Ancient Greek Text Shows Musical View Of Pregnancy According To Translation By University Of Cincinnati Professor

December 29, 1997

CINCINNATI, Ohio -- An ancient Greek medical text edited and translated for the first time by University of Cincinnati associate professor of classics Holt Parker demonstrates once again how little ancient Greeks knew about pregnancy.

Today, knowledge about conception and birth is so advanced, we're accustomed to test-tube babies, multiple births like the McCaughey septuplets and surrogate pregnancies. But in ancient Greece, medical authorities did not have any clear understanding of how long a pregnancy should last or even that there was such a thing as a premature birth.

Parker presented his findings on the ancient medical writing recorded in a manuscript in the 11th century AD but with a text dating to about 150 BC at the Archaeological Institute of America annual conference during a 1:30 p.m. session on Sunday, Dec. 28, at the Chicago Sheraton Hotel and Towers.

The medical writer's name, listed as "Damnastes" on the manuscript itself, is really Damastes, Parker believes. Damastes is an obstetrical writer whose name shows up in at least one other Greek medical writing, while Damnastes is never used as a Greek name and is clearly a mistake by an ancient scribe, the classics researcher said.

Damastes held to the belief, common among his fellow Greek writers, that the development of a baby followed patterns reflected in musical harmony and the universe. "This ranges from a somewhat wacky numerology to a rather sophisticated view of the human body as a microcosm of the universe," said Parker. "While it is somewhat absurd, it also is about as poetic a view of the cosmos as there has ever been."

According to Parker s translation of Damastes' brief medical text on "The Care of Pregnant Women and of Infants," this ancient Greek medical authority was somewhat of a maverick. While nearly all the other ancient Greek medical writers believed that eight- month pregnancies were doomed or bad luck (even if the baby was born alive), Damastes provides a calendar that shows he believed eight-month babies were viable, as were seven-month, nine-month and 10-month babies.

Belief in the bad luck of an eight-month baby was a way that families could explain the death of an infant. "It was a way of saying it's nobody's fault. It must have been an eight-month baby and that is why it died," Parker said.

Like nearly all of the other ancient medical writers now known, Damastes had no concept of "prematurity." All fetuses, whether they were born at seven, eight, nine or 10 months, were thought to go through certain stages. The stages were just shorter or longer for pregnancies of different length. In Damastes case, the stages were foam, blood, flesh, form, motion and birth.

Unlike many of the other ancient medical writers, Damastes makes no distinction between the sexes and how fast they developed inside their mothers. He wrote that male and female children follow the same developmental schedule. Aristotle, for example, wrote that males, with their "greater heat," are perfected faster than the female and the male fetus achieved motion and formation of the body around 40 days, while females quickened and achieved full formation in 90.

The manuscript of the Damastes text is housed at the Laurenziana Library in Florence, Italy. Parker studied it and obtained a microfiche copy for further study during a Rome Prize fellowship he won from the American Academy in Rome in 1996.

University of Cincinnati

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