of which are still among the fairest treasures of the great 
national libraries, Dioscorides, the drug-monger, appealed to 
scholasticized minds for centuries. The frequency with which 
fragments of him are encountered in papyri shows how popular 
his work was in Egypt in the third and fourth centuries. One 
of the earliest datable Greek codices in existence is a glorious 
volume of Dioscorides written in capitals, 1 thought worthy to 
form a wedding gift for a lady who was the daughter of one 
Roman emperor and the betrothed of a second. 2 The illustra¬ 
tions of this fifth-century manuscript are a very valuable monu¬ 
ment for the history of art and the chief adornment of what was 
once the Royal Library at Vienna 3 (figs. 9-10). Illustrated 
Latin translations of Dioscorides were in use in the time of Cassio- 
dorus (490-585). A work based on it, similarly illustrated, but 
bearing the name of Apuleius, is among the most frequent of 
mediaeval botanical documents and the earliest surviving speci¬ 
men is almost contemporary with Cassiodorus himself. 4 After 

1 The manuscript in question is Med. Graec. 1 at what was the Royal 
Library at Vienna. It is known as the Constantinopolitanus. After the war 
it was taken to St. Mark’s at Venice, but either has been or is about to 
be restored to Vienna. A facsimile of this grand manuscript was published 
by Sijthoff, Leyden, 1906. 

2 The lady in question was Juliana Anicia, daughter of Anicius 
Olybrius, Emperor of the West in 472, and his wife Placidia, daughter of 
Valentinian III. Juliana was betrothed in 479 by the Eastern Emperor 
Zeno to Theodoric the Ostrogoth, but was married, probably in 487 when 
the manuscript was presented to her, to Areobindus, a high military officer 
under the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius. 

3 The importance of this manuscript as well as the position of Dioscorides 
as medical botanist is discussed by Charles Singer in an article ‘ Greek 
Biology and the Rise of Modern Biology ’, Studies iti the History and 
Method of Science, vol. ii, Oxford, 1921. 

. 4 This manuscript is at the University Library at Leyden, where it is 
numbered Vos3 Q 9. 

Fifth-century drawings from JULIANA ANICIA MS., copied from originals of first century B. C. (?) 


Fig. 9 Fig. io 

COTKOC TPY<t>EPOC = Crepis paludosa, Mcen. TEPANION = Erodium malacbo'tdes 1 


After Aristotle 

the revival of learning Dioscorides continued to attract an 
immense amount of philological and botanical ability, and 
scores of editions of his works, many of them nobly illustrated, 
poured out of the presses of the sixteenth and seventeenth 

But the greatest biologist of the late Greek period, and 
indeed one of the greatest biologists of all time, was Claudius 
Galen of Pergamon (a.d. i 31-201). Galen devoted himself to 
medicine from an early age, and in his twenty-first year we 
hear of him studying anatomy at Smyrna under Pelops. With 
the object of extending his knowledge of drugs he early made 
long journeys to Asia Minor. Later he proceeded to Alexandria, 
where he improved his anatomical equipment, and here, he tells 
us, he examined a human skeleton. It is indeed probable that 
his direct practical acquaintance with human anatomy was 
limited to the skeleton and that dissection of the human body 
was no longer carried on at Alexandria in his time. Thus his 
physiology and anatomy had to be derived mainly from animal 
sources. He is the most voluminous of all ancient scientific 
writers and one of the most voluminous writers of antiquity in 
any department. We are not here concerned with the medical 
material which mainly fills these huge volumes, but merely with 
the physiological views which not only prevailed in medicine 
until Harvey and after, but also governed for fifteen hundred 
years alike the scientific and the popular ideas on the nature 
and workings of the animal body, and have for centuries been 
embedded in our speech. A knowledge of these physiological 
views of Galen is necessary for any understanding of the history 
of biology and illuminates many literary allusions of the 
Middle Ages and Renaissance. 

Between the foundation of the Alexandrian school and the 
time of Galen, medicine was divided among a great number 
of sects. Galen was an eclectic and took portions of his teaching 
from many of these schools, but he was also a naturalist of 

25401 E 

66 Greek Biology 

great ability and industry, and knew well the value of the 
experimental way. Yet he was a somewhat windy philosopher 
and, priding himself on his philosophic powers, did not hesitate 
to draw conclusions from evidence which was by no means 
always adequate. The physiological system that he thus suc¬ 
ceeded in building up we may now briefly consider (fig. n). 

The basic principle of life, in the Galenic physiology, is 
a spirit , anima or pneuma, drawn from the general world-soul 
in the act of respiration. It enters the body through the 
rough artery (rpa^eia aprrjpLa, arteria aspera of mediaeval 
notation), the organ known to our nomenclature as the trachea. 
From this trachea the pneuma passes to the lung and then, 
through the vein-like artery (apT^pia (t>\e/ 3 u>bri$, arteria venalis 
of mediaeval writers, the pulmonary vein of our nomenclature), 
to the left ventricle. Here it will be best to leave it for a 
moment and trace the vascular system along a different route. 

Ingested food, passing down the alimentary tract, was 
absorbed as chyle from the intestine, collected by the portal 
vessel, and conveyed by it to the liver. That organ, the site 
of the innate heat in Galen’s view, had the power of elaborating 
the chyle into venous blood and of imbuing it with a spirit 
or pneuma which is innate in all living substance, so long as 
it remains alive, the natural spirits (nvtvp.a (pvaiKov, spiritus 
naturalis of the mediaevals). Charged with this, and also with 
the nutritive material derived from the food, the venous blood 
is distributed by the liver through the veins which arise from 
it in the same way as the arteries from the heart. These veins 
carry nourishment and natural spirits to all parts of the body. 
Iecurfons venarum, the liver as the source of the veins, remained 
through the centuries the watchword of the Galenic physiology. 
The blood was held to ebb and flow continuously in the veins 
during life. 

Now from the liver arose one great vessel, the hepatic vein, 
from division of which the others were held to come off as 

/ /V 

Fig. ii. Illustrating Galen’s physiological teaching. 

E 2 

68 Greek Biology 

branches. Of these branches, one, our common vena cava, 
entered the right side of the heart. For the blood that it 
conveyed to the heart there were two fates possible. The 
greater part remained awhile in the ventricle, parting with 
its impurities and vapours, exhalations of the organs, which 
were carried off by the artery-like vein (<£Aev|/ apT-qpKabrjs, the 
mediaeval vena pulmonalis , our pulmonary artery) to the lung 
and then exhaled to the outer air. These impurities and 
vapours gave its poisonous and suffocating character to the 
breath. Having parted thus with its impurities, the venous 
blood ebbed back again from the right ventricle into the 
venous system. But for a small fraction of the venous blood 
that entered the right ventricle another fate was reserved. 
This small fraction of venous blood, charged still with the 
natural spirits derived from the liver, passed through minute 
channels in the septum between the ventricles and entered 
the left chamber. Arrived there, it encountered the external 
pneuma and became thereby elaborated into a higher form of 
spirit, the vital spirits (nvtvp.a (wtikov, spiritus vitalis), which 
is distributed together with blood by the arterial system to 
various parts of the body. In the arterial system it also 
ebbed and flowed, and might be seen and felt to pulsate 

But among the great arterial vessels that .sent forth arterial 
blood thus charged with vital spirits were certain vessels which 
ascended to the brain. Before reaching that organ they divided 
up into minute channels, the rete mirabile (n\eyp-a p.iyiarov 
6 avp.a), and passing into the brain became converted by the 
action of that organ into a yet higher type of spirits, the 
animal spirits (irvevpui \frv\iK 6 v, spiritus animalis), an ethereal 
substance distributed to the various parts of the body by the 
structures known to-day as nerves, but believed then to be 
hollow channels. The three fundamental faculties ( bvvdfit is ), 
the natural, the vital, and the animal, which brought into 

After Aristotle 69 

action the corresponding functions of the body, thus originated 
as an expression of the primal force or pneuma. 

This physiology, we may emphasize, is not derived from an 
investigation of human anatomy. In the human brain there 
is no rete mirabile , though such an organ is found in the calf. 
In the human liver there is no hepatic vein , though such an 
organ is found in the dog. Dogs, calves, pigs, bears, and, 
above all, Barbary apes were freely dissected by Galen and 
were the creatures from which he derived his physiological 
ideas. Many of Galen’s anatomical and physiological errors 
are due to his attributing' to one creature the structures 
found in another, a fact that only very gradually dawned on 
the Renaissance anatomists. 

The whole knowledge possessed by the world in the depart¬ 
ment of physiology from the third to the seventeenth century, 
nearly all the biological conceptions till the thirteenth, and 
most of the anatomy and much of the botany until the 
sixteenth century, all the ideas of the physical structure of 
living things throughout the Middle Ages, were contained in 
a small number of these works of Galen. The biological works 
of Aristotle and Theophrastus lingered precariously in a few 
rare manuscripts in the monasteries of the East ; the total 
output of hundreds of years of Alexandrian and Pergamenian 
activities was utterly destroyed ; the Ionian biological works, 
of which a sample has by a miracle survived, were forgotten ; 
but these vast, windy, ill-arranged treatises of Galen lingered 
on. Translated into Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew, they 
saturated the intellectual world of the Middle Ages. Com¬ 
mented on by later Greek writers, who were themselves in 
turn translated into the same list of languages, they were 
yet again served up under the names of such Greek writers as 
Oribasius, Paul of Aegina, or Alexander of Tralles. 

What is the secret of the vitality of these Galenic biological 
conceptions? The answer can be given in four words. Galen 

70 Greek Biology 

is a teleologist ; and a teleologist of a kind whose views hap¬ 
pened to fit in with the prevailing theological attitude of the 
Middle Ages, whether Christian, Moslem, or Jewish. Accord¬ 
ing to him everything which exists and displays activity in the 
human body originates in and is formed by an intelligent being 
and on an intelligent plan, so that the organ in structure and 
function is the result of that plan. ‘ It was the Creator’s infinite 
wisdom which selected the best means to attain his beneficent 
ends, and it is a proof of His omnipotence that he created every 
good thing according to His design, and thereby fulfilled 
His will.’ 1 

After Galen there is a thousand years of darkness, and biology 
ceases to have a history. The mind of the Dark Ages turned 
towards theology, and such remains of Neoplatonic philosophy 
as were absorbed into the religious system were little likely to 
be of aid to the scientific attitude. One department of positive 
knowledge must of course persist. Men still suffered from the 
infirmities of the flesh and still sought relief from them. But 
the books from which that advice was sought had nothing to 
do with general principles nor with knowledge as such. They 
were the most wretched of the treatises that still masqueraded 
under the names of Hippocrates and Galen, mostly mere 
formularies, antidotaries, or perhaps at best symptom lists. 
And, when the depression of the western intellect had passed 
its worst, there was still no biological’ material on which it 
could be nourished. 

The prevailing interest of the barbarian world, at last 
beginning to settle into its heritage of antiquity, was with 
Logic. Of Aristotle there survived in Latin dress only the 
Categories and the De interpretation , the merciful legacy of 
Boethius, the last of the philosophers. Had a translation of 

1 A good instance of Galen’s teleological point of view is afforded by his 
classical description of the hand in the nepi ypeins tcou iv avOpayrrov (too/moti 
popltoy, On the uses of the parts of the body of man , i. i. This passage is 
available in English in a tract by Thomas Bellott, London, 1840. 

After Aristotle 71 

Aristotle’s Historia animalium or De generations animalium 
survived, had a Latin version of the Hippocratic work On 
generation or of the treatises of Theophrastus On plants 
reached the earlier Middle Ages, the whole mental history 
of Europe might have been different and the rediscovery 
of nature might have been antedated by centuries. But this 
was a change of heart for which the world had long to wait ; 
something much less was the earliest biological gift of Greece. 
The gift, when it came, came in two forms, one of which has 
not been adequately recognized, but both are equally her 
legacy. These two forms are, firstly, the well-known work of 
the early translators and, secondly, the tardily recognized work 
of certain schools of minor art. 

The earliest biological treatises that became accessible in the 
west were rendered not from Greek but from Arabic. The 
first of them was perhaps the treatise nepl p.vS>v tavriaeaos, On 
movement of muscles of Galen, a work which contains more 
than its title suggests and indeed sets forth much of the Galenic 
physiological system. It was rendered into Latin from the Arabic 
of Joannitius (Hunain ibn Ishaq, 809-73), probably about the 
year 1200, by one Mark of Toledo. It attracted little atten¬ 
tion, but very soon after biological works of Aristotle began 
to become accessible. The first was probably the fragment 
On plants. The Greek original of this is lost, and besides the 
Latin, only an Arabic version of a former Arabic translation 
of a Syriac rendering of a Greek commentary is now known ! 
Such a work appeared from the hand of a translator known 
as Alfred the Englishman about 1220 or a little later. Neither 
it nor another work from the same translator, On the motion 
of the heart , which sought to establish the primacy of that 
organ on Aristotelian grounds, can be said to contain any of 
the spirit of the master. 1 

1 C. H. Haskins, ‘ The reception of Arabic science in England,’ English 
Historical Review , London, 1915, p. 56. 

72 Greek Biology 

A little better than these is the work of the wizard Michael 
the Scot (1175 ?-i234?). Roger Bacon tells us that Michael in 
1230 ‘ appeared [at Oxford], bringing with him the works of 
Aristotle in natural history and mathematics, with wise exposi¬ 
tors, so that the philosophy of Aristotle was magnified among 
the Latins Scott produced his work De animalibus about 
this date and he included in it the three great biological works 
of Aristotle, all rendered from an inferior Arabic version. 1 
Albertus Magnus (1206-80) had not as yet a translation direct 
from the Greek to go upon for his great commentary on the 
History of animals , but he depended on Scott. The biological 
works of Aristotle were rendered into Latin direct from the 
Greek in the year 1260 probably by William of Moerbeke. 2 
Such translations, appearing in the full scholastic age when 
everything was against direct observation, cannot be said to 
have fallen on a fertile ground. They presented an ordered 
account of nature and a good method of investigation, but 
these were gifts to a society that knew little of their real value. 3 

Yet the advent of these texts was coincident with a return¬ 
ing desire to observe nature. Albert, with all his scholasticism, 
was no contemptible naturalist. He may be said to have 
begun first-hand plant study in modern times so far as 
literary records are concerned. His book De vegetabilibus 

1 The latest and best work on the Aristotelian translations of Scott is an 
inaugural dissertation by A. H. Querfeld, Michael Scottus und seine Schrift , 
De secretis naturae , Leipzig, 1919. 

