Visualizing the Invisible with the Human Body: Physiognomy and Ekphrasis in the Ancient World

Justin Johnson (Editor), Alessandro Stavru (Editor)

Research output: Book/ReportAnthology


Prior to the establishment of humoral medicine or scientific anatomy, one of the primary methods for divining the characteristics of an individual, whether inborn or temporary, was to observe the patient’s external characteristics and behaviour. Within the Mesopotamian tradition the linkage between external form and internal characteristics was only a small part of an encompassing approach to predicting future conditions on the basis of presently visible signs (omens). We will focus on two types of written literature in Mesopotamia: the physiognomic omina and descriptions of skin diseases in the medical tradition. These two genres link skin ailments or other physical deformities to both physical and non-physical, i.e. social, consequences, including illness and death, but also wealth/poverty, the well-being of one’s family or success at court.
In addition to the standard physiognomic compendia, visual and literary representations of the physiognomic features of famous historical figures such as Pericles, Socrates or Augustus provide useful insights into the interrelation of different iconic media in Greece and Rome. In the Peripatus, physiognomic discussions became intertwined with typological analyses of human characters. Roman rhetoricians such as Cicero and Quintilian applied these studies to rhetorical theory, and in the Second Sophistic the interaction between physiognomic features and their ekphrastic description reached its climax (Lucian, Callistratus, and the two Philostrati).
The Syriac and Arabic compendial cultures that grew out of the scientific pursuits of Graeco-Roman period Hellenism absorbed and remade these different physiognomic and ekphrastic traditions. Not surprisingly, in the Arabic scientific tradition we find both the traditional Mesopotamian links between physiognomy and medicine and the links between physiognomy and characterological ‘types’ that had emerged in the Hellenistic period. These materials were then included in different types of compilations and compendia, from the malhama materials of Bar Bahlul to the explicit linkage of physiognomy and humoral temperaments found in Hunayn’s annotations on the Pseudo-Aristotelian Physiognomonica .
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationBerlin
PublisherDe Gruyter
Number of pages501
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-11-064268-1 (EPUB), 978-3-11-064269-8 (Ebook)
ISBN (Print)978-3-11-061826-6
Publication statusPublished - 11 Nov 2019

Publication series

NameScience, Technology and Medicine in Ancient Cultures
PublisherDe Gruyter
ISSN (Print)2194-9778


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