This problem was first brought to my attention by David Leith in a paper he gave on Athenaeus of Attalia’s theory of the elements at Humboldt-Universität in January 2015. His talk inspired me to write this post, and to put together a forum for discussing these kinds of problems as my work on Athenaeus continues.
The pseudo-Galenic text called the Medical Definitions is one of our main sources for the lost writings of Athenaeus of Attalia. Normally, I am happy if a source has one direct quotation or excerpt from Athenaeus’ works. The Definitions has three.
Athenaeus of Attalia was a physician from the 1st c. BCE. For a time, he likely practiced medicine in Anatolia, where he became a student of the Stoic natural philosopher, Posidonius. At some point, he may have moved to Rome, but waters here are murky. All we know for sure is that he was most well known for the ancient medical school he is said to have founded. Known as the Pneumatic School, those reported to be its adherents combined Hippocratic medicine with Stoic ontology and epistemology; they read and engaged with the biological writings of Aristotle and Theophrastus; and they had close ties with Empiricism and / or Methodism. In many ways, the Pneumatic “school” manifests the kind of eclecticism we typically associate with Galen. From what we are told about him by our sources, this eclectic approach to medicine was already present in the writings of Athenaeus.
But Athenaeus’ major work, On Remedies (ΠΕΡΙ ΒΟΗΤΗΜΑΤΩΝ), is lost. Anything we know about it is known only through fragments—some excerpts preserved in later authors like Oribasius and Aëtius—and second-hand reports in Galen, the pseudo-Galenic Introduction or the Physician, and the Medical Definitions. And right now I am trying to figure out how much our sources can tell us about this lost work.
Of all these sources, the Definitions is special. It’s not only the quantity of direct quotations—which is great—but their content that is exciting. Definitions are a special kind of testimony. As the author of the Definitions tells us at the beginning his work, all the definitions collected and written down were chosen because physicians and philosophers used them as starting-points for thinking and teaching about science and medicine. As starting-points, these definitions can help us to figure out the shape of their thought. And so any definitions attributed to Athenaeus give us a good place from which to reconstruct his medical views, as well.
The Definitions also help us understand the medical and philosophical context Athenaeus was working in. Among the hundreds of unattributed definitions recorded in the text, there are a few I'm pretty sure were written by Athenaeus (or at least by some people sympathetic to his views); there are many other definitions written by thinkers who are hostile to him. These nameless and hidden fragments still manifest traces of the debates going on between various natural philosophers and physicians concerning the nature of the human body, of health and disease, and of the structure of science.
The Definitions, however, is a difficult text to use. If you can do your research without it, many scholars will tell you it is best to avoid it. The text of the Definitions is in bad shape. Bits and pieces were continually being added, removed, or shuffled around. And the result is a text that varies a lot from edition to edition. Kühn's text, which is a de facto standard, is especially problematic, since you would have no idea from reading it that the problem even exists. And even with an edition, centuries of corruption may have made impossible to tell what the author (or collator or editor) of the Definitions meant to attribute to particular authors.
One example of this kind of problem was discussed by David Leith in his talk at the Pneumatist workshop at Topoi, which he also organized with Orly Lewis and me. It is Definition 31, the definition of “element,” attributed to Athenaeus. Kühn’s text reads:
“31. (i) An element is the first and simplest thing out of which everything has come to be and the simplest and final thing into which everything resolves. And Athenaeus of Attaleia in the third book speaks in this way. (ii) The elements of medicine are just what some of the ancients held, the hot, the cold, the moist and the dry, the first apparent simplest and smallest things out of which humans are composed, and the last apparent simplest and smallest things into which they have their resolution.”