2 J. G. Schneider, Aristotelis de animalibus historiae, Leipzig, 1811, 
p. cxxvi. L. Dittmeyer, Guilelmi Moerbekensis translatio commentationis 
Aristolelicae de generatione animalium , Dillingen, 1915. L. Dittmeyer, De 
animalibus historia , Leipzig, 1907. 

3 The subject of the Latin translations of Aristotle is traversed by 
A. and C. Jourdain, Rechercbes critiques sur Vage des traductions latines 
d’Aristote , 2nd ed., Paris, 1843 ; M. Grabmann, Forschungen iiber die 
lateinischen Aristoteles-Ubersetzungen des XIII. Jahrhunderts , Munster 
i/W., 1916; and F. Wiistenfeld, Die Ubersetzungen arabischer Werke in 
das Lateinische seit dem XI. Jahrhundert, Gottingen, 1877. 


After Aristotle 

contains excellent observations, and he is worthy of inclu¬ 
sion among the fathers of botany. In his vast treatise De 
animalibus , hampered as he is by his learning and verbosity, 
he shows himself a true observer and one who has absorbed 
something of the spirit of the great naturalist to whose works 
he had devoted a lifetime of study and on which he professes to 
be commenting. We see clearly the leaven of the Aristotelian 
spirit working, though Albert is still a schoolman. We may 
select for quotation a passage on the generation of fish, a subject 
on which some of Aristotle’s most remarkable descriptions 
remained unconfirmed till modern times. These descriptions 
impressed Albert in the same way as they do the modern 
naturalist. To those who know nothing of the stimulating power 
of the Aristotelian biological works, Albert’s description of the 
embryos of fish and his accurate distinction of their mode of 
development from that of birds, by the absence of an allantoic 
membrane in the one and its presence in the other, must surely 
be startling. Albert depends on Aristotle—a third-hand version 
of Aristotle—but does not slavishly follow him. 

‘ Between the mode of development (anathomiam genera - 
tionis) of birds’ and fishes’ eggs there is this difference : during 
the development of the fish the second of the two veins 
which extend from the heart [as described by Aristotle in 
birds] does not exist. For we do not find the vein which 
extends to the outer covering in the eggs of birds which 
some wrongly call the navel because it carries the blood to 
the exterior parts; but we do find the vein that corre¬ 
sponds to the yolk vein of birds, for this vein imbibes the 
nourishment by which the limbs increase. ... In fishes as 
in birds, channels extend from the heart first to the head 
and the eyes, and first in them appear the great upper 
parts. As the growth of the young fish increases the albu¬ 
men decreases, being incorporated into the members of the 
young fish, and it disappears entirely when development and 

74 Greek Biology 

formation are complete. The beating of the heart ... is con¬ 
veyed to the lower part of the belly, carrying pulse and life to 
the inferior members. 

‘ While the young [fish] are small and not yet fully developed 
they have veins of great length which take the place of the 
navel-string, but as they grow and develop, these shorten 
and contract into the body towards the heart, as we have 
said about birds. The young fish and the eggs are enclosed 
and in a covering, as are the eggs and young of birds. This 
covering resembles the dura mater [of the brain], and beneath 
it is another [corresponding therefore to the pia mater of the 
brain] which contains the young animal and nothing else.’ 1 

In the next century Conrad von Megenberg (1309-98) pro¬ 
duced his Book of Nature , a complete work on natural history, 
the first of the kind in the vernacular, founded on Latin 
versions, now rendered direct from the Greek, of the Aristo¬ 
telian and Galenic biological works. It is well ordered and 
opens with a systematic account of the structure and physio¬ 
logy of man as a type of the animal creation, which is then 
systematically described and followed by an account of plants. 
Conrad, though guided by Aristotle, uses his own eyes and ears, 
and with him and Albert the era of direct observation has 
begun. 2 

But there was another department in which the legacy of 
Greece found an even earlier appreciation. For centuries the 
illustrations to herbals and bestiaries had been copied from 
hand to hand, continuing a tradition that had its rise with 

1 The enormous De Animalibus of Albert of Cologne is now available in 
an edition by H. Stadler, Albertus Magnus De Animalibus Libri XXVI nach 
der coiner Urscbrift, 2 vols., Munster i/W., 1916-21. The quotation is 
translated from vol. i, pp. 465-6. 

2 Conrad’s work is conveniently edited by H. Schultz, Das Buck der Natur 
von Conrad von Megenberg, die erste Naturgescbichte in deutscher Spracbe, in 
Neu-Hocbdeutsche Spracbe bearbeitet, Greifswald, 1897. Conrad’s work is 
based on that of Thomas of Cantimpre (1201-70). 


After Aristotle 

Greek artists of the first century b. c. But their work, copied 
at each stage without reference to the object, moved constantly 
farther from resemblance to the original. At last the illustra¬ 
tions became little but formal patterns, a state in which they 
remained in some late copies prepared as recently as the 
sixteenth century. But at a certain period a change set in, 
and the artist, no longer content to rely on tradition, appeals 
at last to nature. This new stirring in art corresponds with the 
new stirring in letters, the Arabian revival—itself a legacy of 
Greece, though sadly deteriorated in transit—that gave rise 
to scholasticism. In much of the beautiful carved and sculp¬ 
tured work of the French cathedrals the new movement 
appears in the earlier part of the thirteenth century. At such 
a place as Chartres we see the attempt to render plants and 
animals faithfully in stone as early as 1240 or before. In the 
easier medium of parchment the same tendency appears even 
earlier. When once it begins the process progresses slowly until 
the great recovery of the Greek texts in the fifteenth century, 
when it is again accelerated. 

During the sixteenth century the energy of botanists and 
zoologists was largely absorbed in producing most carefully 
annotated and illustrated editions of Dioscorides and Theo¬ 
phrastus and accounts of animals, habits, and structure that were 
intended to illustrate the writings of Aristotle, while the anato¬ 
mists explored the bodies of man and beast to confirm or refute 
Galen. The great monographs on birds, fishes, and plants of 
this period, ostensibly little but commentaries on Pliny, 
Aristotle, and Dioscorides, represent really the first important 
efforts of modern times at a natural history. They pass 
naturally into the encyclopaedias of the later sixteenth century, 
and these into the physiological works of the seventeenth. 
Aristotle was never a dead hand in Biology as he was in Physics, 
and this for the reason that he was a great biologist but was 
not a great physicist. 

76 Greek Biology 

With the advance of the sixteenth century the words of 
Aristotle, and to a less extent those of Dioscorides and Galen, 
became the great stimulus to the foundation of a new bio¬ 
logical science. Matthioli (1520-77), in his commentary on 
Dioscorides (first edition 1544 ), which was one of the first works 
of its type to appear in the vernacular, made a number of 
first-handobservations on the habits and structure of plants that 
is startling even to a modern botanist. About the same time 
Galenic physiology, expressed also in numerous works in the 
vulgar tongue and rousing the curiosity of the physicians, became 
the clear parent of modern physiology and comparative anatomy. 
But, above all, the Aristotelian biological works were fertilizers 
of the mind. It is very interesting to watch a fine observer such 
as Fabricius ab Acquapendente (1537-1619) laying the founda¬ 
tions of modern embryology in a splendid series of first-hand 
observations, treating his own great researches almost as a com¬ 
mentary on Aristotle. What an impressive contrast to the arid 
physics of the time based also on Aristotle ! ‘ My purpose ’, says 
Fabricius, ‘ is to treat of the formation of the foetus in every 
animal, setting out from that which proceeds from the egg : for 
this ought to take precedence of all other discussion of the 
subject, both because it is not difficult to make out Aristotle’s 
view of the matter, and because his treatise on the Formation 
of the Foetus from the egg is by far the fullest, and the subject 
is by much the most extensive and difficult.’ 1 

The industrious and careful Fabricius, with a wonderful 
talent for observation lit not by his own lamp but by that 
of Aristotle, bears a relation to the master much like that held 
by Aristotle’s pupil in the flesh, Theophrastus. The works 
of the two men, Fabricius and Theophrastus, bear indeed 
a resemblance to each other. Both rely on the same group 
of general ideas, both progress in much the same ordered calm 
from* observation to observation, both have an inspiration which 

1 Hieronimo Fabrizio of Acquapendente, De jormato foetu , Padua, 1604. 


After Aristotle 

is efficient and stimulating but below the greatest, both are 
enthusiastic and effective as investigators of fact, but timid and 
ineffective in drawing conclusions. 

But Fabricius was more happy in his pupils than Theo¬ 
phrastus, for we may watch the same Aristotelian ideas fer¬ 
menting in the mind of Fabricius’s successor, the greatest 
biologist since Aristotle himself, William Harvey (1578-1657). 1 
This writer’s work On generation is a careful commentary on 
Aristotle’s work on the same topic, but it is a commentary not in 
the old sense but in the spirit of Aristotle himself. Each state¬ 
ment is weighed and tested in the light of experience, and the 
younger naturalist, with all his reverence for Aristotle, does 
not hesitate to criticize his conclusions. He exhibits an inde¬ 
pendence of thought, an ingenuity in experiment, and a power 
of deduction that places his treatise as the middle term of the 
three great works on embryology of which the other members 
are those of Aristotle and Karl Ernst von Baer (1796-1876). 2 

With the second half of the seventeenth century and during 
a large part of the eighteenth the biological works of Aristotle 
attracted less attention. The battle against the Aristotelian 
physics had been fought and won, but with them the biological 
works of Aristotle unjustly passed into the shadow that over¬ 
hung all the idols of the Middle Ages. 

The rediscovery of the Aristotelian biology is a modern 
thing. The collection of the vast wealth of living forms 
absorbed the energies of the generations of naturalists from 
Ray (1627-1705) and Willoughby (1635-72) to Reaumur (1683— 
1757) and Linnaeus (1707-1778) and beyond to the nineteenth 
century. The magnitude and fascination of the work seems 
almost to have excluded general ideas. With the end of this 
period and the advent of a more philosophical type of naturalist, 

1 William Harvey, de generatione animalium, London, 1651. 

2 Karl Ernst von Baer, Ueber die Entwickelungsgeschichte der Thieve , 
Konigsberg, 1828-37. 

y 8 Greek Biology 

such as Cuvier (1769-1832) and members of the Saint-Hilaire 
family, Aristotle came again to his own. Since the dawn of the 
nineteenth century, and since naturalists have been in a position 
to verify the work of Aristotle, his reputation as a naturalist 
has continuously risen. Johannes Muller (1801-58), Richard 
Owen (1804-92), George Henry Lewes (1817-78), William 
Ogle (1827-1912) are a few of the long line of those who have 
derived direct inspiration from his biological work. With 
improved modern methods of investigation the problems of 
generation have absorbed a large amount of biological attention, 
and interest has become specially concentrated on Aristotle’s 
work on that topic which is perhaps, at the moment, morewidely 
read than any biological treatise, ancient or modern, except 
the works of Darwin. That great naturalist wrote to Ogle in 
1882 : ‘ From quotations I had seen I had a high notion of 
Aristotle’s merits, but I had not the most remote notion what 
a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my 
two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere 
schoolboys to old Aristotle.’ 


'Hpo'^iAo? 5e tv tc 2 ALam]TLK<2 Kal ao(f>Lav (f)i]crlv avfnihtiKTov 
Kal Ttyyr\v abriXov Kal layyv avayd)Vi<TTOV Kal ttXovtov ay^ptlov 
Kal Xdyov abvvarov, vyitias onrovarj9. 

Herophilos, a Greek philosopher and physician (c . 300 b.c.), 
has truly written ‘ that Science and Art have equally nothing 
to show, that Strength is incapable of effort, Wealth useless, 
and Eloquence powerless if Health be wanting h 1 All peoples 
therefore have had their methods of treating those departures 
from health that we call disease, and among peoples of higher 
culture such methods have been reduced in most cases to some¬ 
thing resembling a system. In antiquity, as now, a variety of 
such systems were in vogue, and those nations who practised 
the art of writing from an early date have left considerable 
records of their medical methods and doctrines. We may 
thus form a fairly good idea of the medical principles of the 
Mesopotamian, the Egyptian, the Iranian, the Indian, and the 
Chinese civilizations. Much in these systems, as in the medical 
procedure of more primitive tribes, was based upon some 
theory of disease which fitted in with a larger theory of the 
nature of evil. Of these theories the commonest was and is 
the demonic, the view that regards deviation from the normal 
state of health as due either to the attacks of supernatural 
beings or to their actual entry into the body of the sufferer. 
A medical system based on such a view is susceptible of great 
elaboration in a higher civilization, but not being founded on 

1 The works of Herophilus are lost. This fine passage has been preserved 
for us by Sextus Empiricus, a third-century physician, in his npds tovs 
fiadrpiariKovs avTipprjTtKoi, which is in essence an attack on all positive 
philosophy. It is an entertaining fact that we should have to go to such a 
work for remains of the greatest anatomist of antiquity. The passage 
is in the section directed against ethical writers, xi. 50. 


Greek Medicine 

observation is hardly capable of indefinite development, for 
a point must ultimately be reached at which the mind recoils 
from complex conclusions far remote from observed phenomena. 
The medicine of the ancient and settled civilization of such 
a people as the Assyro-Babylonians, for instance, of which 
substantial traces have been recovered, is hardly, if at all, more 
effective, though far more systematized, than that of many 
a wild and unlettered tribe that may be observed to-day. Of 
such medicine as this we may give an account, but we can 
hardly write a history. We cannot establish those elements of 
continuity and of development from which alone history can 
be constructed. 

It is the distinction of the Greeks alone among the nations 
of antiquity that they practised a system of medicine based 
not on theory but on observation accumulated systematically 
as time went on. The claim can be made for the Greeks that 
some at least among them were deflected by no theory, were 
deceived by no theurgy, were hampered by no tradition in 
their search for the facts of disease and in their attempts at 
interpreting its phenomena. Only the Greeks among the 
ancients could look on their healers as physicians ( = naturalists, 
(pva-LS = nature), and that word itself stands as a lasting 
reminder of their achievement. 1 

At a certain stage in the history of the Western world—the 
exact point in time may be disputed but the event is 
admitted by all—men turned to explore the treasures of 
the ancient wisdom and the whole mass of Greek medical 
learning was gradually laid before the student. That mass 
contained much dross, material that survived from early as 

1 The word (f)v(nn 6 s, though it passed over into Latin (Cicero) with 
the meaning naturalist, acquired the connotation of sorcerer among 
the later Greek writers. Perhaps the word pbysicianus was introduced 
to. -make a distinction from the charm-mongering pbysicus. In later 
Latin pbysicus and medicus are almost always interchangeable. 

