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  • The Tools of Asclepius: Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times by Lawrence J. Bliquez
  • Vivian Nutton
Lawrence J. Bliquez. The Tools of Asclepius: Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times. Leiden: Brill, 2015. xxxv + 439 pp. Ill. $194.00 (978-90-04-27907-0).

Students of ancient Greek and Roman medicine have long desired a replacement for J. S. Milne’s 1907 Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times. Ernst Kűnzl’s excellent 1983 Medizinische Instrumente aus Sepulkralfunden showed what could be done, although it was restricted to grave finds and did not include other material from general museum collections.1 Since then there have been more finds, better texts, and more sophisticated methodologies, all of which are on display in this learned work, the fruit of forty years of research in collections around the world. It will long be the standard work of reference.

It is what it says: a description and analysis of the instruments used in ancient surgery. After a brief introduction listing authors and sketching an outline of ancient surgical practice, it is divided into three chronological sections; Hippocratic, that is, roughly to 300 BCE, Hellenistic, to 31 BCE, and, most substantial of all, Roman, from then until the seventh century CE. Each section lists the instruments mentioned in texts surviving from its period, which leads to an acknowledged underestimate of the contribution of Hellenistic surgeons, none of whose work survives, save in fragments or later reports. Evidence on papyri published after Marganne’s 1998 study is hard to trace: the recent Oxyrhynchus papyrus 5240, detailing eye surgery, came too late for inclusion. Surviving examples of instruments from each period are discussed in the text and in the footnotes. Under the heading of each instrument, or group of instruments, Bliquez gives the evidence for the name and its identification with surviving instruments, followed by a listing of the uses for which they are recommended, sometimes organized by author. An appendix lists other materials, such as wool or a truss, mentioned in connection with ancient operations.

In short, this is a dictionary of ancient instruments, and very valuable for that. But it is not easy to use, even with the indexes, and, with a few exceptions, tracing instruments from a particular site or museum is extremely difficult. In order to [End Page 546] understand the context of the instruments, one still needs recourse to Kűnzl’s or to earlier reports, such as on Marcianopolis, not all of which are easily accessible even in a major library. The important collection from Allianoi was published in Turkish with a brief English summary, and my discussions in Medical History (2014) and in Early Christianity (2014) were concerned with the site’s wider significance rather than specifically with its instruments.2

The book’s organization, with its narrow focus, leaves little room for wider questions to which Bliquez’s long experience could have given helpful answers. A few more pages in the introduction about what instruments tell us about ancient surgery would have been extremely valuable, as would warnings about potential forgeries or the misleading classification of pins and knives as medical instruments. As it is, one may find such observations hidden away in a discussion of a particular instrument and unrecorded in the index. Most surprising is the poor quality of the illustrations, badly reproduced, several as drawings (Iapyx, Figure 95 and cover, is a far cry from the original), and on a dull matte paper. The comparison with Kűnzl’s illustrations is a reproach to the publisher, who has not allowed even a handful of proper plates.

But, these reservations aside, this is a reference work that anyone dealing with ancient medicine and surgery needs to have on their shelves. It is comprehensive, accurate, and, German misspellings apart, reliable, as befits the life’s work of the author.

Vivian Nutton
I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University


1. Ernst Kűnzl, Medizinische Instrumente aus Sepulkralfunden der romischen Kaiserzeit (Köln, Germany: Rheinland Verlag, 1983).

2. Vivian Nutton, “Allianoi: A Missing Link in the History of Hospitals?” Med. Hist. 58 (2014): 122–12; Nutton, “Rhodiapolis and Allianoi: Two Missing Links in the...


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