'First behead your viper’: acquiring knowledge in Galen’s poison stories

King, Helen (2018). 'First behead your viper’: acquiring knowledge in Galen’s poison stories. In: Grell, Ole Peter; Cunningham, Andrew and Arrizabalaga, Jon eds. "It All Depends on the Dose": Poisons and Medicines in European History. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 25–42.

URL: https://www.routledge.com/It-All-Depends-on-the-Do...


The work of Galen, the second-century ad physician, was highly influential in the history of understanding poisons. He combined and further developed the medical ideas of the writers of his favourite works of the Hippocratic corpus and of classical Greek philosophy. In the process, he developed the fullest form of humoral theory, which dominated Western medicine until the eighteenth century. He both drew on and transformed existing knowledge of poisons and antidotes: his writings also informed many later discussions of these topics. He worked in large urban centres of the early Roman Empire - Rome and Pergamum - but also travelled slowly by land across the vast expanse of that empire and witnessed peasant practices in situ as well as when country people came into the big city. He was well aware of both the traditional stories about how poisons and antidotes were discovered and the Roman "poisoning culture" of the century or so before him. He made antidotes and developed theories about their operation; eventually, as a physician to the imperial family, he was responsible for overseeing the production of the emperor's theriac, the multi-ingredient drug that contained substances that could be poisonous and that acted as both panacea and antidote. The "wild drug" was one answer to taming the wildness of poison, its name from the ancient Greek for "wild animal", evoking images of danger, pain and lack of control. In addition, Galen used the imagery of poisoning to explain how diseases more generally affected the body.

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