Greek Medicine 


from late Greek times which was hardly, if at all, superior to 
the debased compositions that circulated in the name of 
medicine in the middle centuries. But the recovered Greek 
medical writings also contained some material of the purest and 
most scientific type, and that material and the spirit in which 
it was written, form the debt of modern medicine to antiquity. 

It is a debt the value of which cannot be exaggerated. The 
physicians of the revival of learning, and for long after, doubt¬ 
less pinned their faith too much to the written word of their 
Greek forbears and sought to imprison the free spirit of Hippo¬ 
crates and Galen in the rigid wall of their own rediscovered texts. 
The great medical pioneers of a somewhat later age, enraged 
by this attempt, the real nature of which was largely hidden 
from them, not infrequently revolted and rightly revolted 
against the bondage to the Greeks in which they had been 
brought up. Yet it is sure that these modern discoverers were 
the true inheritors of the Greeks. Without Herophilus we 
should have had no Harvey and the rise of physiology might 
have been delayed for centuries; had Galen’s works not 
survived, Vesalius would never have reconstructed Anatomy, 
and Surgery too might have stayed behind with her laggard 
sister, Medicine ; the Hippocratic collection was the necessary 
and acknowledged basis for the work of the greatest of modern 
clinical observers, Thomas Sydenham, and the teaching of 
Hippocrates and of his school is the substantial basis of instruc¬ 
tion in the wards of a modern hospital. In the pages which 
follow we propose therefore to review the general character 
of medical knowledge in the best Greek period and to consider 
briefly how much of that great heritage remained accessible to 
the earlier modern physicians. The reader will thus be able 
to form some estimate of the degree to which the legacy has 
been passed on to our own times. 

It is evident that among such a group of peoples as the 
Greeks, varying in state of civilization, in mental power, in 

2540.1 F 


Greek Medicine 

geographical and economic position and in general outlook, the 
practice of medicine can have been by no means uniform. Without 
any method of centralizing medical education and standardizing 
teaching there was a great variety of doctrines and of practice 
in vogue among them, and much of this was on a low level 
of folk custom. Such lower grade material of Greek origin 
has come down to us in abundance, though much of it, curiously 
enough, from a later time. But the overwhelming mass of 
earlier Greek medical literature sets forth for us a pure scientific 
effort to observe and to classify disease, to make generalizations 
from carefully collected data, to explain the origin of disease 
on rational grounds, and to apply remedies, when possible, 
on a reasoned basis. We may thus rest fairly well assured that, 
despite serious and irreparable losses, we are still in possession 
of some of the very finest products of the Greek medical 

There is ample evidence that the Greeks inherited, in 
common with many other peoples of Mediterranean and 
Asiatic origin, a whole system of magical or at least non- 
rational pharmacy and medicine from a remoter ancestry. 
Striking parallels can be drawn between these folk elements 
among the Greeks and the medical systems of the early Romans, 
as well as with the medicine of the Indian Vedas, of the ancient 
Egyptians, and of the earliest European barbarian writings. It 
is thus reasonable to suppose that these elements, when they 
appear in later Greek writings, represent more primitive folk 
elements working up, under the influence of social disintegra¬ 
tion and consequent mental deterioration, through the upper 
strata of the literate Greek world. But with these elements, 
intensely interesting to the anthropologist, the psychologist, 
the ethnologist, and to the historian of religion, we'are not 
here greatly concerned. Important as they are, they consti¬ 
tute no part of the special claim of the Greek people to dis¬ 
tinction, but rather aid us in uniting the Greek mentality 

Greek Medicine 


with that of other kindred peoples. Here we shall rather 
discuss the course of Greek scientific medicine proper, the 
type of medical doctrine and practice, capable of development 
in the proper sense of the word, that forms the basis of our 
modern system. We are concerned, in fact, with the earliest 
evolutionary medicine. 

We need hardly discuss the first origins of Greek Medicine. 
The material is scanty and the conclusions somewhat doubtful 
and perhaps premature, for the discovery of a considerable 
fragment of the historical work of Menon, a pupil of Aristotle, 
containing a description of the views of some of the precursors 
of the Hippocratic school, renews a hope that more extended 
investigation may yield further information as to the sources 
and nature of the earliest Greek medical writings. 1 The study 
of Mesopotamian star-lore has linked it up with early Greek 
astronomical science. The efforts of cuneiform scholars have 
not, however, been equally successful for medicine, and on the 
whole the general tendency of modern research is to give less 
weight to Mesopotamian and more to Egyptian sources than had 
previously been admitted ; thus, as an instance, some prescrip¬ 
tions in the Ebers papyrus of the eighteenth dynasty (about the 
sixteenth century b.c.) discovered at Thebes in 1872 resemble 
certain formulae in the Corpus Hippocraticum. A number of 
drugs, too, habitually used by the Greeks, such as Andropogon. 
Cardamoms , and Sesame orientalis , are of Indian origin. There 
are also the Minoan cultures to be considered, and our know¬ 
ledge is not yet sufficient to speak of the heritage that Greek 
medicine may or may not have derived from that source, 
though it seems not improbable that Greek hygiene may here 

1 This fragment has been published in vol. iii, part 1, of the Supple- 
mentum Aristotelicum by H. Diels as Anonymi Londinensis ex Aristotelts 
Iatricis Menonis et Aliis Medicis Eclogae , Berlin, 1893. See also H. Bekh 
and F. Spat, Anonymus Londinensis , Ausziige eines Unbekanntcn aus Aris- 
toteles-Menons Handbuch der Medizin , Berlin, 1896. 

8 4 

Greek Medicine 

owe a debt. 1 Omitting, therefore, this early epoch, we pass 
direct to the later period, between the sixth and fourth cen¬ 
turies, from which documents have actually come down to us. 

The earliest medical school of which we have definite 
information is that of Cnidus, a Lacedaemonian colony in 
Asiatic Doris. Its origin may perhaps reach back to the seventh 
century b. c. We have actual records that the teachers of 
Cnidus were accustomed to collect systematically the pheno¬ 
mena of disease, of which they had produced a very complex 
classification, and we probably possess also several of their 
actual works. The physicians of Cos, their only contemporary 
critics whose writings have survived, considered that the 
Cnidian physicians paid too much attention to the actual 
sensations of the patient and to the physical signs of the 
disease. The most important of the Cnidian doctrines were 
drawn up in a series of Sentences or Aphorisms, and these, it 
appears, inculcated a treatment along Egyptian lines of the 
symptom or at most the disease, rather than the patient, 
a statement borne out by the contents of the gynaecological 
works of probable Cnidian origin included in the so-called 
‘ Hippocratic Collection \ A few names of Cnidian physicians 
have, moreover, come down to us with titles of their works, and 
a later statement that they practised anatomy. There can be 
little doubt too that the Cnidian school drew also on Persian 
and Indian Medicine. 

The origin of the school of the neighbouring island of Cos 
was a little later than that of Cnidus and probably dates from 
the sixth century b. c. Of the Coan school, or at least of the 
general tendencies that it represented, we have a magnificent 
and copious literary monument in the Corpus Hippocraticum, 
a collection which was probably put together in the early part 
of the third century b. c. by a commission of Alexandrian 

*. It is tempting, also, to connect the Asclepian snake cult with the promi¬ 
nence of the serpent in Minoan religion. 

Greek Medicine 


scholars at the order of the book-loving Ptolemy Soter (reigned 
323-285 b. c.). The elements of which this collection is com¬ 
posed are of varying dates from the sixth to the fourth century 
b. c., and of varying value and origin, but they mainly represent 
the point of view of physicians of the eastern part of the Greek 
world in the fifth and fourth centuries. 

The most obvious feature, the outstanding element that at 
once strikes the modern observer in these ‘ Coan ’ writings, is 
the enormous emphasis laid on the actual course of disease. 
‘ It appears to me a most excellent thing ’, so opens one of the 
greatest of the Hippocratic works, ‘ for a physician to cultivate 
'pronoia , l Foreknowing and foretelling in the presence of the 
sick the past, present, and future (of their symptoms) and 
explaining all that the patients are neglecting, he would be 
believed to understand their condition, so that men would 
have confidence to entrust themselves to his care. . . . Thus 
he would win just respect and be a good physician. By an 
earlier forecast in each case he would be more able to tend 
those aright who have a chance of surviving, and by foreseeing 
and stating who will die, and who will survive, he will escape 
blame . . . ’ 2 

Just as the Cnidians by dividing up diseases according to 
symptoms over-emphasized diagnosis and over-elaborated 
treatment, so the Coans laid very great force on prognosis and 
adopted therefore a largely expectant attitude towards diseases. 
Both Cnidian and Coan physicians were held together by 

1 This word pronoia, as Galen explains (els to ' ImroKparovs npoyi/coa-TiKoi/, 
K. xviii, B. p. 10), is not used in the philosophic sense, as when we ask 
whether the universe was made by chance or by pronoia, nor is it used 
quite in the modern sense of prognosis, though it includes that too. Pronoia 
in Hippocrates means knowing things about a patient before you are told 
them. See E. T. Withington, ‘ Some Greek medical terms with reference to 
Luke and Liddell and Scott,’ Proceedings oj the Royal Society of Medicine 
( Section of the History of Medicine), xiii, p. 124, London, 1920. 

2 Prognostics 1. 


Greek Medicine 

a common bond which was, historically if not actually, related 
to temple worship. Physicians leagued together in the name of 
a god, as were the Asclepiadae, might escape, and did escape, 
the baser theurgic elements of temple medicine. Of these they 
were as devoid as a modern Catholic physician might be 
expected to be free from the absurdities of Lourdes. But the 
extreme cult of prognosis among the Coans may not improbably 
be traced back to the medical lore of the temple soothsayers 
whose divine omens were replaced by indications of a physical 
nature in the patient himself. 1 We are tempted too to link 
it with that process of astronomical and astrological prognosis 
practised in the Mesopotamian civilizations from which Ionia 
imitated and derived so much. Religion had thus the same 
relation to medicine that it would have with a modern ‘ reli¬ 
gious ’ medical man as suggesting the motive and determining 
the'general direction of his practice though without influence 
on the details and method. 

During the development of the Coan medical school along 
these lines in the sixth and fifth centuries, there was going on 
a most remarkable movement at the very other extreme of the 
Greek world. Into the course and general importance of Sici¬ 
lian philosophy it is not ourplace to enter,but that extraordinary 
movement was not without its repercussion on medical theory 
and practice. Very important in this direction was Empedocles 
of Agrigentum ( c . 500-c. 430 b.c.). His view that the blood is 
the seat of the ‘ innate heat ’, Zp-c^vTov deppov, he took from folk 
belief—‘ the blood is the life ’—and this innate heat he closely 
identified with soul. More profitable was his doctrine that 
breathing takes place not only through what are now known as 
the respiratory passages but also through the pores of the skin. 

1 There is a discussion of the relation of the Asclepiadae to temple 
practice in an article by E. T. Withington, * The Asclepiadae and the Priest 
of Asclepius,’ in Studies in the History and Method of Science , edited by 
Charles Singer, vol. ii, Oxford, 1921. 

Greek Medicine 


His teaching led to a belief in the heart as the centre of the 
vascular system and the chief organ of the ‘ pneuma ’ which 
was distributed by the blood vessels. This pneuma was 
equivalent to both soul and life, but it was something more. 
It was identified with air and breath, and the pneuma could 
be seen to rise as shimmering steam from the shed blood of the 
sacrificial victim—for was not the blood its natural home? 
There was a pneuma, too, that interpenetrated the universe 
around us and gave it those qualities of life that it was felt to 
possess. Anaximenes (c. 61 o-c. 545 b.c.), an Ionian predecessor 
of Empedocles, may be said to have defined for us these func¬ 
tions of the pneuma ; olov rj \j/vxr] r) rjp-erepa arjp ovcra trvyKpaTel, o\ov tov Kocrp-ov 7 rvevp.a kclI d?jp itepuyei, ‘ As our soul, 
being air, sustains us, so pneuma and air pervade the whole 
universe ’; 1 but it is the speculation of Empedocles himself 
that came to be regarded as the basis of the Pneumatic School 
in Medicine which had later very important developments. 

Another early member of the Western school who made 
important contributions to medical doctrine—in which relation 
alone we need consider him—was Pythagoras of Samos (c. 580- 
c. 490 b.c.). For him number, as the purest conception, formed 
the basis of philosophy. Unity was the symbol of perfection 
and corresponded to God Himself. The material universe was 
represented by 2, and was divided by the number 12, whence 
we have 3 worlds and 4 spheres. These in turn, according at 
least to the later Pythagoreans, give rise to the four elements, 
earth, air, fire, and water—a primary doctrine of medicine and 
of science derived perhaps from ancient Egypt and surviving for 
more than two millennia. The Pythagoreans taught, too, of the 
existence of an animal soul, an emanation of the soul of the uni¬ 
verse. In all this we may distinguish the germ of that doctrine 
of the relation of man and universe, microcosm and macrocosm, 

1 The works of Anaximenes are lost. This phrase of his, however, is 
preserved by the later writer Aetios. 


Greek Medicine 

which, suppressed as irrelevant in the Hippocratic works, 
reappears in the Platonic and especially in the Neoplatonic 
writings, and forms a very important dogma in later medicine. 

A pupil of Pythagoras and an older contemporary of 
Empedocles was Alcmaeon of Croton (c. 500 b. c.), who began 
to construct a positive basis for medical science by the practice 
of dissection of animals, and discovered the optic nerves and 
the Eustachian tubes. He even extended his researches to 
Embryology, describing the head of the foetus as the first 
part to be developed—a justifiable deduction from appearances. 
Alcmaeon introduced also the doctrine that health depends 
on harmony, disease on discord of the elements within the 
body. Curiosity as to the distribution of the vessels was 
excited by Empedocles and Alcmaeon and led to further 
dissection, and Alcmaeon’s pupils Acron ( c . 480 b. c.) and 
Pausanias ( c . 480 b. c.), and the later Philistion of Lokri, 1 the 
contemporary of Plato, all made anatomical investigations. 

