Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome by J.C. McKeown

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Galen, one of the ancient world's most revered physicians, once said, "The only difference between doctors in Rome and highwaymen is that the doctors do their work in the city, not in the mountains."

What a cynical viewpoint from one of the best of his profession! Obviously, attitudes toward health care were as controversial in the ancient world as they are now, judging from all of the anguish expressed lately by members of the U.S. Congress. It is with these controversies in mind that J.C. McKeown, Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison collected quotes from the ancient sources to produce A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome.

McKeown groups his quotes by category, including medicine, religion and magic, the doctor in society, attitudes towards doctors (that included the quote above), anatomy, sex matters, women and children, preventative medicine, treatment and diagnosis, and cures (many dubious if not outrageous.)
Much of the "wisdom" of the ancients he includes in his text leaves you scratching your head or, in some cases, outright appalled. Individuals whose teachings have been the foundation of medical ethics for centuries have expressed sentiments towards the healing arts that I certainly did not expect.

For example, Hippocrates himself once said "I shall begin with a definition of what I consider medicine to be, it consists of freeing patients from their disease, dulling the intensity of diseases, and not taking on hopeless cases, since medicine can do nothing for them."

He goes on to explain, "Some people criticize the medical art because of doctors who refuse to take on hopeless cases. They claim that those they do take on would recover by themselves, while they do not touch those who do need help. If medicine really is an art, they assert, it should cure all alike...But, whenever someone suffers from a disease that is too strong for the resources available to medicine, there should be no expectation that such an affliction can be overcome through medicine."

Hippocrates, the so-called "father of medicine" sounds like an ancient insurance company executive!

Two icons of health in the ancient world, Asclepius god
of medicine and healing and his daughter Hygeia
personification of health depicted as household gods. Roman
100-150 CE Bronze.Photographed at The Getty Villa,
Pacific Palisades, CA 
by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Other quotes, though, elicited a smile.  Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia opines, "It is better to have sexual intercourse infrequently, though it revitalizes sluggish athletes, restores a husky voice, and cures back pain, dull vision, mental problems, and depression."

Some even cloaked a hint of truth within their admonitions. In his On Medicine, Aulus Cornelius Celsus warns, "People with weak constitutions  —most city dwellers and practically everyone who is keen on literature belong in this category — need to monitor their health more carefully than other people, so that by taking precautions they may compensate for the deficiencies in their physical well-being or in their environment or in their activities."

Apparently, Celsus believed anyone who read much must obviously be the Roman version of a couch potato!

One reviewer pointed out that McKeown's little book is best consumed in small bites and I would tend to agree. It is not written as a page turner and McKeown has not made any effort to interpret the remarks or even provide some degree of context to them. But, it certainly raised my awareness of such issues as eugenics in the classical world (see my resulting blog post, Ancient Eugenics: Much More Than Just Selective Infanticide), the ancient practice of talk therapy (I thought it was a modern construct), and that the ancients, though famous for their culinary binges, even dealt with anorexia.  In other words, it made me think! 

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review: The Emperor's Knives, Empire VII by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 7 of Anthony Riches' Empire series of novels, the hero, Marcus Tribulus Corvus, formerly Marcus Valerius Aquila, finally gets the opportunity to return to Rome and take revenge on Praetorian Prefect Tigidius Perennis and his cadre of assassins who slaughtered Marcus' family to confiscate their wealth. But, the four men, referred to as "The Emperor's Knives," present quite a challenge to Marcus and his officer comrades, who have sworn to help him. One is a serving Praetorian officer.  Another is the leader of one of Rome's most vicious street gangs. The third is a powerful senator with a taste for salacious entertainment and the last is none other than Rome's reigning gladiatorial champion.

