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A Glass of Wine a Day... Medical Experts and Expertise in Plutarch’s Table Talk

Michiel Meeusen

King's College London

Although not an expert himself, Plutarch of Chaeronea (ca. 45-120 AD) shows a more than average interest in the field of ancient medicine (e.g., Boulogne 1996; Vamvouri Ruffy 2012). Several of his friends and acquaintances were doctors by profession – Cleomenes, Crato, Glaucus (cf. Gal., Comp.Med.Loc. 4 (xii, 743 K.)), Moschion, Nicias, Onesicrates, Trypho, to name just a few –, and in some of his dialogues, medical experts are staged as interlocutors in the debate. This is the case, most notably, in the Precepts of Health Care, rightly dubbed a work on ‘diet-ethics’ (Van Hoof 2010). But Plutarch deploys medical knowledge not only in support of his practical ethical agenda. As an Imperial philosopher and all-round intellectual (πεπαιδευμένος) he seems to have had a genuine interest in medical knowledge also from a more theoretical (c.q. natural philosophical) perspective. Several problems under discussion in the Table Talk concern specific medical issues, deriving their explanatory style and method from the Aristotelian Natural Problems (Meeusen 2017): e.g., “whether hunger and thirst are caused by deficiency or by a change in shape of the passages” (687B-689A), “the cause of βουλιμία/ox-hunger” (693E-695E), “whether it is possible for new diseases to come into being, and from what causes” (731A-734C) etc. By analyzing a number of these discussions, this paper aims to show how medical experts and expertise played an active role at convivial networking events in the Early Graeco-Roman Empire, as imagined by a non-specialist in the field (Plutarch).

The Table Talk provides a particularly lively image of how doctors participated in intellectual debates at symposia and dinner parties that took place all over the Mediterranean region (Klotz – Oikonomopoulou 2011). Throughout the work Plutarch repeatedly emphasises the notion of “community” (κοινωνία) as a critical aspect of convivial decorum, where sociable debate over a glass of wine serves a “friendmaking” (φιλοποιόν) goal. These social dynamics have direct intellectual repercussions, in the sense that technical issues had to be toned down so as to include non-experts in the debate as well: “Just as the wine must be common to all, so too the debate must be one in which all can share” (614E: δεῖ γὰρ ὡς τὸν οἶνον κοινὸν εἶναι καὶ τὸν λόγον, οὗ πάντες μεθέξουσιν). It should not come as a surpirse, therefore, that doctors also participate in non-medical debates, thus demonstrating their wide learning to their fellow symposiasts (e.g., regarding literature, history, philosophy etc.). How do medical experts demonstrate their knowledge at such social events? How are technical issues communicated to non-specialists in the field? And how does medical expertise in specific function as a community shaping factor? By answering questions like these, this paper will yield fresh insights into the socio-intellectual role doctors, as members of the educated elite, were expected to play in convivial community contexts and also how popular/common certain theories, concepts and beliefs relating to health and healing had become in the Early Graeco-Roman Empire.

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Medical Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean

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