1. ASCLEPIADES BITHYNUS, a very celebrated physician of Bithynia, who acquired a considerable degree of popularity at Rome at the beginning of the first century B. C., which he maintained through life, and in a certain degree transmitted to his successors.
It is said that he first came to Rome as a teacher of rhetoric (Plin. Nat. 26.7
), and that it was in consequence of iris not being successful in this profession, that he turned his attention to that the study of medicine. From what we learn of his history and of his practice, it would appear that he may be fairly characterized as a man of natural talents, acquainted with human nature (or rather with human weakness), possessed of considerable shrewdness and address, but with little science or professional skill.
He began (upon the plan which is so generally found successful by those who are conscious of their own ignorance) by vilifying the principles and practice of his predecessors, and by asserting that he had discovered a more compendious and effective mode of treating diseases than had been before known to the world.
As he was ignorant of anatomy and pathology, he decried the labours of those who sought to investigate the structure of the body, or to watch the phenomena of disease, and he is said to have directed his attacks more particularly against the writings of Hippocrates.
It appears, however, that he had the discretion to refrain from the use of very active and powerful remedies, and to trust principally to the efficacy of diet, exercise, bathing, and other circumstances of this nature.
A part of the great popularity which he enjoyed depended upon his prescribing the liberal use of wine to his patients (Plin. Nat. 7.37
), and upon his not only attending in all cases, with great assiduity, to everything which contributed to their comfort, but also upon his flattering their prejudices and indulging their inclinations.
By the due application of these means, and from the state of the people among whom he practised, we may, without much difficulty, account for the great eminence at which he arrived, and we cannot fail to recognise in Asclepiades the prototype of more than one popular physician of modern times. Justice, however, obliges us to admit, that he seems to have possessed a considerable share of acuteness and discernment, which on some occasions he employed with advantage.
It is probable that to him we are indebted, in the first instance, for the arrangement of diseases into the two great classes of Acute and Chronic (Cael. Aurel. De Morb. Chron.
3.8. p. 469), a division which has a real foundation in nature, and which still forms an important feature in the most improved modern nosology.
In his philosophical principles Asclepiades is said to have been a follower of Epicurus, and to have adopted his doctrine of atoms and pores, on which he attempted to build a new theory of disease, by supposing that all morbid action might be reduced into obstruction of the pores and irregular distribution of the atoms.
This theory he accommodated to his division of diseases, the acute being supposed to depend essentially upon a constriction of the pores, or an obstruction of them by a superfluity of atoms; the chronic, upon a relaxation of the pores or a deficiency of the atoms.
The age at which Asclepiades died and the date of his death are unknown; but it is said that he laid a wager with Fortune, engaging to forfeit his character as a physician if he should ever suffer from any disease himself. Pliny, who tells the anecdote (H. N.
7.37), adds, that he won his wager, for that he reached a great age and died at last from an accident.
Nothing remains of his writings but a few fragments.
These fragments have been collected and published by Gumpert in the little work mentioned above.
Poem with directions respecting health
There is a poem containing directions respecting health (ὑγιεινὰ παραγγελματα) which is ascribed to Asclepiades of Bithynia, and which was first published by R. von Welz, Würzberg, 1842
; but a writer in the Rheinisches Museum
(p. 444 in the vol. of 1843) has shewn, that this poem could not have been written before the seventh century after Christ.
Further information respecting the medical and philosophical opinions of Asclepiades may be found in Sprengel's Hist. de la Méd.;
Isensee, Gesch. der Med.;
Ant. Cocchi, Discorso Primo sopra Asclepiade,
Firenze, 1758, 4to.; G. F. Bianchini, La Medicina d'Asclepiades per ben curare le Malattie Acute, raccolta da Varii Frammenti Greci e Latini,
Venezia, 1769, 4to.; K. F. Burdach, Asclepiades und John Brown, eine Parallele,
Leipzig, 1800, 8vo.; Id. Scriptorum de Asclepiade Index,
Lips. 1800, 4to.; Bostock's Hist. of Med.,
from which work part of the preceding account has been taken.