Celsus, Cornelius (Aulus)

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(b. southern France toward the end of the 1st century BCE;

d. Rome, 1st century CE), collection of knowledge. For the original article on Celsus see DSB, vol. 3.

Celsus is often considered the most important Latin medical writer of antiquity for several reasons. His Prefatio is particularly important for medical historians, because in it he traces the history of medicine from its origins to his time. Of equal importance is the information he furnished about surgical techniques and medical authors of the Hellenistic-Roman period, which otherwise would not be known.

Celsus created a medical language in Latin. He synthesized and documented an entire series of works, achievements, and medical techniques of the Greco-Roman era which is our sole source of knowledge of them. He demonstrated great independence of thought and judgment. Finally, he described and represented the Roman ideal of the physician-friend (medicus amicus).

Life . Little is known about the details of his life except for his name (nomen: Cornelius) and his surname (cognomen: Celsus). Nothing else can be regarded as certain: not his given name (praenomen), his place of birth, the dates of composition of his work, or his profession. The ancient sources never gave his praenomen, only Cornelius Celsus. In later manuscripts it was usually given as the initial A., that is sometimes interpreted as Aulus, sometimes, less plausibly, as Aurelius.

Neither the ancient documents nor Celsus himself mentioned a clear and definite birthplace. The hypothesis has been advanced that it was located somewhere in the region of Hispania Tarraconensis and Narbonnese Gaul (northeast Spain and southwest France), a conjecture based on discoveries in that region of a series of inscriptions recording various Cornelii Celsi and on the description of Gallic therapeutic techniques in De medicina. As for the date of composition of his work, the only certainty, which is also supported by linguistic evidence, is that Celsus lived and wrote between the last years of the first century BCE and the middle years of the next. Possibly he was most active between 21 and 39 CE.

Historians often debate the question of Celsus’s profession; that is, whether he was a physician, but without reaching any definitive conclusion. The issue is somewhat secondary and in any case should be approached differently. On the one hand, no one doubts the technical knowledge of Celsus; on the other hand, there is a tendency to agree that this knowledge is not necessarily the result of a regular course of study leading to a medical degree. In any case neither course nor degree was required of professionals in the ancient world, nor does it presuppose the actual practice of medicine for money. Essentially, what is certain and of interest is Celsus’s possession and mastery of precise medical knowledge; all the rest is irrelevant. There emerges from the De medicina a personality of notable substance whose primary characteristics seem to be a deep respect for life and for humanity, an ideological independence, and breadth in his historico-cultural interests.

Work . Although it is vague and therefore has been interpreted in various ways, the most comprehensive description of Celsus’s work may be found in the Institutio oratoria of Quintilian (late first century CE):

How much has Varro passed down to us, almost the whole of human knowledge! What rhetorical instrument did Cicero lack? What more can we say if even Cornelius Celsus, a man of modest ability, not only has written of all these arts, but he has left to us the precepts of military art, agriculture, and medicine presented in so coherent a manner that we must believe that he had a thorough knowledge of them. (XII.11.24)

From this passage of Quintilian one learns that Celsus wrote on agriculture, military art, medicine, and also “all these arts.” Scholars disagree on the meaning of the expression “all these arts” (Latin:his omnibus ß artibus), especially the sense of the word artibus. In essence, they offer three interpretations: (1) the “arts” are those three of which Quintilian speaks in the preceding paragraph, 9, of the same book,that is, philosophy, law, and rhetoric;(2)

the term arts is the equivalent of instruments or of the “precepts of oratory” and is to be understood as “all of rhetoric”; (3)artes are the techniques and instruments of the orator, that is, philosophy, law, and historical exempla.

At the very least, this passage from Quintilian provides undeniable evidence that Celsus wrote on medicine, military art, and agriculture, and probably, also on rhetoric, philosophy, law, and history. In the early twenty-first century eight books of medicine survive in their entirety, as well as many fragments that have come down indirectly through other works and writers and whose content could be categorized as dealing with agriculture, military art, rhetoric, and philosophy.

De medicina: Content . The eight books that comprise the De medicina are divided according to the three principal branches of treatment in Celsus’s time: diet, pharmacology, and surgery. Books One through Four treat diet, Five and Six pharmacology, and the final two surgery. A substantial preamble introduces the work. Although they were well developed at the time, the more theoretical fields such as anatomy, physiology, and pathology, and individual specializations (which had become so subdivided that they occasioned the satire of contemporary poets such as Martial) are not accorded their own space or a book devoted specifically to them. But when it was necessary and the occasion arose, Celsus would then treat anatomy, the functioning of the different organs, and the dynamics of the various functions as well as specialized topics such as ophthalmology (e.g., the treatment of cataracts) and gynecology (e.g., embryotomy and embryology).

De medicina:Sources . A general consideration of the sources of De medicina is important because it provides important parameters for evaluating the scientific level of the De medicina and of its audience, and it throws light on the personality of its author. For the medical topics Celsus cites a total of eighty-five sources specifically by name and a number of anonymous references: Gauls, Greeks, a pupil of Chrysippus (Chrysippi discipulus), country folk (agrestes, rustici), and a certain person (quidam). The greatest names of early medicine occupy a preeminent place among the Celsian sources: Hippocrates, Diocles, Erasistratus, Herophilus, Heracleides of Tarentum, and Asclepiades of Bithynia.

