Skip to main content



Contact: Chiara Thumiger

Participation in the conference is free, but places are limited and registration is required. Please register here.

Confirmed speakers: Vivian Nutton, Helen King, Claire Trenery, Julius Rocca, Michael Boylan, Christian Laes, Laurence Totelin, David Leith, Hynek Bartos, Brooke Holmes, Peter Singer, Sean Coughlin, Orly Lewis, Georgios Kazantzidis, Chiara Thumiger

The conference programme is available here

ANCIENT ‘HOLISM’ in Graeco-Roman medicine and its cultural context Localisation has always been one of the key modalities, if not the central modality by which we read ancient accounts of human fundamental bodily experiences such as pathology, emotions and mental alteration. The firm identification of a locus affectus, an organ (or a set of organs) involved, or a suffering area of the body is indeed very visible in medical discussions of diseases and disorders, whether strictly physiological or also mental, as well as poetic representations of biological or mental experiences. The alternative modality, that of de-localisation and more generally of an attention to human experiences of the body as diffuse, dynamic and explicitly disjointed from a firm location has received instead much less attention. To redress this balance, we want in this conference to invite dedicated discussion to the following questions:

- What are the prominent examples of disputes on localisation in ancient science? What epistemological purposes are served by these disputes, aside from the advocacy of different medical doctrines?

- How did the ancient physicians explicitly engage with, and challenge questions of localisation, and why?

- What alternative ‘de-localising’ models were proposed? (e.g., bodily fluids and circulation models; the transit of substances in and out of the body through bodily vessels and channels; models of sympatheia between organs or areas of the body; attention to signs and symptoms affecting the body as a whole; and so on)

- What contributions can poetic representations give to this topic? In which way do representations of mental life and the emotions in epic, tragedy, lyric poetry - for example - compare to the localised model that appears dominant?

- Conversely, to what extent do medical authors refer to, criticise, adopt or distort poetic images of holism to make their theories conspicuous?

- Are there ancient roots, ancestors, or precursors of modern (medical and folk) concepts such as the ‘systemic’ level of bodily functioning, or the living animal as ‘organism’? Or are these completely anachronistic associations?

- Relatedly: what are the contemporary uses (and abuses) of ancient medical traditions in the elaboration of folk bio-medical systems and ‘holistic’ therapeutical ideals? Obvious examples of relevant material can be found as early as the Hippocratics. The famous image of the circle in Places in Man, for instance, points precisely at a diffuse conceptualisation of vitality; some later medical schools are especially suitable to this enquiry, notably the Methodist and their challenge to the dogmatic search for precise (i.e., localised) causes; waves of localisation and delocalisation, more broadly, characterise much of the discussion on mental disorder through the history of ancient medicine.

In this conference I wish to bring together scholars of ancient science and philosophy and experts in Graeco-Roman literature and culture to explore the ancient sources against powerful and influential contemporary constructs such as holism, psycho-somatic unity, and systemic approaches to human health, in order to highlight a less scrutinised feature of ancient readings of the body, as well as a strand of modern and contemporary reception of ancient medical ideas.