You are here

The Hippocratic Critical Days: Texts and Education in Greek Late Antiquity

James Patterson

            In this paper I suggest that the Hippocratic text, Critical Days (hereafter CD), was used for the examination of medical students in their early years of training. If this is correct, CD appears to provide the first evidence for text-based examinations in ancient education. Although the centerpiece of this paper is the question of CD's purpose and audience, my intent is to use CD to further the discussion about texts and, in particular, memorization in ancient education. Moreover, because CD selects only Hippocratic texts, it contributes also to our understanding of authority and reception in technical schools.

            CD is a compilation of eleven passages from four Hippocratic texts (Epidemics 3, De septimanis, De affectionibus interioribus, and De morbis). There appears to be no original material in CD, and it is presumed to be late: ca. 3-5 c. CE (Potter 2010: 273). For these reasons, CD has been used exclusively for textual criticism of the source texts (Littré 1839-61, Preiser 1957, Jouanna 1974). Although Littré (1839-61: 9.296) believed that it is impossible to determine the intention of CD's author, I argue that internal evidence allows us to suggest a reason why and for whom the text was produced.

            The body of CD copies selections from passages that, in their full form, discuss the causes and observable symptoms of nine diseases (including fevers, a thick disease, tetanuses, sciatica, jaundice, and pneumonia), as well as their treatments. However, CD includes only the causes and symptoms and excludes the treatments. The question, then, is not only why CD includes what it does but also—and arguably more importantly—why CD excludes what it does.

            To answer this question, I propose seven possible audiences (patients, educated laymen, practicing physicians, investigative scientists, charlatans, teachers of medicine, and students of medicine) and ask if—and, if so, how—CD would be useful to each. After a process of elimination, I propose that CD would have been useful only for the examination of medical students, and only if CD required the examinees to supply the treatments that are contained in the source texts but excluded from CD. Furthermore, because the diseases selected are common and, though varying in degree of severity, not necessarily terminal, I suggest that CD was used for the examination of students early in their medical training.

            If this is correct, then CD supplied the textual foundation for an examination that required students to know intimately the texts in question so that, when confronted with these symptoms in the field, they could propose the prescribed (and therefore authorized) treatments. The text used for the introduction to CD (Epidemics 3.16) supports this interpretation. The copied text stresses the need to examine the written texts closely in order not to make mistakes. Further, it argues that knowing the katastaseis of diseases, which CD includes, will allow the practitioner to give prognoses (τὸ προλέγειν ἐκ τούτων εὐπορέεται) and know "whom, when, and how he ought to treat" (οὓς, ὅτε καὶ ὡς δεῖ διαιτῇν)—precisely the information that the source texts contain but that CD excludes. 

            The question, then, is why, if CD is as late as Potter suggests, the source texts are exclusively Hippocratic. I suggest that Hippocratic texts are more accessible and easily memorizable for therapeutic practitioners than other medical treatises. Thus, the selected passages are better for introductory school texts. Moreover, the exclusive use of Hippocratic texts suggests that the medical school that produced CD grounded itself in the perceived authority of the "historical" Hippocrates over competing medical traditions and figures (Petit, 2010). Thus, CD, though obscure, contributes to our understanding of the use of texts and their memorization in Greek education as well as the reception of historical figures and the authority given to them in late antique education. 

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Books: Material and Discursive Interactions

Session/Paper Number

78.3

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy