Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomy, and Medecine under the Roman Empire

In the book The Power and Knowledge, the author, Tamsyn S. Barton takes a look at three dissimilar phenomena in the Greco-Roman world. She begins with an in depth look at the practice of astrology in this time period in the aptly-named chapter “Star-Wars in the Greco-Roman World”, which is followed by a chapter on the practice of physiognomics in which the author outlines the use of the obsolete medical practice in ancient times. Lastly, Barton examines the art of the medical prognosis practiced by some men in the Greco-roman age.

The book is written in a way that it clearly separates the three subjects/chapters and each one allotted the time and research it deserves. Barton is very clear in her writing, it is very easy to understand and she takes the time to clearly explain many terms and theories. For example, Barton takes time to very clearly explain the horoscope and how it developed in ancient times in the first chapter, without this very precise explanation the reader would find themselves a bit confused. (Barton 71-79)

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Barton makes many claims to the significance of his subject matter but at the same time gives many warnings as to how the reader must interpret her findings and theories. At the beginning of every chapter, Barton gives an almost mission statement-like introduction where she not only outlines the subject matter, but why she is discussing it. Barton also seems to preemptively defend any arguments that the reader might arrive at while reading the chapter by defending and justifying her reasons for delving into such strange topics by quoting authors and making it sound like his case will be better than all of these past cases together. This is also done at the end of each chapter where Barton discusses why she did not discuss certain aspects of the argument and attempts to justify her decisions.

In his book, Barton makes an amazing attempt at solidifying every single argument or statement with a source. In fact, out of the 254-page book, a full 70 pages are dedicated to notes and references. In a Classical Review of the book by Lee T. Pearcy of the Episcopal Academy, it is noted how well Barton understands the texts that she cites as references, especially the ancient ones. “Her readings of ancient technical literature have a clarity and rightness that invite further inquiry into the Foucauldian nexus of knowledge and power…”(Pearcy 95/09/03)

Mostly Barton uses recent publications to highlight and reinforce points but she also seems to enjoy an almost story-teller type style in which she recounts tales from texts from the Greco-Roman period relating to the subject matter at hand. For example, in the last chapter on medical prognosis in the Greco-Roman world, Barton spends 3 pages discussing the story of the philosopher Glaucon who by the use of rhetoric made the author Galen believe that he could make a specific medical prognosis on an ill Sicilian man without the use of advanced or modern medical techniques. (Barton, 140-143)

Barton raises many issues pertaining to the significance of her studies. She seems to want to justify her reason for choosing such topics for a publication. For example, in the first chapter, Star-Wars in the Greco-Roman world, Barton states that “in challenging the social and political historian’s neglect of astrology, I am putting into question the rationalizing program, the strategy of ignoring those domains of the past that can in no way be annexed to the intellectual empire of the present”(Barton, 28). Barton seems to be saying that because the study of astrology and its role in history has been largely disregarded by historians, she will be enlightening the reader to greater levels in the next few pages by going deeper into the study of astrology and more importantly, ancient astrologers, than anyone before her.

Although the book appears to be about astrology, physiognomy, and medical prognosis in these ancient times, it is actually more about the individuals who practiced these arts and how through the use of rhetoric they persuaded other people to believe them. In a Classical Review by Pearcy this point is outlined quite clearly.

“In each case she is concerned to show that knowledge took as its goal not the creation of valid theories about the world, but the development of productive rhetorical strategies of persuasion and domination…They were seeking power, and they sought it through the ancient world’s only genuine intellectual technology: rhetoric.” (Pearcy, 95/09/03)

Barton looks at how men in ancient times could persuade people that they could read sacrificial animal entrails, or make predictions from the weather or the movements of birds, people who could judge a man and make predictions on his life simply from his physical characteristics, or lastly, men who could tell a man’s medical condition by his pulse or urine.

Barton claims to be very inimitable in her work, although she does cite many other historians and philosophers who have questioned and researched the same topics. Perhaps the difference between Barton’s work and other works is the fact that she is also looking at another facet of the subject. Barton is also looking at the fact that the men who practiced these arts in the past were considered to be almost magic in their ways through their use of rhetoric to get other people to believe that they knew what they were doing, when in many cases they did not. So, what makes Barton stand apart from other authors on the subject (not that there are many since as stated in the book historians do tend to disassociate themselves from these topics) is that she has a completely different perspective on the subject. She is not mainly trying to give credit to astrology, physiognomy, and medical prognosis in ancient times, but she is looking at the actors in these fields and the way that they worked.

Barton unquestionably makes many contributions to this subject however. In many cases, Barton makes reference to two or three other authors and then systematically takes each one and describes why their work should be taken as plausible or not and how she will improve on it. However, as stated before Barton uses a plethora of sources and it sometimes seems while reading that the book is generally full of other author’s ideas and theories because she is so meticulous in discussing every single work or author on the particular issue at hand.

Not only does Barton describe each topic separately but she does at some points in the book try to link all three sections, although at the beginning of the book she is very adamant about describing the differences between science (medical prognosis) and pseudo-science (astrology, physiognomy). In the second chapter, Barton attempts to link the two by stating that physiognomy has many connections to medicine and that without medicine it would never have been created. Barton quotes both Hippocrates and Loxus to show that this point has been played with before. “In those who practice medicine without a knowledge of the subject of physiognomy, the judgment goes to seed, wallowing in darkness”. (Barton, 98)

In following the pattern that develops in the book, the conclusion seems to be a collection of his defenses for not going into certain areas of the subjects and for his use of some authors.

“The limits necessarily imposed by a study of such wide range, which has the temerity to tread within the provinces of many specialists, are very evident. Many of the generalizations that emerge would need further citation of evidence to be accepted. Most heinous perhaps in this regard is the chapter on medicine, in which not only is Galen used to provide the bulk of the evidence for the medicine of the period, but his own vast work is by no means fully investigated.”(Barton, 169)

So, in this conclusion, the author is admitting that the book contains three subjects that cover a very large and diverse spectrum of knowledge and she seems to apologize for her use of so many references because of this, and the fact that because of the diversity involved she was not able to go into great detail on specific works by selected authors.

The methodology that is used by the author is fairly convincing, however the subject matter itself is not very convincing. In this book we have three topics that (except medical prognosis) do not get very much, if any, acknowledgment in the scientific world, and as stated by Barton, have also been largely ignored by historians. As stated above the methodology is however compelling due to two main reasons. One, her perspective, as mentioned before in this paper gears more towards a study of the individuals who practiced these arts in the Greco-Roman World. Secondly, Barton’s arguments seem to be very strong because of her use and her familiarity, awareness and understanding of many works and authors pertaining to the subjects. Although this book is enlightening the reader to subjects that one does not really give too much attention, the book is organized very well, and this organization allows for a very clear and flowing understanding of the subject matter.