Monday, December 29, 2014

Two Brilliant Minds in Alexandria

A water-clock or clepsydra. Digital ID: 1189076. New York Public Library

Originally Published June 27, 2014

Next time you glance at the wall clock in the gym to check your heartrate or notice the arm-squeezing machine at the doctor's office extracting your pulse, think back to these innovators from 2300 years ago who had at their disposal only their powers of observation/reasoning and the very limited technology of the time -- a water clock or clepsydra.

Luckily for us, Alexandria, a city named for Alexander the Great in northern Egypt, attracted the era's greatest scholars. Among these were mathematicians and physicians. Among the latter were two of note whose works have been lost, Herophilos (335–280 BC) and Erasistratus (304 BC – 250 BC), from Chalcedon and Ceos, respectively. These two men were pioneers in human anatomy. Uncommon at the time, they used dissection, if not vivisection, to learn about human physiology.

Elsewhere in the Greek world, human dissection is thought to have been taboo. Animals were okay, but humans -- dei advertant. It is said (note the weasel words) that the Ptolemies facilitated not just dissection of the dead, but vivisection, by supplying the scientists with criminals from the royal prisons. (Even if this is not true, the Ptolemies did support their work.) Why it suddenly became permissible for Greeks to defile dead bodies, when it had not been earlier, and only in the Hellenistic capital of Alexandria, has puzzled scholars. Maybe it was a result of philosophical teaching about the nature of the soul or an increased emphasis among philosophical schools on empirical research. Perhaps its appearance uniquely in Alexandria was connected with the Egyptian practice of embalming. Longrigg reviews such ideas in his article:

Anatomy in Alexandria in the Third Century B.C. James Longrigg The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 455-488.
We know of these great early doctors thanks to the records and quotations of others, including Galen, Rufus of Ephesus, Soranus, the AD first century Anonymous Londinensis [note the "-ensis", a suffix of connection denoting "belonging," according to Gonzales Lodge's The Vocabulary of High School Latin], which contains material from Aristotle's pupil Meno, and Celsus' De medicina. Their work improved the understanding of heart, brain, eye, liver, vascular, nervous, and reproductive systems, according to Greek Rational Medicine, also by Longrigg (Routledge: 1995).

Herophilus for the Latinists, or Herophilos, otherwise, improved on existing theories of the human sexual reproduction, explaining the structures of the male and female systems if not the exact nature of the fluids involved. He understood pulses and is the first known physician to have clocked the pulse to assess fevers, noticing both its strength and speed. He distinguished between veins and arteries, and found both sensory and motor nerves. Then came Erasistratus who improved Herophilus' analyses of the vascular and nervous systems, understood the structure and function of the heart, and may possibly have identifying the coordinated function of the four heart valves, although he should not be credited with discovering the circulatory system. Erasistratus also explained the structure of the brain, agreeing with his predecessor that nerves started there.

Erasistratus was influenced by contemporary philosophical theories of matter as a result of which he developed a theory of corpuscles in a vacuum along with the idea of suction. His scientific principles led to a mechanistic understanding of the digestive system, that included an accurate description of the muscles, which has survived. He thought that the food once digested passed nutrients to all parts of the body through a system of pores, vessels, and veins.

So long ago, yet so close to what we know today, thanks mostly to their own amazing brains.

