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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities - Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

Project description

Bleeding for Health.

Galen's Views on Phlebotomy and Their Reception in Medical Works of Late Antiquity


Among the medical practices, the phlebotomy played for long time a very important role in the Greek world. As Heinrich von Staden wrote, ‘Bloodletting was not only accepted in pre-Alexandrian medicine but was actively advocated also by Galen, and it remained in general use until the nineteenth century’[1]. The “art of letting blood” was usually object of investigation in the Greek medical literature, nevertheless the opinions of the ancient doctors were mostly contrasting. According to the theory of Galen of Pergamon, it is possible to gain deep insights on phlebotomy of the ancient world: Galen was author of three treatises on this topic, which are all preserved and mentioned also in his therapeutic work 'On my own books'[2]. The first text (XI, 147-186 Kühn) is known with the title De venae sectione adversus Erasistratum and refutes Erasistratus' views on the matter; the second one (XI, 187-249 Kühn) is De venae sectione adversus Erasistrateos Romae degentes, where the author is in contrast with the followers of Erasistratus in Rome; the third (XI, 250-316 Kühn) is De curandi ratione per venae sectionem and describes Galen's own views on the usefulness of phlebotomy in treating patients. Only the De venae sectione adversus Erasistrateos Romae degentes was critical edited in the last years by Kotrc[3] and the three treatises were translated into English 1986 by Peter Brain[4]. Although these studies offer numerous critical notes and have been realised from new readings of the manuscripts, a complete research on these works with the intention of defining the central role of the phlebotomy in the ancient times and in the Late-Antiquity is still a desideratum.

In the first part of my research project I will focus on Galen’s theory on phlebotomy through a careful examination of the three treatises, in order to describe this medical topic until the time of Galen and, more in detail, the relationship between Galen and Erasistratus. The collected results will be the starting point for mapping out the physiological and anatomical system of the ancient Greek medicine. The second phase of my research will concern the Greek medical texts of the Late-Antiquity and, in particular, the so-called encyclopaedias. Object of investigation will be especially the Libri medicinales, a treatise in 16 books by Aetius Amidenus, who was physician in Constantinople during the reign of Justinian; the Therapeutica and De febribus by Alexander Trallianus, belonging to the 6th century A.D.; the Epitome de materia medica of Paulus Aegineta, in 7 books and written in Alexandria in the 7th century. Aetius’ work will be in particular an important case of study: the bloodletting is one of the main investigated themes but unfortunately this work is just partially edited[5]; a critical work on the excerpta about phlebotomy could provide us with important information on the heritage of Galen’s doctrine. In the conclusive period, I will complete my survey with the analysis of reception of Galen’s phlebotomy theory in Renaissance, with the goal of collecting all the first critical edition of phlebotomical works by Galen and their Latin translations. The gathered data in my paper ‘Theodoricus Gerardus Gaudanus traduttore di Galeno’ will be a good starting point[6].


[1] H. von STADEN, Herophilus. The art of medecine in early Alexandria, Cambridge 1989, p. 402.

[2] ‘three treatises on the bloodletting, the first against Erasistratus, the second against the Erasistrateans in Rome, in addition to these another, the third in which is contained my opinion about this matter’ (VII 1).

[3] R.F. KOTRC, Galen’s On Phlebotomy against the Erasitrateans in Rome, Washington 1970 (PhD thesis).

[4] P. BRAIN, Galen on Bloodletting, Cambridge 1986.

[5] Only the first part (Books I-VIII) was edited critically, by Alessandro Olivieri in the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum (1935-1950); books IX, XI, XII, XIII (only few chapters), XV and XVI were edited not critically, and books X and XIV are still unpublished in greek.

[6] I. CALÀ, “Theodoricus Gerardus Gaudanus traduttore di Galeno”, Medicina nei secoli 25/3 (2013), pp. 1105-1116.