λαʹ. Στοιχεῖόν ἐστιν ἐξ οὗ πρώτου καὶ ἁπλουστάτου τὰ πάντα γέγονε καὶ εἰς ὃ ἁπλούστατον τὰ πάντα ἀναλυθήσεται ὂν ἔσχατον. καὶ Ἀθηναῖος ὁ Ἀτταλεὺς ἐν τῷ τρίτῳ βιβλίῳ φησὶν οὕτως. στοιχεῖα τῆς ἰατρικῆς ἐστι καθάπερ τινὲς τῶν ἀρχαίων ὑπέλαβον, τὸ θερμὸν καὶ τὸ ψυχρὸν καὶ τὸ ὑγρὸν καὶ τὸ ξηρὸν, ἐξ ὧν πρώτων φαινομένων καὶ ἁπλουστάτων καὶ ἐλαχίστων ὁ ἄνθρωπος συνέστηκε· καὶ εἰς ἃ ἔσχατα φαινόμενα καὶ ἁπλούστατα καὶ ἐλάχιστα τὴν ἀνάλυσιν λαμβάνει.
[Galen], Definitiones 31, XIX 356 K
As David pointed out, the way the text is written, it’s ambiguous whether Athenaeus is supposed to have given the first definition (i. of “element”), or the second definition (ii. of “the elements of medicine”). If Athenaeus goes with the first (i. of “element”), it would be a bit strange: why would the author have bothered attributing such a general definition to anyone? It’s a pretty standard Hellenistic definition, and Chrysippus or Zeno could equally well have been cited. If “Athenaeus” goes with the second definition (ii. of “elements of medicine”), then we at least have a reason why Athenaeus (and not someone else) is mentioned (he was a physician). And David believes this definition can actually tell us quite a bit about Athenaeus’ views —about how he saw himself in relation to the “ancients”, about his epistemology, and about his theory of elements. The definition also lets us compare him to other philosophers and physicians to see where he fits in the doxography. And that can tell us a bit more about his context.
It would be great if it turned out Athenaeus gave the second definition. And it would be strange if the author of the Definitions singled Athenaeus out as the author of the first one. When I looked through the literature, I expected to find lots of different views on the question. It turns out, no one has bothered to make a case for attributing either definition to Athenaeus. Even Wellmann leaves it totally vague. He mentions in a note that Athenaeus’ definition follows the Stoics (“Seine Definition von στοιχεῖον (Gal. XIX 356) ist durchaus stoisch. Vgl. Diog. Laert. VII 136”, DPnS,133n5), but both (i) and (ii) could be said to be in line with the Stoics for different reasons. The selection from Diogenes Laertius which Wellmann cites could also be used to support either interpretation. Did Wellmann think both were Athenaean? And would looking at texts other than Kühn be of any help?
Checking the Aldine
Looking at the Aldine edition of Galen from 1525, the same ambiguity appears:
The Aldine text of this definition is quite similar to Kühn’s. And like in the Kühn text, Athenaeus’ assertion is followed by the adverb, οὕτως, which normally looks forward to what comes next. So, it's pretty reasonable to think that already in the Aldine, the author attributed the second definition, about the elements of medicine, to Athenaeus.
But, this isn’t conclusive. David suggested that perhaps both definitions are being attributed to Athenaeus: they make up a kind of definition-pair. I learned a great deal from David’s paper, and I’m mostly convinced by it; but, the 15th c. manuscript of the Definitions which David consulted for his talk has made me a bit worried.
A surprise from Nikolaos
The manuscript is British Library Add. MS 11888. It seems to remove the ambiguity of attribution in a pretty surprising way. The scribe, named “Νικόλαος”, seems to have attributed only the first definition to Athenaeus.
Not only does he seem to have taken Athenaeus’ name with the former definition, but he also split the definitions of “element” and “elements of medicine” into different sections. (At least this is what it looks like to me.)
This doesn’t conclusively show that the second definition isn't from Athenaeus. Maybe our scribe copied something like the Aldine text, where both definitions were together, but assumed these definitions had been incorrectly combined and helpfully split them up again, adding question titles. Then again, it is possible that the question titles and divisions were original, and that later scribes removed them to save space. Once the titles were removed, it’s easy to see how the two definitions might be run together.
This leaves me with a bit of a puzzle concerning the Definitions on Athenaeus on the elements. It’s got to be more than a coincidence that Athenaeus’ is the only definition recorded, and that both fit with things he is reported to have said elsewhere. But I’m curious if there are any other earlier sources for the Definitions that might help lead to a solution?