Alexander of Tralles

views updated Jun 08 2018

Alexander of Tralles

(b. Tralles, in Lydia, first half of the sixth century a.d.; fl. in the time of Justinian)


Alexander of Tralles was the son of Stephanus, a physician. He had four brothers: Anthemius, a famous mechanician who was involved in rebuilding Hagia Sophia; Metrodorus, a grammarian; Olympius, a jurist; and Dioscorus, another physician. As we know by his own dedicatory preface, Alexander was the protégé of the father of a certain Cosmas; to this Cosmas he dedicated his work, which he says that he wrote, at the behest of Cosmas, at an advanced age, when he was no longer able to practice medicine. It is unlikely, however, that this Cosmas was the famous geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes, as his modern biographer Theodor Puschmann hypothesizes. The historian Agathias, a contemporary of Alexander, indicates that Alexander’s life was beset with hardships. Agathias also records that Alexander practiced in Rome for some time, while Alexander’s own writings mention his travels in Gaul and Spain.

The writings of Alexander that have survived have been subjected to a thorough and critical examination by Puschmann, whose findings may well be accepted. According to him, the dedicatory preface to the works as a whole and the book Concerning Fever were written during Alexander’s last years; the other eleven books are either hastily sketched or more elaborate notes for a handbook on internal medicine, in accordance with a plan set forth at the beginning of the work. A letter about intestinal worms, directed to an unknown Theodorus, is extant, and Puschmann has collected a few additional fragments; all of Alexander’s other writings are apparently lost. The entirely of Alexander’s work is known to have been available in Greek in numerous codices and in equally numerous Latin translations; his work was also much read and translated by the Arabs.

Puschmann is perhaps biased in favor of his subject. One must remember that Alexander’s importance lies within the framework of Byzantine medicine–a rather sterile, literary tradition. Alexander is praised for his self–reliance; this independence should, however, be more precisely formulated as deriving from the consideration that Alexander did not simply edit a medical anthology composed of other people’s texts, as did Oribasius or Aetios of Amida, but wrote a work of his own. He was not the only Byzantine author to do so, however–compare especially the work of Johannes Actuarios. Alexander indeed had an extensive practice, made many original observations, and knew the value of empiricism; but this may also be said of other Byzantine physicians (again, especially Johannes Actuarios). While Alexander sometimes dared to criticize even Galen, Johannes Actuarios, too, had a self-confident sense of the value of his own work as compared to the work of his predecessors, as is especially apparent in his book About the Urine. Alexander’s style is justly praised for its comprehensibility and clarity; not all other Byzantine physicians wrote pompously, however, Moreover, Alexander–like all other Byzantine physicians, and like all those of late antiquity–was uncritical of a great deal of the older medical literature that he cited, and was by no means entirely free from superstition. Finally, very few remnants of Byzantine medical texts and practice are available to us to provide a measure by which Alexander may be objectively evaluated. In summary, one may state that Alexander was, as a representative of Byzantine medicine, rather refreshing, not uninteresting, and not, perhaps, altogether unimportant.


Text, German translation, and an extensive introduction may be found in Theodor Puschmann, Alexander von Tralleis, 2 vols. (Vienna, 1878–1879). It includes Alexander’s mention of his father (II, 139), Alexander’s preface to his work on medicine (I, 289), mention of Cosmas Indicopleustes (I, 83), Alexander’s accounts of his travels (I, 565), and descriptions of his works (I, 101 ff.). Also by Puschmann is “Nachträge zu Alexander von Tralleis,” in Berline Studien Fü;r classische Philologie und Archaeologie, 5, part 2 (1887).

For a French translation with an extensive introduction, see F. Brunet, Oeuvres medicales d’Alexandre de Tralles, 4 vols. (Paris, 1933–1937); this does not go far beyond Puschmann, however.

A good source of material on Alexander is Agathias; see “Agathias Histor.,” in Historici Graeci Minores, W. Dindorf, ed., II (Leipzig, 1871), 357. Reference to Greek codices and Latin translations may be found in H. Diels, Die Handschriften der griechischen Ärzte, II (Berlin, 1906), 11–13; the Arabic versions are mentioned by I. Bloch in Theodor Puschmann, Handbuch der Geschichte der Medizin, I (Jena, 1902), 537–538. This work also covers Alexander’s criticism of Galen (p. 539).

Fridolf Kudlien

Alexander of Tralles (ca. sixth century B.C.E.)

views updated May 11 2018

Alexander of Tralles (ca. sixth century B.C.E.)

A physician born at Tralles in Asia Minor, with a leaning toward medico-magical practice. He prescribed for his patients amulets and charmed words, as, for instance, when he stated in his Practice of Medicine that the figure of Hercules strangling the Nemean lion, graven on a stone and set in a ring, was an excellent cure for colic. He also claimed that charms and phylacteries were efficacious remedies for gout and fevers.

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Alexander of Tralles

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