Month: July 2016

69. The Hippocratic Oath and other medical writings (430-330 BC)

69. The Hippocratic Oath and other medical writings (430-330 BC)

Plot : A selection of medical writings from the Hippocratic Corpus depicting the perspective and understanding of the Ancient Greeks. Mostly dated between 430 BC and 330 BC, and written by a large number of anonymous medical practitioners but probably none by Hippocrates.

Reading the Penguin assortment Hippocratic writings edited by G. Lloyd (ISBN 0140444513)

My thoughts:

Firstly, the Hippocratic Oath (page 67). A one page statement which includes some familiar ethical points such as

  • The doctor will not do harm to a patient, nor condone euthanasia or abortion,
  • The doctor will not take sexual advantage of his patients
  • The doctor will not disclose confidential information about his patient

I use the masculine pronoun throughout as there is no mention of female doctors in this Age, who were probably called in as midwives.

Also of note is the requirement that a doctor will pass on ‘the Science’ to his sons, his master’s (teacher’s) sons, and approved apprentices but to no one else. Obviously there was a level of secrecy about the profession of practising medicine, probably to protect both the reputation and financial security of the doctor, and instill some mystery in the profession to impress the masses. Also surgery, such as it was, was already a distinct profession, as part of the oath was that doctors would not cut into the patient.

As for the rest of the writings, as they all seem to be written by different authors, I will simply mention what interested or intrigues me.

In Tradition in medicine (also called On ancient medicine) the author mentions how people departing from their usual dietary habit of either one or two meals per day will lead to illness. Those who only eat dinner will be ill if eating an unaccustomed lunch, while those used to a midday meal will be sick if they abstain (page 76) What happened to breakfast being the most important meal of the day? And I’m sure the Greek armies on the plains of Troy had a hot meal over their fires after a cold night beside their ships. A little further on, the author discusses how some people cannot eat much cheese as something in their bodies is inimical to it – lactose intolerance recognised in 400 BC?

Epidemics, Books I and III are part of a series of seven books in the whole set which record case studies.  The precise weather history for preceding seasons is described in detail, and then the various fevers and diseases following, with fevers in particular described by the periodicity of their relapses – tertian fevers have three day cycles, quartan with four day cycles, and so on. Daily observations and descriptions of individuals’ symptoms are very detailed, stretching up to eighty days in one case, and notice is taken of what common factors resulted in survival versus death. A lot of these case histories were of little literary interest to anyone other than a doctor so I skipped on to the next section.
The Science of Medicine takes up the defence of medicine as a science against its detractors, and includes some pithy one-liners which science lovers will embrace. My favourite was

“Every phenomenon will be found to have some cause, and if it has a cause, chance can be no more than an empty name”                                                                                                                                                page 142

Airs, waters, places describes how different locales, and their climate and geography will have a major effect on the illnesses suffered by the local population, and indicates that at least some doctors must have earned their living by traveling from village to village.

The next chapters, Prognosis and Regimen in Acute Diseases, contain far too many descriptions of unhealthy faeces, urine, vomit and breaking wind, so I acknowledged I never would have made a successful doctor, and move on to perhaps the easiest chapter to digest 😉 : Aphorisms which is a list of pithy phrases ideal for dipping into by the layman. Here are some choice examples that seem to speak beyond just medicine.

“Life is short, science is long ; opportunity is elusive, experiment is dangerous, judgement is difficult”  page 206

“In the case of athletes, too good a condition of health is treacherous … for it cannot quietly stay as it is and therefore … can only change for the worse … it is well to lose no time in putting an end to such a good condition of health…”

“Desperate cases need the most desperate remedies”   page 207

“In winter and spring, stomachs are warm and sleep longest”   page 208

“Do not judge the stools by their quantity but by their quality”    page 209

“It is better to be full of drink than full of food”

Next comes a chapter on The Sacred Disease, otherwise known as epilepsy. The author strongly argues that this was not visited on the afflicted by divine selection as was apparently the commonly held belief at that time, but criticizes the “witch-doctors, faith healers, quacks and charlatans” who insist on various dietary, behavioral and ritual purification cures. If the patient is cured, it is put down to their wisdom and skill, but any deaths are due to the Gods.

Before I finish this post (admitting I have only skimmed most of the remainder of the book), I must add a word on Dreams . It would seem that when the body is awake, the soul is devoted to various bodily functions, but once the body sleeps, the soul is roused and independent, and perceives all around it. If the dream reflect the usual daytime activities, then all is well ; but if there is conflict or victory over daily activities, than an emetic followed by a brisk early morning walk or even gymnastics are called for. Specific medical dreams to watch out for are trees that bear no fruit (sterility), rivers running irregularly (blood flow), springs and wells (bladder troubles), rough seas (bowels), floods (excess fluids), droughts (dehydration) and monstrous apparitions obviously denote madness.

