Late Antique – Early Byzantine Pharmacology and its Reception in the Talmudic Tradition

Workshop organized by project A03 ‘The transfer of Medical Episteme in the Encyclopaedic Compilations of Late Antiquity’, Dec 4-6, 2013


Late Antique – Early Byzantine Pharmacology

Late Antique – Early Byzantine Pharmacology

Workshop report by Lennart Lehmhaus and Matteo Martelli

The workshop, organized by Dr. Lennart Lehmhaus and Dr. Matteo Martelli within Prof. Markham J. Geller’s and Prof. Philip van der Eijk’s project ‘The transfer of Medical Episteme in the Encyclopaedic Compilations of Late Antiquity’ (A03), was conceived as a first attempt to open a fruitful dialogue between experts on different, albeit comparable and possibly interrelated corpora of texts, namely Byzantine medical Encyclopaedias and Late Antique Jewish literature, on the basis of the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmud. Accordingly, the papers given during the workshop focused on specific medical passages taken from these two corpora of texts with the aim of presenting relevant case studies that could open the floor for a close comparison.

Since the contributions encompassed a wide chronological framework, from the second-third centuries AD up to the Late Byzantine period, the papers were arranged according to a chronological order. After a welcome dinner on Wednesday evening at the Kosher restaurant ‘Milo’, the workshop opened on Thursday morning, with the first session devoted to the Palestinian Talmud and the Eastern tradition of herbaria, from the first Akkadian lists up to the Syriac translations of Galen’s pharmacological treatises. Galen and his afterlife were investigated on Thursday afternoon, while on Friday morning the focus switched to late Byzantine authors, namely Oribasius, Aetius of Amida, Paul of Aegina, and Nicolas Myrepsos. After each presentation, the speakers had the possibility of both commenting on the main points of their arguments and clarifying the most technical details to the people who were not specialized in the same field. This fecund exchange of ideas continued during the meeting on Friday afternoon, a less structured session in which the participants tried to identify and challenge a set of methodological issues arising from the comparison of the two corpora under investigation.

Not being a technical work on medicine, the Talmud is still waiting for an in-depth investigation in order to detect the most relevant sections on medical subjects, to estimate their role in the collection, and to recognize their possible sources. On the other hand, the Quellenforschung is equally problematic when applied to the Byzantine medical Encyclopaedias, whose dependence on Galen and on other medical authors has not yet been properly evaluated. The focus on a specific aspect of medical knowledge, namely pharmacology, was chosen in accordance with the comparative approach of the project. In fact, pharmacological knowledge has often been codified in micro-texts – such as recipes or short descriptions of herbs and drugs – which are more easily detectable, even in big and fluid collections of texts such as Byzantine Encyclopaedias and the Talmud. In this way, the speakers could draw their attention on specific textual segments and provide selected material to be discussed after each presentation.


A selection of Talmudic passages was presented in the paper given by Aaron Amit, focusing on the difficult meaning of the expression qos shel iqarin in relation to the terminology of sama de’aqarta (often used in the Talmud for referring to an infertility medicament). This expression was analysed in several samples from printed editions, manuscripts and fragments, and constituted an important case study that illustrated the problems and pitfalls of research into the Babylonian Talmud and its medical knowledge.

Yevgeniy Zingerman focused on three Talmudic passages on spices as materia medica, which were compared with Greek pharmacological treatises (in particular Dioscorides’ De materia medica). The comparison did not allow the speaker to detect a clear influence of Greek sources on the passages of Palestinian Talmud under investigation. This ‘sceptical’ conclusion opened a lively discussion on the criteria that should guide the selections of comparanda. Next to the consistency in term of content and chronology, one should not underestimate the cultural milieus that allowed the encounter between different traditions.

In this respect, Theodore Kwasman’s paper gave a stimulating overview on the transmission of ancient herbals in the Near East, from the Babylonian tablets up to the Syriac translations of Galen and the medical fragments preserved in the Genizah collection. During the discussion, several participants stressed the necessity to widen the scope of the inquiry by considering the possible role that the surrounding cultural milieus, in particular Syriac Christian communities, played in the diffusion and transmission of ancient pharmacological knowledge.

This idea was confirmed by Caroline Petit’s paper, which illustrated the complex textual tradition of Galen’s treatise On Simple Drugs, by presenting the most important Byzantine and Eastern (Syriac/Arabic) manuscripts. Galen’s work indeed represents an important case study that shows how a specific kind of pharmacology was transmitted over the centuries. A correct understanding of the impact that this work had on the various cultural and linguistic contexts in which it was read or translated, is surely crucial for better evaluating its influence on Late Antique encyclopaedias and the Talmud’s pharmacology.

Despite their strong influence on various areas of ancient medicine, Galen’s works are not the only sources to be considered for clarifying the process of selection and transmission of recipes during the Byzantine period. For instance, the role played by Galen seems to have been less strong with regard to gynaecological recipes, which were investigated by Lawrence Totelin. An in-depth analysis of a specific set of instructions for ‘virginity restorers’ and breast cosmetics – as transmitted in ps.-Galen’s Euporista and Metrodora’s pharmacological texts – allowed Totelin to emphasize the importance of other medical authorities, in particular Cleopatra, who, while associated mostly with medical cosmetics in Galen, came to be linked with gynaecological issues in later periods.

On the other hand, the association of Cleopatra with cosmetics seems to have left its mark in other Byzantine authors. In their joint paper, Irene Calà and Serena Buzzi presented a close comparison between some recipes on face cosmetics (primarily medicaments against wrinkles) as preserved in the medical works by Oribasius and Aetius. The great similarities of the recipes – based on the same set of simple and inexpensive drugs (easily accessible to non-specialist doctors) – allowed inferring a dependence of Aetius on Oribasius or of the two authors on common sources. However, while Oribasius seems to be more concise and to condense the inherited material, Aetius preserves more detailed versions of the same recipes and attributes them to female authorities, such as Cleopatra and Pelagia.

Gabrielle Lherminier stressed a similar variety of sources – along with a tendency to give a personal interpretation of them – in the medical treatise of Paul of Aegina. By focusing on specific passages on venomous animals preserved in the fifth book, she emphasized the ‘free’ relation of Paul with the works of various ancient authors, especially ps.-Dioscorides, Philoumenos and Galen.

Finally, Anna Maria Ieraci Bio’s paper focused on the later development of Byzantine pharmacology. A detailed description of the Dynameron, a pharmacological compendium composed by Nicolas Mirepsos in the thirteenth century AD, allowed Ieraci Bio to illustrate the criteria according to which Myrepsos selected and reorganized a large amount of recipes collected from several Greek and ‘foreign’ sources.

Preliminary conclusions were drawn during the meeting on Friday afternoon, where the participants discussed the difficulties in establishing a clear chronology of the analysed texts and in picturing the cultural contexts in which they circulated and were transmitted. Mark Geller and Lennart Lehmhaus summarized the main features of the Talmudic material, which embedded elements coming from different medical traditions (Ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek). Philip van der Eijk and Christine Salazar presented the most relevant aspects of Aetius’ medical encyclopaedia, with regard to both its content and its textual tradition (Aetius’ treatise is only partially edited). The problem of the sources was emphasized by Eric Gowling’s presentation on Aetius’ book I, where the physician gives a list of medical oils, which hardly depends on Galen’s pharmacological treatises. Finally, Irene Calà and Matteo Martelli presented a preliminary edition of selected passages from Aetius’ book IX and illustrated the main philological difficulties arising from the ‘fluid’ state of its manuscript tradition.