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Medical Hellenicity in the Letters of Hippocrates

Calloway Scott

New York University

In her 2003 book Contagious, Priscilla Wald shows how plague narratives create, sustain, and reify imagined communities. Borrowing from Wald, this paper examines the plagues within the Epistulae Hippocratis as they illustrate how iatrike might be perceived as a discursive field used to fix the boundaries of a cultural community in the ancient world. More specifically, this paper looks at those Letters in which the figure of “Hippocrates” weaponizes his mastery of the medical techne by refusing to aid other cultural groups in times of plague depending on whether they were “Greek.” Importantly, I read the Letters with another body of texts, the paianes which were performed at Delphi to ward off plague and famine, arguing that we can find shared strategies of Hellenic identity creation across these “medical” and “religious” texts.   

            The Letters of Hippocrates—a pseudepigraphic corpus of “letters” and speeches ostensibly penned by or to Hippocrates—open an important window onto the history of the popular perception of “Greek medicine” during the Hellenistic and early Roman Imperial periods. Frequently, these letters feature Hippocrates brining aid to Greek cities, like Athens, or refusing it to non-Greek peoples. This is most notable in letters between the physician and the Greeks’ most famous antagonist, the King of Persia. In one series of exchanges, we find the king Artaxerxes attempting to hire Hippocrates to save his country from a catastrophic plague (νοῦσος λοιμική) by use of his techne. Hippocrates rebuffs the King claiming that he would never “save Persians from disease, in as much as Persians are enemies of the Greeks” (Epist. 5a). We learn of a similar case in the speech Presbeutikos, in which Hippocrates refuses to aid the tribes north and west of Thessaly in warding off another devastating pestilence. Instead, armed with the foreknowledge of the impending epidemic, Hippocrates sends delegations of his pupils to all corners of Greece to protect the “Hellenes.” Curiously, this narrative culminates with Hippocrates himself voyaging to Delphi in order to perform a sacrifice to Apollo on behalf of the Greeks. The explicit enumeration of communities considered Greek and the sacrifice to Apollo for their salvation rings an echo with poems like Pindar’s sixth Paian, performed during the festival of the Delphic Theoxenia, where we are informed that “sacrifice is made on behalf of all Greeks” (ὑπὲρ Πανελλάδος) because of a l(o)imos. Historically, such songs imprecating Apollo to avert plague and famine at Delphic festivals were only staged by cities accepted as “Hellenic,” and so, like Hippocrates in the Letters, their performance helped to police the boundaries of the Hellenic community. Read together, then, I suggest that the Letters activate the Panhellenic associations embedded within the Greek religious networks of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, cannily (re)framing them in terms of the medical energies of a doctor-hero. Ultimately, then, I argue that the Letters offer a nuanced example of how medicine, disease, and religion could be productively pooled into one another as instruments for circumscribing an imaginary Hellenic community.

Session/Panel Title

Medical Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean

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