Wednesday, August 5, 2015

320-400: Oribasius preserves Galen's work

Figure 1 -- Julian
In 320 A.D., Oribasius was born in Pergamum, the hometown of Galen, and perhaps it's for this reason he fell in love with the writings of the former. Through his voluminous writings he may be partially responsible for Galen becoming a medicinal god to medieval physicians.

This is especially important because the physicians that immediately followed Galen, including Serenus Sammonicus (died 211 A.D.) and Marcellus Empiricus (4th or 5th century), wrote nothing of Galen, said historian John Watson.  (8, page 173)

Constantine (272-337) was Roman Emperor from 306-337, and during his reign he declared the national religion was Catholicism. This was good in a way, because it helped to clean up some of the problems that ailed Rome.  It encouraged people to develop morals and values that were necessary to clean up the fabric of life. It encouraged people to be humble, and to be happy living a simple life with little, or remote, opportunity for advancement.

The Christian Bible encouraged each man to marry one woman, and to be faithful to that one woman.  We could debate the intent of this, although for our purposes it was probably partly for hygienic purposes to prevent the spread of disease.  It was also done because people probably realized that children are more likely to grow into productive members of society in stable families with both male and female role models.

Basically, Christianity encouraged purity and cleanliness in an attempt to prevent the spread of disease.  It was also an attempt to encourage each person to be kind and generous to their neighbors. It likewise encouraged businessmen to be honest in their dealings.

Yet this happened at the expense of wealth and opportunity.  It came at the expense of philosophy and medicine.  The Christian priests believed that wisdom and wealth were the antithesis of faith, and instead people were encouraged to work hard and to live humbly and to appreciate poverty and depravity as a gift from God. The reward for such hard work and humility was eternal life with Jesus in Heaven. All that was needed to maintain health and order was faith in the Lord. He was the King, and He was the Healer.

Figure 2 --Zeno
In 337 A.D. Constantine died, and Julian came to the throne.  Julian wanted to end the reign of Christianity in Rome, and to do this he hired the services of the physician Zeno. Of this, medical historian Thomas Bradford wrote:
After Constantine had declared Christianity the true religion, came Julian who attempted to overthrow its teachings and re-establish paganism. One of the first of his imperial acts was to endeavor to revive the ancient institutions of Alexandria. This mission was entrusted to a physician of Cyprus, named Zeno (at Alexandria). He went thither, but most of the inhabitants were Christians, and instead of proclaiming his mission, he kept himself quiet, and being really an illustrious member of the medical profession, was soon able to surround himself with numerous disciples, among whom were Jonicus and Oribasius. Zeno (who lived in the 4th century) left certain treatises, but they are lost. He is described as being the most famous teacher and practitioner of that time, though his fame seems to have originated in being able to have educated such illustrious pupils.(6, page 45)
Jonicus went on to become a very skilled physician in the 4th century.  He became very knowledgeable of anatomy, and "so great was his knowledge of pharmacology that it was said that none its secrets were withheld from him."  (6, page 45-46)

Yet it was Oribasius who would have the greatest impact on medicine.   He was a pagan and a sophist, "descended from parents of good condition.  He made quick progress of the liberal arts, which greatly conduce to virtue," wrote a good friend of his, Eunapius. (3, page 387)

Oribasius was also a "precocious" student during the reign of Constantine and his son Constantius (who was close to the age of Oribasius).  He studied at the school of Alexandria, and it was here he became physician and good friend to the future emperor Julian.  (1, page 175)

Oribasius would also go on to become one of the most famous philosophers of his time.  (6, page 46)

Oribasius and Julian had a lot in common.  As they became close friends early in life, they "were of similar taste, and were both devoted to the ancient religion (which was paganism)." (6, page46)

The two friends would go on to greatly benefit one another.  Many believe Oribasius taught Julian philosophical skills that were later necessary to be king. And Julian encouraged his friend to write a synopsis of the works of Galen. (1, page 175)

