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Vivisection and Revelation: Some Narratives from Latin Literature

Michael Goyette

Throughout classical antiquity, the internal structure and operations of the human body remained largely unknown and unexplored. The limited nature of this knowledge is reflected in Greek and Latin literature, where representations of the body’s internal (and usually invisible) organs are often marked by darkness and opacity. Cultural restrictions on performing human dissection, which existed throughout much of classical antiquity, were impediments to observing what lay beneath the outer edges of the body. As scholars such as Holmes (2010), Kuriyama (1999), and Padel (1992, 1995) have shown in their discussions focusing on Greek literature and culture, understandings of the interior of the human body were derived from signs emerging from it, including excretions and overt symptoms of illness. While this “outside-in” approach to understanding the human body was highly influential for Greek and Roman medical writers, there are also rare literary descriptions in which the body’s interior and its organs are displayed more openly. In this paper, I will focus on a selection of passages from Latin literature where the organs are revealed through acts of vivisection. First reviewing Celsus’ remarks on the vivisections that he believed to have been performed in Hellenistic Alexandria (De Medicina, Proemium 23-26, 74-75), I then offer close readings of the mythic account of the flaying of Marsyas in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (6.387-391) and the dismemberment of Thyestes’ sons in Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes (755-763; 1054-1068). My analysis will demonstrate that such a diverse collection of texts can be read together productively, eroding the notion that Celsus, as a “technical” writer, is not “literary”, or not as “literary” as authors like Ovid and Seneca. 

My discussion of Celsus’ comments on vivisection will draw upon Mudry (1982), expanding upon his observations on vocabulary and connecting them with vocabulary in the passages from Seneca and Ovid. My analysis of the passages from Seneca will build upon observations made by Tarrant (1985), who notes that these passages borrow language from Ovid’s description of Marsyas; Tarrant, however, leaves room for further discussion of the medical aspects of the language used by both Seneca and Ovid. I will show that in Celsus’ medically-oriented prose as well as the poetic works of Seneca and Ovid, we find similar language emphasizing a sense of revelation when the internal organs are described. I will argue that in each of these texts, vivisection is not only portrayed as a method by which it is possible to gain vivid—albeit impermissible—insight into the form and function of internal bodily systems, but also that each passage problematizes the potential insight that vivisection can offer by employing paradoxical language and imagery, and by drawing attention to ways in which vivisection blurs the lines between life and death. In each text, these ambiguities raise questions about how to interpret the observations that are described. I will also argue that the passages from Thyestes conflate vivisection with the religious practice of extispicium through a mingling of medical and religious language and imagery. In this way, the practice of human vivisection is linked with rituals of animal sacrifice, thereby further questioning this form of exploration of the body's interior and its organs.

Session/Panel Title

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

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