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Hierarchical Communities: Elite Approaches to Defining botanē in Ancient Medical Practice

Katherine Beydler

University of Michigan

This paper examines the introductions to the pharmaceutical texts of three authors to see how they approach botanikē technē within the medical community in the ancient world: Galen’s De Simplicium Medicamentorum Temperamentis ac Facultatibus, Scribonius Largus’ Compositiones Medicamentorum, and Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica. I will argue that each one attempted to define and subsume different kinds of botanical knowledge into the wider context of medical practice in order to contribute to his own epistemic authority as an elite iatros. All three authors justify why they need and want to write about knowledge that at least partially belonged to a range of specialists; the opportunity to select who else belonged to that community and define its relationship to the wider medical community contributed to authorial identity-building. They each emphasize different aspects of the botanical tradition, setting rules for it that complement their own visions of the ideal practitioner. There were multiple ancient specialists discussed in these texts as members of a botanical community: pharmakopolai (druggists), rhizotomoi (rootcutters), botanikoi (botanists), and muropolai (dealers in scented oils) to name a few. These specialists fell somewhere within the technē of medicine, but somewhere below the status of a full iatros, as the authors remind us.

All three men, despite different emphases, write that their work will be the definitive text on botanical medicine, boxing out rivals and offering all the information other doctors could ever need to know on the subject. Dioscorides focused on the importance of personal experience in the successful botanist. Scribonius Largus, citing some of the same sources as Dioscorides, was concerned with lifting the mixed-status practice of botanē to the realm of the imperial court via the historical context of botanical medicine in the works of Hippocrates. Galen, who draws on both authors and models the introduction of his On Simple Medicines on that of Dioscorides, defined his work as pinnacle of the botanical tradition by criticizing those who attempted to participate incorrectly. He makes it clear that participation in this community is necessary but not sufficient to be a doctor by describing rootcutters and botanists as subservient to more holistic practitioners. All three authors mention speaking to specialist practitioners and value their expertise. It is clear, however, that while these specialists provide useful information, they are not always able to participate in medicine in the same way as a fully qualified doctor. The authors, who all assert their own version of a complete medical practice, aim to offer the best version of botanical tradition, eventually trying to locate and define the role of its specialist community within the profession at large.

I will end by reflecting briefly on how the diverse and competitive medical marketplace of the early Roman empire set the stage for the kind of credibility contests apparent in De Materia Medica, Compositiones Medicamentorum, and De Simplicium Medicamentorum, and why the botanical community was a particularly good choice for building personal authority.

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Medical Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean

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