Aëtius of Amida

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Aëtius of Amida

(b. Amida, Mesopotamia [now Diyarbakir, Turkey], fl, ca. a.d. 540)


Aëtius had the title comes obsequii, which indicates that he had a relatively high rank, possibly of a military nature, at court. Since this title seems not to have been introduced until the reign of Justinian I, Aëtius cannot have lived before the sixth century, It is sometimes supposed that he was physician in ordinary at the Byzantine court, and this is occasionally stated as a fact both in books dealing with antiquity and in books on medical history. In any case, Aëtius lived after Oribasius, for the latter’s medical encyclopedia is one of his main sources. Several times in his work Aëtius speaks of a sojourn in Alexandria. It cannot be proved that he was a Christian, for he does no more than mention Christian institutions and customs several times. In any event, he ought not to be confused with the physician and Arian Christian Aëtius who lived in the fourth century and is mentioned in Philostorgios’ church history, as well as in Gregory of Nyssa’s Contra Eunomium.

Aëtius wrote a large medical encyclopedia that is called either Sixteen Medical Books or Tetrabibloi (i.e., four volumes, each containing four parts or books). This form of medical encyclopedia, typical of late antiquity and the Byzantine period, corresponds to that of the known encyclopedias of Oribasius and Paul of Aegina. They are all collections of more or less verbatim excerpts from the works of previous medical authors, primarily Galen.

Aëtius’ originality has often been questioned, but since there exists only an incomplete critical edition of his work (with proof of sources), the question cannot be answered conclusively. The Byzantine Photius stated that Aëtius had “added nothing and left out much” from his original sources, but this must be viewed skeptically for there are indications that Aëtius evaluated his sources, using his own experiences and his own thoughts.


The first eight books of Aëtius’ encyclopedia have been critically edited by Alexander Olivieri in Corpus medicorum Graecorum, VIII, Part I (Berlin-Leipzig, 1935), and VIII, Part 2 (Berlin, 1950). The few notices on Aëtius” biography are in Olivieri, VIII, I, p. 8, 11.14–15; his sojourn in Alexandria, ibid., p. 65, 1.4, and p. 67, 1.1. Photius’ statement on Aëtius’ originality, ibid., p. 8, 11.12 ff. For Aëtius’ criticism of his predecessors see, e.g., ibid., VIII, 1, p. 153, 11.16ff. The most usable appreciation of Aëtius is by Ivan Bloch, in Max Neuburger and Julius Pagel, Handbuch der Geschichte der Medizin, I (Jena. 1902), 529 ff.

Fridolf Kudlien