The topic of this volume is located in the larger area of history of ideas and history of the representation of mental health and disorder, with two specifics that make it unique:
First of all, the particular focus is on ancient medical texts, as well as on philosophical texts to the extent that they respond specifically to medical texts and concepts; this contrasts with the larger, cultural-literary approach that underlies several recent studies of mental life and disorder in the ancient world, with their tradition, conventions and internal dialogues.
Secondly, there is a clear delimitation of our chronological period of interest to the post-Hellenistic Graeco-Roman world. The reasons for this delimitation are not a mere matter of scholarly convenience or determined by the evident scarcity of studies on authors of this later period by comparison to earlier ones, but are intellectually motivated. In the tradition available to us it is in fact only after Cornelius Celsus’ discussion of mental illness in his De Medicina (3.18) that we are able to observe a conceptualization of mental disturbance as (variously) deserving description in its own terms and dedicated therapy. If much of Hellenistic medicine is unfortunately lost to us, it is evident, when one reads the medical texts of the fifth and early fourth century BC, that they are typified by the absence of such conceptualization: in the earlier sources mental life is organically inserted within the representation of the individual as a whole, with scarcely any hint to the existence of ‘mental disease’.
In the writings of the first centuries of our era a shift is noticeable, in two important senses: we observe both
(1) the emergence of such a conceptualization, corresponding in some way to the modern notion of 'mental illness', and, simultaneously,
(2) a complex interrelation between this conceptualization and the philosophical discourse on the soul and the mental (especially in Galen, but also elsewhere).
This volume, which stems from a discussion initiated on the occasion of a Workshop held in Berlin, at the Humboldt University, in October 2014, sets out to address precisely this shift, and aims to contribute to the history of the category ‘mental’ in the developments of ancient medicine. The title of the workshop, ‘Mental diseases in Ancient Medicine’, aimed to be programmatic (and perhaps provocative) in this sense: not, of course, to propose a history of pathological entities, ‘diseases’, as ontologically substantial and as such traceable in different cultures across time, but to interrogate the developments towards a recognition of the independent category of ‘illness of the soul’, or ‘mental disease’ in our medical tradition, and to probe the debates and specific formulations surrounding this in a period whose authors are both neglected and of considerable later historical influence.