Athenaeus of Attalia

views updated

Athenaeus of Attalia

(b. Attalia in Pamphylia [?] [now Antalya, Turkey])


Athenaeus was a physician who practiced in Rome, apparently during the reign of Claudius I. Biographical details are lacking, but it is known that he founded the Pneumatic school of medicine. His successors in the school included his pupil Agathinos and Herodotus, Magnus, and Archigenes, who flourished during the reign of Trajan.

The name of Athenaeus’ school came from a new term, pneuma (“breath” or “spirit”), that he introduced into medical theory from Stoic philosophy. Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, had defined soul as “a spirit [pneuma] innate in us, continuously penetrating the whole body.” Athenaeus taught that the body was composed, ultimately, of the traditional four qualities—hot, cold, wet, dry—but that these were held together and governed by pneuma, which permeated the entire body. Although it owed something to Aristotle’s view of pneuma as associated with semen in generation, the Stoic doctrine was more general—and, indeed, cosmic in extent. Athenaeus, accepting the materialism of the Stoics, could identify with pneuma the ruling part of the soul (hegemonikon), which for Aristotle was immaterial. Athenaeus is often linked with Aristotle in Galen’s criticism of previous teachings. Following Aristotle and Chrysippus, Athenaeus located the hegemonikon in the heart, and from this belief he drew certain conclusions about the medical treatment of mental illness. He explained disease in general as a pathological affection of the pneuma caused by the putrefaction or rotting of pneuma.

The doctrine of the proper mixture of the qualities or the humors composed of them was a staple of ancient medical tradition. The Pneumatic school felt the need of a governing spirit to maintain a proper temperament of the components of the physical body. Athenaeus, according to Galen, considered hot and cold as efficient causes and wet and dry as material ones, but apparently he was not able to conceive of them as operating on their own. Galen also asserts that Athenaeus was not clear as to whether the four qualities were potencies or bodies.

Athenaeus was an original thinker who enriched medical theory with a consistent philosophical position. He was also a teacher, as his founding of a school proves. He is known to have written a comprehensive treatise on medicine that ran to at least thirty books. He treated in detail the principal branches of medicine: physiology, pathology, embryology, therapeutics, and dietetics, as well as the medical aspects of meteorology and geography.

Practically all of our information about Athenaeus comes from Galen, who cites him frequently and seems to have accepted some of his teachings, and from Oribasius, who was the physician of Julian the Apostate and who was known to his contemporaries as the second Galen. Galen cites Athenaeus in many of his writings. The diverse subjects of the citations testify to the breadth of Athenaeus’ knowledge. Galen, in general, states the opinion of Athenaeus relevant to the point he is discussing and tries either to refute it or to interpret it in the light of his own beliefs. Whether Galen agrees with Athenaeus or not, he treats him with obvious respect. Oribasius’ extensive quotations from Athenaeus show us the latter’s care and thoroughness in handling a subject as well as giving us some of the content of his teaching.


Some idea of Athenaeus’ works and views may be found in Galen, Claudii Galeni opera ontnia, C. Kühn, ed., 20 vols. (Leipzig, 1821–1833), Index; and Oribasius, Oribasii collectionum reliquiae, J. Raeder, ed. (Leipzig–Berlin, 1928–), and Medici Graeci varia opuscula, CH. F. Matthai, ed. (Moscow, 1908).

Modern accounts are Pauly-Wissowa, eds., Realencyclo-pädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft; and M. Well-man, Die pneumatische Schule (Berlin, 1895).

John S. Kieffer

About this article

Athenaeus of Attalia

Updated About content Print Article