“Physiology and Anatomy” by Rocca


This paper analyzes the work of Rocca, J. Physiology and Anatomy, which begins with the definition of anatomy and the problematization of its place in the system of ancient knowledge about the human body. In ancient times, the epistemological status of anatomy was disputed. Although the data obtained in the course of anatomical operations were considered sufficiently valid, they did not contribute to the strengthening of the subfield in the system of scientific and philosophical knowledge of the ancient world. Even though the result of anatomical operations was the discovery or strengthening of the concept of the function and structure of one or another part of the human body (or the relationship of these parts), physiology remained more a speculative domain of knowledge, depending directly on the explanatory power of arguments by analogy.

The author argues that physiology and anatomy were considered inextricably linked and, based on this, studies them under one heading and uses these two terms interchangeably. Rocca examines them in the context of antiquity’s medical, philosophical, and cultural systems, emphasizing the history of the formation of anatomy as an independent epistemic practice. He is not limited to examining Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome’s history but also presents the Babylonian and Egyptian initiatives. However, Rocca’s primary focus is the development of body knowledge in an ancient Greek context. The Presocratics and Plato become the starting point, then he goes on to study Hippocrates and Aristotle. The third important part of his research is Hellenistic initiatives.

In comparing these different perspectives, he concludes that despite Galen’s claim that anatomy originated in the Hippocratic period, in reality, as a scientific enterprise, anatomy developed only due to Hellenistic endeavors under the strong influence of Aristotelian methodology. Thus, Rocca concludes that anatomy as a section of the system of scientific and philosophical ancient knowledge is a relatively late phenomenon, while its development has not been steadily progressive and increasing. In fact, various schools of medical knowledge have denied the empirical significance of anatomy. At the same time, due to the lack of formalization of doctors’ requirements in antiquity, the absence or presence of anatomical knowledge of a doctor did not correlate with the quality of patient care. Anatomy was indeed highly valued as a section of knowledge about the human body, but only among the elite, who read the Aristotelian heritage in this knowledge and, accordingly, regarded this body of knowledge rather than as a section of philosophy. Anatomical operations, based on the demonstration of the relationship of specific qualities and structures of the human body in the course of experiments, really helped in better understanding the principles of their work. However, physiology remained essentially part of a broader, speculative discourse.


It is challenging to state whether the author’s assessment of the evidence is balanced because the reader does not know the methodology underlying his historical claims. The article presents a historical narrative on epistemological endeavors of anatomy in the domain of the medical knowledge system. Although Rocca states that the history of anatomy was neither stable nor undisputed, he creates a linear historical narrative of this knowledge domain development. Since it prioritizes the study of anatomy’s origins (and then contextualizes them in a broader historical context), claims concerning the first sources containing a particular statement or stance should be problematized rather than presented as common knowledge. Since the latter occurs relatively frequently, it is difficult to assess whether the author is in good control of the data or ‘cherry-pick’ it to present a more coherent narrative and develop it in a way that favors their claims.

In order to illustrate such contentious claims, one can take as an example one of the claims supporting the sub-narrative of the anatomy’s history in the Presocratic and Plato period. Rocca argues that the notion of primary qualities was the most influential way of studying the human body at that time. Consider the passage containing the data supposed to support this claim: “These qualities are first specifically articulated for living things in the Hippocratic On the Nature of Man chapter 3 (circa 430–3Hippocraticich states that at death the body’s components return to that from which they were composed: “wet to wet, dry to dry, hot to hot and cold to cold.” (Rocca, 2016, p.347). Unfortunately, this statement is potentially unfalsifiable: the reader cannot know for sure whether the discussed qualities were indeed articulated in this source for the first time without further investigation. The statement is formulated in the form of common knowledge, which ceases to require a reference in the text (Small, 2016). The reader is not provided with any references to the original source or any other studies supporting this evidence. Thus, one cannot potentially assess the quality of the presented evidence in many cases.

For the same reason, however, the article was easy to follow in terms of the arguments and proofs. The narrative is quite linear and, thus, the historical perspective of anatomy’s development can be traced relatively smoothly and effortlessly. At the same time, Rocca seemed to focus rather on arguments than proofs. If the story were to be the latter, the narrative would lose its linear structure and go more in-depth of sources discussion.

Rocca suggests a rich list of further reading on the subject. Two of them are chosen for a comparison with the initial article under discussion. First, Hellen King’s Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (King, 1998). Her book is sustained within the framework of a gender approach and develops a reflection on the ancient concept of differences between male and female bodies. She suggests a criticism of the famous book by T. Laquer Making sex. Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Laqueur, 1992 as cited in King, 1998). King argued that the very concept of sexuality was invented in the 18th century, while the ancient physiology and philosophy of the body were more characteristic of functional representations, two of which she considered in more detail. It is the womb as a container and opposition of the external-internal in the description of the genitals.

