Medical practitioners in ancient Rome believed the human pulse could hint at disease types and survival chances. But how they evaluated the pulse was much different than today’s physicians.
No stopwatches, no beat-per-minute counts, no numerical ranges. Instead, they developed an elaborate way of describing varying kinds of pulses—like a gazelle (a double beat), a tail of a rat (diminishing beats), or a saw (unequal beats).
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This anecdote exemplifies the work of Assistant Professor of Classics Kassandra Miller, who puts age-old technical texts under the microscope to better understand sciences in the ancient world. Miller joined Colby’s Classics Department last year and brings research focused on ancient medicine, science, technology, and magic.
“We’ve never had anyone in the department who could teach ancient medicine or ancient science and technology before,” said Kerill O’Neill, the Julian D. Taylor Professor and Chair of Classics. This semester, Miller’s teaching a course called Ancient Medicine and Magic.
“Classics is such an amazing vehicle for studying the ancient world and understanding our present and, possibly, even the future,” O’Neill said. “But it has at times been used and deployed by racists, imperialists, and colonialists, and for many centuries, the foremost scholars were from imperial powers like Britain, Germany, and France.” These scholars shaped what was studied—and ignored—in the field. And magic was an area pushed aside, explained O’Neill. Now, scholars like him and Miller are bringing those under-studied subjects into the forefront of their field through their teaching and research.
One of Miller’s current research projects is studying ancient technical texts to analyze the concept of akribeia—the Greek word for exactitude, which can also mean precision or accuracy, depending on the context.
Only one previous book, published in 1970, has been devoted to akribeia. Written by a German scholar, it covered the period up to the beginning of the Hellenistic age when akribeia took root. Miller hopes to build on that work by extending it into the Roman imperial period, where she’ll explore the legacies of thinkers such as Pythagoras and Hippocrates in the technical writings of the times, and the beginning of late antiquity when akribeia flourished and appeared in all kinds of texts.
This was also the period when water clocks and sundials were becoming increasingly common, changing people’s understanding of time.
For instance, elites at the time began valuing days with meals or exercise times scheduled. But there was a backlash from some writers. “It was oppressive to them that their dinner hour was determined by a clock as opposed to just when they feel hungry,” Miller said. “We feel that nowadays, too, right?”
She began investigating how ancient writers of various sciences—medicine, magic, music, astronomy, and astrology—understood akribeia in the first to third centuries CE. She’s also examining akribeia’s relation to trends of the time and scientific measuring capabilities.
Across the sciences, Miller found that ancient practitioners saw exactitude as a way to elevate their methods among others and attract clients.
“Both in antiquity and in the present day, we see overly precise use of numbers or misuse of technical jargon as a way to socially signal someone’s intellectual status or professional standing,” she said. “Because the fancier and more intricate your system seems to be, the more impressed a client might be.”
But Miller has found that each field had its own unique way of understanding and applying the concept of exactitude.
In ancient magic, for example, handbooks by priests revealed that spells and recipes demanded a high level of temporal precision. Back then, magic took various forms, ranging from healing recipes to love spells to curse tablets. Not all recipes required that rituals take place at certain times, but some emphasized the timing of other events, such as one action immediately following another or the moon’s relationship to the planets. “So the specifics that are involved in this exactitude can vary.”
In medicine, some practitioners, such as the second-century CE physician Galen of Pergamum, were deeply concerned about exactitude in their work. Miller studied Galen extensively for her first book on timekeeping in medicine, work that inspired her current research on akribeia.
Galen argued that because each patient’s understanding of medicine varied, practitioners needed to be cautious about the amount of exactitude they included in their treatments.
A traveler when the Roman Empire was expanding, Galen also noticed that everywhere he went, people used different terms to talk about the same thing. He became interested in developing universal standards and proposed that numbers become the common denominator, despite their limitations.
Centuries later, Miller stressed that there’s still an effort to have international standards in an increasingly global and interconnected world. She pointed to debates within scholarship and research, for example, that question whether there should be one publishing language.
“Looking backward in time, I hope to enrich our understanding of the kind of intellectual debates that were going on during this time,” she said of her ongoing research, “and to appreciate the vibrancy of debates about what science is, what science should be and could be in the ancient world.”
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