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Celsus, A. Cornelius1

a very celebrated Latin writer on medicine, of whose age, origin, or even actual profession, we know but little. There are some incidental expressions which lead to the conjecture, that he lived at the beginning of the Christian era, under the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius; and particularly the mode in which he refers to Themison (Praef. lib. i. pp. 5, 9, 3.4, p. 43) would indicate that they were either contemporaries, or that Themison preceded him by a short period only. With respect to the country of Celsus (though he has been claimed as a native of Verona), we have nothing on which to ground our opinion, except the purity of his style, which at most would prove no more than that he had been educated or had passed a considerable part of his life at Rome. With regard to his profession, there is some reason to doubt whether he was a practitioner of medicine or whether he only studied it as a branch of general science, after the manner of some of the ancient Greek philosophers. This doubt has arisen principally from the mode in which he is referred to by Columella (de Re Rust. 1.1. 14) and by Quintilian (12.11), and by his not being enumerated by Pliny among the physicians of Rome in his sketch of the history of medicine. (H. N. 29.1, &c.) But, on the other hand, his work appears to bear very strong evidence that he was an actual practitioner, that he was familiar with the phenomena of disease and the operation of remedies, and that he described and recommended what fell under his own observation, and was sanctioned by his own experience; so that it seems upon the whole most probable that he was a physician by profession, but that he devoted part of his time and attention to the cultivation of literature and general science.


Quintilian speaks rather slightingly of him, calls him (Quint. 12.11) “mediocri vir ingenio”, and says he not only wrote on all sorts of literary matters, but even on agriculture and military tactics. Of these numerous works only one remains entire, his celebrated treatise on Medicine; but a few fragments of a work on Rhetoric were published under his name in 1569, 8vo., Colon., with the title Aurelii Cornelii Celsi, Rhetoris vetustissimi et clarissimi, de Arte Dicendi Libellus, primum in Lucem editus, curante Sixto a Popma Phrysio.

This little work is inserted by Fabricius at the end of his Bibliotheca Latina, where it fills about six small quarto pages, and is chiefly occupied with the works of Cicero.

The treatise of Celsus De Medicina, On Medicine, is divided into eight books. It commences with a judicious sketch of the history of medicine, terminating by a comparison of the two rival sects, the Dogmatici and the Empirici, which has been given in the Dict. of Ant. pp. 350, 379. The first two books are principally occupied by the consideration of diet, and the general principles of therapeutics and pathology; the remaining books are devoted to the consideration of particular diseases and their treatment; the third and fourth to internal diseases; the fifth and sixth to external diseases, and to pharmaceutical preparations; and the last two to those diseases which more particularly belong to surgery. In the treatment of disease, Celsus, for the most part, pursues the method of Asclepiades of Bithynia; he is not, however, servilely attached to him, and never hesitates to adopt any practice or opinion, however contrary to his, which he conceives to be sanctioned by direct experience. He adopted to a certain extent the Hippocratic method of observing and watching over the operations of Nature, and of regulating rather than opposing them,--a method which, with respect to acute diseases, may frequently appear inert. But there are occasions on which he displays considerable decision and boldness, and particularly in the use of the lancet, which he employed with more freedom than any of his predecessors. His regulations for the employment of blood-letting and of purgatives are laid down with minuteness and precision (2.10, &c., p. 30, &c.) ; and, although he was in some measure led astray by his hypothesis of the crudity and concoction of the humours, the rules which he prescribed were not very different from those which were generally adopted in the commencement of the present century. His description of the symptoms of fever, and of the different varieties which it assumes, either from the nature of the epidemic, or from the circumstances under which it takes place (3.3, &c., p. 43, &c.), are correct and judicious ; his practice was founded upon the principle already referred to, of watching the operations of Nature, conceiving that fever consisted essentially in an effort of the constitution to throw off some morbid cause, and that, if not unduly interfered with, the process would terminate in a state of health. We here see the germ of the doctrine of the " vis medicatrix Naturae," which has had so much influence over the practice of the most enlightened physicians of modern times, and which, although erroneous, has perhaps led to a less hazardous practice than the hypotheses which have been substituted in its room.

But perhaps the most curious and interesting parts of the work of Celsus are those which treat of Surgery and surgical operations, of which some account is given in the Dict. of Ant. art. Chirurgia. It is very remarkable that he is almost the first writer who professedly treats on these topics, and yet his descriptions of the diseases and of their treatment prove that the art had attained to a very considerable degree of perfection. Many of what are termed the " capital" operations seem to have been well-understood and frequently practised, and it may be safely asserted, that the state of Surgery at the time when Celsus wrote, was comparatively much more advanced than that of Medicine.

The Pharmacy of Celsus forms another curious and interesting part of his work, and, like his Surgery, marks a state of considerable improvement in this branch of the art. Many of his formulae are well arranged and efficacious, and, on the whole, they may be said to be more correct and even more scientific than the multifarious compounds which were afterwards introduced into practice, and which were not completely discarded until our own times. The style of Celsus has been much admired, and it is in fact equal in purity and elegance to that of the best writers of the Augustan age. This is probably one of the chief reasons of his work having been chosen as a text-book in modern times; but it would be great injustice to suppose that this is its only merit, or that it contains nothing but a judicious and well-arranged abstract of what had been said by his predecessors. Some instances of his lax and inaccurate use of certain anatomical terms are mentioned in the Dict. of Ant. art. Physiologia ; but his anatomical and physiological knowledge does not appear to have been at all inferior to that of his contemporaries. In many passages of his work he follows Hippocrates, especially when treating of the general symptoms and phaenomena of diseases ; and occasionally we meet with sentences literally translated from the Greek. He does not, however, by any means blindly embrace his doctrines, and differs from him occasionally both in theory and practice.


The work of Celsus, entitled De Medicina Libri Octo, has been published very often; Choulant mentions four editions in the fifteenth century, fifteen in the sixteenth, five in the seventeenth, thirteen in the eighteenth, and twelve in the first thirty-five years of the nineteenth.

The first edition was published at Florence, 1478, small fol., edited by Barthol. Fontius : it is said to be very scarce, and is described by Dibden in his Biblioth. Spencer. 1.303. Perhaps the other editions that best deserve to be noticed are those by Van der Linden, Lugd. Bat. 1657, 12mo.; Almeloveen, Amstel. 1687, 12mo. (which was several times reprinted); Targa, Patav. 1769, 4to. (whose text has been the basis of most subsequent editions); Lugd. Bat. 1785, 4to.; Argent. 1806, 8vo. 2 vols.; and Milligan, Edinb. 1826, 8vo. The latest edition mentioned by Choulant is that by F. Ritter and H. Albers, Colon. ad Rhen. 1835, 12mo.


The work has been translated into English, French, Italian, and German. The English translations appear to be chiefly made for the use of medical students in London who are preparing for their examination at Apothecaries' Hall, and are not very good.

Further information

A great number of works have been published on Celsus and his writings, which are enumerated by Choulant, but which cannot be mentioned here. Further particulars respecting his medical opinions may be found in Le Clerc's Hist. de la Méd. ; Haller's Biblioth. Medic. Pract. vol. i.; Sprengel's Hist. de la Méd. vol. ii. See also Bostock's Hist. of Med., and Choulant's Handbuch der Bücherkunde für die Aeltere Medicin, Leipz. 1840, 8vo., from which works the greater part of the preceding account has been taken.


1 * It is not quite certain whether his praenomen was Aulus or Aurelius, but it is generally supposed to have been Aurelius.

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