The views of Empedocles, and especially his doctrine that 
regarded the heart as the main site of the pneuma, though 
rejected by the Coan school as a whole, were not without 
influence on Ionia. Diogenes of Apollonia, the philosopher of 
pneumatism, a late fifth-century writer who must have been 
contemporary with Hippocrates the Great, himself made an 
investigation of the blood vessels; and the influence of the 
same school may be traced in a little work it epl Kapbir^s, On the 
hearty which is the best anatomical treatise of the Hippocratic 
Collection. This work describes the aorta and the pulmonary 
artery as well as the three valves at the root of each of the 
great vessels, and it speaks of experiments to test their validity. 
It treats of the pericardium and of the pericardial fluid and 
perhaps of the musculi papillares, and contrasts the thickness 
of t}ie walls of right and left ventricles. The author considers 

1 For the work of these physicians see especially M. Wellmann, Fragment- 
sammlung der griechischen Aerzte, Bd. I, Berlin, 1901. 

Greek Medicine 


that the left ventricle is empty of blood—as indeed it is after 
death—and is the source of the innate heat and of the absolute 
intelligence. These views fit in with the doctrines of Empe¬ 
docles, so that we may perhaps even venture to regard this work 
as a surviving document of the Sicilian school. It is interesting 
to observe that we have here the first hint of human dissection, 
for the author tells us that the hearts of animals may be 
compared to that o’f man. The distinction of having been the 
first to write on human anatomy, as such, belongs however, 
probably to a later writer, Diodes, son of Archidamus of 
Carystus, who lived in the fourth century b. c. 1 

We may now turn to the Hippocratic Corpus as a whole. 
This collection consists of about 60 or 70 separate works, written 
at various periods and in various states of preservation. At 
best only a very small proportion of them can be attributed to 
Hippocrates, but the discussion of the general question of the 
‘ genuineness ’ of the works is now admitted to be futile, for it 
is certain that we have no criteria whatever to determine 
whether or no a particular work be from the pen of the 
Father of Medicine, and the most we can ever say of such 
a treatise is that it appears to be of his school and in his spirit. 
Yet among the great gifts of this collection to our time and to 
all time are two which stand out above all others, the picture 
of a man, and the picture of a method. 

The man is Hippocrates himself. Of the actual details of his 
life we know next to nothing. His period of greatest activity 
falls about 400 b.c. He seems to have led a wandering life. 
Born of a long line of physicians in the island of Cos, he exerted 
his activities in Thrace, Abdera, Delos, the Propontis (Cyzicus), 
Thasos, Thessaly (notably at Larissa and Meliboea), Athens, 
and elsewhere, dying at Larissa in extreme old age about the 
year 377 b.c. He had many pupils, among whom were his two 

1 Galen, ntp'i dvaTOfiurfov iy^eiprjo-eav, On anatomical preparations , § 1, 
K. II, p. 282. 

9 o 

Greek Medicine 

sons Thessalus and Dracon, who also undertook journeys, his 
son-in-law Polybus, of whose works a fragment has been pre- 
erved for us by Aristotle , 1 together with three other Coans 
bearing the names Apollonius, Dexippus, and Praxagoras. This 
is practically all we know of him with certainty. But though 
this glimpse is very dim and distant, yet we cannot exaggerate 
the influence on the course of medicine and the value for 
physicians of all time of the traditional picture that was early 
formed of him and that may indeed well be drawn again from 
the works bearing his name. In beauty and dignity that figure 
is beyond praise. Perhaps gaining in stateliness what he loses 
in clearness, Hippocrates will ever remain the type of the perfect 
physician. Learned, observant, humane, with a profound 
reverence for the claims of his patients, but an overmastering 
desire that his experience shall benefit others, orderly and calm, 
disturbed only by anxiety to record his knowledge for the use 
of his brother physicians and for the relief of suffering, grave, 
thoughtful and reticent, pure of mind and master of his passions, 
this is no overdrawn picture of the Father of Medicine as he 
appeared to his contemporaries and successors. It is a figure of 
character and virtue which has had an ethical value to medical 
men of all ages comparable only to the influence exerted on 
their followers by the founders of the great religions. If one 
needed a maxim to place upon the statue of Hippocrates, none 
could be found better than that from the book YlapayyeXCai, 
Precepts : 

t)v yap Trapp pi\av6purrrLr] Ttapean koX <tn\oT€\VLri 

‘ Where the love of man is, there also is love of the Art.’ 2 

The numerous busts of him which have reached our time 

1 Historia animalium , iii. 3, where it is ascribed to Polybus. The same 
passage is, however, repeated twice in the Hippocratic writings, viz. in the 
nep\ pvaios uvdp(orrou, On the nature of man , Littre, vi. 58, and in the 
nep't ocTTeciv pvaios , On the nature of bones , Littre, ix. 174. 

2 HapayytXlat, § 6. 

Fig. i. HIPPOCRATES Fig. 2. A S C L E P I US 

British Museum, second or third century B. C. British Museum, fourth century B. c. 

Greek Medicine 


are no portraits. But the best o^ them are something much 
better and more helpful to us than any portrait. They are 
idealized representations of the kind of man a physician should 
be and was in the eyes of the best and wisest of the Greeks. 
(See Fig. 1.) 

The method of the Hippocratic writers is that known to-day 
as the ‘ inductive Without the vast scientific heritage that 
is in our own hands, with only a comparatively small number 
of observations drawn from the Coan and neighbouring schools, 
surrounded by all manner of bizarre oriental religions in which 
no adequate relation of cause and effect was recognized, and 
above all constantly urged by the exuberant genius for specula¬ 
tion of that Greek people in the midst of whom they lived and 
whose intellectual temptations they shared, they remain never¬ 
theless, for the most part, patient observers of fact, sceptical 
of the marvellous and the unverifiable, hesitating to theorize 
beyond the data, yet eager always to generalize from actual 
experience; calm, faithful, effective servants of the sick. There 
is almost no type of mental activity known to us that was not 
exhibited by the Greeks and cannot be paralleled from their 
writings; but careful and constant return to verification from 
experience, expressed in a record of actual observations—the 
habitual method adopted in modern scientific departments—is 
rare among them except in these early medical authors. 

The spirit of their practice cannot be better illustrated than 
by the words of the so-called ‘ Hippocratic oath ’: 

‘I swear by Apollo the healer, and Asclepius, and Hygieia,and 
All-heal (Panacea) and all the gods and goddesses . . . that, 
according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath 
and this stipulation—to reckon him who taught me this Art 
as dear to me as those who bore me ... to look upon his off¬ 
spring as my own brothers, and to teach them this Art, if they 
would learn it, without fee or stipulation. By precept, lecture, 
and all other modes of instruction, I will impart a knowledge 


Greek Medicine 

of the Art to my own sons, and those of my teacher, and to 
disciples bound by a stipulation and oath according to the Law 
of Medicine, but to none other. I will follow that system of 
regimen which, according to my ability and judgement, I 
consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from what¬ 
ever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly 
medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; 
nor will I aid a woman to produce abortion. With purity and 
holiness I will pass my life and practise my Art. . . . Into what¬ 
ever houses I enter, I will go there for the benefit of the sick, 
and will abstain from every act of mischief and corruption ; 
and above all from seduction. . . . Whatever in my professional 
practice—or even not in connexion with it—I see or hear in the 
lives of men which ought not to be spoken of abroad, I will not 
divulge, deeming that on such matters we should be silent. 
While I keep this Oath unviolated, may it be granted me to 
enjoy life and the practice of the Art, always respected among 
men, but should I break or violate this Oath, may the reverse 
be my lot.’ 

Respected equally throughout the ages by Arab, Jew, and 
Christian, the oath remains the watchword of the profession 
of medicine . 1 The ethical value of such a declaration could not 
escape the attention even of a Byzantine formalist, and it is 
interesting to observe that in our oldest Greek manuscript of 
the Hippocratic text, dating from the tenth century, this 
magnificent passage is headed by the words ‘ from the oath 
of Hippocrates according as it may be sworn by a Christian.’ 2 

When we examine the Hippocratic corpus more closely, we 
discern that not only are the treatises by many hands, but there 
is not even a uniform opinion and doctrine running through 

1 It must, however, be admitted that even in the Hippocratic collection 
itself are cases of breach of the oath. Such, for instance, is the induction 
of abortion related in nep'i (frvaios muhtov, On the nature oj the embryo. 
There is evidence, however, that the author of this work was not a medical 

2 Rome Urbinas 64, fo. 116. 

Greek Medicine 


them. This is well brought out by some of the more famous of 
the phrases of this remarkable collection. Thus a well-known 
passage from the Airs, Waters, and Places tells us that the 
Scythians attribute a certain physical disability to a god, ‘ but 
it appears to me says the author, £ that these affections are just 
as much divine as are all others and that no disease is either 
more divine or more human than another, but that all are 
equally divine, for each of them has its own nature, and none of 
them arise without a natural cause.’ But, on the other hand, 
the author of the great work on Prognostics advises us that when 
the physician is called in he must seek to ascertain the nature 
of the affections that he is treating, and especially ‘ if there be 
anything divine in the disease, and to learn a foreknowledge of 
this also .’ 1 We may note too that this sentence almost imme¬ 
diately precedes what is perhaps the most famous of all the 
Hippocratic sentences, the description of what has since been 
termed the Hippocratic facies. This w’onderful description of 
the signs of death may be given as an illustration of the habitual 
attitude of the Hippocratic school towards prognosis and of 
the very careful way in which they noted details: 

‘ He [the physician] should observe thus in acute diseases : 
first, the countenance of the patient, if it be like to those who are 
in health, and especially if it be like itself, for this would be the best; 
but the more unlike to this, the worse it is; such would be 
these : sharp nose, hollow eyes, collapsed temples ; ears cold, 
contracted, and their lobes turned out ; skin about the forehead 
rough, distended, and parched ; the colour of the whole face 
greenish or dusky. If the countenance be so at the beginning 
of the disease, and if this cannot be accounted for from the 
other symptoms, inquiry must be made whether he has passed 
a sleepless night; whether his bowels have been very loose ; 
or whether he is suffering from hunger ; and if any of these be 
admitted the danger may be reckoned as less; and it may be 
judged in the course of a day and night if the appearance of the 

1 Kiihlewein, i. 79, regards this as an interpolated passage. 


Greek Medicine 

countenance proceed from these. But if none of these be said 
to exist, and the symptoms do not subside in that time,' be it 
known for certain that death is at hand .’ 1 

Again, in the work On the Art [of Medicine ] we read : ‘ I hold 
it to be physicianly to abstain from treating those who are 
overwhelmed by disease ’, 2 a prudent if inhumane procedure 
among a people who might regard the doctor’s powers as partak¬ 
ing of the nature of magic, and perhaps a wise course to follow at 
this day in some places not very far from Cos. Yet in the book 
On Diseases we are advised even in the presence of an incurable 
disease ‘ to give relief with such treatment as is possible \ 3 

Furthermore, works by authors of the Hippocratic school 
stand sometimes in a position of direct controversy with each 
other. Thus in the treatise On the Heart an experiment is set 
forth which is held to prove that a part at least of imbibed fluid 
passes into the cavity of the lung and thence to the parts of the 
body, a popular error in antiquity which recurs in Plato’s 
Dimaeus. This view, however, is specifically held to be fallacious 
by the author of the work On Diseases , who is supported by 
a polemical section in the surviving Menon fragment. 

Passages like these have convinced all students that we have 
to deal in this collection with a variety of works written at 
different dates by different authors and under different con¬ 
ditions, a state that may be well understood when we reflect 
that among the Greeks medicine was a progressive study for 
a far longer period of time than has yet been the case in the 
Western world. An account of such a collection can therefore 
only be given in the most general fashion. The system or 
systems of medicine that we shall thus attempt to describe was 
in vogue up to the Alexandrian period, that is, to the beginning 
of the third century b.c. 

1 Littre, ii. 112; Kiihlewein, i. 79. The texts vary: Kiihlewein is 
followed except in the last sentenc . 

2 Ilepi rex^y § 3 - 

3 Ilf pi vovaav a', § 6. 

Greek Medicine 


Anatomy and physiology, the basis of our modern system, 
was still a very weak point in the knowledge of the pre-Alex- 
andrians. The surface form of the body was intimately studied 
in connexion especially with fractures, but there is no evidence 
in the literature of the period of any closer acquaintance with 
human anatomical structure. 1 The same fact is well borne 
out by Greek Art, for in its noblest period the artist betrays 
no evidence of assistance derived from anatomization. Such 
evidence is not found until we come to sculpture of Alex¬ 
andrian date, when the somewhat strained attitudes and exag¬ 
gerated musculature of certain works of the school of Pergamon 
suggest that the artist derived hints, if not direct information, 
from anatomists who, we know, were active at that time. 
It is not improbable, however, that separate bones, if not 
complete skeletons, were commonly studied earlier, for the 
surgical works of the Hippocratic collection, and especially those 
on fractures and dislocations, give evidence of a knowledge of 
the relations of bones to each other and of their natural position 
in the body which could not be obtained, or only obtained with 
greatest difficulty, without this aid. 

There are in the Hippocratic works a certain number of 
comparisons between human and animal structures that would 
have been made possible by surgical operations and occasional 
accidents. The view has been put forward that some anatomical 
knowledge was derived through the practice of augury from the 
entrails of sacrificial animals. It appears, however, improbable 
that a system so scientific and so little related to temple practice 
would have had much to learn from these sources, and, more¬ 
over, since we know that animals were actually dissected as 
early as the time of Alcmaeon it would be unnecessary to invoke 
the aid of the priests. The unknown author of the7repi totuov t&v 
Kara avOptaitov, On the sites of [ diseases ] in man, a work written 

‘ A reference to dissection in the ntpl opdponv, On the joints, § I, appears 
of the present writer to be of Alexandrian date. 

Greek Medicine 


about 400 b.c., declares indeed that ‘ physical structure is the 
basis of medicine ’, but the formal treatises on anatomy that 
we possess from Hippocratic times give the general anatomical 
standard of the corpus, and it is a very disappointing one. The 
tract On Anatomy , though probably of much later date (perhaps 
c. 330 b.c.), is inferior even to the treatise On the Heart (per¬ 
haps of about 400 b.c.). 