Several pieces of evidence support the thesis of a direct, first-hand reading of previous or contemporary sources:

  1. the implicit or explicit affirmation of a direct reading of the work indicated by verbs in the first person such as invenio “I find,” video “I see,” deprehendi “I understood,” or through the mention of specific titles of works;
  2. comparisons among the different authors upon whom he draws, with reference to the variations in the treatments of their subjects;
  3. awareness of the terminological diversity in the sources, with the explicit statement that he noticed these differences through direct reading;
  4. interpretation of individual passages within a broader context, that indicates extensive reading beyond the immediate object of study, a method clearly used with regard to Hippocrates and Erasistratus;
  5. translation of passages from the Hippocratic corpus in conformity with Celsus’s literary and stylistic exigencies.

His attitude toward his sources is sometimes complimentary, sometimes critical. It is never passive.

De medicina: Audience . Anyone who examines the De medicina will conclude that it was intended for an audience of wealthy and cultured persons. The professional status of Celsus’s reader is far less certain: Was this a layperson, a medical student, or a physician?

Proof of the elevated cultural level of Celsus’s reading public is provided by the historical and philosophical content, especially that of the preamble, and also by the linguistic and literary refinements of the language. Indirect evidence of a cultured audience can be inferred by noting that the intended reader of the books dealing with diet (in particular Book One) is called imbecillus, that is, a person of fragile health and one represented by city-dwellers and by almost all persons of letters.

The patient Celsus had in mind is wealthy. The first four books in particular recommend costly treatments (oil baths for cases of tetanus, travel as therapy for hemoptysis). The writer identifies civic duties, writing, reading, and mental work in general as dangerous activities—or at least activities that the patient being treated should avoid. The convalescence that Celsus recommends requires a long time, as well as expensive activities and nourishment (for example, the gestatio“passive movement by a means of transport,” a varied food diet, etc.). The emphasis on the aesthetic consequences of therapy, especially surgery, is also significant in establishing the social and cultural level of his audience.

Particularly in Books Five and Six Celsus would appear to address lay readers and/or patients when he states that he intends to explain what should be done in a first operation, when he suggests remedies that do not involve either physicians or medications, when he approves even remedies alien to accepted medical practice, and when he lingers over details that would be superfluous if he were speaking to a professional physician, as when he stipulates that, unless otherwise specified, water is always understood to be the medium.

Other parts of the work, however, appear to be written for a physician or a medical student. Among these are not only the complex and delicate surgical operations impossible for a layperson such as the removal of limbs or parts of them and plastic surgery, but also the recommendations for medical deontology such as one reads in chapters three, five, and six of the third book and, especially, the description of an ideal physician.

The model of the physician that emerges from Celsus’s De medicina is one who can easily identify with the cultured reader and presume to treat wealthy patients. For Celsus the ideal physician as described in various passages of Book Three should be cultured, not greedy for gain, expert, dedicated to few patients, a convincing speaker, and a friend to patients. In conclusion, the audience Celsus addresses is composed of the medicus amicus, the physician-friend who attends and treats the Roman aristocracy of the period.

De medicina: Reception . Although one can point to express mentions of Celsus’s work in Columella, Pliny the Elder and, albeit at second or third hand, Galen (second century CE), the De medicina enjoyed scant success among medical authors in Roman antiquity. It seems to have acquired recognition, prestige, and its canonization in official medical and professional circles only in late antiquity and the High Middle Ages: complete passages, sometimes quoted explicitly, sometimes not, found their way into academic texts intended for medical professionals, such as chapter 2.8 of the Gynaecia Muscionis(Moschion’s gynaecia; a translation of Soranus’s from the sixth century CE) or the numerous passages that a sixth-century translator introduced into the Latin version of the Synopsis of Oribasius. The utilization of Celsus in medical circles in the High Middle Ages finds further confirmation in some brief extracts that appear in a twelfth-century codex of the Definitiones medicae (Medical definitions) in the library of the Lincoln Cathedral, cod. Lat. 220. Other medieval authors to use the De medicina are Simon of Genoa (end of the thirteenth century) and Pietro D’Abano (thirteenth–fourteenth centuries).

From the Renaissance to the present day the reception of Celsus has been remarkable. After the Editio princeps of 1478, editions and reprints multiplied, more or less richly glossed and commented: There were nineteen in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries alone. Praise for both its content and its language has been unanimous and numerous; Johann F. Clossius even set the work in elegiac couplets. In the Renaissance Celsus’s language and the terminology that he coined became both a model to imitate and a source to be drawn upon by the humanist physicians of that period and of the centuries to follow, from Antonio M. Brasavola to Bartolomeo Eustachi to Andreas Vesalius to Gabriele Falloppia to Girolamo Cardano.


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Marx, Friedrich. A. Cornelii Celsi quae supersunt. Leipzig, Germany: Teubner, 1915.

Mazzini, Innocenzo. A. Cornelio Celso. La chirurgia (libri VII e VIII del De Medicina). Pisa, Italy: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 1999.

Mudry, Philippe. La Préface du “De medicina” de Celse. Texte, traduction et commentairey. Geneva: Droz, 1982.

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Innocenzo Mazzini

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