Oribasius ended up spending the next several years enveloped in research regarding ancient physicians, particularly on the works of Hippocrates and Galen. He ended up writing a 70 book synopsis (some say it was 72 books) on the writings of both physicians, and much of his works were plagiarized from their works. Time has destroyed three quarters of his work, yet what remains is "of great historical value." (4, page 129)(6, page 46)

Rather than call him a plagiarizer, historian Fielding Hudson Garrison, in his book, "An Introduction to the history of medicine...  (5, page 111)
...preferred to describe him as a torch-bearer of knowledge rather than as an original writer, but his compilations are highly valued by scholars in that he always gives his authorities, and, so far as is known, quotes them exactly.  (5, page 111)
In other words, if it were not for the works of Oribasis, many of the works he copied would have been lost. (5, page 111)

Julian, in his 277 A.D. Letter to Athenians, according to Wilmer Cave Wright...
...refers to a 'certain physician" who had been allowed by Constantius (see figure 3) to accompany him to Milan when he was summoned there to be made Caesar. Oribasius went with Julian to Gaul, and there is preserved by Photius a letter from him to Julian mentioning their sojourn there together; but we do not know whether he went on the expedition to Persia.  When Eunapius says that Oribasius "made Julian Emperor," he probably means not so much that Oribasius was an accomplice in the plot to put Julian on the throne, though he does in fact, in his Life of Maximus, speak of Oribasius as the Caesar's "accomplice," but rather that the physician, by his virtuous teachings, had fitted Julian for the position. The historians at any rate are silent as to the connivance of Oribasius. It was probably in 358 that Julian wrote his extant letter to Oribasius, when the latter was editing an epitome of GaFen. Oribasius was with him in Antioch on the way to Persia, and is no doubt one of the seven persons whom Julian mentions in Misopogon 354 c as newcomers to Antioch, and out of sympathy with its frivolous and ungodly citizens. (7, pages 337-338)
Julian at one point named his friend Oribasius "quaestor (public official who managed financial affairs of the state) of Constantinople", and was later with Julian as his personal physician as the Emperor traveled into Persia. (6, page 46)

In 363 Julian was killed in a war with the Parthinans, and he died, of his mortal wounds, in the arms of his best friend Oribasius.  (2, page 214) (6, page 46)(3, page 387)

Perhaps due to his opposition to Christianity, Christian emperors who took over the reigns of the empire exiled Oribasius, spared him death for being a pagan, and exiled him to live among the Barbarians (it is unknown who the Barbarians were).(3, page 387)(6, page 46)

Much of what we know about Oribasius (much of what is written above) comes from his friend, and fellow exiled pagan physician Eunapius. It is believed that Eunapius was born in 347 A.D. in Sardis, studied there under the pagan sophist (Greek teacher of philosophy, rhetoric and arts) Chrysanthius (of the 4th century), and went to Athens to learn rhetoric from Prohaeresius (272-367).  Like Julian and Oribasius, he was also a Pagan, and was opposed to Christianity, and this theme was emphasized in his writings.

While Oribasius was still alive, Eunapius published a book, "The Lives of the Sophists," honoring the world's 23 greatest philosophers, of whom, according to Eunapius, Oribasius was one. (3,page 387)

Eunapius said that Oribasius was also "the most skillful in medicine, and the most amiable in conversation."  (6, page 46)(7, pages 533, 537)

Eunapius explained that while in exile... (3, page 387)
...he (Oribasius) exhibited proofs of his abilities restoring some to health from long and grievous sicknesses, and recovering others from the very gates of death. Whereby, in a short time, he gained great esteem with the barbarian kings, and was revered with almost divine honours. The Romans were very desirous of his presence with them; and the emperors, changing their former counsels, gave him leave to return; which he was very willing to do out of regard to his native country. (3, page 387)(7, page 535)
Eunapius said Oribasius married a rich woman, had four children, "had his estate restored to him out of the public treasury, the emperors revoking their former sentence against him as unjust."  (3, page 387)(6, page 46)(7, page 535)

Eunapius said Oribasius then "recovered his original fortune from the public treasure."  (7, page 537)

His legend lived on through his voluminous writings. He was partially responsible for keeping the works of Galen in the minds of medieval physicians, as his works were referenced by future physicians, including many who would go on to write about asthma and other respiratory disorders.

