Galen, Polybius and the construction of authority

The desire to connect with important figures from the past leads authors from later antiquity into anachronism, as they seek to establish connections with earlier writers. These were the findings reported in the final two papers of our Anachronism and Antiquity seminar series, ‘Anachronism in Ancient History of Greek medicine: Galen’s claim to be Hippocrates’ and Plato’s direct disciple’ by Catherine Darbo-Peschanski, and ‘Polybian Temporalities’ by John Marincola. The continuing authority of intellectual traditions associated with Plato and Hippocrates in particular saw writers asserting a connection to them and the intellectual traditions associated with them. These two papers showed Galen and Polybius to use and manipulate traditions associated with specific areas of expertise, respectively medicine and political theory. The close readings their speakers offered enabled us to see the distinctive strategies used by each.

Galen group from the Vienna Dioscurides MS - seven doctors with Galen in the centre
Another anachronistic community: Galen, seated centre in a position of authority, among a group of doctors and pharmacologists, some of whom predate him. From a sixth-century illuminated manuscript which contains the De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides and texts by other doctors pictured. 3v Codex Vindobonensis med. gr. 1.

Catherine Darbo-Peschanski opened her paper by setting out Galen’s intellectual context and the many developments in both abstract areas of philosophical thought, such as metaphysics and epistemology, and more applied medical thought, such as the new understanding of the human body gained through dissection, which separate the second century CE writer from the fourth century BCE. Galen’s desire to associate his own arguments and ideas with distant predecessors becomes an engine for generating anachronisms, as he seeks out passages in their texts which can be associated with later ideas. Although Brooke Holmes’ paper at our Florida conference last year had a very different approach, she likewise found Galen’s readings of Hippocratic texts to be an important site for the manipulation of genealogical time in the pursuit of scholarly authority.

Polybius is an author whose work has received relatively little scholarly attention, perhaps in the shadow of Frank Walbank’s massive historical commentary, although there are signs of a Polybian Renaissance and his models if not his actual text have long been of interest to historians of political thought. John Marincola showed the sophistication of Polybius’ understanding of time in his great project to weave together the histories of the Mediterranean world and explain the rise of Rome. Polybius’ excursus into political theorising in book 6, in which he explains the growth and success of the Roman Republic through anacyclosis, a universal model of political development and change into which all political communities can be fitted, is an interesting example of the incorporation and modification of traditions, while asserting the authority of a key figure from the past. His account of the development of political societies clearly owes a great deal to Plato’s account in Laws III, although he is clear that he is extending it (6.5.1), with the incorporation of newer ideas from authors intermediate between him and Plato. Only Plato, and the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, are named.

The urge to create connections with intellectual founding figures and their ideas through the construction of genealogies is widely prevalent in ancient thought. But intellectual filiations such as those between Galen, Plato and Hippocrates appear to operate much like other forms of genealogical explanation. While complete king lists were developed by chroniclers, only a few kings were the subjects of myths frequently told. Founder kings attract more stories, as do those who are involved in significant political change, such as Theseus as synoecist of Athens. Only these kings appear in the literary tradition, in Athenian rhetoric or allusions to the distant past in historical and philosophical texts.

We can find these practices replicated in contemporary academic practice. The use of Thucydides and Herodotus to represent all of ancient historiography generates many problems for those seeking to contrast ancient and modern approaches to the writing of history. Firstly, the historians of the later Greek and Roman worlds were able to work with and manipulate an established tradition. Secondly, this manipulation of tradition is apparent in the genealogical histories of other disciplines, particularly the histories of medicine and philosophy, as Galen’s works amply demonstrate. Both Darbo-Peschanski and Marincola have made important contributions to scholarship in this area, and their papers showed how careful reading of ancient texts can still reveal new insights into the intellectual culture of antiquity.

References

  • Darbo-Peschanski, C. (2007) L’historia: commencements grecs. Paris.
  • Gotteland, S. (1998), ‘Généalogies mythiques et politique chez les orateurs attiques’, in D. Auger and S. Saïd (eds.), Généalogies Mythiques. Paris, 379-93.
  • Marincola, J. (1997) Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography. Cambridge.
  • Walbank, F.W. (1957-79) A Historical Commentary on Polybius, 3 vols. Oxford.

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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