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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
De Medicina (On Medicine)

A. Cornelius Celsus

published in Vol. I
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1935

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

(Vol. I) Celsus
On Medicine


Practically nothing is known of the life of the man whose name appears as the author of the medical treatise De Medicina. Recent research has made it likely that he was acquainted with the later poems of Ovid, and that he probably lived in Narbonensis. Quintilian, who describes Celsus as vir mediocri ingenio, informs us that he wrote on many other subjects besides medicine.​1 From this passage in Quintilian Marx has inferred that Celsus was a mere general editor of an encyclopaedia, and that he did not himself write the De Medicina, which can scarcely be regarded as the work of a man of mediocre intellect. Be this as it may, it appears likely that this medical book was but the second part of a large treatise containing six parts, the other five being:

(1) Agriculture;

(3) Military Arts;

(4) Rhetoric;

(5) Philosophy;

(6) Jurisprudence.

Not only Quintilian but also Pliny the elder refers to Celsus, who therefore lived in all probability in the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Some would place his birth in the year 25 B.C.

The complete name of the author was probably Aulus Cornelius Celsus. The tradition that A stands for Aurelius must be wrong, as Aurelius is not a praenomen.

It is a disputed question whether the author of the work was a practising physician or not. It may be remarked in passing that in ancient times there was not such a sharp distinction between the professional and the amateur as there is to‑day. The amount of medical knowledge was not so great as to be out of the range of an ordinary, educated man of average intelligence. On the one hand, it may be said that a work so complete and so accurate as the De Medicina must have come from the pen of a man with professional experience.​2 On the other hand, several reasons may be urged making the other view more probable.​a

(1) The elder Pliny puts Celsus among the auctores, not among the medici.

(2) Unseemly details are less frankly expressed than is usual among practising physicians.

(3) A professional reader finds the handling of the subjects in parts superficial and formal.

(4) Certain passages dealing with surgical operations seem unlike the account of a man familiar with them from practical experience.

(5) It was not unusual for a Roman gentleman to have a fairly intimate knowledge of medicine, which was useful to him as the head of a large household of slaves and freedmen.

It is a possible, but an unproved hypothesis, that the De Medicina is a translation or rather adaptation of a Greek medical work, and that the seeming lapses from the professional standard are due to misunderstandings or to ignorant attempts at comment or explanation.

The most obvious sources, however, are the Hippocratic Corpus, which still survives, and the lost works of Asclepiades, Heracleides, Erasistratus, and Meges of Sidon, a surgeon who lived a little earlier than Celsus. Wellmann supposes that Celsus translated a Greek treatise written by his friend Cassius; Marx believes that the Greek original was by Titus Aufidius Siculus, a pupil of Asclepiades. Of course the supposition that Celsus translated either of these two works is not inconsistent with references to Hippocrates and to the other physicians mentioned above. These may have been embodied in the text that Celsus is supposed to have had before him.

The prooemium to the De Medicina is a most fair and judicious summary of the history of medicine, and deals at some length with the Dogmatic, the Methodic and the Empiric Schools. The writer himself tries to follow a via media between the Dogmatics and the Empirics.

The work recognizes the importance of anatomy as a basis of medicine, and the anatomical knowledge displayed is sound. Stress is laid on diagnosis and prognosis, which it is said must precede treatment — a true Hippocrates touch. Drugs are recommended more than they are by Greek writers on medicine.​3 On the other hand, all due importance is attached to general hygiene and to physical exercises. Scholars have noticed that sport is preferred to gymnastics, wherein the writer agrees with both Roman feeling and Roman practice. In the treatment of fevers the De Medicina is more empirical than usual. It "regards exclusively the clinical picture and the empirical remedy."

The style of the work has won the praise of Latinists in all ages. The whole book is remarkable for its symmetry and completeness, and the language is strong, lucid and elegant. It has been said with justice that the writer did for science what Cicero did for philosophy.

Summary of the Arguments
for Regarding Celsus
as a Medical Practitioner

The view that the author of the De Medicina was a learned and experienced medical practitioner is based upon a number of passages in his work which, even allowing for the less sharp distinction drawn between the professional and amateur in his day, seem to indicate that he himself regularly attended patients, and wrote with the authority of a practising physician.

(1) In many passages he expresses his opinion as to a treatment or symptom by using the first person singular or plural of the verb. See Prooem. 73, 74, 75; Bk. I, Ch. 3, sect. 3, 17 and 21, Ch. 8, sect. 2; Bk. II, Ch. 6, sect. 13 and 17, Ch. 10, sect. 13 and 14, Ch. 12, sect. 2; Bk. III, Ch. 3, sect. 3, Ch. 21, sect. 15; Bk. IV, Ch. 7, sect. 5, Ch. 26, sect. 8; Bk. V, Ch. 17, sect. 1B, Ch. 18, sect. 13, Ch. 19, sect. 12 and Ch. 28, sect. 12N.

