04 - The Mesopotamian Hippocrates? The Rhetorical Strategies of the Hippocratic treatise De victu 4 in the Context of Mesopotamian Medical Tradition

The rhetorical strategies of the Hippocratic treatise De victu 4, which discusses the impact of a patient's dreams on the medical prognosis, find parallels in the earlier medical traditions attested in Mesopotamia. While Van der Eijk (2004) identified the imagery shared between De victu 4 and Babylonian dream omens, I draw on Babylonian medical texts to argue that rhetorical strategies for depicting gods, illnesses and body place De victu 4 in the context of Mesopotamian medical traditions.

In the ongoing discussion about the nature of early Greek medicine's relation to Mesopotamian medicine, Geller (2004: 59-60) suggested that "there was only one major system of medicine in the oikumene of the Near East before Hippocrates, which later diverged into two quite different systems." His conclusions are supported by Arnott (2004), who collects wide-ranging textual and archaeological evidence. On the other hand, Asper (2017) doubts that "there ever existed an eastern Mediterranean koine" and ascribes the parallels to transmission which occurred from the ninth to seventh centuries.

I argue for overarching and general, rather than isolated and specific connections, as products of a commonly shared tradition rather than transmission. I concentrate on three features of De victu 4 and analyze how the treatise represented: (1) the gods; (2) illnesses; (3) the human body.

First, while the Hippocratic corpus routinely downplays the divine element in the causation of an illness and provision of the cure, even if it never suppresses it entirely, the author of De victu 4 emphasizes it in both of those contexts (4.89-90) and even selects individual divinities as particularly effective for a certain kind of ailment (e.g. Earth and Hermes in 4.90). I connect this feature to the collocation <qāt> ("hand") + , which frequently appears in the Mesopotamian diagnostic texts (see Heeßel 2000: 53-54) to designate an affliction as the area of influence of a particular god.

Second, while the Hippocratic corpus seeks to explain an illness with reference to internal physiology, such as the state of humors (Geller 2004: 16), Mesopotamian medicine looks for external factors and often presents the illness through the metaphor of invasion (e.g DPS. 7. B rev. 2: ÚŠ irru-ub-šu-ma, "if the illness enters him"). De victu 4 closely aligns with the Mesopotamian practice, as the illness is conceptualized as the invasion of the body (4.88) and the dreams recounted in the treatise symbolize the threat from the incursion of the foreign matter in the body.

Third, De victu 4 displays a previously unrecognized tendency to present the symptoms in different bodily zones according to the principle a capite ad calcem in downward order. This strategy is prevalent in Mesopotamian medical literature (Couto-Ferreira 2017) and its repeated appearance in De victu 4 further supports the argument that the treatise should be viewed in the context of the wider Mediterranean traditions.


Marko Vitas, Brown University