Aulus Cornelius Celsus

Aulus Cornelius Celsus (ca. 25 B.C.-A.D. 45) was the Roman author of the first systematic treatise on medicine. It is the most important historical source for present-day knowledge of Alexandrian and Roman medicine.

Of Celsus the man little is known. It is surmised that he was born at Narbonne in the south of France. He was active during the time of the emperor Tiberius (reigned A.D. 14-37) and, judging by his style, may have been writing as late as the early years of Claudius (reigned A.D. 41-54). There is great dispute as to whether he was even a physician.

W. G. Spencer, the most recent translator of his works, supports an older, minority view that the details of medical procedure, the experienced judgment shown in the selection of treatment, and the not infrequent use of the first person reveal an author with an intimate acquaintance of clinical medicine who must have been himself a practitioner. The majority opinion holds that Celsus was a compiler who, like Cato the Elder and M. Terentius Varro, wrote his work on medicine as part of a general encyclopedia. His near contemporaries Columella and Quintillian record that Celsus wrote works on philosophy, rhetoric, military strategy, jurisprudence, and agriculture as well as medicine—a group of works apparently intended, says Alexander of Padua, to constitute a whole entitled The Arts. Although mentioned by Pliny the Elder, Celsus is not placed among the physicians. Indeed, neither any physician of antiquity, whether writing in Latin or Greek, nor his near contemporaries Galen and Caelius Aurelianus, nor the later compilers Aetius, Oribasius, and Paul of Aegina mention him. The weight of evidence is with the majority view.

There is even uncertainty about Celsus' name. Traditionally he is called Aurelius, but Aurelius is a clan name, not a prenomen; hence Aulus, a common first name among the Cornelii, has been suggested and has manuscript support.

The fame of Celsus rests entirely upon his De medicina, in eight books. Because of its clarity and elegant Latinity, its author has been called the "Cicero of medicine"—not a good sobriquet since Celsus, like Livy and Suetonius, followed the older and more direct, rather than the periodic, style. De medicina was among the first medical books to be printed (Florence, 1478), and more than 50 editions have appeared; it was required reading in most medical schools to the present century. It is the principal historical authority for the doctrinal medical teachings of Roman antiquity. The surgical section, which even Joseph Lister studied in the 19th century, is perhaps the best part of the treatise.

Further Reading on Aulus Cornelius Celsus

Two excellent English translations of Celsus' De medicina are by Alexander Lee (2 vols., 1831-1836) and by W. G. Spencer (3 vols., 1935-1938). The former edition contains a translation of J. Rhodius's Life, which expresses the 17th-century view of Celsus. There are no full-length works on Celsus in English. Good discussions of him are in Sir T. Clifford Allbutt, Greek Medicine in Rome (1921), and in Benjamin Lee Gordon, Medicine throughout Antiquity (1949). See also Arturo Castiglioni, A History of Medicine (1927; 2d ed. 1947), which contains a chapter on Celsus; George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science (2 vols., 1927); and Cecilia C. Mettler, History of Medicine (1947).