Inspired by classical and Hellenistic "miracles" of medical science, Augustan poets dramatically reshaped the Roman epic by infusing it with medical metaphors and themes. In Therapoetics after Actium, Julia Nelson Hawkins argues that this shift constitutes a veritable Roman "therapoetics." By incorporating medical narratives into verse, these poems essentially position the poet as a healer and his poetry as healthy.
Hawkins explores why so many prominent scenes of plague, healing, and the body persist in the epics of the period, especially in the final books of Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Diverging from the standard interpretation of medical topoi in Greek and Roman literature as an opportunity for the author to either vaunt his erudition or explore the psychology of suffering, Hawkins focuses instead on the proliferation of early medical texts. She explains how the Alexandrian writings of Herophilus and Erasistratus, which submitted Hippocratic theories to the rigors of experiment, fundamentally transformed medical analogies in poetry.
Poets such as Callimachus and Theocritus harnessed medical ideas and language to highlight their modernity and to show the Ptolemies that poets were indispensable to a healthy kingdom. By investigating medical metaphors and narratives within the political and literary milieu of two of the biggest scientific and governmental revolutions in European history, Therapoetics after Actium not only expands our knowledge of the relationship between medicine and culture, but also offers an argument for why medicine still needs the humanities.
About the Author:
Julia Nelson Hawkins is an assistant professor of classics at the Ohio State University.