Physiology and Pathology are almost as much in the back¬ 
ground as anatomy in the Hippocratic collection. As a formal 
discipline and part of medical education we find no trace of 
these studies among the pre-Alexandrian physicians. But the 
meagreness of the number of ascertained facts did not prevent 
much speculation among a people eager to seek the causes of 
things. Of that speculation we learn much from the fragments 
of contemporary medical writers and philosophers, from the 
medical works of the Alexandrian period, and to some extent 
from the Hippocratic writings themselves. But the wiser and 
more sober among the writers of the Hippocratic corpus were 
bent on something other than the causes of things. Their 
pre-occupation was primarily with the suffering patient, and the 
best of them therefore excluded—and we may assume con¬ 
sciously—all but the rarest references to such speculation. 

The general state of health of the body was considered by 
the Hippocratists to depend on the distribution of the four 
elements, earth, air, fire, and water, whose mixture ( crasis) and 
cardinal properties, dryness, warmth, coldness, and moistness, 
form the body and its constituents. To these correspond the 
cardinal fluids, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and back bile. The 
fundamental condition of life is the innate heat , the abdication 
of which is death. This innate heat is greatest in youth when 
most fuel is therefore required, but gradually declines with age. 
Another necessity for the support of life is the fneuma which 
circulates in the vessels. All this may seem fanciful enough, but 
we may remember that the first half of the nineteenth century 

Greek Medicine 


had waned before the doctrine of the humours which had then 
lasted for at least twenty-two centuries became obsolete, and 
perhaps it still survives in certain modern scientific develop¬ 
ments. Moreover, the finest and most characteristic of the 
Hippocratic works either do not mention or but casually refer 
to these theories which are not essential to their main pre¬ 
occupation. Their task of observation of symptoms, of the 
separation of the essentials from the accidents of disease, and of 
generalization from experience could go on unaffected by any 
view of the nature of man and of the world. Even treatment, 
which must almost of necessity be based on some theory of 
causation, was little deflected by a view of elements and humours 
on which it was impossible to act directly, while therapeutics 
was further safeguarded from such influence by the doctrine of 
Nature as the healer of diseases , vovaosv (pvcreis IrjTpoi , the vis viedi- 
catrix naturae of the later Latin writers and of the present day. 

Diseases are to be cured, in the Hippocratic view, by restoring 
the disturbed harmony in the relation of the elements and 
humours. These, in fact, tend naturally to an equilibrium and 
« in most cases if left to themselves will be brought to this state 
by the natural tendency to recovery. The process is known as 
pepsis or, to give it the Latin form, coctio , and the turning- 
point at which the effects of this process exhibit themselves 
is the crisis , a term which, together with some of its original 
content, has still, a place in medicine. Such a turning-point 
does in fact occur in many diseases, especially those of a zymotic 
character, on certain special days, though undue emphasis was 
laid by the Greek physicians upon the exact numerical character 
of the event. It was no unimportant duty of the physician to 
assist nature by bringing his remedies to bear at the critical 
times. If the crisis is wanting, or if the remedies are applied at 
the wrong moment, the disease may become incurable. But 
diseases were only immediately or proximately caused by dis¬ 
turbances in the balance or harmony of the humours. This 

2540-1 G 

9 8 

Greek Medicine 

was a mere hypothesis, as the Hippocratists themselves well 
knew. There were other more remote causes which came into 
the actual purview of the physician, conditions which he could 
and did study. Such conditions were, for instance, injudicious 
modes of life, exposure to climatic changes, advancing age, and 
the like. Many of these could be directly corrected. But for 
those that could not there were various therapeutic measures 
at hand. 

That human bodies are and normally remain in a state of 
health, and that on the whole they tend to recover from disease, 
is an attitude so familiar to us to-day that we scarcely need to 
be reminded of it. We live some twenty-three centuries later 
than Hippocrates; for some sixteen of those centuries the 
civilized world thought that to retain health periodical bleed¬ 
ings and potions were necessary; for the last century or 
two we have been gradually returning on the Hippocratic 
position ! 

The chief glory of the Hippocratic collection regarded from the 
clinical point of view is perhaps the actual description of cases. A 
number of these—forty-twoinall—have survived. 1 They are not 
only unique as a collection for nearly 2,000 years, but they are 
still to this day models of what succinct clinical records should 
be, clear and short, without a superfluous word, yet with all 
that is most essential, and exhibiting merely a desire to record 
the most important facts without the least attempt to prejudge 
the case. They illustrate to the full the Greek genius for seizing 
on the essential. The writer shows not the least wish to exalt 
his own skill. He seeks merely to put the data before the reader 
for his guidance under like circumstances. It is a reflex of the 
spirit of full honesty in which these men lived and worked that 
the great majority of the cases are recorded to have died. Two 
of this remarkable little collection may be given : 

1 They are to be found as an Appendix to Books I and III of the Epidemics 
and embedded in Book III. 

Greek Medicine 


‘ The woman with quinsy, who lodged with Aristion : her 
complaint began in the tongue ; voice inarticulate ; tongue 
red and parched. First day, shivered, then became heated. 
Third day , rigor, acute fever ; reddish and hard swelling on 
both sides of neck and chest; extremities cold and livid ; 
respiration elevated; drink returned by the nose; she could 
not swallow ; alvine and urinary discharges suppressed. Fourth 
day , all symptoms exacerbated. Fifth day , she died.’ 

We probably have here to do with a case of diphtheria. 
The quinsy, the paralysis of the palate leading to return 
of the food through the nose, and the difficulty with speech 
and swallowing are typical results of this affection which 
was here complicated by a spread of the septic processes into 
the neck and chest, a not uncommon sequela of the disease. 
The rapid onset of the conditions is rather unusual, but may be 
explained if we regard the case as a mild and unnoticed diph¬ 
theria, subsequently complicated by paralysis and by secondary 
septic infection, for which reasons she came under observation. 

‘ In Thasos, the wife of Delearces who lodged on the plain, 
through sorrow was seized with an acute and shivering fever. 
From first to last she always wrapped herself up in her bedclothes; 
kept silent, fumbled, picked, bored and gathered hairs [from 
the clothes] ; tears, and again laughter ; no sleep ; bowels 
irritable, but passed nothing ; when urged drank a little ; urine 
thin and scanty ; to the touch the fever was slight; coldness 
of the extremities. Ninth day , talked much incoherently, 
and again sank into silence. Fourteenth day, breathing rare, 
large, and spaced, and again hurried. Seventeenth day, after 
stimulation of the bowels she passed even drinks, nor 
could retain anything ; totally insensible ; skin parched and 
tense. Twentieth day, much talk, and again became com¬ 
posed, then voiceless; respiration hurried. Twenty-first day, 
died. Her respiration throughout was rare and large ; she was 
totally insensible; always wrapped up in her bedclothes; 
throughout either much talk, or complete silence.’ 

This second case is in part a description of low muttering 

G 2 


Greek Medicine 

delirium, a common end of continued fevers such as, for instance, 
typhoid. The description closely resembles the condition 
known now in medicine as the 4 typhoid state Incidentally 
the case contains a reference to a type of breathing common 
among the dying. The respiration becomes deep and slow, as 
it sinks gradually into quietude and becomes rarer and rarer 
until it seems to cease altogether, and then it gradually becomes 
more rapid and so on alternately. This type of breathing is 
known to physicians as 4 Cheyne-Stokes ’ respiration in com¬ 
memoration of two distinguished Irish physicians of the last 
century who brought it to the attention of medical men. 1 
Recently it has been partially explained on a physiological basis. 

• We may note that there is another and even better pen-picture 
of Cheyne-Stokes respiration in the Hippocratic collection. It 
is in the famous case of 4 Philescos who lived by the wall and 
who took to his bed on the first day of acute fever \ About 
the middle of the sixth day he died and the physician notes that 
4 the respiration throughout was like that of a person recollecting 
himself and was large and rare ’. Cheyne-Stokes breathing is 
admirably described as 4 that of a person recollecting himself ’. 

Such records as these may be contrasted with certain others 
that have come down from Greek antiquity. We may instance 
two steles discovered at Epidaurus in 1885, bearing accounts of 
forty-four temple cures. The following two are fair samples 
of the cures there described : 

4 Aristagora cf Troizen. She had tape-worm, and while she 
slept in the Temple of Asclepius at Troizen, she saw a vision. 

1 John Cheyne (1777-1836) described this type of respiration in the 
Dublin Hospital Reports , 1818, ii, p. 216. An extreme case of this condition 
had been described by Cheyne’s namesake George Cheyne (1671-1743) as 
the famous * Case of the Hon. Col. Townshend ’ in his English Malady , 
London, 1733. William Stokes (1804-78) published his account of Cheyne- 
Stokes breathing in the Dublin Quarterly Journal of the Medical Sciences, 
1846, ii, p. 73. 

Greek Medicine 


She thought that, as the god was not present, but was away in 
Epidaurus, his sons cut off her head, but were unable to put it 
back again. Then they sent a messenger to Asklepius asking 
him to come to Troizen. Meanwhile day came, and the priest 
actually saw her head cut off from the body. The next night 
Aristagora had a dream. She thought the god came from 
Epidaurus and fastened her head on to her neck. Then he cut 
open her belly, and stitched it up again. So she was cured.’ 

‘ A man had an abdominal abscess. He saw a vision, and 
thought that the god ordered the slaves who accompanied him 
to lift him up and hold him, so that his abdomen could be cut 
open. The man tried to get away, but his slaves caught him and 
bound him. So Asclepius cut him open, rid him of the abscess, 
and then stitched him up again, releasing him from his bonds. 
Straightway he departed cured, and the floor of the Abaton 
was covered with blood.’ 1 

In the records of almost all temple cures, a great number of 
which have survived in a wide variety of documents, an essential 
element is the process of ey/cot/xTjo-i?, incubation or temple sleep, 
usually in a special sleeping-place or Abaton. The process has 
a close parallel in certain modern Greek churches and in places 
of worship much further West ; there are even traces of it in 
these islands, and it is more than probable that the Christian 
practice is descended by direct continuity from the pagan. 2 The 
whole character of the temple treatment was—and is—of a kind 
to suggest to the patient that he should dream of the god, an 
event which therefore usually takes place. Such treatment by 
suggestion is applicable only to certain classes of disease and is 
always liable to fall into the hands of fanatics and impostors. 

1 The Epidaurian inscriptions are given by M. Fraenkel in the Corpus 
lnscriptionum Graecarum IV, 951-6, and are discussed by Mary Hamilton 
(Mrs. Guy Dickins), Incubation , St. Andrews, 1906, from whose translation 
I have quoted. Further inscriptions are given by Cavvadias in the Archaio- 
logike Ephemerisy 1918, p. 155 (issued 1921). 

2 We are almost told as much in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, § 1, 
a work probably composed about the end of the fourth century. 


Greek Medicine 

The difficulty that the honest practitioner encounters is that 
the sufferer, in the nature of the case, can hardly be brought 
to believe that his ailment is what in fact it is, a lesion of the 
mind. It is this which gives the miracle-monger his chance. 

Examine for a moment the two cases from Epidaurus, which 
are quite typical of the series. We observe that the first is 
described simply as a case of ‘tape-worm’ without any justifi¬ 
cation for the diagnosis. It is not unfrequent nowadays for 
thin and anxious patients to state, similarly without justifica¬ 
tion, that they suffer from this condition. They attribute 
certain common gastric experiences to this cause of which 
perhaps they have learned from sensational advertisements, and 
then they ask cure for a condition which they themselves have 
diagnosed, but which has no existence in fact. Such a case is often 
appropriately treated by suggestion. Though the elaborate¬ 
ness of the suggestion in the temple cure is a little startling, 
yet it can easily be paralleled from the legends of the Christian 
saints. Moreover, we must remember that we are not here 
dealing with an account set down by the patient herself, but 
with an edificatory inscription put up by the temple officials. 

In the second inscription, the man with an abdominal 
abscess, we have a much simpler state of affairs. It is evident 
that an operation was actually performed by the priest mas¬ 
querading as Asclepius, while the patient was held down by 
the slaves. He is assured that all is a dream and departs cured 
with the tell-tale comment ‘ and the floor of the Abaton was 
covered with blood ’. 

These cases might be multiplied indefinitely without great 
profit for our particular theme, for in such matters there is no 
development, no evolution, no history. There can be no doubt 
that a very large part of Greek practice was on this level, as is 
a small part of modern medicine, but it is not a level with which 
we are here dealing and we shall therefore pass it by. But 
a word of caution must be added. Such temple worship has 

Greek Medicine 


been compared with modern psycho-analysis. That method, 
like all methods, has doubtless been abused at times; but it is 
in essence, unlike the temple system, a purely scientific process 
by which the ultimate basis of the patient’s delusions are laid 
bare and demonstrated to him. 

There is indeed another side to these Asclepian temples. 
They gradually developed along the lines of our health resorts 
and developed many of the qualities—lovely and unlovely— 
that we associate with certain continental watering places. 
On the bad side they became gossiping centres or even some¬ 
thing little better than brothels, as we may gather from the 
Mimes of Herondas. On the good side they formed a quiet 
refuge among beautiful and interesting surroundings where the 
sick, exhausted, and convalescent might gain the benefits that 
accrue from pure air, fine scenery, and a regular and regulated 
mode of life. It is more than probable too that the open air 
and manner of living benefited many cases of incipient phthisis. 

Returning to the Hippocratic collection, the purely surgical 
treatises will be found no less remarkable than those of clinical 
observation. A very able surgeon, Francis Adams (1796-1861), 
who was eminent as a Greek scholar, gave it as his opinion in 
the middle of the nineteenth century that no systematic 
writer on surgery up to his time had given so good and so 
complete an account of certain dislocations, notably of the 
hip-joint, as that to be found in the Hippocratic collection. 
Some types of injury to the hip, as described in the Hippo¬ 
cratic writings, were certainly otherwise quite inadequately 
known until described by Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841), 
himself a peculiarly Hippocratic character. 1 The verdict of 
Adams was probably just, though sinc^ his time the surgery 
of dislocations, aided especially by X-rays, has been enabled 

1 / 

1 Astley Paston Cooper, Treatise on Dislocations and Fractures oj the 
Joints , London, 1822, and Observations on Fractures oj the Neck and the 
Thighbone , &c., London, 1823. 


