As the previous chapters show, literary progammes are well represented among Hellenistic epigrams. But epigrammatists were not concerned solely with contemplating their own craft: many epigrams find their contexts in other areas of life, one such being medicine.
Medical advances, both theoretical and practical, were made in the Hellenistic age, mainly at Alexandria and on the Ptolemaic island of Cos. Notably, there was dramatic progress in anatomy and physiology, probably thanks to the provision by the Ptolemies of criminals for vivisection, as well as important innovations in other areas, especially pharmacology. It was only natural, then, that medicine, as a branch of ‘learning’, should provide a context for some Hellenistic epigrams; and a solid basis exists for identifying medical references in them. Although the bulk of the medical writings of the two best-known Hellenistic doctorscientists, Herophilus of Chalcedon (who practised in Alexandria) and Erasistratus of Ceos (who may have done), are no longer extant, their titles are known, and their loss is made good in part by significant quotations and reports in later authors. The Hippocratic Corpus, much of which can be dated with some confidence to before 350 BC, and which appears to have been first assembled in Alexandria, is also available; and, given the overall conservativism of ancient medicine, evidence from later periods can (with discrimination and awareness of the evolution of medical language over time) be admitted too.
It is, however, sometimes difficult to assess proposals of medical allusion in Hellenistic poetry. Greek medical terminology was not constructed (as today) in an alien tongue or tongues, but was to a great extent derived from early hexameter poetry; and, after Greek doctors adopted certain terms for technical use, these continued in general, nontechnical employment. Hence medical Greek is not in essence distinct from literary Greek. However, Hellenistic poets wishing to allude to medical matters could not quote medical texts verbatim, or overload their verses with unmistakably technical terminology. To write acceptable poetry they needed to integrate medically allusive language seamlessly with their poetic idiolects, which often meant using poetic equivalents of technical terms. As a result a medical context may easily be overlooked, or may encounter unjustified scepticism because the poet has not couched his verses in the technical language of medicine. But conversely some claims of medical influence have been rightly questioned.