We Don’t Know Much About the Library at Alexandria

 Originally published:  August 4, 2014

     Part of the complex built under either Ptolemy I or II in Alexandria, a city built by the Hellenistic Greeks in northern Egypt, the Library at Alexandria (along with the Museum, a shrine to the Muses) supported scholarship in the sciences and literature. Scholars catalogued by genre and edited the scrolls creating the standard work of important authors. Although Strabo doesn’t mention the library, but only the museum, it is the earliest surviving account of the complex, coming 300 years later.
“And the city contains most beautiful public precincts and also the royal palaces, which constitute one-fourth or even one-third of the whole circuit of the city; for just as each of the kings, from love of splendour, was wont to add some adornment to the public monuments, so also he would invest himself at his own expense with a residence, in addition to those already built, so that now, to quote the words of the poet, 45 “there is building upon building.” All, however, are connected with one another and the harbour, even those that lie outside 46 the harbour. The Museum is also a part of the royal palaces; it has a public walk, an Exedra with seats, and a large house, 47 in which is the common mess-hall of the men of learning who share the Museum.   This group of men not only hold property in common, but also have a priest in charge of the Museum, who formerly was appointed by the kings, but is now appointed by Caesar. The Sema also, 48 as it is called, is a part of the royal palaces.”  Strabo
     This failure to mention it means we don’t really know much about the specific building. There is, however, an earlier epistolary mention, in the 2d century B.C. Letter to Philocrates responsible for various aspects of our confusion about the development of the library, as well as the estimate of scroll number. Incidentally, this is also the source for our name for the Greek Bible, the Septuagint.
“9 Demetrius of Phalerum, the president of the king’s library, received vast sums of money, for the purpose of collecting together, as far as he possibly could, all the books in the world. By means of purchase and transcription, he carried out, to the best of his ability, the purpose of the king. On one occasion when I was present he was asked, How many thousand books are there in the library?  10 and he replied, ‘More than two hundred thousand, O king, and I shall make endeavour in the immediate future to gather together the remainder also, so that the total of five hundred thousand may be reached.”  Letter of Aristeas
     Although there was a fire under Julius Caesar’s watch, it did not wipe out the library. Exactly what did is not known with certainty. Third and fourth century Roman emperors played a part, Christian emperors may have had a role, and many blame the Muslims for the final touch. In addition, if the books weren’t continually copied, age and nature would have wiped out the collection.


  1. "Culture and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and  Library of Alexandria," by Andrew Erskine; Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Apr., 1995), pp. 38-48.
  2. "The Ancient University of Alexandria," by A. W. Argyle; The Classical Journal, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Apr. – May, 1974), pp. 348-350.
  3. "Alexandria: Library of Dreams," by Roger S. Bagnall; Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 146, No. 4 (Dec., 2002), pp. 348-362.


© 2014 NS Gill's Ancient Matters. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Cum Grano Salis

Destruction of Carthage. Digital ID: 1619660. New York Public Library

We should all remember to take things with a grain of salt. This includes words from excellent classical sources. Even the Cambridge Ancient History.

In a meandering thread originally on academic Prose Style, from the Classics-L, that twisted once to challenge Augustine’s position on the rarity of silent reading, and turned again in a tangential direction, David Schaps brought up the proverbial sowing the fields of Carthage with salt to signify the permanent destruction of Rome’s old enemy.

He cited an article from 1986:

“To be Taken with a Pinch of Salt: The Destruction of Carthage,” by R. T. Ridley; Classical Philology, Vol. 81, No. 2 (Apr., 1986), pp. 140-146

that debunks the myth of the sowing of salt in Carthaginian furrows.

First Ridley looks through the ancient sources whose accounts of what happened to the conquered land at the end of the Third Punic War vary. Was it plundered, as with Appian? Destroyed utterly, as with Strabo? Cursed, as with Dio (from Zonaras’ epitome)? Consecrated, as with Cicero? Ploughed over, as with Niebuhr? Salted…?

He concludes that the story of salting the earth was based on Biblical and Near Eastern stories and first included in our stories of Republican Roman history, in the relevant 1930 Cambridge Ancient History entry by B. Hallward, who wrote:

Buildings and walls were razed to the ground; the plough passed over the site, and salt was sown in the furrows made.

Scullard, Picard, and other historians followed in his wake.

As Ridley alludes to, arguments from silence aren’t conclusive: there may be an ancient source who mentioned it, but his search was thorough and he couldn’t find it.

Created August 30, 2014

Monday, June 9, 2014

'The Eyes of Aurora'

The Eyes of Aurora: 
A Fifth Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger
Albert A Bell Jr
Publication: September 9, 2014; Perseverance Press
ISBN 978-1-56474-549-1
Albert A. Bell's fifth mystery novel featuring Pliny the Younger and his sidekick, the historian Tacitus, is named for one of the two narrators, Aurora, the slave woman who had grown up in the elder Pliny's household as a playmate of the younger Pliny (now master of said estate).

By this stage in the lives of the main characters (following on Casebook IV), the attraction between master and slave has grown too strong to resist, even though a marriage looms between Pliny and a nice enough woman of his social class. That, a serious medical diagnosis, problems with the current emperor, and the mysteries of Judaism, with adherents among Pliny's familia, form the background. Complicated his homelife might be, but the mysteries that drag him out of there and off to the countryside are far more so. It's not even a case of peeling back layers of onion skin, but of aberrations ranging from the seedy to the horrible, all the while fighting against coincidence and loss.