Greek Medicine 

to pass very definitely beyond the Hippocratic position. 
Admirable, too, is the Hippocratic description of disloca¬ 
tion of the shoulder and of the jaw. In dislocation of hip, 
shoulder, or jaw, as in most similar lesions, there is considerable 
deformity produced. The nature and meaning of this deformity 
is described with remarkable exactness by the Hippocratic 
writer, who also sets forth the resulting disability. The 
principles and indeed the very details of treatment in these 
cases are, save for the use of an anaesthetic, practically identical 
with those of the present day. The processes are unfortunately 
not suitable for detailed quotation and description here, but 
they are of special interest since a graphic record of them has 
come down to us. There exists in the Laurentian Library at 
Florence a ninth-century Greek surgical manuscript which - 
contains figures of surgeons reducing the dislocations in 
question. There is good reason to suppose that these miniatures 
are copied from figures first prepared in pre-Christian times 
many centuries earlier, and we may here see the actual processes 
of reduction of such fractures, as conducted by a surgeon of 
the direct Hippocratic tradition 1 (see Figs. 3, 4). 

In keeping with all this is most of the surgical work of the 
collection. We are almost startled by the modern sound of the 
whole procedure as we run through the rough note-book 
kclt Irirpelov, Concerning the Surgery , or the more elaborate 
treatise nepl Irjrpov, On the Physician , where we may read 
minute directions for the preparation of the operating-room, 
and on such points as the management of light both artificial 
and natural, scrupulous cleanliness of the hands, the care and 
use of the instruments, with the special precautions needed 
when they are of iron, the decencies to be observed during the 
operation, the general method of bandaging, the placing of 

1 This famous manuscript is known as Laurentian, Plutarch 74, 7, and 
its figures have been reproduced by H. Schone, Apollonius von Kitium , 
Leipzig, 1896. 

Copied from a pre-christian original 


Greek Medicine 


the patient, the use and abuse of splints, and the need for 
tidiness, order, and cleanliness. Many of these directions are 
enlarged upon in other surgical works of the collection, among 
which we find especially full instructions for bandaging and 
for the diagnosis and treatment of fractures and dislocations. 
A very fair representation of such a surgery as these works 
describe is to be found on a vase-painting of Ionic origin which 
is of the fifth century and therefore about contemporary with 
Hippocrates himself (see fig. 5). There are also several beautiful 
representations on vases of the actual processes of bandaging 
(fig. 6). 

Among the surgical procedures of which descriptions are 
to be found in the Hippocratic writings are the opening of 
the chest for the condition known as empyema (accumulation 
of pus within the pleura frequently following pneumonia), 
and trephining the skull in cases of fracture of that part—two 
fundamental operations of modern surgery. Surgical art has 
advanced enormously in our own times, yet a text-book con¬ 
taining much that is useful to this day might be prepared from 
these surgical contents of the collection alone. 

When we pass to the works on Medicine, in the restricted 
sense, we enter into a region more difficult and perhaps even 
more fascinating. We are no longer dealing with simple lesions 
of known origin, but with the effects of disease and degenera¬ 
tion, of the essential character of which the Hippocratic writers 
could in the nature of the case know very little. Rigidly guard¬ 
ing themselves from any attempt to explain disease by more 
immediate and hypothetical causes and thus diverting the 
reader’s energies in the medically useless direction of vague 
speculation—the prevalent mental vice of the Greeks—the 
best of these physicians are content if they can put forward 
generalized conclusions from actually observed cases. Many 
of their thoughts have now become household words, 
and they have become so, largely as a direct heritage from 


Greek Medicine 

these ancient physicians. But it must be remembered that 
ideas so familiar to us were with them the result of long and 
carefully .recorded experience and are like nothing that we 

Fig. 5. A GREEK CLINIC OF ABOUT 400 b.c. From a vase-painting. 

In the centre sits a physician holding a lancet and bleeding a patient 
from the median vein at the bend of the right elbow into a large open 
basin. Above and behind the physician are suspended three cupping vessels. 
To the right sits another patient awaiting his turn ; his left arm is bandaged 
in the region of the biceps. The figure beyond him smells a flower, perhaps 
as a preservative against infection. Behind the physician stands a man 
leaning on a staff; he is wounded in the left leg, which is bandaged. By 
his side stands a dwarfish figure with disproportionately large head, whose 
body exhibits deformities typical of the developmental disease now known 
as Achondroplasia ; in addition to these deformities we note that his body 
is hairy and the bridge of his nose sunken ; on his back he carries a hare 
which is almost as tall as himself. Talking to the dwarf is a man leaning 
on a long staff, who has the remains of a bandage round his chest. 

See E. Pottier, ‘ Une Clinique grecque au V e siecle (vase antique du 
collection Peztel) ’, Fondation Eugene Piot , Monuments et Memoires , 
xiii. 149, Paris, 1906. (Some of our interpretations differ from those of 
M. Pottier.) 

encounter in the medicine of other ancient nations. Such 
conclusions are best set forth perhaps in the wonderful book 
of the Aphorisms from which we may permit ourselves a few 

‘ Life is short, and the Art long ; the opportunity fleeting; 

* o t • a i tr O |C t E r~ 

Fig. 6. A kylix from the Berlin Museum of about 490 b.c. It bears the 
inscription 2021A2 EIIOIH2EN, Sosias made (me), and represents Achilles 
bandaging Patroclus, the names of the two heroes being written round the 
margin. The painter is Euphronios, and the work is regarded as the master¬ 
piece of that great artist. The left upper arm of Patroclus is injured, and 
Achilles is bandaging it with a two-rolled bandage, which he is trying 
to bring down to extend over the elbow. The treatment of the hands, 
a department in which Euphronios excelled, is particularly fine. Achilles 
was not a trained surgeon, and it will be observed, from the position of the 
two tails of the bandage, that he will have some difficulty when it comes to 
its final fastening! 


Greek Medicine 

experiment dangerous, and judgement difficult. Yet we 
must be prepared not only to do our duty ourselves, but 
also patient, attendants, and external circumstances must 
co-operate.’ 1 

In this one memorable paragraph, so condensed in the 
original as to be almost untranslatable, he who c first separated 
medicine from philosophy ’ puts aside at once all speculative 
interest while in the actual presence of the sick. His whole 
energy is concentrated on the case in hand with that peculiar 
attitude, at once impersonal and intensely personal, that has 
since been the mark of the physician, and that has made of 
Medicine both a science and an art. 

‘ For extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure.’ 2 , 

‘ The aged endure fasting most easily ; next adults; next 
young persons, and least of all children, and especially such as 
are the most lively.’ 

‘ Growing bodies have the most innate heat; they therefore 
require the most nourishment, and if they have it not they 
waste. In the aged there is little heat, and therefore they 
require little fuel, for it would be extinguished by much. 
Similarly fevers in the aged are not so acute, because their 
bodies are cold.’ 

‘ In disease sleep that is laborious is a deadly symptom ; but 
if sleep relieves it is not deadly.’ 

‘ Sleep that puts an end to delirium is a good symptom.’ 

‘ If a convalescent eats well, but does not put on flesh, it is 
a bad symptom.’ 

‘ Food or drink which is a little less good but more palatable, 
is to be preferred to such that is better but less palatable.’ 

1 The first lines are the source of the famous lines in Goethe’s Faust : 

‘ Ach Gott! die Kunst ist lang 
Und kurz ist unser Leben, 

Mir wird bei meinem kritischen Bestreben 
Doch oft um Kopf und Busen bang.’ 

2 The extreme of treatment refers in the original to the extreme restriction 
of diet, is aKpi( 3 ei>)v, but the meaning of the Aphorism has always been taken 
as more generalized. 

Greek Medicine 


* The old have generally fewer complaints than young ; but 
those chronic diseases which do befall them generally never 
leave them.’ 

Here we have a group of observations, some of which have 
become literally household words, nor is it difficult to under¬ 
stand how such sayings have passed from professional into lay 
keeping. This magnificent book of Aphorisms was very early 
translated into Latin, probably before and certainly not later 
than the sixth century of the Christian era, and thus became 
accessible, throughout the West. Manuscripts of this Latin 
version, dating from the ninth and tenth centuries of our era, 
have survived in the actual places in which they were written, 
at Monte Cassino in Southern Italy and at Einsiedeln in 
Switzerland, and in 991 the book of Aphorisms was well known 
and closely studied at the Cathedral school of Chartres. From 
France the Aphorisms reached England, and they are mentioned 
in documents of the tenth or eleventh century. By now, too, 
the book had been translated into Syriac and later into Arabic 
and Hebrew, so that in the true mediaeval period it was known 
both East and West, and in the vernacular as well as the classical 
tongues. From the oriental dialects several further translations 
were again made into Latin. An enormous number of manu¬ 
scripts of the work have survived in almost every Western dialect, 
and these show on the whole that the text has been surprisingly 
little tampered with. In the middle of the thirteenth century 
some of the better-known Aphorisms were absorbed into a very 
popular Latin poem that went forth in the name of the medical 
school of Salerno, though with a false ascription to a yet 
earlier date. The Salernitan poem, being itself translated 
into every European vernacular, further helped to bring 
Hippocrates into every home. 

But by no means all the Aphorisms are of a kind that could 
well become absorbed into folk medicine. It is only those 
concerning frequently recurring states to which this fate could 


Greek Medicine 

befall. The book contains also a number of notes on rare 
conditions seldom seen or noted save by medical men. Such 
are the following very acute observations: 

‘ Spasm supervening on a wound is fatal.’ 

‘ Those seized with tetanus die within four days, or if they 
survive so long they recover.’ 

‘ A convulsion, or hiccup, supervening on a copious discharge 
of blood is bad.’ 

‘ If after severe and grave wounds no swelling appears, it is 
very serious.’ 

These four sentences all concern wounds. The first two 
refer to the disease tetanus, which is very liable to supervene on 
wounds fouled with earth, especially in hot and moist localities. 
The disease is characterized by a series of painful muscular 
contractions which in the more severe and fatal form may 
become a continuous spasm, a type that is referred to in the 
first sentence. It is true of tetanus that the later the onset 
after the wound is sustained the better the chance of recovery. 
This is brought out by the second sentence. The third and 
fourth sentences record untoward symptoms following a severe 
wound, now well recognized and watched for by every surgeon. 
There were, of course, innumerable illustrations of the truth 
of these Aphorisms in extensive wounds, especially those 
involving crushed limbs, in the late war. 

‘ Phthisis occurs most commonly between the ages of eighteen 
and thirty-five.’ 

‘ Diarrhoea supervening on phthisis is mortal.’ 

The period given by the Aphorisms for the maximum fre¬ 
quency of onset of the disease is closely borne out by modern 
observations. The second Aphorism is equally valid ; continued 
diarrhoea is a very frequent antecedent of the fatal event in 
chronic phthisis, and post-mortem examination has shown that 
secondary involvement of the bowel is an exceedingly common 
condition in this disease. 

Greek Medicine 


No less remarkable is the following saying : ‘ In jaundice 
it is a grave matter if the liver becomes indurated.’ Jaundice 
is a common and comparatively trivial symptom following or 
accompanying a large variety of diseases. In and by itself it is of 
little importance and almost always disappears spontaneously. 
There is a small group of pathological conditions, however, 
in which this is not the case. The commonest and most 
important of these are the fatal affections of cirrhosis and 
cancer of the liver in which that organ may be felt to be 
enlarged and hardened. If therefore the liver can be so felt 
in a case of jaundice, it is, as the Aphorism says, of gravest 
import. Representations of such cases have actually come down 
to us from Greek times. Thus on a monument erected at Athens 
to the memory of a physician who died in the second century 
of the Christian era we may see the process of clinical 
examination (fig. 7). The physician is palpating the liver of 
a dwarfish figure whose swollen belly, wasted limbs, and 
anxious look tell of some such condition as that described in 
the Aphorism. The ridge caused by the enlarged liver can even 
be detected on the statue. 

‘ We must attend to the appearances of the eyes in sleep as 
presented from below ; for if a portion of the white be seen 
between the closing eyelids, and if this be not connected with 
diarrhoea or severe purging, it is a very bad and mortal 
symptom.’ In this, the last Aphorism which we shall quote, we 
see the Hippocratic physician actually making his observations. 
Now during sleep the eyeball is turned upward, so that if the 
eye be then opened and examined only the white is seen. In 
the later stages of all wasting and chronic diseases the eyelids 
tend not to be closed during sleep. Such patients, as is well 
known, often die with the eyes open and sometimes exhibiting 
only the whites. 

But the Hippocratic physician was not content to make only 
passive observation; he also took active measures to elicit 


Greek Medicine 

the 4 physical signs In modern times a large, perhaps the 
chief, task of the student of medicine is to acquire a know¬ 
ledge of these so-called physical signs of disease, the tradition 
of which has been gradually rebuilt during the last three 
centuries. Among the most important measures in which he 
learns to acquire facility is that of auscultation. This useful 
process has come specially into vogue since the invention of 
the stethoscope in 1819 by Laennec, who derived valuable 
hints for it from the Hippocratic writings. Auscultation is 
several times mentioned and described by the Hippocratic 
physicians, who used the direct method of listening and not 
the mediate method devised by Laennec. There are, how¬ 
ever, certain cases in which the modern physician still finds 
the older non-instrumental Hippocratic method superior* In 
the Hippocratic work irept vovo-osv, On diseases , we read of 
a case with fluid in the pleura that ‘ you will place the patient 
on a seat which does not move, an assistant will hold him by 
the shoulders, and you will shake him, applying the ear to the 
chest, so as to recognize on which side the sign occurs ’. This 
sign is still used by physicians and is known as Hippocratic 
succussion. In another passage in the same work the symptoms 
of pleurisy are described and ‘ a creak like that of leather may 
be heard This is the well known pleuritic rub which the 
physician is accustomed to seek in such cases, and of which the 
creak of leather is an excellent representation. 

