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Numbering the Hours: A New Battleground in Imperial-Period Medicine?

Kassandra Miller

Union College

In ancient as in modern medicine, we frequently encounter a tension between quantitative and qualitative methods of ordering information. On the one hand, many physicians, from the Hippocratics onward, consider mathematical technai, like geometry and astronomy, to be models of the kind of “exactitude” (akribeia) to which they themselves aspire. To these physicians, mathematics offers the tantalizing possibility of describing, predicting, and thereby controlling patient outcomes with both precision and accuracy. Meanwhile, on the other hand, physicians such as the Hippocratic author of On Regimen (I.2.40-57 Littré) also recognize that, since medicine deals with humans—who have different bodies, habits, and preferences and are embedded in complex social networks—“real-world” medicine is a messy business that abstract, mathematical models cannot easily capture. How, then, did ancient physicians go about resolving this tension, and decide when to encode and organize medical information quantitatively rather than qualitatively?

The proposed paper will explore this overarching question by examining, as a case study, when and why Imperial-period physicians favored quantitative methods in organizing temporal information. More specifically, the paper will ask: under what circumstances did Galen and his contemporaries choose to mark and measure time within the day using numbers (obtained from sundials, water clocks, or mathematical operations) instead of using more qualitative means, such as the position of the sun in the sky or the sequence of a patient’s activities? Drawing on passages from four Galenic texts—On Venesection, On Hygiene, On Periods, and On the Differences Among Fevers—this paper will attempt to reconstruct an active debate among Imperial-period physicians over the degree to which “short” timekeeping should be mathematized. Thus, this paper will not only illustrate the range of attitudes that such physicians held toward the idea of quantitative timekeeping, but will also establish this issue as an under-appreciated battleground within the agonistic medical landscape of the Roman period. The paper will also demonstrate how Galen—who was never one to align himself with a particular school of medical thought—sought to portray his own attitude toward numerical timekeeping as the harmonious mean between two extreme positions: one that favors excessive mathematical precision and another that discards it entirely.

This paper should attract scholars who are interested in Galen and in the intellectual, social, and rhetorical histories of ancient medicine. It will also appeal to the growing number of scholars interested in concepts of time and timekeeping in the ancient world.

Session/Panel Title

Ordering Information in Greco-Roman Medicine

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