In other passages the personal note is made more marked by the use of the emphatic "ego." See Prooem. 50, Bk. III, Ch. 1, sect. 3, Ch. 4, sect. 3, Ch. 11, sect. 2, Ch. 24, sect. 3; Bk. IV, Ch. 26, sect. 4; Bk. VI, Ch. 6, sect. 2; Bk. VII, Prooem. 5, Ch. 6, sect. 1, Ch. 7, sect. 6C, Ch. 12, sect. 4.

(2) He writes of patients whom he knew personally and attended sedulously, even by night, Bk. II, Ch. 4, sect. 1 and 6; Bk. III, Ch. 4, sect. 9 and 10, Ch. 5, sect. 6, Ch. 6, sect. 6‑8. His description of the treatment of the insane seem to imply personal attendance on such cases, Bk. III, Ch. 18, sect. 10, 11.

He was evidently well acquainted with the leading medical writers of his own age as well as with the older Greek authorities (Prooem. 49, 54, 69; Bk. II, Ch. 1, sect. 1, Ch. 12, sect. 2, Ch. 14, sect. 1; Bk. III, Ch. 4, sect. 1‑9, Ch. 9, sect. 2 and 3; Bk. IV, Ch. 7, sect. 1, Ch. 9, sect. 2, Ch. 11, sect. 3; Bk. V, Ch. 27, sect. 5B, Ch. 28, sect. 10; Bk. VI, Ch. 6, sect. 8, Ch. 18, sect. 2 and 7). Some knowledge of them he must, of course, have had to be able to write his book at all, but his references to their opinions and practice seem to indicate personal knowledge and experience as well, and it is significant that his numerous citations of Hippocrates are almost always accurate and appropriate.4

[W. G. S.]


The chief MSS. are these:

(1) F, Codex Florent., Laurentian Library, 73, 1. IX cent. and in parts defective.
(2) V, Codex Romanus, Vatican Library, 5951. IX cent. and in parts defective.
(3) P, Codex Parisinus, National Library, 7928. X cent.; copied from V when this was less defective.
(4) J, Codex Florent., Laurentian 73, 7, copied by Nicolao Niccoli from a very old codex now no longer extant. XV cent.

Down to 1841 there were 49 printed editions, the editio princeps appearing at Florence in 1478. Recent works on Celsus include:—

1756 J. Greive: Aulus Cornelius Celsus, of medicine in eight books.
1859 C. Daremberg: A. Cornelii Celsi de medicina libri octo.
1907 J. Ilberg: A. Cornelius Celsus und die Medizin in Rom.
1913 M. Wellmann: A. Cornelius Celsus, eine Quellenuntersuchung.
1915 F. Marx: A. Cornelii Celsi quae supersunt. This is a very valuable work, especially the Prolegomena.
1926 W. G. Spencer in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, XIX.129.

There are also some valuable comments on the De Medicina in Sir Clifford Allbutt's Greek Medicine in Rome, and in Dr. J. F. Payne's article on Roman medicine in Cambridge Companion to Latin Studies.

For Hippocrates references are given for the treatises included in the translation published in the Loeb Classical Library (Jones and Withington) to the volume and page of that edition; for other treatises reference is to the numeration adopted by Littré in his edition. For Galen the numeration referred to is that of Kühn's edition.

The Editors and Translator have to acknowledge with very many thanks the generous permission of Messrs. G. B. Teubner of Leipzig to use the text edited by F. Marx, published by them in 1915. The numeration given in this text has been followed throughout and it will be found that in some chapters Marx, following Codex J, has substituted letters (B C D, etc.) for numbers in marking the sections (cf. p168 and elsewhere).

The Editor's Notes:

1 See Quintilian XII.11.24: non solum de his omnibus conscripserit artibus, sed amplius rei militaris et rusticae et medicinae.

2 For a further discussion of this point cf. p. xi.

3 A list of drugs (medicamenta) is given at the beginning of Volume II, pp. xv‑lxvii.

4 A list of these parallel passages is given at the end of Volume III, p624, ff.

Thayer's Note:

a If one were to read only this Introduction, one would go away with the impression that Celsus was mentioned once by Quintilian, and merely in passing. In fact, he refers to him several dozen times, almost always as a man whose views on oratory have to be addressed; and although he rarely agrees with him, Quintilian never dismisses him as a dabbler in the subject, nor does he ever mention him in connection with medicine. In his summary critique and reading list of Roman authors, Quintilian numbers Celsus among the philosophers: "Cornelius Celsus, a follower of the Sextii, wrote a number of philosophical works, which have considerable grace and polish." (Inst. Or. X.I.124).

Not mentioned anywhere in Prof. Spencer's preface above, is that Columella refers to our author rather often, and with respect, as an agricultural authority I.1.14, I.8.4, II.2.15, II.2.24‑25, II.9.11, II.11.6, III.1.8, III.2.24‑27, III.2.31, III.17.4, IV.1.1, IV.8.1, IV.10.1, IV.28.2, etc. Of course that may not have stopped Celsus from being a doctor as well, but it gets less and less likely as we go.

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Page updated: 19 Mar 05