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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76.2 (2002) 351-352

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Book Review

The Science of Man in Ancient Greece

Maria Michela Sassi. The Science of Man in Ancient Greece. Translated by Paul Tucker. Foreword by Sir Geoffrey Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. xxx + 224 pp. Ill. $34.00; £21.50 (0-226-73530-3).

Maria Michela Sassi's book, originally published in 1988, reappears in a fluent English translation, along with a brief revised preface and an updated bibliography. It remains an excellent example of the work being done on ancient science by Vincenzo Di Benedetto and his pupils at Pisa, combining detailed and accurate scholarship with a subtlety of approach to a major question: how did the ancient Greeks come to define mankind?

Sassi's answer takes a variety of texts, philosophical, medical, geographical, and literary, in order to look at the ways in which conceptual boundaries were created. She uncovers some unexpected links—between discussions on color, for instance, and femininity—and draws together disparate areas of what the Greeks called science. Her longest chapter is devoted to physiognomy, which at one and the same time gave an insight into the invisible human nature behind the face or shape and connected the human and the animal worlds. Yet, even while doing this, physiognomists were distinguishing what they understood to be the truly human from the intrusive world of the beasts. The barbarians of southern Russia or Libya, as described in Airs, Waters and Places, were both examples of humankind and degenerates who differed from the model, well-balanced Greeks.

Following Geoffrey Lloyd, Sassi is interested in the thought processes of the Greeks, their polarities and analogies, and the way in which these were transferred from one area of knowledge to another. The scheme of the four humors gained its ascendancy by 300 B.C.E. precisely because it fitted neatly with other notions—of the seasons, of balance, and even of colors—and in its turn it influenced how later astronomers and astrologers pictured the universe. Sassi draws attention to the astronomical work of Antiochus of Athens in the second century C.E., and to the use made of physiognomy and astrology in Galen, although her dating of the pseudo-Galenic Prognostica de decubitu to the late Hellenistic or early imperial period seems several centuries too early. She anticipated the broader studies by Tamsin Barton (e.g., Ancient Astrology) and Sabine Vogt's major commentary and translation of the Aristotelian Physiognomica, which have also taken seriously this body of ancient scientific data.

This is not, Sassi insists, a history of error, of byways taken mistakenly on the long march of progress, but rather an investigation into the ways in which the ancient Greeks looked at humanity, choosing categories that allowed them to make sense of what might seem to us disparate data. At the same time, these methods of thinking ran the risk of ossification, so that they excluded other ways [End Page 351] of making connections. Her new preface draws attention to the different uses made by Chinese astronomers and astrologers of data they had in common with the Greeks.

Sassi also investigates the Greek construction of gender, another theme on which much has been written since 1988. Her approach is more sympathetic than some to the male view of woman as, often, an inferior or incomplete version of the male. She explains carefully how, for instance, the social pressures on women to remain within the house led, on the one hand, to a paleness of skin compared with the tanned male, and, on the other, to the belief that this paleness was in itself a female characteristic, to be explained on physiological (and physiognomical) grounds. An improved knowledge of natural phenomena after Aristotle only confirmed these prejudices. Resolving this paradox is one of the merits of this intelligent book.


Vivian Nutton
Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at
University College London



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