(fl. Pergamum, fourth century)
The life of Oribasius (or Oreibasius, the correct form of his name is not certain) is described by Eunapius in his Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists. This article follows Schröder’s presentation, which is based on Eunapius and other sources. Since Oribasius is mentioned among the Sophists, he was an “iatrosophist”—a concept which appeared before the fourth century and which referred to a physician of a particular rhetorical and philosophical orientation.1 He came from a prominent family in Pergamum, where he was born at the beginning of the fourth century. He may have studied medicine there, but most of his medical education was obtained at Alexandria. In the late Hellenistic period the study of medicine at Alexandria had become “scholastic,” as Galen termed it—it was divorced from practice and was purely theoretical.2 Oribasius, however, dissociated himself from physicians who were overly concerned with rhetoric and philosophy.
In Pergamum, Oribasius belonged to the circles representing the intellectual elite of the age; there he met the future Emperor Julian the Apostate, who later made Oribasius his physician in ordinary and head of his library. The relationship between the two plainly was very close, and Oribasius’ political influence was correspondingly great. He also was a political official, quaestor of Constantinople. In addition he was closely associated with the emperor’s cultural program, including the restoration of pagan religion. Oribasius’ notes (a hyponmema) on the emperor’s life have not survived, but they served as an essential source for Eunapius’ biography of Julian and, evidently, as a source for some parts of the historical writings of Ammianus Marcellinus. Banished after Julian’s death along with other of his supporters, Oribasius was later rehabilitated. He was married and had four children; a son named Eustathius was also a physician.
The initial stimulus for Oribasius’ work as a medical writer was a suggestion by Julian that he prepare abstracts (epitomai) of Galen’s works; this composition has not survived. His most extensive surviving work (although it was not transmitted intact) is Iatrikai synagogai (or Collectiones medicae), which contains excerpts from the writings of the more important Greek physicians. These extracts are primarily, but not entirely, verbatim.3 From this large work he produced Synopsis for Eustathius (also extant), a kind of abridged edition or vade mecum for his son. There still exists For Eunapius, a collection of easily procured medicines compiled for the layman. The known lost works, in addition to the historical account already mentioned, are To the Perplexed Physicians, On Diseases, Anatomy of the Intestines, and, outside the field of medicine, On Royal Rule (only the title of the last work is known). Two spurious writings are extant: Introductions to Anatomy and a commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. (The authorship of the commentary, which is preserved only in Latin translation, should be carefully examined since it contains material of interest for the history of medicine.)4
Oribasius’ encyclopedic medical writings became the model for such authors as Aëtius of Amida. They also found a large audience in the Latin West, as the early (fifth century [?]) Latin translations of them testify. The Arabs also drew freely on Oribasius’ works. For the historian of medicine Oribasius is especially important for his role in preserving earlier, more important medical authors, whom we know about, in part, only through his excerpts.
1. See F. Kudlien, “The Third Century A. D.—a Blank Spot in the History of Medicine” in L. G. Stevenson and R. P. Multhauf, eds., Medicine, Science and Culture. Historical Essays in Honor of Owsei Temkin (Baltimore, 1968), 32 ff.
3. For the rather complicated situation, see F. Kudlien, Die handschriftliche Überlieferung des Galenkommentars zu Hippokrates De articulis (Berlin, 1960), 49-54.
4. See F. Kudlien. “Peoples no. 5,” in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie, supp. X (Stuttgart, 1965), col. 531.
The best ed. of the genuine writings is by H. Raeder in Corpus medicorum Graecorum, VI, 1-3 (Amsterdam, 1964). The best survey is H. O. Schröder, “Oreibasios.” in Pauly-Wissowa, supp. VII (Stuttgart, 1940), cols. 797-812.