Pliny doesn't believe in coincidence. Lacking much faith or belief in the gods, he doesn't believe those men following at a distance are innocently traveling to the same destination as the Plinian party, no matter what Tacitus and Aurora might say, and Pliny is right, of course. On the other hand, and just as much a contradiction as wearing a Tyche goddess amulet for luck when you don't believe in it, he can't scientifically explain away the magical Jewish cure that lifts Aurora's blindness -- for the eyes of Aurora refer not only to the second narrator and the windows of the soul belonging to the love of Pliny's life, but to her loss of sight following an incident involving some minor, extremely disagreeable characters.

The mystery begins when Aurora and Pliny try to save the life of one woman only to learn that her story doesn't hold. The next story they hear causes Pliny anxiety because, with informers everywhere, it could land him in hot water with Emperor Domitian. When the real story emerges, the people telling it behave in a loving, protective manner, which gives us a break from what we would probably call the psychopaths. That the couple are eager to take in a biologically unrelated, abandoned boy, who who has been calling them aunt and uncle, makes us root for their version.

The many women in Pliny's life make it difficult to steer a safe course. He can't let his mother know that he knows what's wrong with her. He doesn't want his fiancee to tell his mother that she knows he prefers his slave to her. He doesn't really want to marry the fiancee's older sister, a widow and shrew, either, but somehow he comes out alive, if scathed, and even manages to steer a course that will make Aurora and his mother happy.

Set against a disgusting, Medea-esque murder, a snapshot of Roman social mores in the first century, humor, and working through seemingly impossible details to find the truth conspire to make this story worth your time if you're a fan of the Roman mystery genre.

Also see my quick take on Bell's Corpus Conundrum.

Did Sophocles Become Incompetent As An Old Man?

How would it work today? An old man devotes his time now as always to pursuit of his craft, but his other affairs need some work. Maybe he hasn't been filing his tax returns or paying his parking tickets. Maybe his investments have gone downhill and his family wants power of attorney to straighten out his estate. How would the old man prove that he didn't need them to take over?  In Classical Athens, Sophocles faced criticism from his sons, which turned into a legal battle. His children wanted him declared incompetent, but they lost. Sophocles proved he was in full possession of his senses to the court precisely because he was spending all his time on his finely tuned craft.

Here is what Cicero has to say on the matter, in his work on old age, De Senectute:
Old men retain their intellects well enough, if only they keep their minds active and fully employed. Nor is that the case only with men of high position and great office: it applies equally to private life and peaceful pursuits. Sophocles composed tragedies to extreme old age; and being believed to neglect the care of his property owing to his devotion to his art, his sons brought him into court to get a judicial decision depriving him of the management of his property on the ground of weak intellect - just as in our law it is customary to deprive a paterfamilias of the management of his property if he is squandering it. Thereupon the old poet is said to have read to the judges the play he had on hand and had just composed - the Oedipus Coloneus - and to have asked them whether they thought that the work of a man of weak intellect. After the reading he was acquitted by the jury. 22. Quid iuris consulti, quid pontifices, quid augures, quid philosophi senes, quam multa meminerunt! Manent ingenia senibus, modo permaneat studium et industria, neque ea solum in claris et honoratis viris, sed in vita etiam privata et quieta. Sophocles ad summam senectutem tragoedias fecit; quod propter studium cum rem neglegere familiarem videretur, a filiis in iudicium vocatus est, ut, quem ad modum nostro more male rem gerentibus patribus bonis interdici solet, sic illum quasi desipientem a re familiari removerent iudices. Tum senex dicitur eam fabulam, quam in manibus habebat et proxime scripserat, Oedipum Coloneum, recitasse iudicibus quaesisseque, num illud carmen desipientis videretur. Quo recitato sententiis iudicum est liberatus.


Ancient History Sourcebook: Cicero Old Age, c. 65 BCE. 
Based on my page at Ancient/Classical History:

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Theseus Had A Hand In It.: Sword & Sandal

Normally, one starts a collection of stories about the hero Theseus with him as a young man defeating the minotaur, but there is a whole series' worth of prequels to this. One of these is the origin of the term "sword and sandal." Today it refers mostly to a genre of epic movies. This term -- supposed to be a precursor of the Italian Spaghetti Western --  is visually striking. You might imagine a Biblical figure or a Mediterranean, scantily-clad warrior, a pair of non-modern footwear encasing his feet. But the origin of the term is slightly different. Yes, there was an ancient warrior's sword and yes there was footgear suitable for walking miles in the mountainous terrain of Greece, but the sword and sandals were not in use.