And according to The Seed, human semen comes from the brain, traveling down to the testicles via the spinal cord and kidneys, and is the foam arising from the agitation of the most potent fluids from all over the body. Good to know, and explains why some of us always seem to have sex on the mind.


The obvious question is whether today’s doctors still take the Hippocratic Oath?  The modern equivalent is the Declaration of Geneva, formulated after the end of the Second World War. The modern version arguably tones down the strict criteria against euthanasia and abortion, stating that the practitioner will “maintain the utmost respect for human life”, and extends the confidentiality of knowledge gained about the patient even after their death. While there have been various amendments to the Declaration, there also appears to be alternate versions with even more leeway  in acting to end life.

 Personal rating: Just a 4 unless you are a medical student or enjoy a good plague.

Next: The ‘wisdom’ books of the Old Testament : Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon

68. The Frogs by Aristophanes (405 BC)

Plot : Dionysus, God of drama, seeks Heracles’ advice. He wants to go down to Hades and return with Euripides, as all the current living playwrights are rubbish. After receiving some interesting practical advice, Dionysus and his slave Xanthias reach the Palace of Hades, where a dispute has erupted between Aeschylus and Euripides over who deserves to sit on the Throne of Tragedy, with Sophocles as Aeschylus’ second, and Dionysus and Hades as judges. Will Dionysus choose his avowed favourite , or can Aeschylus persuade him otherwise?

My version was the last of the three Aristophanes plays in the volume Frogs and other plays translated by David Barrett and Shomit Dutta (ISBN 9780140449693)

My thoughts

Lots to like about this play, but also for me some less riveting parts.

Firstly I love how Dionysus asks Heracles on the quickest ways to get to Hades, and he suggests trying hanging, poison, or jumping from a high tower!

Aristophanes makes Dionysus a figure of fun and ridicule, cowardly and even soiling his robes in fear of humans. This is a very irreligious portrayal of a God, and certainly not the vengeful demon Dionysus seen in The Bacchae.

Euripides and Aeschylus must debate each other to convince Dionysus and Pluto who best deserves the throne. I actually laughed out loud when Aeschylus kept inserting the line “lost his little flask of oil” in every one of Euripides’ prologue speeches – I guess you have to be there.  But the discussions of their lyrics’ shortcomings lost me entirely.

I also liked how they literally weighed their poetry, with words like ‘river’ and ‘Death’ weighing more than ‘flights’ and ‘persuasion’ – the  emptiness of the latter weighing virtually nothing at all.

And what about the frogs, you ask? On paper they are just an aside to the main action of the play, possibly only heard off-stage. Unusually they form a second chorus to the play, which would have been a financial and logistic drain on the production, and may be the reason they were kept off-stage.

Diversions/digressions:  Why did Aristophanes (or the translator) use the Roman name Pluto so often in this play instead of the Greek Hades?  According to trusty Google, it is not as simple as that – the name Pluto was used by classical Greek authors as a quasi-substitute for Hades which became more associated as a a name for the Underworld. Pluto is a more benign manifestation and more appropriate in quest tales involving heroes seeking to retrieve people or objects from there.

Favourite lines/passages

The Chorus praises Aeschylus

“Ah how impressive the rage that burns in the heart of

the Thunderer,

Seeing the fangs of his rival exposed in a gesture of hate!

Note how superbly he raves, and with what

independence his eyeballs

in divers directions gyrate!

Words are his weapons: watch out, as the armour-clad

syllables hurtle,

Helmeted, crested and plumed, from the lips of the poet

most high!

Wait for the clash and din as the metaphors collide

and mingle,

The sparks as the particles fly!”                                                                 Chorus, pages 165-166


Personal rating : 6

This was my 100th post on  – thanks all for your support – and 68th book review, meaning 1/3 of the time I’m just  chatting with you! Better get on with more reading!

Next :  A collection of Hippocratic treatises on ancient medicine, including the famous Hippocratic oath. Apparently none were written by Hippocrates.

67. Rhesus by Euripides (c.437 BC)

67. Rhesus by Euripides (c.437 BC)

Plot : On the plains of Troy, Hector is eager to take the fight to the Greeks and burn their ships. He sends out a scout (Dolon) to see what the large number of campfires at the Greek camp means : he thinks they are getting ready to sail home. Meanwhile Rhesus of Thrace arrives with his army to support Hector, after years of delay. Initially Hector boasts that he is on the point of defeating the  Greeks without this late effort from this ally, but agrees to let Rhesus and his army take part on the battle the following day.

Odysseus and Diomedes are also out scouting the Trojan encampment. They capture Dolon and torture information from him, including the camp password. Failing to find Hector, the pair are led by Athena to Rhesus who they kill. Confusion runs through the Trojan camp, but Hector insists on going ahead with his assault on the Greeks come morning.

