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Didactic pharmacology or medical Homerocentron? Structuring knowledge in the Carmen de viribus herbarum (Heitsch 64)

Floris Overduin

Radboud University Nijmegen

In this paper I will bring to the fore a fascinating yet virtually unknown testimony to the panel’s approach of “ordering information in Greco-Roman Medicine”: the anonymous Carmen de viribus herbarum (fr. 64 in Heitsch’s Griechische Dichterfragmente der römische Kaiserzeit = GDRK). This extensive fragment (216 lines) consists of didactic dactylic hexameters of unknown date (although the third century CE has been suggested by Kaibel), concerned with the curative powers of dozens of different plants (treated by Luccioni 2006, the first publication on GDRK 64 in decades), and as such it can be considered to be an evident descendant of the pharmacological tradition of Nicander of Colophon (Theriaca, Alexipharmaca) and Andromachus the Elder (the theriac Galènè, GDRK 62), poets with which the poet of the Carmen clearly was familiar.

What sets the poet of the Carmen apart from this tradition, however, is his unique means of structuring his knowledge in composing his didactic treatise: by reusing large chunks of Homeric lines to build his poem. Unlike the refined Hellenistic poets, who found literary satisfaction in the reuse of Homeric rarities or particular hapaxes, the poet of the Carmen approaches his composition in a very different fashion, structuring his poem for a large part as a Homeric cento poem: a somewhat crude, yet effective means of building a vehicle in verse for the transmission of assembled pharmacological knowledge dealing with fever, headache, fatigue, bodily suffering, vascular congestion, strangury, tetanic recurvation and many other ‘sickness-inducing calamities’ (νοσοεργὰ πάθη, 39). It offers solace ‘for those who feel poorly’, means against women suffering from hysteria, herbs to keep away venomous animals, but also – unexpectedly – bad dreams (ἐφιαλτεία, 162). Moreover, it also discusses effective plants against ghosts, apparitions, and particularly witches. This concern with magic and superstition introduces a whole new dimension into the didactic pharmacological strand, as the Carmen de viribus opens up a world of ῥιζοτόμοι, βάσκανοι, ἰητροί and φαρμακίδες, all tied to the world of curative herbs, presented in an intriguing  hybrid of medicine, didactic literature, and Homeric poetry.

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Ordering Information in Greco-Roman Medicine

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