The idea of ​​a fundamental difference between the male and female body appears in science not earlier than the second half of the 16th century. In ancient times, the concept of “one body” dominated, going back to the Platonic androgyne. Already Nemesius Emesa, who wrote that males and females differ according to the principle of the internal or external location of the genitals, repeated the idea of ​​Aristotle that a woman is “an imperfect (ατελέστερος) man.” Even in the Hippocratic context, that is, before Aristotle, there were more flexible models for the representation of sexual dimorphism. However, in the post-legal period, and especially after the 16th century, when Vesalius’ work “Fabrica” ​​was published, the anatomical (geometric) concept prevailed over the functional (physiological) one. As a result, modern medicine is still dominated by the concept of Nemesia about the internal or external form of the genitals as the main differentiating feature.

King’s account does not contradict but expands Rocca’s position. King delves into the consideration of the physiology of antiquity through the prism of gender oppositions while also arguing that, despite the emphasis on functionality and methods of operating body parts, ancient physiology considers body parts through the prism of Aristotelian methodology, including philosophical ideas about the essence of women and her place in the structure of the human society.

The second book chosen from the list suggested by Rocca (2016) is Lloyd’s Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers (Lloyd, 1991). First of all, this work indicates that the study of ancient science, and in particular medicine, is, by definition, cross-disciplinary and represents a focus in which social anthropology, philosophy of science, and technology converge. From Lloyd’s point of view, the problematics of ancient science becomes more understandable from comparing it with the Chinese tradition of natural philosophy. In the ancient perspective, there is an opposition between nature and culture, in which nature is primary, and culture is a superstructure. While in the Chinese tradition, it is the culture that is primary, which forms various natures. That is why, for example, in addition to the four elements known to ancient natural philosophers, the Chinese also included wood and metal in the basic composition.

Lloyd pointed out a fundamental problem in ancient medicine’s study – its irreducibility to one of the later paradigms. He called it “untranslatable,” the lack of a general measure in studying several forms of ancient medicine – from Hippocrates to the Galenian school. Our knowledge of this knowledge domain always remains imperfect. Lloyd lamented that our story is still mostly conceptual rather than pre-conceptual. One of the most challenging problems in studying ancient medical texts is the variation of explicitness levels since certain esotericism was characteristic of the ancient medical tradition, especially the archaic one. Lloyd ends the book with a call for greater comparability and the departure of research in ancient medicine from a purely philological model towards an anthropological one.

Although Rocca’s arguments do not conflict with Lloyd’s, the latter’s book is much deeper in both scope and content. Lloyd’s argumentation is based not only on qualitative research of primary sources but also on an interdisciplinary approach. The theoretical framework proposed in the book Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers (Lloyd, 1991) also assumes a comparative perspective not only within the historical periods of the development of the phenomenon in Ancient Greece, but also the inclusion in the analysis of other contexts external to the considered geography, but inseparable from the history of the formation of the phenomenon under consideration.

Final Assessment

The article is worth reading as introductory material to study the development of medical epistemology in antiquity. Its advantage is linear narrative and attention to the uneven progress of anatomy and physiology as a specific field of knowledge, the epistemic status of which was not evident and disputed. Besides, Rocca discusses the controversial impact of anatomy on medical practice. It seems appropriate to again touch upon the question of the difference between the history of medicine and the history of other natural science disciplines, which acquired their modern appearance precisely in the process of scientific revolutions of the 17-19 centuries. However, in relation to the overwhelming majority of medical specialties, as in the time of Hippocrates, one should use not only strictly scientific categories but also the concept of “the art of healing.” This category leads to further research of ancient medicine in the framework of the approach proposed by Lloyd (1991). Epistemology and scientific knowledge become the subject of interdisciplinary analysis, focusing on the anthropological dimension, in which philological sources are only one of the resources of evidence.


King, H. (1998). Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge.

Lloyd, G. E. R. (1991). Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rocca, J. (2016). Anatomy and physiology. In: Irby, G. L. (Ed.). A companion to science, technology, and medicine in ancient Greece and Rome, 345-259. Wiley Blackwell.

Small, H. (2016). Referencing as cooperation or competition. In: Cassidy Sugimoto (Ed.). Theories of informetrics and scholarly communication, 49-70. De Gruyter.

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1. ChalkyPapers. ""Physiology and Anatomy" by Rocca." February 1, 2022. https://chalkypapers.com/physiology-and-anatomy-by-rocca/.


ChalkyPapers. ""Physiology and Anatomy" by Rocca." February 1, 2022. https://chalkypapers.com/physiology-and-anatomy-by-rocca/.