Nearly missed out on this play – it should have been read back in February. This time I read the Oxford University Press edition Rhesos, translated by Richard Braun (ISBN 0195020499)

My thoughts: Firstly it should be said that some scholars dispute Euripides’ authorship of this play. If he did write it, then they believe it was an earlier play than the other surviving works, and would have been written between 445 and 435 BC.

Secondly it may be incomplete or unfinished as it is relatively short and there is not the usual prologue to set the scene. Also unusual are (i) the night time setting, (ii) the on-stage fight between Odysseus and Diomedes and the Trojan sentries, and (iii) the appearance of the Goddess Athena mid-play rather than at the end where instead we have the appearance of a second immortal, one of the Muses (Rhesus’ mother) to explain matters.

Hector is very different from his portrayal in Homer’s Iliad. Here he is hot-headed and impulsive, yet easily swayed by the arguments of others, even the lowly sentries and shepherd.

Rhesus  seems a blustery coward showing up late to fight for Troy in time for a share in the spoils, with his poor excuses of delay, but The Muse reveals to us that she had warned him that answering Hector’s call would lead to his death, and his bravado masks his fear of facing this.

Odysseus is still the sly pirate as he had been seen in many of the later tragedies, but his ability to disguise himself and slip in and out of the Trojan camp and city almost at will is held in some degree of awe by the Trojans.

Favourite lines/passages:

Dolon claims the right to Achilles’ deathless horses if he succeeds in spying out the Greek camp

“When a man stakes his life on dice some God tosses, the prize should be worth more to him than life”                                                                                                                   Dolon, page 31.

And one of the Trojan soldiers yearns for the life before the war, which we know he’ll never see again…

“When will this ancient Troy again toast rowdy troops of friends and lovers

Door to door, dawn to dark?

When will the round-the-table romp of rival vintages return,

The revelers’ beakers and clashing tunes and the lovers’ singing?”      Third soldier, page 39.

Personal rating: 5. Not a bad story with some multiple storylines coming together.

Next:  So we reach the end of the works of Euripides and indeed the last of all the great Greek tragedies. As a whole they are well worth reading and considering, but I doubt I will read them again soon. On to other other areas of Greek writings, notably their philosophy and science. But first some comedy with Aristophanes and The Frogs.

Reading the tragedies of the House of Atreidae in story order

This post is not about the Frank Herbert Dune family (sorry Geoff), but the various surviving Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides which tell the story of the descendants of King Atreus of Mycenae. All these three Tragedians told various episodes of the story, which also interlace with Homer’s Iliad.

They can be read in the order they were written (chronologically) as I did, or within each playwright’s oeuvre. But if someone wanted to use them to read the history of the family in order (for those budding directors looking for a replacement for the Game of Thrones saga perhaps), it would look something like this, with inconsistencies within according to the author and the emphasis of the play. The way some characters such as Odysseus and Menelaus, Clytemnestra and Electra are portrayed is interesting to compare.

Iphigenia in Aulis (Euripides)

Philoctetes (Sophocles)

Rhesos (Euripides)

The Iliad (Homer)

The Women of Troy (Euripides)

Hecabe (Euripides)

Agamemnon (Aeschylus)

The Libation Bearers (Choephori)  (Aeschylus)  or  Electra  (Sophocles)

The Furies (Eumenides) (Aeschylus)

Iphigenia in Tauris (Euripides)

Helen (Euripides)

Electra (Euripides)

Andromache (Euripides)

Because Agamemnon and Menelaus came to their thrones via their father Atreus, who had previously ascended to the throne of Mycenae when King Eurystheus died fighting the Heracelidae, so the various Heracles plays could precede this series. Other sequels shooting off from The Iliad include the tales of Odysseus, told in Cyclops (Euripides) and The Odyssey (Homer), and the fate of Ajax in Sophocles’ Ajax.

66. Iphigenia in Aulis, by Euripides (405 BC)

66. Iphigenia in Aulis, by Euripides (405 BC)

Plot : The Greek armies are trapped at the seaport of Aulis, waiting for favourable winds before they can set sail for Troy to destroy the city and restore Helen to her husband Menelaus. Their prophet has announced that they will only sail if Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon agrees under pressure and writes to his wife Clytemnestra to send Iphigenia to Aulis, pretending that she is to be married to the great Greek warrior Achilles.

Clytemnestra and Iphigenia find out the truth once they arrive at Aulis, and Iphigenia eventually offers herself freely to be sacrificed to save her father and Greece. But even then, not all goes according to plan.

This play finishes the Penguin Classics edition Orestes and other plays (ISBN 0140442596) translated by Philip Vellacott.

