(b. Prusa, Bithynia, ca. 130 b.c.; d. Rome, ca, 40, b.c.)
Trained originally as a philosopher and orator, Asclepiades achieved fame as a physician in Rome. He had a large practice and wealthy patients, and was befriended by Cicero, Crassus, and other influential Romans. At the height of his fame he was invited to become the personal physician of Mithridates Eupator, King of Pontus, but he declined and remained in Rome until his death. His forceful personality, his clinical successes, and the simplicity of his therapeutic counsels aided in the acceptance of his doctrines and did much to overcome the Roman prejudice against Greek medicine. None of his many writings has survived intact.
Asclepiades rejected the teachings of Hippocrates and other advocates of humoralism in favor of his own original system of solidism. Thoroughly and consistently materialistic, his doctrines derived partially from Epicurean atomism and partially from the now lost, quasi-atomistic teachings of Heracleides Ponticus. The most important ideas derived from his predecessors were a theory of knowledge based upon sensory appearances alone and the rejection of teleology. These, plus his atomism, provided the philosophical basis of his medical theories. All diseases, Asclepiades held, resulted from an abnormal arrangement of the atoms relative to the “pores” that constituted the physical basis of the human body. Since he also denied the healing power of nature, it followed that diseases could be cured by human intervention. His therapy was simple but effective, and capable of innumerable modifications, depending upon the patient’s condition and his purse. He relied principally upon diet, exercise, massage, and baths, avoiding, whenever possible, powerful drugs and surgery. The purpose of therapy was to restore the atomic constituents of the human body to their normal state of unimpeded movement. By means of a controlled regimen, he claimed that he was capable of achieving the goal of a good physician—curare tuto, celeriter et jucunde (“to cure safely, swiftly, and pleasantly”).
Despite the rigid outlines of his mechanistic system, Asclepiades wisely was not always consistent in his adherence to it or in its practical application. His writings on the pulse show the influence of Stoic pneumatic theory. He recognized a limited role for enemas, surgery, bloodletting, and cupping; but he was violently opposed to the study of anatomy. For this reason, and perhaps because of his extravagant claims of success, he was much maligned and criticized for charlatanry. His influence in antiquity, however, was great, and he is often cited by Caelius Aurelianus, Celsus, and Galen. The philosophical and theoretical foundations of the methodist school can, in part, be traced back to Asclepiades’ pupil, Themison of Laodicea.
Among the several hundred fragments that survive (many are in Wellmann), the following titles of his writings are recorded: “On Acute Diseases,” “On the Preservation of Health,” “Common Aids,” “Practices,” “To Geminius on Hygiene,” “On Enemas,” “On Periodic Fevers,” “On Baldness,” “On Pestilence,” “On Dropsy,” “On the Use of Wine,” “On the Elements,” “Definitions,” “On Respiration and the Pulse,” “On Ulcers,” and commentaries on the Aphorisms and In the Surgery, both attributed to Hippocrates.
Works dealing with Asclepiades are E. Gurlt, Geschichte der Chirurgie and ihrer Ausübung, I (Berlin, 1898), 329–330; W. A. Heidel, “The υαρμοι γκοι of Heraclides and Asclepiades,” in Transactions of the American Philological Association, 40 (1909), 5–21; T. Meyer-Steineg, Das medizinische System der Methodiker (Jena, 1916), pp. 5–18; and Max Wellmann, “Asklepiades aus Prusa” [“Asklepiades 39”], in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encvclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, and “Asklepiades aus Bithynien von einem herrschenden Vorurteil befreit,” in Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische Altertum, 21 (1908), 684–703, the best modern study.