Alcmaeon Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
0111200107-Alcmaeon.jpg Alcmaeon (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek philosopher and scientist{$I[g]Greece;Alcmaeon} Alcmaeon was one of the earliest Greeks known to have written on medicine and the first to have practiced scientific dissection.

Early Life

Almost nothing is known about the early life of Alcmaeon (alk-MEE-uhn) except that his father’s name was Peirithous and that he was a native of Croton (Greek Crotona), a coastal town inside the “toe” of Italy. Even Alcmaeon’s dates are uncertain. According to Aristotle, he lived during the old age of the philosopher Pythagoras, whose life spanned much of the sixth century b.c.e. and who died about 490 or later. It was once assumed that, as a younger contemporary of Pythagoras, Alcmaeon probably should be placed in the sixth century. It is now widely held, however, largely from the evidence of his ideas, that he probably lived in the fifth century. The evidence at the disposal of modern scholars is not sufficient to fix the date of his lifetime more precisely.

Croton was a Greek city founded by Achaeans from mainland Greece in 710 b.c.e. It had a fine harbor and enjoyed extensive commerce. As a result, it became the wealthiest and most powerful city in Magna Graecia (the Greek name for southern Italy), especially after its forces defeated and destroyed its enemy, the neighboring city of Sybaris, in 510. It boasted the most splendid temple in southern Italy, the temple of Hera Lacinia, which drew large numbers of Greeks to a great annual religious assembly. Croton was renowned for its devotion to gymnastics; one of its citizens, Milon, became the most famous athlete in Greece, having won the victory in wrestling at Olympia six times. Croton is said to have produced more Olympic victors than any other city.

Croton was also the home of a well-known school of medicine, which was perhaps the earliest in Greece and which long retained its reputation. The city enjoyed the distinction of producing the finest physicians in Greece, of whom the most prominent was Democedes, regarded as the best physician of his day (the second half of the sixth century b.c.e.). His fame carried him to Aegina, Athens, and Samos, where he was employed by the tyrant Polycrates, and to Persia (as a prisoner), where he cured both King Darius the Great and his wife, Atossa, before he escaped, returning to Croton to marry the daughter of Milon.

Croton was also known as the home of the philosopher Pythagoras and his followers. Born in Samos, Pythagoras emigrated to Croton about 530, where he formed a religious brotherhood composed of about three hundred young men. Pythagoras quickly gained influence over the political affairs of the city, but growing opposition to his order led to his retirement from Croton. In the second half of the fifth century a democratic revolution resulted in a massacre of nearly all the members of the order. Alcmaeon is said by some ancient authors to have been a disciple of Pythagoras, but it is likely that this belief was based only on inferences from the similarities of some of his doctrines to those of the Pythagoreans. Aristotle compares his theory of opposites with that of the Pythagoreans but says that Alcmaeon either borrowed this idea from them or they took it from him. There is, in fact, no definitive evidence that associates Alcmaeon with the Pythagoreans. He lived during the period in which the Pythagorean brotherhood flourished at Croton, and he probably knew of the Pythagoreans and their beliefs. His precise relationship to them, however, is not known. Diogenes Laertius reports that Alcmaeon wrote mostly on medicine, and it has been inferred from this statement that he was a physician. Given Croton’s reputation as a medical center, it is not unlikely. He wrote on physics and astronomy as well, however, and in this respect he resembles the Ionian philosophers, some of whom were interested in medicine. He was certainly a natural philosopher, interested in science and medicine; he may or may not have been a physician.

Life’s Work

Alcmaeon lived in the pre-Socratic period, when the study of physiology was merely a part of philosophy. Only later did Hippocrates separate medicine from philosophy. Greek medical theory, in fact, grew out of philosophical speculation rather than the practice of medicine. Alcmaeon’s contributions include both cosmological conjecture and anatomical research. He was credited in antiquity with having written the first treatise on natural philosophy. The book is no longer extant, but some idea of its contents can be gleaned from portions that were summarized by later writers. In the opening sentence of the work, Alcmaeon declared that the gods alone have certain knowledge, while for humans only inference from things seen is possible. Thus, he eschewed all-encompassing, oversimplified hypotheses in favor of careful observation as the basis of understanding nature.

Nevertheless, Alcmaeon shared with the Ionian philosophers an interest in natural speculation. Thus, he posited a...

(The entire section is 2062 words.)