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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: May 2020

Chapter 2 - Herophilus and Erasistratus on the Hēgemonikon


In Alexandria at some point in the early third century bc, Herophilus of Chalcedon identified the nerves as a distinct system within the body, traced their origins to the brain, and recognised their role in transmitting sensation and voluntary motion. His discovery was based on dissection and vivisection, not only of animals, but also of human beings. Herophilus’ younger contemporary Erasistratus also integrated these findings into his rather bolder physiology. The implications of this discovery were of course wide-ranging. From a modern perspective, it is now widely celebrated as having established, for the first time on something like a scientific basis, that the brain has more or less the functions that we now ascribe to it. Likewise, in antiquity, Galen relied heavily on Herophilus’ discovery in his proof that the rational soul is located in the brain. As we shall see, it also had an impact on Stoic psychology. What exactly Herophilus and Erasistratus saw as its implications, however, is a different question, and the difficulties in answering it are considerable given the state of the evidence.

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