Because of his association with Julian, and later due to his skills as a physician, "Oribasius and his family lived a very comfortably; if he met with some difficulties, as Eunapius intimates, they could not be for any long duration... it hence appears that Oribasius reached a good old age."  (3, page 387)

He died sometime around 400 A.D.

There is one more thing I'd like to say about Oribasius and the era of which he lived.  While he and Julian tried to draw Rome back to its Pagan roots, "the majority of the people of the Roman empire were Christians, and the laws were favourable to them," said radBradford (3, page 387) 

People who claimed that "diseases had a real cause" were ignored, and those who practiced medicine were persecuted, said Bradford (6, page 48-49)
Figure 3 --
Marble bust of Constantine.
His father was Constantius, who lived from 250-306,
and was Roman Emperor from 293-305.
Constantine lived from 272-337,
and was Roman Emperor from 306-337.
He was the father of the next Constantius,
also known as Constantine II,
who lived from 316-340,
and was Roman Emperor from 317-340.
Julian lived from 331-363,
and was Roman Emperor from 355-363.

All the temples of Aesculapius, the Asclepions, since they were no longer needed, were "abolished" by Constantine, said Bradford.  Of these, Bradford said:
They were replaced by hospitals and asylums placed under the care of the church. These were richly endowed with lands and money... The empress—mother of Constantine—Helena, was foremost in this charitable work, and was assisted by many high-born ladies. Orphan asylums, foundling homes and abodes were organized for the poor. There were also parabolani, out-door visitors to the sick poor, especially in time of pestilence. But noble as was this great charity of the church, it labored under the defect that in place of the skillful physicians of the Asclepions, they were now only well meaning but unskillful priests, who really knew nothing about disease. The sick were really under the care of nurses; and hence, to hide their inability and ignorance, these nurse priests proclaimed that prayer and relics of saints and other ceremonials were better for thecure of the sick than the skill of the earthly physician. Those having charge of the hospitals were called the nosocomi... With the Asclepions closed, the schools of philosophy prohibited, learning branded as magic and punished as treason, philosophy driven into exile, and as a class exterminated" (6, page 49)
Bradford likewise explains that knowledgeable and skillful physicians "were replaced by well meaning but unskillful priests."  (6, page 49)

Diseases were no longer caused by an imbalance of the humors, so knowledge of anatomy, pathology, and philosophy were no longer needed.  Instead of  the sick seeking the cures of physicians, they sought the miracles of priests. (6, page 49)

Regardless, Paganism became extinct.  Oribasius was, therefore, the last of the Pagan physicians.  (4, page 129)

  1. Lawson, Russell M, "Science in the ancient world: an encyclopedia," 
  2. Temkin, Owsei, "Hippocrates in a World of Pagans and Christians
  3. Lardner, Nathaniel, transcribed by Andrew Kippis, "The works of Nathaniel Lardner in five volumes," 1815, pages 386-388
  4. Withington, Edward, "Medical History from the earliest times," 1894
  5. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An introduction to the history of medicine," 1921, Philadelphia and London, W.B. Saunders Company
  6. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, writer, Robert Ray Roth, editor, “Quiz questions on the history of medicine from the lectures of Thomas Lindley Bradford M.D.,” 1898, Philadelphia, Hohn Joseph McVey
  7. Philostratus (the Athenian), Eunapius, "Lives of the Sophist," translated by Wilmer Cave Wright, 1922, London, G.P. Putnam's Sons
  8. Watson, John, "The Medical Profession from the Earliest Times: an anniversary discourse delivered before the New York Academy of Medicine November 7, 1855," 1856, New York, Baker & Godwini
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