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Fighting with the Heart of a Beast: Galen's Use of Exotic Animal Anatomy against Cardiocentrists

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

merely technical.

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.

Session/Panel Title

ORGANS: Form, Function and Bodily Systems in Greco-Roman Medicine

Session/Paper Number


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