Closeup of the left side of Myrmillo-style bronze gladiator
helmet with bas-relief depicting scenes from the Trojan War
 found in Herculaneum 1st Century CE. Photographed by
Mary Harrsch © 2015
A senator whose son served with Marcus in Dacia has hired an informant to assist Marcus and his friends. But, the duplicitous informant, a ruthless former imperial grain officer Marcus encountered in Britannia,  has several employers with different agendas.  Although he seems to be providing accurate information, Marcus is certain he will ultimately lead them to a disastrous outcome. So Marcus recruits some of the Tungrians to become street-savvy spies themselves to ensure Marcus, Tribune Scaurus and Marcus' assorted barbarian companions  won't end up at the wrong end of Emperor Commodus' sword before their mission is completed.

The emperor Commodus, dressed as Hercules, admired
gladiators and even competed in "arranged" matches himself.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Capitoline Museum in
Rome, Italy. © 2005
In the other six novels, we have seen Marcus use his formidable swordsmanship to get out of almost impossible situations. Now we have a chance to see Marcus pit his skills against some of the best gladiators in the Flavian amphitheater in his final act of revenge.

Riches' vibrant descriptions of combat that even include details of which foot is used to pivot or launch an attack result in the reader feeling totally involved in the action. His descriptions of ancient Rome's back alleys and less than savory street life are also quite evocative.  As is the case in his other books, Riches maintains suspense with a well organized and fast-paced narrative while reserving a few surprises for the revealing conclusion.

I was surprised, though, that one loose thread was not addressed. Marcus had learned in a previous novel that his younger brother had been sold into slavery. However, he apparently makes no effort to locate his brother or ascertain if he still lives. Maybe this issue will be addressed in a future book.

Once again I highly recommend this entire series!

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Eagle's Vengeance: Empire VI by Anthony Riches

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In the sixth installment of Anthony Riches' Empire Series, we find the protagonist, Centurion Marcus Tribulus Corvus (in reality Marcus Valerius Aquila), along with the first and second Tungrian cohorts back in Britannia once more.  They are quickly relieved of three chests of Dacian gold they escorted to the island by a rather sinister officer of the imperial treasury and learn that they are being sent north above the abandoned Antonine Wall to recapture the eagle of the Sixth Legion lost in a battle with revolting tribesmen back in Book 1.  The eagle has been reported in the possession of the fierce Venicone tribe and locked in their seemingly impenetrable fortress known as "The Fang."

From all appearances, the Tungrians' orders outline a suicide mission. Tribune Scaurus is to lure the main body of Venicone warriors away from the fortress then a stealthy raiding party is to find a way into the compound at night, guided by a mentally fragile legionary who has recently escaped from "The Fang" after weeks of torture. Of course, Marcus and his friends Dubnes and Arminius are selected for the raiding party along with a scout Marcus befriended back in Germania. A mysterious officer with a cadre of nefarious "specialists" that includes a thief and two Sarmatae warriors also offers the services of his group. Having recently fought the Sarmatae in Dacia, Marcus feels uneasy about the two warriors who seem to eye him like malevolent predators. But he reluctantly accepts them.

Marcus also learns from the recently captured legionary that the fortress is not only protected by a nearly impenetrable swamp but a band of cunning huntresses with their vicious, man-eating hounds as well.

The huge hounds found in 2nd century CE Scotland were similar in size
to this Irish Wolfhound depicted in a 1919 issue of National Geographic.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Celts used such animals against the Greeks as far back as 279 BCE when the Tectosages and Tolistobogii Celts sacked Delphi. Survivors left accounts of the fierce Celts and the huge dogs who fought at their side. Julius Caesar recorded observing animals like these in his "Commentarii De Bello Gallico," too.

Beginning with the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Romans themselves began training large Molossian dogs for combat, coating them in protective spiked metal collars and mail armor. These armored canines then fought in formations with the legions.

But the size and ferocity of the hounds from Scotland were particularly legendary. In 391 CE, the Roman consul Quintus Aurelius Symmachus received seven such hounds that he called "canes Scotici" as a gift to be used for fighting lions and bears.  He claimed, "all Rome viewed (them) with wonder."

Obviously, Marcus and his fellow Tungrians would need every ounce of their skill, strength, and courage to avoid particularly gruesome deaths.

Once again, Riches' fast-paced narrative and taut action sequences totally immerse the reader in the brutal world of late 2nd century Roman Britain.

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