Such quotations give an insight into the general method and 
attitude of the Hippocratics. Of an art such as medicine, 
which even in those times had a long and rational tradition 
behind it, it is impossible to give more than the merest glimpse 
in such a review as this. The actual practice is far too complex 
to set down briefly. This is especially the case with the 
ancient teaching as regards epidemic disease at which we 
must cursorily glance. The Hippocratic physicians and indeed 
all antiquity were as yet ignorant of the nature, and were but 

Greek Medicine 


dimly aware of the existence, of infection. 1 For them acute 
disease was something imposed on the patient from outside, 
but how it reached him from outside and what it was that 
thus reached him they were still admittedly ignorant. In this 
dilemma they turned to prolonged observation and noted as 
a result of repeated experience that epidemic diseases in their 
world had characteristic seasonal and regional distributions. 
One country was not quite like another, nor was one season 
like another nor even one year like another. By a series of 
carefully collated observations as to how regions, seasons, and 
years differed from each other, they succeeded in laying the basis 
of a rational study of epidemiology which gave rise to the 
notion of an ‘ epidemic constitution ’ of the different years, a 
conception which was very fertile and stimulating to the great 
clinicians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is by 
no means without value even for the modern epidemiologist. 
■The work of the modern fathers of epidemiology was con¬ 
sciously based on Hippocrates. 

Before parting with the Hippocratic physician a word must 
be said as to his therapeutic means. His general armoury may 
be described as resembling that of the modern physician of 
about two generations ago. During those two generations we 
have, it is true, added to our list of effective remedies but, on 
the other hand, there has been by common consent a return 

1 The ancients knew almost nothing of infection as applied specifically to 
disease. All early peoples—including Greeks and Romans—believed in the 
transmission of qualities from object to object. Thus purity and impurity 
and good and bad luck were infections, and diseases were held to be infec¬ 
tions in that sense. But there is little evidence in the belief of the special 
infectivity of disease as such in antiquity. Some few diseases are, however, 
unequivocally referred to as infectious in a limited number of passages, 
e.g. ophthalmia, scabies, and phthisis in the nept 8 ia(f)opas nvperiov, On the 
differentiae of fevers , K. vii, p. 279. The references to infection in antiquity 
are detailed by C. and D. Singer, 1 The scientific position of Girolamo 
Fracastoro’, Annals of Medical History , vol. i, New York, 1917. 

2540.1 H 

Greek Medicine 


to the Hippocratic simplicity of treatment. After rest and 
quiet the central factor in treatment was Dietetics. This 
science regarded the age—‘ Old persons use less nutriment 
than young ’; the season—‘ In winter abundant nourishment 
is wholesome, in summer a more frugal diet ’; the bodily 
condition —‘ Lean persons should take little food, but this 
little should be fat, fat persons on the other hand should 
take much food, but it should be lean ’. Respect was also paid 
to the digestibility of different foods—‘ white meat is more 
easily digestible than dark ’—and to their preparation. Water, 
barley water, and lime water were recommended as drinks. 
The dietetic principles of the Hippocratics, especially in 
connexion with fevers, are substantially those of the present 
day, and it may be said that the general medical tendency of 
the last generation in these matters has been an even closer 
approximation to the Hippocratic. ‘ The more we nourish 
unhealthy bodies the more we injure them ’; ‘ The sick 
upon whom fever seizes with the greatest severity from the 
very outset, must at once subject themselves to a rigid diet ’; 
‘ Complete abstinence often acts well, if the strength of the 
patient can in any way sustain it ’; yef ‘ We should examine the 
strength of the sick, to see whether they be in condition to 
maintain this spare diet to the crisis of the disease ’. ‘ In the 
application of these rules we must always be mindful of the 
strength of the patient and of the course of each particular 
disease, as well as of the constitution and ordinary mode of 
life in each disease.’ 

Besides diet the Hippocratic physician had at his disposal 
a considerable variety of other remedies. Baths, inunctions, 
clysters, warm and cold suffusions, massage and gymnastic, as 
well as gentler exercise are among them. He probably employed 
cupping and bleeding rather too freely, and we have several 
representations of the instruments used for these operations 
(fig. 8). He was no great user of drugs and seldom names 


Second century A. D. British Museum 

Inscription reads: ‘Jason, also called Dekrnos, the Acharnian, a physician 
followed by his genealogy. By side of patient stands a cupping vessel. 

Greek Medicine 


them except, we may note, in the works on the treatment of 
women, which are probably of Cnidian origin and whence 
the greater part of the 300 constituents of the Hippocratic 
pharmacopoeia are derived. Thus his list of drugs is small, 
but several known to him are still used by us. 

The work of these men may be summed up by saying that 
without dissection, without any experimental physiology or 
pathology, and without any instrumental aid they pushed the 
knowledge of the course and origin of disease as far as it is 
conceivable that men in such circumstances could push it. 
This was done as a process of pure scientific induction. Their 
surgery, though hardly based on anatomy, was grounded on 
the most carefully recorded experience. In therapeutics they 
allowed themselves neither to be deceived by false hopes nor 
led aside by vain traditions. Yet in diagnosis, prognosis, 
surgery and therapeutics alike they were in many departments 
unsurpassed until the nineteenth century, and to some of 
their methods we have reverted in the twentieth. Persisting 
throughout the ages as a more or less definite tradition, which 
attained clearer form during and after the sixteenth century, 
Hippocratic methods have formed the basis of all departments 
of modern advance. 

But the history of Greek medicine did not end with the 
Hippocratic collection ; in many respects it may indeed be 
held only to begin there; yet we never get again a glimpse of 
so high an ethical and professional standard as that which these 
works convey. From Alexandrian times onwards, too, the 
history of Greek medicine becomes largely a history of various 
schools of medical thought, each of^which has only a partial 
view of the course and nature of medical knowledge. The 
unravelling of the course and teachings of these sects has 
long been a pre-occupation of professed medical historians, 
but the general reader can hardly take an interest in dif¬ 
ferences between the Dogmatists, Empirics, and Methodists 

h 2 


Greek Medicine 

whose doctrines are as dead as themselves. In this later 
Alexandrian and Hellenistic age the Greek intellect is no less 
active than before, but there is a change in the taste of the 
material. A general decay of the spirit is reflected in the 
medical as in the literary products of the time, and we never 
again feel that elevation of a beautiful and calmly righteous 
presence that breathes through the Hippocratic collection and 
gives it a peculiar aroma. 

We shall pass over the general course of later Greek medicine 
with great rapidity. * A definite medical school was established 
at Alexandria and others perhaps at Pergamon and elsewhere. 
Athens, after the death of Aristotle and his pupils, passes 
entirely into the background and is of no importance so far 
as medicine is concerned. At Alexandria, where a great medical 
library was collected, anatomy began to be studied and two men 
whose discoveries were of primary importance for the history 
of that subject, Erasistratus and Herophilus, early practised 
there. With anatomy as a basis medical education could 
become much more systematic. It is a very great misfortune 
that the works of these two eminent men have disappeared. 
Of Herophilus fragments have survived embedded in the 
works of Galen (a. d. i 30-201), Caelius Aurelianus (fifth 
century), and others. These fragments have been the subject 
of one of the earliest, most laborious, and most successful 
attempts made in modern times to reconstruct the lost work 
of an ancient author. 1 For Erasistratus our chief source of 
information are two polemical treatises directed against him by 
Galen. Recently, too, a little more information concerning 
the works of both men has become available from the Menon 

It has been found possible to reconstruct especially a treatise 
on anatomy by Herophilus with a considerable show of proba- 

1 K. F. H. Marx, Herophilus, eitt Beitrag zur Geschichte der Medizin, 
Karlsruhe, 1838. 

Greek Medicine 

n 7 

bility. He opened by giving general directions for the process 
of dissection and followed with detailed descriptions of the 
various systems, nervous, vascular, glandular, digestive, genera¬ 
tive, and osseous. There was a separate section on the liver, 
a small part of which has survived. It is of his account 
of the nervous system that we have perhaps the best record, 
and it is evident that he has advanced far beyond the Hippo¬ 
cratic position. In the braincase he saw the membranes that 
cover the brain and distinguished between the cerebrum and 
cerebellum. He attained to some knowledge of the ventricles 
of the brain, the cranial and spinal nerves, the nerves of the 
heart, and the coats of the eye. He distinguished the blood 
sinuses of the skull, and the torcular Herophili (winepress of 
Herophilus), a sinus described by him, has preserved his 
name in modern anatomical nomenclature. He even made out 
more minute structures, such as the little depression in the 
fourth ventricle of the brain, known to modern anatomists 
as the calamus scriptorius , which still bears the name which he 
gave it (naXafios w ypapopev), because it seemed to him, as Galen 
tells us, to resemble the pens then in use in Alexandria. 1 We still 
use, too, his term duodenum (dcodeKadaKTvXos eKpvat's = twelve- 
finger extension), for as Galen assures us, Herophilus ‘ so named 
the first part of the intestine before it is rolled into folds \ 2 
The duodenum is a U-shaped section of the intestine follow¬ 
ing immediately on the stomach. Being fixed down behind 
the abdominal cavity it cannot be further convoluted, and 
this accounts for Galen’s description of it. It is about twelve 
fingers’ breadth long in the animals dissected by Herophilus. 

Erasistratus, the slightly younger Alexandrian contemporary 
of Herophilus, has the credit of further anatomical discoveries. 

1 Galen, nep\ avaropiK<ov iyxeiprjcrtaiV) On anatomical preparations , ix. 5 
(last sentence). 

2 Galen, ntp\ p\efiiov xal apTrjpiojv dvaroprji , On the anatomy of veins and 
arteries , i. 


Greek Medicine 

He described correctly the action of the epiglottis in preventing 

the entrance of food and drink into the windpipe during the 

act of swallowing, he saw the lacteal vessels in the mesentery, 

and pursued further the anatomy of the brain. He improved 

on the anatomy of the heart, and described the auriculo- 

ventricular valves and their mode of closure. He distinguished 

clearly the motor and sensory nerves. He seems to have 

adopted a definitely experimental attitude—a very rare thing 

among ancient physicians—and a description of an experiment 

made by him has recently been recovered. ‘If’,he says,‘you 

take an animal, a bird, for example, and keep it for a time in 

a jar without giving it food and then weigh it together with 

its excreta vou will find that there is a considerable loss of 

weight.’ 1 The experiment is a simple one, but it was about 
nineteen hundred years before a modern professor, Sanctorio 
Santorio (1561-1636), thought of repeating it. 2 

The anatomical advances made by the Alexandrian school 
naturally reacted on surgical efficiency. The improvement 
so effected may be gathered, for instance, from an account 
of the anatomical relationships in certain cases of dislocation 
of the hip given by the Alexandrian surgeon Hegetor, who 
lived about 100 b. c. In his book tt epl aim 2 v, On causes [of 
disease], he asks ‘why (certain surgeons) do not seek another 
way of reducing a luxation of the hip. ... If the joints of the 
jaw, shoulder, elbow, knee, finger, &c., can be replaced, the 
same, they think, must be true of all parts, nor can they give an 
account of why the femur cannot be put back into its place. . . . 
They might have known, however, that from the head of the 
femur arises a ligament which is inserted into the socket of 

1 The quotation is from chapter xxxiii, line 44 of the Anonymus 
Londinensis. H. Diels, Anonymus Londinensis in the Supplemenlum 
Aristotelicum, vol. iii, pars 1, Berlin, 1893. 

2 'Sanctorio Santorio, Oratio in archilyceo patavino anno 1612 babita; de 
medicina statica apborismi. Venice, 1614. 

Greek Medicine 


the hip bone . . . and if this ligament is once ruptured the 
thigh bone cannot be retained in place h 1 This passage con¬ 
tains the first description of the structure known to modern 
anatomists as the ligamentum teres , a strong fibrous band 
which unites the head of the femur with the socket into which 
it fits in the hip bone, like the string that binds the cup and 
ball of a child’s toy. This ligament is ruptured in certain 
severe cases of dislocation of the hip. 

After the establishment of the school at Alexandria, medical 
teaching rapidly became organized, but throughout the whole 
course of antiquity it suffered from the absence of anything 
in the nature of a state diploma. Any one could practise, 
with the result that many quacks, cranks, and fanatics were to 
be found among the ranks of the practitioners who often were 
or had been slaves. The great Alexandrian school, however, 
did much to preserve some sort of professional standard, and 
above all its anatomical discipline helped to this end. 

Between the founding of the Alexandrian school and Galen 
we are not rich in medical writings. Apart from fragments 
and minor productions, the works of only five authors have 
survived from this period of over four hundred years, namely, 
Celsus, Dioscorides, Aretaeus of Cappadocia, and two Ephesian 
authors bearing the names of Rufus and Soranus. 

The work of Celsus of the end of the first century b.c. is 
a Latin treatise, probably translated from Greek, and is the 
surviving medical volume of a complete cyclopaedia of know¬ 
ledge. In spite of its unpromising origin it is an excellent 
compendium of its subject and shows a good deal of advance 
in many respects beyond the Hippocratic position. The moral 
tone too is very high, though without the lofty and detached 
beauty of Hippocrates. Anatomy has greatly improved, and with 
it surgical procedure, and the work is probably representative 

1 This is the only passage of Hegetor’s writing that has survived. It has 
been preserved in the work of Apollonius of Citium. 


Greek Medicine 

of the best Alexandrian practice. The pharmacopoeia is more 
copious, but has not yet become burdensome. The general 
line of treatment is sensible and humane and the language 
concise and clear. Among other items he describes dental 
practice, with the indications for and methods of tooth extrac¬ 
tion, the wiring of teeth, and perhaps a dental mirror. There 
is an excellent account of what might be thought to be the 
modern operation for removal of the tonsils. Celsus is still 
commemorated in modern medicine by the area Celsi , a not 
uncommon disease of the skin. The De re medica is in fact 
one of the very best medical text-books that have come down 
to us from antiquity. It has had a romantic history. Forgotten 
during the Middle Ages, it was brought to light by the classical 
scholar Guarino of Verona (1374-1460) in 1426, and a better 
copy was discovered by his friend Lamola in 1427. Another 
copy was found by Thomas Parentucelli (1397-1455), after¬ 
wards Pope Nicholas V in 1443, and the text was later studied 
by Politian (1454-94). Though one of the latest of the great 
classical medical texts to be discovered, it was one of the first 
to be printed (Florence, 1478), and it ran through very many 
early editions and had great influence on the medical renais¬ 

After Celsus comes Dioscorides in the first century a. d. 
He was a Greek military surgeon of Cilician origin who served 
under Nero, and in him the Greek intellect is obviously begin¬ 
ning to flag. His work is prodigiously important for the history 
of botany, yet so far as rational medicine is concerned he is 
almost negligible. FIc begins at the wrong end, either giving 
lists of drugs with the symptoms that they are said to cure or 
to relieve, or lists of symptoms with a series of named drugs. 
Clinical observation and record are wholly absent, and the spirit 
of Hippocrates has departed from this elaborate pharmacopoeia. 

