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Amythaon’s poultice

August 1, 2011

Work in progress – by Klaus-Dietrich Fischer

Amythaon’s poultice is an item absent from Der Neue Pauly but present, like so many recipes in ancient collections, in The Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists: The Greek tradition and its many heirs. In the relevant article, Paul T Keyser makes it clear that he favours Max Wellmann’s view that Amythaon was an ancient doctor, assigning his lifetime tentatively to the years between 120 BCE and 80 CE. Keyser does not even dismiss the statement in Cassius Felix (writing just before the middle of the fifth century CE) that the Amythaon in question was the father of Melampous (‘Blackfoot’), whose tribe settled in what is now the USA. I will suspend judgement here, and move to territory I am more familiar with, i.e. Greek and Latin texts about recipes.

Amythaon’s poultice (malagma, and sometimes epithema) seems to be first attested in Galen, e.g. in Compound Drugs arranged by Places (XIII 967 Kühn); Oribasius (second half of the fourth century CE, at syn. 3.57) gives us a faithful copy of this text, which Galen in turn had excerpted from Asclepiades the Pharmacist. Later, Aetius (first half of the sixth century, at 10.11) repeats the recipe with (possibly) a minor variation in the amount of oil to be used. As far as the ingredients specified are concerned, our Greek and our Latin witnesses are in total agreement. Consequently, it would be unreasonable to doubt that all testimonies that I will discuss transmit the same recipe, a fact I would like to stress since in Aetius, for instance, a second malagma Amythaonos follows, which differs, and Paul of Aegina (first half of the seventh century, at 7.16.33, following Galen XIII 983 Kühn) lists yet another variety for a different purpose, i.e. stiff and distorted joints. The one I want to exhibit here is meant to cure in the first place a tension in the upper abdomen, but will also benefit a hardened spleen and, again, joints that can be moved only with difficulty.

Anybody not familiar with the field of ancient medicine will be surprised that the text of Galen we have to rely on is basically that printed in 1525, repeated without reference to further manuscripts by René Chartier a century later and the Leipzig professor of medicine Karl Gottlob Kühn almost two centuries ago. The only printed edition of book 10 of Aetius is a Latin translation made by a German Renaissance scholar, Janus Cornarius. For Oribasius and Paul of Aegina, the situation is much better; critical editions were produced by two Danish scholars, less than 90 years ago. This will serve as a reminder that the study of ancient medicine, and especially the study of Galen, is not at an end, but should, and must, go on.

Now I turn to our Latin witnesses. Of one of them, Philagrius (circa first half of the fourth century CE), the longest extracts survive only in Latin translation and were incorporated in the Latin version of the sixth- century Byzantine doctor Alexander of Tralles. Two different Latin translations of Oribasius’s Synopsis were in all likelihood produced before that of Alexander, but the discussion about where and when they were made, and which is the older and which the younger, has recently been reopened (Aa = Par. lat. 10233, called the older translation by the Swedish scholar Henning Mørland, and La = Laudunensis 424, Li = Leipzig, Stadtbibliothek, Rep. I 2e cod. 24, Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek HB XI 8, which for the passage in question represent the so-called younger translation).

But Amythaon’s poultice occurs additionally in two Latin collections of recipes, the Physica Plinii Bambergensis (83.2) and what I call the Compositiones Mutinenses (ms. Modena O.1.11), the latter printed in a really not very satisfactory way by Riccardo Simonini (I have revised his collation with the aid of a microfiche whose quality is in many places too poor to allow for better readings).

I will now present some conclusions of my study of the witnesses to Amythaon’s poultice mentioned earlier. The Greek text of Oribasius printed by Raeder has diatheseis (‘conditions’) where Galen, Aetius (provided by Irene Calà) and the Latin versions of Oribasius, including in addition Cassius Felix and Modena, have ‘tensions’ (diataseis/ tensuras/distensiones). It is evident that Raeder’s Greek text must be changed. It seems likely that Cassius Felix’s distensiones (‘bulging’) should likewise be amended to tensiones (for examples, see the concordance of Cassius Felix published by Maire and Fraisse). The pestle is called tritorium (‘grinder’, ‘pounder’) in the Latin Oribasius (and, incidentally, in the Latin Alexander), both in the younger and the older versions, and again in the Modena ms., while the translation of Philagrius uses the more classical word pilum.

It does not appear rash to conclude that the text of the recipe in the Modena ms. is connected with one of the Latin translations of Oribasius. And again, we find evidence in our Latin transmission that throws light on our Greek texts: Philagrius, Cassius Felix and the Latin Oribasius concur in their mentioning of the action of the compound on the spleen (as does the Physica Plinii: chapter 83 is Ad splenem) in a manner that ‘dissolves’ or ‘disperses’ (diaforeticus). The easiest (although not the only possible) way of accounting for this coincidence is the assumption that these elements were present in the original or a later but widespread version of Amythaon’s poultice.

Professor Klaus-Dietrich Fischer is based at the Institute for the History, Philosophy, and Ethics of Medicine in the University Medical Centre of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

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