A daughter of Pittheus, king of Troizen, which was a city in the Peloponnese, spent a night in the arms of two males, one divine and one mortal. The god was Poseidon and the human was the king of Athens, Aegeus ((Αιγέας). Aegeus, certain that the night would lead to conception -- which it undoubtedly would have done with Poseidon there -- couldn't predict that the princess would give birth to a boy, but if she did, he told her she should give him two of his possessions, but only when he came of age, and to send him to him. These possessions were a sword and a pair of sandals. They were to be hidden for safe keeping under a stone. And so, a couple of decades later, roughly, Aethra, for that was the attractive woman's name, told her son Theseus about the behest of his mortal father. She then bid him farewell as he set off to find his father and soon afterwards, to kill the minotaur.
Image: Theseus and Aethra, by Laurent de La Hyre
See: Aegeus Consults the Pythia: Themis provides King Aegeus with an oracle

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Plato Explains Oddities of a Greek Goddess of Childbirth

The Greek goddess Artemis is at home in the forest where she, occupied with the hunt, wields her bow and arrow. She also appears to spend a fair amount of time getting cleaned, since one of the more powerful stories of Artemis tells of a fellow hunter spotting her at her ablutions. The hunter was not one of her band of virginal female followers, but a male. He, Actaeon, had to pay with his life for the albeit accidental crime of seeing the virgin goddess in the nude. A virgin goddess seems an odd choice for a goddess of childbirth, but that was one of her areas of power. Since she insisted on chastity among her followers, those who needed her services were not her acolytes. But she had responsibilities, and she was diligent in applying her skills to those in need (whether for good of for their ill). In the aspect of goddess of childbirth, she needed a different set of servants, Plato says, because a virgin isn't fit to deal with the needs of woman in labor. A midwife must come from the ranks of those who have experienced the birthing process, Artemis selects only older women who might as well have regained their virginity since no ancient woman past her natural childbearing years could bear a child. Here is the passage from Plato
Plato, Theaetetus 149b-d (trans. Fowler) (Greek philosopher C4th B.C.) :
"Sokrates: Take into consideration the whole business of the midwives . . . For you know, I suppose, that no one of them attends other women while she is still capable of conceiving and bearing but only those do so who have become too old to bear . . . They say the cause of this is Artemis, because she, a childless goddess, has had childbirth allotted to her as her special province. Now it would seem she did not allow barren women to be midwives, because human nature is too weak to acquire an art which deals with matters of which it has no experience, but she gave the office to those who on account of age were not bearing children, honoring them for their likeness to herself . . . Is it not, then, also likely and even necessary, that midwives should know better than anyone else who are pregnant and who are not? . . . And furthermore, the midwives, by means of drugs and incantations, are able to arouse the pangs of labor and, if they wish, to make them milder, and to cause those to bear who have difficulty in bearing; and they cause miscarriages if they think them desirable."
This article is based on one of my Myth Mondays on the Ancient/Classical History site at It was followed by the following questions about Artemis:
  1. Question: What happened to Actaeon? Answer: Artemis, Actaeon and the Bath
  2. Question: Before he could sail to Troy, what had Agamemnon done to incur Artemis' wrath and how did he appease the goddess? Answer: The Tale of Troy
  3. Question: Who else failed to honor her resulting in a famous boar devastating the countryside? Answer: Calydonian Boar Hunt
  4. Question: On which side was Artemis in the Trojan War? Answer: Gods and Goddesses in the Iliad
  5. Question: Which baby did Artemis first help deliver? Answer: Leto
  6. Question: Which of the Homeric women asks Artemis to kill her, Andromache or Penelope? Before you look, try to figure out why she would ask for death. Answer: Transitions Goddess
  7. Question: In what general area was the virginal Artemis worshiped as a mother goddess? Answer: Cult Statue of Artemis
  8. Question: Why does Artemis take revenge on Arachne's friend Niobe? Answer: Niobe
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Description "Artemis with a hind, better known as "Diana of Versailles". Marble, Roman artwork, Imperial Era (1st-2nd centuries CE). Found in Italy."