With the second century of the Christian era we terminate 
the creative period of Greek medicine. We are provided with 

8 . VOTIVE TABLET representing cupping and bleeding instruments from Temple of Asclepius at Athens. 
In centre is represented a folding case containing scalpels of various forms. On either side are cupping vessels. 

Greek Medicine 


the works of four important writers of this century, of whom 
three, Rufus of Ephesus, Soranus of Ephesus, and Aretaeus of 
Cappadocia, though valuable for forming a picture of the state 
of medicine in their day, were without substantial influence on 
the course of medicine in later ages. 

Rufus of Ephesus, a little junior to Dioscorides, has left us 
the first formal work on human anatomy and is of some im¬ 
portance in the history of comparative anatomy. In medicine 
he is memorable as the first to have described bubonic plague, 
and in surgery for his description of the methods of arresting 
haemorrhage and his knowledge of the anatomy of the eye. 
A work by him On gout was translated into Latin in the sixth 
century, but remained unknown till modern times. 

Soranus of Ephesus ( a . d . c. 90 -c. 150), an acute writer on 
gynaecology, has left a book which illustrates well the anatomy 
of his day. It exercised an influence for many centuries to 
come, and a Latin abstract of it prepared about the sixth 
century by one Moschion has come down to us in an almost 
contemporary manuscript. 1 It is interesting as opposing the 
Hippocratic theory that the male embryo is originated in the 
right and the female in the left half of the womb, a fallacy 
derived originally from Empedocles and ‘Parmenides, but 
perpetuated by Latin translations of the Hippocratic treatises 
until the seventeenth century. His work was adorned by 
figures, and some of these, naturally greatly altered by copyists, 
but still not infinitely removed from the facts, have survived 
in a manuscript of the ninth century, and give us a distant 
idea of the appearance of ancient anatomical drawings. 2 We 
may assist our imagination a little further, in forming an idea 
of what such diagrams were like, with the help of certain other 

1 Leyden Voss 4 0 9* of the sixth century is a fragment of this work. 

2 V. Rose, Soratii Ephesii vetus translatio Latina cum additis Graeci textus 
reliquiis, Leipzig, 1882; F. Weindler, Geschicbte der gynnkologisch-anato- 
miseben Abbildung , Dresden, 1908. 


Greek Medicine 

mediaeval figures representing the form and distribution of 
the various anatomical ‘ systems ’, veins, arteries, nerves, bones, 
and muscles which are probably traceable to an Alexandrian 
origin. 1 

Aretaeus of Cappadocia was probably a contemporary of 
Galen (second half of the second century a. d.). As a clinical 
author his reputation stands high, perhaps too high, his 
descriptions of pneumonia, empyema, diabetes, and elephan¬ 
tiasis having especially drawn attention. In treatment he 
uses simple remedies, is not affected by polypharmacy, and 
suggests many ingenious mechanical devices. It would appear 
that Aretaeus is not an independent writer, but mainly a 
compiler. He relies largely on Archigenes, a distinguished 
physician contemporary with Juvenal, whose works have 
perished save the fragments preserved in this manner by 
Aretaeus and Aetius. Aretaeus was a very popular writer 
among the Greeks in all ages, but he was not translated into 
Latin, and was unknown in the West until the middle of the 
sixteenth century. 2 He is philologically interesting as still 
using the Ionic dialect. 

There remains the huge overshadowing figure of Galen. 
The enormous mass of the surviving work of this man, 
the dictator of medicine until the revival of learning and 
beyond, tends to throw out of perspective the whole of 
Greek medical records. The works of Galen alone form 
about half of the mass of surviving Greek medical writings, 
and occupy, in the standard edition, twenty-two thick, closely- 
printed volumes. These cover every department of medicine, 
anatomy, physiology, pathology, medical theory, therapeutics, 

1 The discovery and attribution of these figures is the work of K. Sudhoff. 
A bibliography of his writings on the subject will be found in a ‘ Study in 
Early Renaissance Anatomy ’ in C. Singer’s Studies in the History and 
Method oj Science , vol. i, Oxford, 1917. 

2 First Latin edition Venice, 1552; first Greek edition Paris, 1554. 

Greek Medicine 


as well as clinical medicine and surgery. In style they are 
verbose and heavy and very frequently polemical. They are 
saturated with a teleology which, at times, becomes excessively 
tedious. In the anatomical works, masses of teleological 
explanation dilute the account of often imperfectly described 
structures. Yet to this element we owe the preservation of 
the mass of Galen’s works, for his intensely teleological point 
of view appealed to the theological bias both of Western 
Christianity and of Eastern Islam. Intolerable as literature, 
his works are a valuable treasure house of medical knowledge and 
experience, custom, tradition, and history. 

As in the case of the Hippocratic corpus, so in the case of the 
Galenic corpus we are dealing to some extent with material 
from various sources. In the case of Galen, however, we have 
a good standard of genuineness, for he has left us a list of his 
books which can be checked off against those which we actually 
possess. The general standpoint of the Galenic is not unlike 
that of the Hippocratic writings, but the noble vision of the 
lofty-minded, pure-souled physician has utterly passed away. 
In his place we have an acute, honest, very contentious fellow, 
bristling with energy and of prodigious industry, not unkindly, 
but loving strife, a thoroughly ‘ aggressive ’ character. He 
loves truth, but he loves argument quite as much. The value 
of his philosophical writings, of which some have survived, 
cannot be discussed here, but it is evident that he is frequently 
satisfied with purely verbal explanations. An ingenious 
physiologist, a born experimenter, an excellent anatomist and 
eager to improve, possessing a good knowledge of the human 
skeleton and an accurate acquaintance with the internal 
parts so far as this can be derived from a most industrious 
devotion to dissection of animals, equipped with all the 
learning of the schools of Pergamon, Smyrna, and Alexandria, 
and rich with the experience of a vast practice at Rome, 
Galen is essentially an ‘ efficient ’ man. He has the grace to 


Greek Medicine 

acknowledge constantly and repeatedly his indebtedness to the 
Hippocratic writings. Such was the man whose remains, along 
with the Hippocratic collection, formed the main medical 
legacy of Greece to the Western world. 

Some of Galen’s works are mere drug lists, little superior to 
those of Dioscorides; 1 with the depression of the intelligence 
that corresponded with the break up of the Roman Empire, it 
was these that were chiefly seized on and distributed in the West. 
Attractive too to the debased intellect of the late Roman world 
were certain spurious, superstitious, and astrological works 
that circulated in the name of Galen and Hippocrates. 2 The 
Greek medical writers after Galen were but his imitators and 
abstractors, but through some of them Galen’s works reached 
the West at a very early period in the Middle Ages. Such 
abstractors who were early translated into Latin were Oribasius 
(325-403), Paul of Aegina (625-690), and Alexander of Tralles 
(525-605). Of the best and most scientific of Galen’s works the 
Middle Ages knew little or nothing. 

Later Galen and Hippocrates became a little more accessible, 
not by translation from the Greek, but by translation from the 
Arabic of a Syriac version. The first work to be so rendered 
was a version of Aphorisms of Hippocrates which, however, as 
we have seen, were already available in Latin dress, together 
with the Hippocratic Regimen in acute diseases , and certain 
works of Galen as corruptly interpreted by Isaac Judaeus. 
These were rendered from Arabic into Latin by Constantine, 
an African adventurer who became a monk at Monte Cassino 
and died there in 1087. Constantine was a wretched craftsman 
with an imperfect knowledge of both Arabic and Latin. More 
effective was the great twelfth-century translator from the 

1 e. g. nep\ Kpdaeas Ka\ dwapecos tcov Airavrav pappuKcov and the 
< pdppaxa. 

2 e. g. De dynamidits Galeni, Secreta Hippocratis and many astrological 

Greek Medicine 


Arabic, Gerard of Cremona (died 1185), who turned many- 
medical works into Latin from Arabic, and who was followed 
by a whole host of imitators. Yet more important for the 
advance of medicine, however, was the learned revival of the 
thirteenth century. In the main that revival was based on 
translations from Arabic, but a certain number of works were 
also rendered direct from the Greek. During the thirteenth 
century Aristotle’s scientific works began to be treated in this 
way, but more important for the course of medicine were those 
of Galen, and they had to wait till the following century. The 
long treatise of Galen, 7 rep! \pdas t&v kv avOputrov awp-an p.op((ov f 
On the uses of the bodily farts in man , was translated from 
the Greek into Latin by Nicholas of Reggio in the earlier 
part of the fourteenth century. This work, with all its 
defects, was by far the best account of the human body then 
available. Many manuscripts of the Latin version have sur¬ 
vived, and it was translated into several vernaculars, including 
English, and profoundly influenced surgery. The rendering 
into Latin of this treatise, and its wide distribution, may be 
regarded as the starting-point of modern scientific medicine. 
Its appearance is moreover a part of the phenomenon of the 
revived interest in dissection which had begun to be practised 
in the Universities in the thirteenth century, 1 and was a generally 
accepted discipline in the fourteenth and fifteenth. 2 

Until the end of the fifteenth century progress in anatomy 
was almost imperceptible. During the fifteenth century 

1 Dissection of animals was practised at Salerno as early as the eleventh 

century. , 

2 The sources of the anatomical knowledge of the Middle Ages are dis¬ 
cussed in detail in the following works : R. R. von Toply, Studien zur 
Gescbicbte der Anatomie im Mittelalter, Vienna, 1898 ; K. Sudhoff, Tradition 
und Naturbeobacbtung, Leipzig, 1907 ; and also numerous articles in the 
Archiv fur Gescbicbte der Medizin und Naturzvissenscbaften ; Charles Singer, 
* A Study in Early Renaissance Anatomy ’, in Studies in the History and 
Method of Science , vol. i, Oxford, 1917. 


Greek Medicine 

more Galenic and Hippocratic texts were recovered and 
gradually turned into Latin, but still without vitally affecting 
the course of Anatomy. The actual printing of collected 
editions of Hippocrates and Galen came rather late, for the 
debased taste of the Renaissance physicians continued to prefer 
Dioscorides and the Arabs, of whom numerous editions ap¬ 
peared, so that medicine made no advance corresponding to 
the progress of scholarship. The Hippocratic works were first 
printed in 1525, and an isolated edition of the inferior Galen 
in 1490, but the real advance in Medicine was not made by 
direct study of these works. So long as they were treated in 
the old scholastic spirit such works were of no more value 
than those of the Arabists or others inherited from the Middle 
Ages. Even Hippocrates can be spoilt by a commentary, and 
it was not until the investigator began actually to compare 
his own observations with those of Hippocrates and Galen that 
the real value of these works became apparent. The depart¬ 
ment in which this happened first was Anatomy, and such 
revolutionaries as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1518), who never 
published, and Vesalius (1514-1564), whose great work appeared 
in 1543 , were really basing their work on Galen, though they 
were much occupied in proving Galen’s errors. Antonio 
Benivieni (died 1502), an eager prophet of the new spirit, 
revived the Hippocratic tradition by actually collecting notes 
of a few cases with accompanying records of deaths and post¬ 
mortem findings, among which it is interesting to observe a 
case of appendicitis. 1 His example was occasionally followed 
during the sixteenth century, as for instance, by the Portuguese 
Jewish physician Amatus Lusitanus (1511-c. 1562), who printed 
no fewer than seven hundred cases; but the real revival of the 
Hippocratic tradition came in the next century with Sydenham 
(1624-1689) and Boerhaave (1668-1738), who were consciously 

1 Benivieni’s notes were published posthumously. Some of the spurious 
Greek works of the Hippocratic collection have also case notes. 

Greek Medicine 


working on the Hippocratic basis and endeavouring to extend 
the Hippocratic experience. 

Lastly surgery came to profit by the revival. The greatest 
of the sixteenth-century surgeons, the lovable and loving 
Ambroise Pare (1510-1590), though he was, as he himself 
humbly confessed, an ignorant man knowing neither Latin nor 
Greek, can be shown to have derived much from the works of 
antiquity, which were circulating in translation in his day and 
were thus filtering down to the unlearned. 

Texts of Hippocrates and of Galen had formed an integral 
part in the medical instruction of the universities from their 
commencement in the thirteenth century. The first Greek 
text of the Aphorisms of Hippocrates appeared in 1532, edited 
by no less a hand than that of Francois Rabelais. With the 
further recovery of the Greek texts and preparation of better 
translations, these became almost the sole mode of instruction 
during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The translators 
became legion and their competence varied. One highly skilled 
translator, however, is of special interest to English readers. 
Thomas Linacre (1460 ?-i524), Physician to Henry VIII, Tutor 
to the Princess Mary, founder and first president of the College 
of Physicians, a benefactor of both the ancient Universities and 
one of the earliest, ablest, most typical, and most exasperating 
of the English humanists, spent much energy on this work of 
translation for which his abilities peculiarly fitted him. He 
was responsible for no less than six important works of Galen, of 
which one, the De temperamentis et de inaequali intemperie , 
printed at Cambridge in 1521, was among the earliest books im¬ 
pressed in that town and is said to be the first printed in England 
for which Greek types were used. It has been honoured by 
reproduction in facsimile in modern times. Such works as these, 
purely literary efforts, had great vogue for a century and more, 
and were much in use in the Universities. These humanistic 
products sometimes produced, among the advocates of the new 


Greek Medicine 

scientific method, a degree of fury which was only rivalled by 
that of some of the humanists themselves towards the trans¬ 
lators from the Arabic. But these are now dead fires. As the 
clinical and scientific methods of teaching gained ground, 
textual studies receded in medical education, as Hippocrates 
and Galen themselves would have wished them to recede. 

The texts of Hippocrates and Galen have now ceased to 
occupy a place in any medical curriculum. Yet all who know 
these writings, know too, not only that their spirit is still with 
us, but that the works themselves form the background of 
modern practice, and that their very phraseology is still in use 
at the bedside. Modern medicine may be truly described as 
in essence a creation of the Greeks. To realize the nature of 
our medical system, some knowledge of its Greek sources is 
essential. It would indeed be a bad day for medicine if ever this 
debt to the Greeks were forgotten, and the loss would be at 
least as much ethical as intellectual. But there is happily no 
fear of this, for the figure and spirit of Hippocrates are more 
real and living to-day than they have been since the great 
collapse of the Greek scientific intellect in the third and fourth 
centuries of the Christian era. 



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