Luis Alejandro Salas
If we take Galen at his word, the medical world of the second century CE was ablaze
with debate over the question of the organ functionally responsible for volition, the socalled
hêgemonikon. Stoic and Peripatetic theorists located this governing faculty in the
heart while Plato, the Hippocratic Corpus (according to Galen's reading of it), and Galen
himself located it in the brain. Scholars most often discuss Galen's arguments against
cardiocentrism in his more theoretical works. But little attention has been paid to
polemical arguments in his anatomical works, which have historically been read as
This paper examines an eccentric episode described fully in Galen's anatomical treatise,
Anatomical Procedures (AA II 619-21), and alluded to in the more theoretical, On the
Usefulness of Parts (UP III 502-3). It involves an anatomical confrontation in the streets
of Rome over the existence of a bone at the center of the elephantine heart.
Galen recounts the contest in the context of his account of the heart's structure and
function. In the telling, he denounces contemporary physicians, alongside medical
theorists past and present, for their theoretical and empirical inadequacies, especially
their claim that there was no bone in an elephant’s heart. At the conclusion of the episode
Galen triumphantly draws attention to a massive bone at the center of this elephant's
heart, which sits on his desk even now as proof to visitors of his medical acumen and of
his rivals' anatomical failures.
But while this bone, the os cordis, is found at the core of the cardiac skeleton in certain
ruminants, Galen could not have actually have seen it. The bone does not exist in
What motivates Galen to believe or claim that it does? Why was the elephant the
exemplum to which he turned for general cardiac structure?
I argue that Galen's account of the elephant's heart bone is part of a complex skirmish
against Stoic and Peripatetic cardiocentrists. Mnesitheus (fl. late 4th cent. BCE) had
already written a treatise on elephantine anatomy that observed it possessed no os cordis.
Aristotle, in his Historia Animalium (HA 506a9-10) and Parts of Animals (PA 666b17-
667a6), offers a similar description of the elephantine heart including its lack of heart
bone. While Galen accepts Aristotle's functional analysis of the bone in ruminants, as a
structural support in the hearts of larger animals, his more thoroughgoing teleological
commitments require him to argue against its absence in the elephant.
I also argue that Galen's narrative likely describes the cardiac structure of the ox. He
claims to have conducted a necropsy of an elephant for two reasons: as a workaround for
technological limitations and as a persuasive textual spectacle in the argumentative style
of other authors in the Late Imperial Period, an observation which has been made about
Galen's anatomical displays (with different scholarly aims) in von Staden (1995) and
more recently in Gleason (2009). Without adequate tools for the magnification of minute
anatomical structures, Galen turned to analogous structures in massive creatures as a
means of inverse microscopy, as in the case of the rete mirabile in the ox's brain welldocumented
in Rocca (2003).
Galen's account of the heart bone stems from his commitment to functional and structural
analogy across certain natural kinds; and, this commitment arises out of his
thoroughgoing teleological beliefs. For Galen, the elephant and its internal anatomy
function as a large scale and spectacular proof of the anatomical failings of
cardiocentrists. He uses the elephant's heart bone as an indictment of Aristotle's weaker
teleological views and his credibility as an anatomical authority. Ironically, this
indictment rests on teleological rather than empirical evidence.
ORGANS: Form, Function and Bodily Systems in Greco-Roman Medicine