Alcameon of Crotona

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Alcameon of Crotona

(b. Crotona, Magna Graecia, ca. 535 b.c.)

medicine, natural philosophy.

Alcmaeon, the son of Peirthoos and a pupil of Pythagoras, is often reported to have been a physician. There is no support for this in ancient sources, however, although Diogenes Laertius stated that Alcmeon “wrote mostly about medical affairs.” As far as we can judge, he also wrote about meteorological and astrological problems and about such philosophical questions as the immortality of the soul. It may therefore be best to call him a natural philosopher, deeply versed in medicine, who was in close contact with both Phythagoreans and the physicians in Crotona (in this connection we may also think of his contemporary, the physician Democedes of Crotona). One must also keep in mind that at that time the “physiologial” side of medicine was treated predominantly by philosophers, Hipporcrates being the first to “separate medicine from philosophy,” as Celsus states in the preface to De re midicina. Aristotle’s lost writing Against Alcmaeon apparently concerned Alcmaeon as a philosopher.

In the history of science Alcmaeon is especially important for two reasons: he may have written the very first Greek prose book, a physikos logos; and he furnished medicine with the first material for a fundamental intellectual mastery of the nontraumatic internal diseases. He defined health as “the isonomy [balance] of forces” (that is, a balance of the opposite bodily qualities of cold and warm, bitter and sweet, and so forth) and internal disease as the “monarchy” of one of these “forces,” He further divided the causes of disease into disorders of environment (climatic factors and the like), of nutrition, and of physical mode of living (exertion and such). From these definitions he formulated the bases of a general pathophysiology of internal diseases; similar hypotheses were made by the Hippocrateans. Apparently Alcmaeon clearly recognized the conjectural character of his formulae; they constituted, for him, an “opinion about the invisible.”

Alcmaeon also seems to have engaged in dissection, especially ocular dissection for the investigation of the visual process. Obviously, the word exsectio in Chalcidius’ report is to be taken in this sense; it could hardly refer to a surgical operation on a man since human dissection in a systematic form was, for religious reasons, neither then nor until much later possible in Greece. Among the pre-Socratic philosophers of around 500 b.c., Alcmaeon is the one most closely connected with medicine and therefore had the greatest significance for medicine per se, although he himself did not practice as a physician.


Information on Alcmaeon and fragments of his writings are most accessible in H. Diels and W. Krans, eds., Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, I(Berlin, 1951), 210 ff., which covers his statement on nontraumatic internal diseases; his description of his mode of thought as “an opinion about the invisible”; and his references to dissection and Chalcidius’ report. Another work of value is Johannes Wachtler, De Alcmaeone Crotoniata (Leipzig, 1896), Also of value is Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, V.§25, and VIII, §83, which deal, respectively, with Aristotle’s Contra Alkmaion and with Alcmaeon’s early life.

Fridolf Kudlien