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Kingship, Symposia, Gift-Exchange: The Scientific Self at Ptolemaic Courts

Marquis Berrey

What was the habitus of the experimenter broadly understood in Alexandrian

medicine, such as the court physicians Andreas Carystius (d. 217 BCE) or Apollonius

Citiensis (fl. 75 BCE)? The medical author's ethical self-presentation -- a discursive

construction of truth-telling, discrimination between explanatory alternatives,

observational ability, honorific addresses -- is the scientific self (Daston and Galison

2007). Scholars of early modernity have noted the rhetoric and society of genteel

respectability to which the new experimental scientists such as Robert Boyle gravitated

(Shapin 1994). The early modern experimental self achieved authority within communal

life, not as an individual thinker concerned with ideal science. Hellenistic medical selves

too achieved authority not by themselves (autarkeia) but within various forms of

common life, gaining social distinction (timē) in an agonistic society. Without rejecting

the previously proposed contextualizations of book culture, colonialism, or the setting of

the Mouseion, this paper builds on the work of Massar 2005, who envisions doctors as

people of culture (pepaideumenoi) at court. I locate the scientific self of Ptolemaic court

physicians as courtiers within the practices of gift-exchange and symposiastic discussion

of court society.

The common life of Alexandrian physicians was court society. A discourse of

friendship runs throughout the products of court society, whereby the leveling of social

distinction is directed outward from the king. The king is a "friend" of the truth

(philalēthēs Ps.-Aristeas 206), of learning and knowledge (philomathontōn Apollonius

Citiensis 16.11), of doctors (philiatrōs Apollonius Citiensis 10.1, philatrounti 38.11), and

of the technai in general (philotechnōn Philo Byzantius Belopoeica 50.26). The discourse

of friendship distributed the social status of the king and his political interests to crafts

and learning. The court title to which courtiers aspired (philotimēthentes Ps.-Aristeas 79)

above all was philos. Court society founded on hierarchy aspired to equality.

Physicians joined courtiers and philoi at royal symposia (Plutarch Antony 28.2-

12), where commensality was a mark of inclusion in elite court society (Murray 1996,

Murray 2007). Hellenistic medical treatises on diet thematize symposia (Massar 2005:

253-273; Andreas Carystius fr. 43 von Staden). Symposia included (beyond hedonism)

learned discussion about literary and philosophical inquiry (Epicurus fr. 5 Usener,

Clearchus Soloensis fr. 63 Wehrli). Sympotic guests included "friends-of-learning and

men capable of suggesting what is useful to the kingdom" (Ps.-Aristeas 286); specialized

knowledge was prized (Aristo Ceus frr. 21i, 21k SFOD), for the king wished to benefit his

kingdom and be humane (euergetēken OGIS 90.9, pephilanthrōpēke 90.12). Hellenistic

virtues of idealized kingship were also appropriate for the symposiarch: the king was mild

and just toward men, without falsehood, a giver of goods (Diodorus Siculus 1.70.6). The

ideal monarch encouraged parrhēsia among his philoi (Ps.-Aristeas 227, Plutarch

Cleomenes 36.1), the personal virtue manifested in sympotic discussion among equals.

Empirical knowledge-making is a form of truth-telling, with observational

accuracy secured through the experimenter's able-bodiedness and socially trustworthy

witnesses. Authority does not necessarily follow from epistemic originality. I suggest

that, since the persona of the ancient courtier aspired to virtues of truth-telling, parrhēsia,

paideia, and elite friendship within the culture of the symposium, the medical

practitioner at court adopted that sympotic persona with epistemic virtues good for

empirical knowledge-making. Since forward critical speech was an idealized quality in a

courtier, the king's patronage alighted on agonistic physicians who preserved goodwill

toward the king (eunoia Ps.-Aristeas 270). The scientific self of courtly culture initiated a

reciprocal exchange of goods: the medical practitioner gave intellectual knowledge as a

sympotic eranos or symboulē (Apollonius Citiensis 10.17), the monarch-qua-symposiarch

in recompense gave finances and distinction (chorēgia, timē). I conclude that elite

Hellenistic medical agonism was partly a function of sympotic parrhēsia and that a social

dynamics of patronage likely underlay the empirical knowledge of Ptolemaic court


Session/Panel Title

Experimentation: Querying the Body in Ancient Medicine

Session/Paper Number


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