Ancient Greek and Roman traditions

Authored by: Chiara Thumiger

The Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health

Print publication date:  April  2017
Online publication date:  April  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138781603
eBook ISBN: 9781315202211
Adobe ISBN: 9781351784399

10.4324/9781315202211.ch2

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Abstract

The experience and conceptualization of madness in Graeco-Roman antiquity are tied up with the medium of literary expressions in a particularly strong way. More than the case with other historical objects, they are exclusively accessible through the written sources we have and the ideas and representations they put forth. This necessarily imposes key distinctions and qualifications: in terms of the social setting and context the modern reader is facing when considering a certain text, its aims, audiences and tradition; the literary genre to which the chosen sources belong; and, finally, the agenda at work in understanding madness. In the case of the latter, I am referring to whether madness is invoked in opposition to health or as marker of a moral flaw or – if in a metaphorical sense – as a paradigm of human ineptitude; as a marker of excellence and divine election; and, finally, as a form of possession by strong emotions, which might even be cast as a positive sign (such as erotic passion, warlike fury, and religious intensity, which are all repeatedly presented as forms of madness by ancient sources). If these complications are true for most, if not all, the historical contexts one wishes to consider, then for the ancient world it is necessary to frame the more structured discussions of medicine, biological science and philosophical ethics specifically within the cultural media in which they were produced and transmitted and vis-à-vis their respective audiences, since the borders between disciplines and traditional discourses are, at least at the beginnings of this history, shifting and marred by borrowings and contaminations.

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