My thoughts:

Back to the pre-Iliad episode where Agamemnon must sacrifice Iphigenia or the fleet wlll never reach Troy – the prologue to Iphigenia in Tauris, and the motivation for Clytemnestra’s actions in the Oresteia cycle.

The first thing that struck me was how many characters reverse their decisions about the sacrifice. Menelaus turns from villain to supportive brother in a heartbeat, Iphigenia finds the courage to offer herself willingly after the grief and horror have washed through her, Achilles backing away (at least physically) from his stand to defend Iphigenia in the face of the entire Greek army, including his own men, prepared to stone him to death if he interferes, and the most vacillating, Agamemnon, who changes his mind back and forth several times. There is no direct influence by the Gods seen in these reversals, but maybe the Greek audience took that on board without being told.

The central question is what action should King Agamemnon take. The play reveals more fully the reasons behind the whole endeavour. All the Greek leaders had been suitors for Helen, and to prevent bloodshed, her father Tyndareos had made them all swear to support the successful man if ever he should call for their help – so they are all bound on their word to help Menelaus recover Helen from Troy.  Agamemnon’s position as leader and perhaps his and his entire familiy’s lives depend on his acquiescence to sanction the sacrifice of his eldest daughter. And yet the natural love between father and child would surely make this action an insurmountable grief to bear.

If you haven’t read Iphigenia in Tauris, I won’t reveal the ending here. Suffice to say, the fleet sail for Troy almost immediately but Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (the latter was not present at the altar) part ways believing very different things have happened to Iphigenia.

Diversions/digressions: Although I get most of my volumes from the local university library where I work, I do haunt the local public library as well, and yesterday my eyes caught a small paperback title  –  Classical literature : a Pelican introduction, by Richard Jenkyns (9870141977355), which covers a broad sweep of Greek and Roman literature in brief and relatively easy to read and understand chapters. I will go back and read what he has to say on the Greek authors and works I have already covered to see what deeper themes I have missed.

Personal rating : 6

Next : I thought I had finished with Euripides but I have to confess I have missed one. The early Euripidean play Rhesos (although the authorship is disputed) from around 437 BC should have been read back in February around #34-ish. Oh well, better late than never.


65. The Bacchae by Euripides (405 BC)

65. The Bacchae by Euripides (405 BC)

Plot : The lately come God Dionysus (Bacchus), the bull-horned “spirit of revel and rapture” is angered with the people of Thebes, particularly the young King Pentheus who refuses to acknowledge or worship him, and his mother Agave and her sisters who slandered their own sister Semele and refused to believe her son Dionysus was the son of Zeus.

Dionysus drives all the Theban women mad and they run off to the mountain wilderness to dance and partake of Bacchic rituals, such as breast feeding wild animals and caressing snakes. Dionysus then appears back in human form in Thebes and first enrages Pentheus to such fits of anger that he loses his sense and is easily led (dressed in women’s clothing) to the mountains where his mother and the other women tear him to pieces with their bare hands, believing him to be a young lion.

Agave and her sisters are now banished from Thebes, along with the old King Cadmus, while Dionysus moves onto another Hellenic city to see how they treat him.

This was the last play in the Penguin classic edition The Bacchae and other plays (ISBN 0140440445) translated by Philip Vellacott.

My thoughts:

Firstly I must say how shocked and sickened the violence in this play left me. I had the idea that Bacchic rites were all wine-drinking and amorous frolicking in the woods. Even the gory dismemberment of cattle did not prepare me quite for the horrendous fate in store for Pentheus. He is described as mad by Dionysus and his Chorus of Oriental women, but until he falls under the direct spell of the God, I felt he is understandably angry and disbelieving of this new God, and is too cruelly repaid. His mother Agave is made the scapegoat of Dionysus’ revenge for her part in slandering Semele, but even poor Cadmus who was willing to recognise Dionysus is punished by being turned into a serpent and destined to lead a foreign army against his home city (figuratively a serpent – turning on his homeland – or literally transformed??)

Dionysus’ self proclaimed migration across the Asian regions to reach Thebes and then other parts of Greece personifies how I believe many scholars imagine religions to migrate from country to country.

Euripides himself left war-tired Athens to retire to the mountain region of Macedon in 407 BC, and died the following year, not seeing The Bacchae go forward to win first prize in the Dionysia festival competition of 405 BC. With Sophocles also dying in 406 BC, Greek tragedy, at least that which remains for us to read today, comes to a fairly abrupt halt,  and the spotlight will soon move away from the theatre for a while to science, history and philosophy instead. Did the defeat of Athens and the resulting brief rule of the Thirty Tyrants discourage playwrights?  Aristophanes has a few comedies left in him yet, but more serious thoughts seem to occupy the next authors.

Personal rating: 5

Next: Iphigenia in Aulis, also by Euripides